Today I (a female grad student) was discussing with my partner (a male grad student) some of the comments Ruth Chang makes about sexual harassment in her recent 3am interview. He was shocked at senior philosophers confessing to Chang that they don’t consider expressing romantic interest in a student to be particularly problematic, as he (reasonably) considers it to be wildly inappropriate. To be clear, everything he said was supportive, and he is very understanding of the issues women in philosophy face, but still two of the things he said (and especially my reactions to them) struck me as noteworthy.
1) “I can’t believe someone would really think that was okay!”
I reeled off the names of four people we know personally who we know to have expressed interest in students or junior colleagues, and in fact to have gone further than mere expressions of interest. (This includes one who person he knows harassed me as an undergraduate). He agreed that in some sense he knows that people do it, but still can’t get his head around the idea that they would think it is okay.
2) “Imagine if I was talking one-on-one with [senior member of staff] and she admitted that she was attracted to me. That would be so horrible and so inappropriate!”
This made me realise that even the most empathetic of male philosophers will have trouble fully understanding the extent of ‘what it’s like’, because I only recognised this point myself during our conversation: whenever I have ever had a meeting with a male member of staff I am on some level worried that they might express interest in me, or that I will realise that they are interested in me, or that they will think that I am interested in them. I can’t think of a single exception to this, and now I’m feeling exhausted at the prospect of a career filled with such stressful interactions.
Archive for the ‘objectifying women’ Category
As an undergraduate, I was introduced to the concept of Plato’s ideal realm with the form of a girlfriend. While I don’t remember all of the specifics given, I do remember my professor claiming that the ideal girlfriend “looks good in a sweater.”
In a required class offered during my Masters program, whose students included about six women and one man, my professor posed the following discussion topic: “If you knew that you were going to be stranded on a desert island, and you could take either Michelle Pfeiffer or the philosophical canon, which would you choose?”
I was upset by the question, and jumped in with a defiant, “I’d take Michelle Pfeiffer.” Everything became tense. My teacher was considering his next question, when the male student said, “I’d choose the philosophical canon.” The remainder of the discussion proceeded between the male student and the professor…
One of my classmates chose a particularly obnoxious faculty member to sit on her dissertation committee. I asked her what she was thinking. She told me that it was only my relationship with him that was strained. He failed her defense, and placed a Victoria’s Secret catalogue in her school mailbox with a note, “Maybe you should consider a change of career.”
She did reconfigure her committee, and pass her defense six months later…
Ok here goes. I was doing my MA at [a university in country X], and the language spoken there was not my native tongue, even if I was fluent in the language of instruction. Naturally I felt a bit isolated and insecure. But also, both the general approach to philosophy that the department was engaged in, and its pedagogical methods were new to me. I was trying to be very open to this new way of doing things philosophical, even if I did not like it very much.
Instead of teaching us for the whole term, professors required that from the 4th week of class, students– each in turn– take on the weekly 3-hour seminar, and present their work. This was all terribly tedious, as the 95% male students, as well as we 5%, were either 1) fresh from undergrad and unable to really talk intelligently about their subject, or 2) long term graduate students who knew how to talk about philosophy without actually saying anything. We all wore black clothes, smoked camel cigarettes and felt existential :)
When it was my turn to present on a philosopher that we had not covered at all in class, but who I was supposed to research all on my own and present to the class (for three hours) as expert, I felt a bit freaked out. I asked my prof. (weeks ahead) if I could meet him to get some help. He was so busy, it seemed… always traveling or something.
In the end, the only time he could meet me was in the evening… a few days before I was due to give my presentation in class (upon which my entire grade depended). So sorry, but would I mind coming around to his house? We really did need to discuss things before I presented this major philosopher’s work to the class. I had literally started from scratch in trying to read and understand his writings, had had no instruction at all on his thought, and now I was supposed to do a 3 hour seminar presentation to the 15 other slightly hostile students. And was supposed to do this in a language that was foreign to me.
