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.
Archive for the ‘sexual comments’ Category
I am a graduate student at a top university. It has taken me over a year to decide to write this. These events have not only hurt me on a deep personal level,compromised my chances in the field, and most importantly have made me question my philosophical abilities. I will recount not a single incident, but an series of incidents.
Two years ago, as a visiting perspective student I met the leading expert in my area and the most famous philosopher in the department at a welcoming party. As I approached with another male prospective student, he launched into a rant about how female philosophy students just tend to be weaker students and that he had a mind to start a tutoring team for female students in this department. When I suggested that the team should be available for anyone seeking help, either male or female, he emphatically replied that it is the female population that needs help not dropping out. When I met him in his office the next day, he continued on his point. Weeks later I was about to take another offer when the department secretary emailed me letting me know that an additional sum has been added to my package. I took this as a sign that that professor felt apologetic and really did want me to join the department and accepted their offer.
A couple of months into the semester, at a conference after party he leaned towards me and half asked, half suggested that my main adviser and letter writer at my undergraduate department (a famous philosopher) gets “chummy” with his female students. I firmly replied that has never been the case (and after 5 years at that department and many friendships with grad students, I know that that professor is a decent and good human being). He went on to insist that he is in the know and then put his arm around me. I just slid away and later told myself that the whole night was probably just a fluke and that he had too much to drink and probably doesn’t even remember it.
An uneventful year later, I was doing an independent study with him when he expressed enthusiasm about my idea and even said that it was publishable. Later, he placed himself very close to me and then touched my hand as I was handing him an article. I pretended that it didn’t happen and finished the meeting as usual. Later that day, I brought my fiance to the department party and introduced him around. He glared at me but didn’t make contact. After that evening, everything started to change. He started ignoring my hand during seminar, screaming at me in public, calling me incomprehensible to other grad students at bars and so forth. In the middle of the night on Valentine’s Day he emailed me saying that I have no future in philosophy and that “others agree” with him and so forth. I asked the chair whether there was an ongoing consensus on my philosophical potential amongst the faculty and he denied it to be the case. He then told me in reply to my complaint that he “cannot make a professor like a student” and that was that.(Incidentally, the chair was good friends with that professor and was also the one who put his hand on my lower stomach at a party and told me “don’t get knocked up” when I entered in on a conversation about preschools between him and another male grad student). Grad students started treating me differently. I remained in that seminar to stand my ground and show that I cannot be bullied. He was co-teaching this seminar with another elderly, well respected philosopher. One day this elderly gentleman asked this professor to give him a case of ‘X wants some Y’. That professor looked at me and said “He wants some young mail-order bride [from country Z]” and laughed (everyone knew, including him, that I was [from country Z]). Everyone started to laugh with him, including the elderly professor. I raised my hand and said “isn’t this example sort of inappropriate?” and the elderly professor replied through his laughing tears “oh excuse me” and continued laughing.
I was hired into a department in which I was the only woman, and also the only contingent full-time faculty member. Eager to prove myself (since it had been strongly suggested that my position could become permanent if I did so), I threw myself into departmental duties, in addition to research and teaching. Among other things, I cultivated a relationship with another larger department in the area, whose resources would be useful to ours. I was delighted when I learned that this department was bringing a very important, senior woman philosopher to give a talk that year, and I organized a trip to bring our students, and students from other related departments, to the lecture (which was some distance away).
On the day of the lecture and our trip, the chair (who had hitherto said nothing about my efforts, nor the unique opportunity this posed for our students to see such a prominent philosopher speak) said to me in passing, “So, you’re going to see [Senior Woman Philosopher]?” “Yes,” I replied, “it’s very exciting!” He smiled. “Yeah, a friend of mine met her once,” he said. “He says she’s a real bitch. Hahaha!” I replied that I hoped he’d told his friend he was being sexist, which only elicited more laughter.
On other occasions, my chair told a gleeful story about visiting a famous pornographer’s home, full of scantily-clad women, and made joking comments in a department meeting about the importance of secretaries having good legs.
This person, I am fairly certain, has no idea that such behaviors are alienating, or feel hostile to women. But they are, and they do. It was impossible to go to work without thinking “if this is how he thinks about other women–if this is how he thinks about Senior women in our profession–then what does he think about me?” And unfortunately, because he was chair, and I was contingent, I felt I had nowhere to turn. Making an official complaint with HR would have made daily life worse, and I feared losing my job.
Fortunately, I was able to find another position. If I had been forced to stay much longer, I believe I would have given up academic philosophy.