All this to explain how easy it was for me to accept the prof’s invitation to come to his house three days before my presentation, in order to “discuss the work of X philosopher”. It was too cold to get my car started, and I had to take a cab to his house. When I got there 1/2 hour late, he already had a big whiskey poured for me. I had to climb over the various children’s fisher-price toys for 4 year olds, and big lego sets to enter the room. It was all so uncomfortable, and he carefully explained that he was now single.
He was drunk, though I was too naive to see this right away.He kept insisting– INSISTING that I drink more whiskey, and pouring me huge amounts. I tried to comply … but didn’t fall for the liquor or the conversation. It was all so juvenile! I was a grad. student, not some 17 year old… and he just got progressively more drunk. I was naive enough to think that we would talk about Wittgenstein, but after he flopped over me a few times, telling me that I had to have sex with him– he needed it so badly, etc.–..and then beginning to force me to lie down…. well, I made my escape. Caught a bus home. Got home really late and tired and felt filthy for having let him go as far as he had.
Well a few days later I gave my presentation to the class, with the prof watching, editing, intervening, just as a good teacher would do. I thought the grade he gave me overall for the course was fair. Later, I contacted the University and tried to register an anonymous complaint, but met too many roadblocks. I tried to spread the word among my fellow students, but most were uninterested. Finally, I just moved on.
I am a junior member of a Philosophy department. Recently at a faculty meeting we were discussing the application of a philosopher to teach at our program for a short term. The applicant crashed a party I threw a while ago, arrived somewhat drunk, and hit on me incessantly even as I tried to maintain a professional distance (and I wear a wedding ring.) I explained this, including how uncomfortable I felt. A senior male professor said, ‘I don’t understand…is this positive or negative?” That was followed by heartfelt chuckles from some of my other colleagues. Somehow I found it in me to respond to that and say that it was negative, and that I did not appreciate the remark at all, since I had already stated it had been uncomfortable. To this the response of the senior member was, “I see.” After which, a senior female member of the department went on to tell me that not everyone, e.g. not her, would find it wrong to flirt with a married woman.
A professor of mine–who is refreshingly mindful of gender issues–brought up to me that most of the gender issues discussed within the philosophical community are issues at the graduate and professional levels. This is weird, as the first drop-off concerning women pursuing philosophy occurs at the undergraduate level. And I can assure you, that those of us women who survive the drop off, are experiencing amazing amounts of sexism from our undergraduate peers. I am at one of the top undergraduate programs for philosophy in the states, here are two of many experiences with sexism I’ve encountered: A male peer and I help opposing views on some metaphysical topic, excited to learn from each other I welcomed his criticism after I had argued my view; to my disgust he responded “I have no fucks to give about your view, can I have some?” A horny and disgusting comment which brought laughter from the rest of our peers sitting with us (all of whom are male). The comment was a joke, yes, but it would never have been said to a male peer, and I felt more than objectified. Another experience was similar; I had dabbled in feminist philosophy (a topic nobody at my school was interested in) and shared some of the questions and theories with some peers–again, they are male–rather than asking any philosophically relevant questions, one responded “We’re supposed to learn about feminist philosophy from the girl wearing red lipstick?” The most unfortunate part of all of this is these are male peers with whom I’ve spoken about sexism within academia, and many of whom claim to be on my side.
I’ve been relatively lucky, in that I never found myself in a dangerous or exceedingly difficult situation in all my years as a graduate students. That’s the saddest thing, perhaps: that the little vexations, inappropriate comments and other unpleasant situations are not even considered worthy of attention. Professors get to make female students uncomfortable through all kinds of inappropriate comments they would never dare make to a male student, and we just have to deal with it.
During my years as a graduate student, I got treated to a number of remarks from my supervisor, like “Ok, I’m staring at your chest right now, but that’s because I’m wondering what’s written on your pendant” (couldn’t he just ASK, instead of staring AND pointing out to the fact that he was staring?), or “Did you manage to speak to X? So, was he sensitive to your charms?”, or on one occasion, by e-mail, after he had sent me back something I had written with a LOT of very scathing comments in the margins: “You’ll see, I’ve been a bit harsh, but that’s because you have a habit of walking around naked begging to be disciplined” (aside from being utterly inappropriate, that’s just not the sort of comment I was looking forward to after having had my work lambasted in a completely not tactful way).