I am one of those ‘junior scholars’, a woman at that, who are more often than not mistaken by students as ‘one of them’ (which, in many ways, I am). My work is in social and political philosophy, a male-dominated discipline, and I write on questions of power, sovereignty, and violence, themes that are traditionally regarded as masculine. As a consequence, I feel like my age, gender, and appearance put me at a comparative disadvantage with regard to my academic career. In order to compensate for these ‘deficits’, I experience more pressure to produce solid scholarship than most of my more senior or male colleagues. (This is by no means an objection to working hard and doing good research. In fact, I believe that the discipline would benefit immensely if everyone felt the same need to ‘prove themselves’.)
At conferences, in particular, people usually show interest in my work only after they hear my papers. I am, therefore, a big fan of presenting on the first day of a conference, and I dread being on the graveyard shift and having meaningful conversations in a general atmosphere of departure. This cannot always be avoided, and so I often struggle to be recognized and respected as a peer in the profession.
Now, I’m not saying that none of this is my fault. Even though I think of myself as an open and outgoing person, I might have to be more obnoxious and less uncomfortable cornering people. Or I might have to do more advance research about each and every conference participant to have something impressive to say. (Unfortunately, my 6/6 teaching load this year is preventing me from doing this.) However, another possibility suggested itself at a conference I recently attended, and it would entail using what I see as my comparative disadvantage – age, gender, appearance – to my benefit.
The national conference makes a point of gender equality in membership and acceptance rates of papers. This year, 48% of the papers selected through double-blind peer review were written and presented by women. Many panels engaged with questions of gender, equality, justice, representation, and exclusion in incredibly nuanced, critical, and productive ways. I met some great people on the first two days, and even more great people after my presentation on the penultimate panel of the last day. The response to my paper was surprisingly positive, I received measured, generous, and extremely helpful feedback, and some colleagues even said that my paper changed their pretty firm position on the topic.
I do not say this to brag, but in order to give reasons for why I felt like I had succeeded in ‘proving myself’ as a scholar with intellectual merit who deserves to be taken seriously by her peers. Even though I find it unfair that I had to work harder and give a better paper than many colleagues in order to be recognized, at least it paid off.
Or so I thought.
When I returned home, the following email was waiting in my inbox:
This is [….] from the […] conference. I found your email by googling you. It was nice meeting you. Unfortunately you are married.
Hope to see you soon.
‘Unfortunately you are married?’ Well, it is indeed unfortunate that I have to participate in an unjust, unequal, and historically oppressive institution to be able to be with my partner. But surely the sender of this presumptuous message did not email me to express his discomfort with the institution of marriage and his sympathy with my unfortunate situation of being part of an unjust tradition. What was unfortunate, in the eyes of the sender, was the fact that, because I was married, he and I could not hook up.
It is bad enough to have to accept that being a good scholar is not enough to be taken seriously, that I have to be better than others to get the same recognition. Knowing that, no matter how hard I work, I will only be judged as a potential sexual partner makes me sad, angry, and hopeless. What do I have to do to be visible as an equal member of the profession rather than an object of sexual desire?
I do not know. What I do know, however, is that telling someone that unfortunately they are married, is never a good idea. It is not a clumsy, maybe backhanded, compliment. It is an inappropriate, unprofessional, offensive, and – to be honest – incredibly dumb statement. Knowing that it came from someone who works on normative ethics and global justice only makes it all the more inappropriate, offensive, and dumb. It also makes me wonder about the state of a discipline that is concerned with the kinds of questions that arise when philosophers think about right actions. And it brings into sharp view the glaring disconnect between theory and practice. Lastly, I wonder if the sender thinks it would have been nicer to meet me if I was not married. Clearly, it never crossed his mind that I might not be available to him even if I were single (be it because I might not be interested in him in particular or in men more generally), or that I might actually be available despite being in a relationship (not just because people cheat, but also because people live in all sorts of alternative and, yes, open relationships).
I might be overthinking this. Unprofessional and obnoxious creeps might ultimately be the exception. But I do not want to end up at the next conference, suspicious and guarded, finding it even more difficult to have meaningful conversations with people who take a sincere and professional interest in me and my work.
I recently attended a conference in Asia. Over the three day period, there were something like sixty talks. It was not a small conference. I was one of three or four women in attendance.On the way home, I noted that I felt good and that it had been an excellent conference. I found this odd, given the maleness and foreignness of the conference (this point about foreignness is supposed to pick up on the thought that one is more likely to feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar environments/groups etc.) I quickly realised that it had been the first conference I had been to where no one tried to have sex with me, or involve me in something, in some way, inappropriate.