Sad thing is, I know I’ve been quite lucky compared to other women, and I didn’t want to speak up as I knew for a fact either none of this would be taken seriously, or the department would turn against me. Like my friend who was propositioned by her supervisor as they stayed in the same conference hotel, I’m far from the stage when I could actually sue, or even ask for an apology; in fact, my supervisor was known in some circles as a womaniser, and his relationships with female students seemed to make people giggle instead of react. I’m thankful it never got past the inappropriate comment stage. But is it too much to ask of our male professors that they help us go through our curriculum without having to put up with gratuitous moments of humiliation?
Since someone posted a story here about a philosophy department in Scandinavia, here’s another. I send this story because it is important to realize that however bad things are in the U.S., in some European departments things are much worse.
Some 12 years ago I had a falling out with a philosopher in my field, on the basis of ethical issues and also what I saw as a tendency toward sexual objectification of myself and others. A typical incident: once as chairman of the dept., he walked into a class I was teaching 45 minutes late and remarked: “I am here to inspect the merchandise.” There are many other incidents of this kind I could recount. At the time he had been having an affair with a student, who since left philosophy. I decided to base myself in another department, but suffered in the years since by being tarred as difficult, not only in his department, but in others.
Since then he has become a very powerful person in philosophy in this country, in spite of a poor publication record and in spite of continuing to use the graduate students as a dating pool. (So his recent affair with yet another graduate student, this time a very, very talented woman, also ended in her leaving philosophy. ) He also has had conflicts with many other colleagues in the years since his conflict with me. But like me, they always end up leaving the department.
FInally, in his capacity as chairman, he has conducted an open war with feminist philosophy and fields related to it.
Needless to say a female professor has never *ever* been hired in that department, of whatever AOS.
Nobody can do or say anything about this person because he has the administration on his side. If there were anything like a conversation about women in philosophy in this country, maybe his behavior toward female students could be checked, and other areas of philosophy—besides those related to his—could have a chance. But that conversation has not gotten started yet. There is just no way in at the moment.
Not to focus so much on this one person, my point is that because of the general attitude that prevails here, he can pretty much do what he wants. As a person of authority he is always give the benefit of the doubt.
It’s a tragedy.
A few years ago, I left my university’s philosophy department. I had been there about 20 years, hired with tenure and assuming that I would be able to participate as an equal in its affairs. I forgot I was the only tenured woman. One of the first things my new chair told me was that he liked my skirts as short as possible. The second thing he told me was that I was making less than a man who had been hired with tenure at the same time as I had because the man had “a family to support.” Things did not improve. When the department was audited, it told the Dean that the mistakes were my fault, even though they originated before I arrived on campus. When I engaged in free-ranging departmental debate, I was told that I was overly emotional. When I was passed over as chair it was because, the out-going chair said, I made him feel stupid. When I applied for an administrative position at the university, a member of the department told the search committee I was power-hungry. I could go on (and on). I have not had these problems in my new department.
At a top-20 institution I overheard a female postdoc being referred to as a ‘fine specimen’. By the department head. I knew she was struggling with confidence.
These happened quite a long time ago: 1981 or 1982, but the word is that the department in question remains notoriously sexist.
1. I was at a party talking to my dissertation adviser and several other grad students in which I said “Can you imagine me taking that position?”(about having had the opposite of my well known views attributed to me) to which he replied, very unctuously, “I have imagined you in many positions over the years.” The conversation in the small circle of people came to a screeching halt, and I just walked away. I was far enough along on the diss that switching advisers at the point would have been very hard. But I did everything I could to avoid being in the same room with him from then on, leaving my work in his mailbox.