Every single conference I have ever been to has invariably involved some guy (often older and more established) trying to get me to go home with him; some guy telling me about how lonely and sad his life is in some far off department a million miles from home – and I must feel the same way too (so we should go home together); some guy telling me that he noticed my figure, or my outfit whilst I was giving a talk; some guy asking me if I am sleeping with my advisor (because isn’t that what girls do?); some guy telling me I *should* be sleeping with my advisor; some guy explaining to me that the new female appointment in the department only got the job (over him) because she was a woman; some guy crying into his cocktail over the fact that his wife finally found out about the graduate student he’d been sleeping with (and now that the marriage was clearly over maybe I wouldn’t mind some too); some guy explaining to me that the only reason he goes to conferences is to pick up. The list goes on.
At the conference in Asia, no one seemed to be interested in the fact that I was wearing a skirt. And no one felt compelled to tell me about their romantic tragedies and personal problems. And no one tried to get me to go home with them. In fact, no one really tried to talk to me at all – and if they did it was about my work or the political situation in some Asian country, or something of the like. And this was a relief.
I left the conference feeling smart, confident and like a human being. I got good feedback on my talk, attended some good talks and met some nice people (that’s what conferences are for, isn’t it?) Instead of the usual ‘post conference blues’ where I feel disgusted, inadequate, dumb and convinced that if I were actually even vaguely capable someone would talk me to about something other than the fact that their wife wants to leave them.
While in undergrad at a prestigious University, my TA hit on me and kept this going for the whole term. When I got my papers back, I noticed I was marked more harshly than my peers, female and male. I received an email from him that following summer explaining he has a lot of regrets about how he ran that TA-ship, including the treatment of me…
Next, I attended a party where analytic philosophers (all men) got together and talked analytic philosophy all night. No one spoke to me. I ended up falling asleep at the party (far from home in the room where the host said I could stay and leave in the morning) One of the analytics came into the room and masturbated while watching me. I was woken up by the noise, but felt afraid, so stayed silent.
The next day, I told him he was inappropriate and he proceeded in an analytic argument about if I don’t want to that to happen, I shouldn’t leave the opportunity open by falling asleep at a party.
In 4th year undergrad, my short undergraduate thesis paper was directed by a male. He said disparaging things to me so loudly and said, “just because a student is good looking, do you think it’s ethical to just give them a mark?” I dropped the course.
Finally, in graduate school, I was interrogated by a male in the department about an award for which I was nominated. He proceeded to say that all philosophy students should abandon philosophy “it’s time to grow up” and go to law school. He also indicated that awards are not given to those who are simply cute. I retorted that I didn’t think I was cute and I didn’t think he would think I was either.
These are main experiences of harassment I have endured. There is much more. Ladies, beware. Hold strong, be confident, and never get into affairs with these men. Why give them more power than they already have.
I’m a first year grad student on a philosophy programme where only 4 out of the 28 first year graduates are female. I studied Physics as an undergraduate, which had a similar gender-ratio so I’m very used to male-dominated environments. I have never previously felt judged, discriminated against or intimidated based on gender.
However, in the five months I have been a grad student, I’ve become peculiarly sensitive to the reaction of my male peers, who have frequently indicated that, first and foremost, I’m a girl.
To list some of my experiences:
1. At the end of a particularly challenging class on the history of modern logic, in which I was the only woman, a male student I had never met before approached me and began to explain some of the concepts that had been touched on. I had made absolutely no indication that I needed help, and certainly looked no more puzzled than anyone else in that class.
2. At our regular socials, the conversation is generally focused on philosophy or whatever people are specifically working on. We are primarily research students, and since we rarely attend class, do not know each other well. At these events, one of my male peers only ever talks to me about his romantic or sexual experiences. He talks to everyone else about Wittgenstein.
3. A male peer, who I also count as a good friend, never engages me in any academic conversation. Whilst he asks the men for their academic opinions on a talk we all attended together, he quizes me only on my love-life and my attitude towards sex. When I initiate a philosophical discussion, he patronises me and quotes Aristotle (for example) at me, even if we are discussing a subject that I specialise in, and he does not. The same ‘friend’ regularly flatters me with ‘you’re one of the smartest girls I’ve met, and you’re hot’, and has tried to kiss me, though he has admitted that he does not harbour any romantic feelings towards me. (To give some context to the attempted kiss: he was offering me essay advice at the time. Unfortunately, it is not possible to pass of the incident as a mistake at a party.)