2.A senior person in the department who’d been on my MA thesis committee offered to write me a rec when I was putting together my job apps. The grad student adviser was a woman rightly famous then and now for her fierce defense of women in the profession (how I wish I could name her) read the letter in my file, and asked the writer why he’d written such a short,weak letter, especially since he’d offered to write it. His reply was seriously too weird to believe, but here it is: he said that he’d thought my work was good, but had trouble paying attention to anything but my…wrists. He said this to her! Insane! All she could do was have the letter pulled from the file.
Let me preface this by saying that I am truly grateful to all of the women and men who have made, and who continue to make, our discipline a more welcoming, inclusive, and equitable discipline. I consider myself honored to know and work with some amazing, supportive, philosophers. That said, we are not there yet. Things are not changing quickly enough. We, as philosophers and as human beings, should not tolerate anything less than equity any longer.
Ever since its inception, I have found this blog therapeutic. Many of the stories here comport all too well with my own experience. There is some comfort in knowing that I am not alone. I have been amazed, time and again, when colleagues and friends express surprise at the stories they find here. I am amazed that they do not realize similar things are happening in such close proximity to themselves. I am amazed that some of my colleagues—some of whom have, at times, behaved horrifically themselves—fail to recognize the inequality that is right in front of them.
I note this because I have myself been discriminated against, harassed, propositioned, excluded, talked over, disparaged, and so on. Many of my own colleagues either don’t know the details, or haven’t noticed events that have taken place right in front of them. They don’t realize that what might seem like one-off bad jokes, disrespectful comments, and offers of romantic and sexual interaction are just small pieces of a much larger pattern. They don’t realize the extent to which harassment, discrimination, and even assault take place within our discipline.
We tend to think the problems are someplace else. We tend to think our friends cannot possibly be part of the problem. We cannot possibly be part of the problem. Often, we are mistaken.
Philosophers: Take notice. Listen. Act. Please. These are not just anonymous stories on a blog. These are real people. Real lives. Real suffering. Sometimes your colleagues, and sometimes your friends.
One of the things I find particularly problematic about being a woman in philosophy is the endless stream of “offers” female philosophers receive to hook up or become sexually or romantically involved with a male philosopher. Most of the time these “offers” are not explicit but they are nonetheless easily identifiable. They naturally make me extremely uncomfortable. But I wanted to point to a different implication. They basically leave you in a lose-lose situation. I strongly suspect that if you “accept,” then the male philosopher will never treat you with respect again (that is, he will never take whatever you have to say as a philosopher seriously). And I know from personal experience that if you reject them, then they will retaliate. On two separate occasions I found myself in a situation where a male philosopher and conference organizer was making various sexual advances at an annual conference that he was organizing–one of those by-invitation-only conferences. I had attended these conferences several consecutive years (by invitation). On both occasions I rejected the male philosopher/conference organizer rather explicitly but without being rude about it. I was never invited to those conferences again! In fact, the male philosophers in question never talked to me again.
The stories on this blog suggest that being hit on at conferences is a nearly universal experience (for young women in philosophy). It’s certainly been mine.
At a recent conference in a relatively technical area in which I work, I was reminded (by the presence of the hitters-on) of the incidents. This brought out in me not (only) irritation and disgust, but anxiety, which seemed strange. I don’t have anything to fear from these people–except perhaps being objectified or trivialized, which isn’t to be feared anymore, since it’s already happened. (Of course, I can continue to worry about my reputation, but I have reached a point my career at which I can trade on my record of work.)
On reflection, I am beginning to think that these sexualized interactions primed stereotype threat. They served powerfully to highlight the things about me which, according to the stereotype, don’t go with doing good technical work.
You can take this as an answer to the question posed by an earlier post: what’s wrong with being hit on?
I was just filling out a survey for philosophical society X. It includes this question:
“What changes would you like to see in future X meetings to improve the overall climate?”
While trying to answer the question I realized just how subtle but persistent, ubiquitous, and discouraging my experience of discrimination at conferences has been. Here’s what I ended up writing:
“Sorry, I really don’t know how to fix this stuff institutionally. All I can really say is, I wish the people in my field were less sexist. I am an advanced graduate student at the top of my class, in a prestigious program, with several first-rate publications. And I’m quite well-networked, so I get invited to all the dinners and parties and such. But I can’t think of a time, at this or any other conference, that I’ve gotten asked about my work, or for my assessment of others’ work, by a male prof in one of the many social-professional settings offered by such meetings. I do, however, get hit on extensively by these supposed mentors. And after presenting I have been asked, on more than one occasion, if I really made all my slides myself. I’m sure most of the misogyny is unintentional, the academic neglect accidental, and that the kind of attention I do get is supposed to be flattering. But really it’s all incredibly demoralizing. I feel seriously disadvantaged by my gender.”
This blog is great. I felt so lonely till now. I’ve many stories to tell about my advisors or my colleagues, but probably the ‘funniest one’ is about one of my job interviews. One day I was called to do this interview for a good University. I was really happy to go. The dean (a male dean)kept me on talking for about 3 hours, then he invited me for lunch (I was young and stupid and I accepted to go with him) and after lunch he showed me an email that he received from his colleague. This guy reccomended me just because of my appearance and in the email he sent him a picture he took of me during a conference that we attended together. Probably the dean was drunk when he let me read this email. I was shocked. I even took a train to get there and spent money and time just to please the eyes of that old arrogant man… I felt so frustrated!
I have been thinking for awhile now about sending in my own experiences of harassment and discrimination. There are actually too many to list in detail, but here are a few:
1. As an undergraduate I was invited to be a TA. Very soon, the sixty-something professor I was working with started inviting me to his house to discuss philosophy and when I accepted, he asked me if I would pose nude for his art (I was actually quite surprised to see a similar story posted here since I imagined that such a thing would be rare.) He then professed his love for me- making things very uncomfortable since we had to finish out the semester together. I was young and naive (17) and let the whole thing slide.
2. I had just completed my first year at a top graduate program and was excited to receive an excellent evaluation by the graduate adviser that I had been perceived to be a very good student- at the top of my incoming class. Shortly after that, I was approached by a very influential (married) member of the department to be his RA. I had never had a class with him so I thought that this was because I was doing so well in the program. One month into working with this man, as I was pointing out some of the flaws in one of his arguments, he put his hand on my knee and said “I can’t concentrate on what you are saying because you are just so beautiful.” I was stunned and asked him if we could get back to work. Later, I learned that this sort of thing was common- that he treated many women philosophy grad students the same way, but that it was unwise to report him because he was so famous the department would never really punish him and I would get pegged as a trouble maker.
3.I have heard other male grad student deriding female grad students in a way that makes it clear that they were taking their perceived shortcomings as representative of all female philosophers. These fellow grad students also were much more interested in my sex life than in hearing my ideas. I have had it implied by these fellow grad students that I and other women were at this top philosophy program, not because of their abilities but because of some sort of affirmative action. (I do not mean to suggest that all the male grad students in my department were this way, but the few that were made it really uncomfortable to be a women philosopher.)
4. I have been ignored, talked over, and talked down to on may occasions. When I gave an objection to a view in a philosophy seminar, just ten minutes later, the teacher credited and praised a male student for having come up with the objection. The male student had not even spoken. After conference talks and elsewhere, I have had speakers talk to the other men in a group, but ignore my comments and questions or give cursory, dumbed-down responses.
5. I have been asked, after receiving favorable reports from professors, if I am sure that it this was not just because I am pretty that I was getting such good reviews.
6. I have been told that women are not cut out for philosophy and that they are not as gifted in math and logic and this is why they should probably stay away from ‘hard philosophy’ like metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of mind (the areas I work in.)
On the bright side, I have experienced many ‘enlightened’ men who have been nothing but gracious and supportive- giving me hope that the tides are changing.
I am writing this to tell any potentially discouraged readers to hang in there. I have experienced sexual harassment, dismissiveness, discrimination on the job, and other offensive behavior throughout my time as a grad student and professor in philosophy. Yet I love doing philosophy and teaching so much that none of this can dissuade me from my purpose. I feel lucky to have this rare opportunity to be a philosopher, and nobody’s sexist crap is going to stop me. Don’t let it stop you either if you love philosophy.
As an undergrad philosophy major, I cannot count the number of times I made a point that was dismissed or ignored by the professor, only to have a male student make the same point and receive praise. All of my male undergraduate professors actively discouraged me from applying to grad school on the grounds that my abilities were not up to par. Nevertheless, I was accepted by four top-20 programs.
My grad school mentors were wonderful, supportive, and egalitarian. Unfortunately, from other faculty I witnessed several instances of both physical and verbal sexual harassment of female grad students. For three years, I was the only romantically unattached, heterosexual female grad student in my program. I was pestered and harassed almost daily by the male students, including everything from offensive sexual comments made in the middle of class to relentless efforts to hook up. The specific physical attributes of female students who took philosophy grad courses were enthusiastically discussed in our dept. lounge. Every time the department sought student input into a hiring process, my preference for a candidate was attributed by the other students, in front of the faculty, to my supposed romantic attraction to him. I was frequently quizzed by fellow students about which faculty member(s) or student(s) I would be willing to have sex with, hypothetically, despite my refusal to respond.
When I began attending conferences and APA events, my trusted mentors had to tell me which male professors I should avoid being alone with. Sometimes they accompanied me to parties so that I wouldn’t be harassed. While this may seem like a negative story about the prevalance of sexism, it’s just as much a positive account of the other guys who had my back and wouldn’t tolerate bad behavior. Eventually I received many interviews and a few job offers, and all of my success on the job market was directly attributed by my fellow male students to the fact that I am female.
Once I became a professor, I learned what it is like to work closely with men who cannot seem to visually acknowledge your head up there above the breasts. I learned to deal with male students who tried to intimidate me about grades or come on to me. (Specifically, I learned to keep my office door open, and to inform someone else as soon as a student started behaving strangely toward me.) I do not work in feminist philosophy myself, and apparently that has encouraged several male professors to share with me their view that feminist philosophy is junk and not really philosophy. For a while another single female worked in my department. Some male professors hoped that I might be able to report on her sex life, about which they knew nothing but suspected everything. I have had to listen, in the department office, to my colleagues’ descriptions of escapades at strip clubs.
Though all of the aforementioned events were annoying, they did not intimidate me. The sexism that nearly shook my resolve came later, in the form of having my research devalued because I was female, being judged according to different standards from men in pre-tenure reviews, being pressured to take on more teaching and advising duties than others, and eventually being treated unfairly with respect to family/medical leave. Luckily, my resolve is fairly stout. In the hiring process, I have seen numerous female candidates ignored either because their cvs mention the word feminism, or because they are perceived to do “soft” work in ethics. In awarding scholarship funds to our own students, my colleagues consistently downplay females who have stronger records on paper in favor of males with whom they are friendly. My teaching evaluations are good, but male faculty have often commented (in direct contradiction to the facts) that this is probably because I am not a rigorous teacher or strict grader. I am treated like a secretary whenever menial tasks like note-taking must be done, and one of my colleagues (who happened to vote unsuccessfully against tenuring me) told me in all sincerity that I would make a good secretary.
I’m now past worrying about what my colleagues say to or about me. However, I want to create a terrific climate for our students, insofar as it is in my power. I have had to choose my battles for the sake of preserving both job and sanity, but in the long run I’m winning the war. To all the women and men who want to change things: don’t lose heart!
My experiences as a graduate student in philosophy range from having been hit on relentlessly by one of the tenured faculty to being considered obviously second rate. The males, it seems, were automatically considered to have an advantage irrespective of their philosophical talent. Whereas, the females were looked upon with dubiousness. Being called “fresh meat” by that same tenured faculty to one of my male colleagues which was later reported to me privately. That same “fresh meat” professor had pursued other female graduate students and was known to ‘be on the prowl.’ Other factors in the department included the golden-boy phenomenon reported by other women at this site. There was one or two males thought to be brilliant and despite all of us being accepted into the program, we had to withstand the endless admiration of these individuals. And no women were considered “golden.”