4. Another male peer is in two classes with me, and yet he has never acknowledged me, either in a personal or academic capacity. I struggle to get my voice heard amongst the group of very confident and articulate men. Last week, I managed to make a few original points and actually engage with the discussion. This coursemate finally noticed me, and proceeded to initiate some small talk after the class. I then received an email from him inviting me out on a date. Clearly, if I am worthy of attention at all, it is in a romantic, rather than academic setting.
I am left with the overriding impression that to them, I represent a rare opportunity for a romantic dalliance with someone who at least approaches their intellectual capacity. I’m just intelligent enough to be good company, but not quite intelligent enough to be worthy of a rigorous philosophical discussion. To them, I am not their peer, an individual with individual interests, both academically and personally, but rather a symbol: a young woman in academic philosophy.
During my first two years as a graduate student I was the only female PhD student in a department with a single female on the tenure track (who also happened to be on maternity/sabbatical for two semesters during my first two years). In my second year a male student arrived who demonstrated a lot of negative and demeaning attitudes toward women, often objectifying them by relating information about the identity of their porn star twin. Perhaps the incident that made me most uncomfortable during this time occurred when he walked into a room full of our fellow graduate students (all male), and me, and loudly asked, “So, who’s ready for the gang bang?”
Not wanting to make any waves, I took to rolling my eyes and avoiding engagements (both social and professional) where he would be present. However, toward the end of that year I discovered that our incoming class of graduate students would include a few women. While I had put up with his behaviour to that point, I felt it would be irresponsible to knowingly allow other women to enter this environment without at least trying to protect them.
I worked up a little courage (the real kind, not the whiskey-induced kind ), and approached the chair of our department with a request that none of the new women be placed into an office that would be shared with this particular graduate student. I explained the situation in a rather vague manner, not wanting to get anyone in trouble, but still wanting to get my point across. When he pressed me for details I shared the “gang bang” incident with him, hoping that combined with my general description of his attitude would be enough.
In response the chair asked if there was anyone else in the department who could provide more details. Fortunately, a few of my fellow graduate students had assured me that they would back me up if I needed it.
I suspect the chair’s motivation came from some sort of desire to provide protection against baseless accusations. However, I do wonder what would have happened if I didn’t have these friends in the department. Would my set of stories have been enough to warrant any intervention? Further, what would his attitude be if I came to him with another concern, about another individual in the department? I clearly do not have much in the way of power here.
In the end, after a male colleague of mine went to him and insisted, the chair not only protected our new women’s office space, but he pulled this graduate student aside for a little chat. He framed the discussion in terms of “professional behaviour in a professional setting”, and while he did not name any names, it is difficult to believe it wasn’t abundantly clear that I (the only female graduate student around) was the complainant.
Regardless, that graduate student’s behaviour underwent a transformation, and he has since managed to constrain his baser instinct most of the time.
I’m a graduate student and recently attended a philosophy talk organized by other grad students: one female student and one male student from my department. When both of the organizers went up to introduce the speaker (who is a very distinguished philosopher from another department), three faculty members (one of which is from my department) started making inappropriate comments about the female grad student’s appearance, very loudly, to the point that others could hear across the large lecture hall. I’m sure she heard them as well, but had to ignore their sexist and unprofessional behavior so she could do her job.
When I was in graduate school, one of our female faculty members was dating a (white male) rising star at another university. A group of senior ranked (white male) faculty spilled this news to a few graduate students, adding that she “must be a good philosopher if he is f*cking her”.
Just a reminder, there are philosophy departments out there that are a nightmare for women. No woman professors ever hired, professors (male of course) sleeping with graduate students, humiliating, sexist remarks made to women researchers on public occasions, and of course, last but not least: a war on the field of women’s studies and any and all related fields. (This means you, phenomenology.)
People crack alot of jokes about gender balance, and question whether people go too far with this kind of sensitivity. But there are alot of demoralized women out there. The women at the department I am talking about are probably too afraid to post on this blog.
I am about to start my PhD at an excellent Leiter ranked program. I have a BA and and MA from excellent schools. I have worked closely with ground breaking philosophers in my field. I have published, I have an excellent teaching resume, phenomenal letters of recommendation, and moreover I love my job. I am a good philosopher, and I am thinking about leaving philosophy.
I have been a secretary and a chauffeur. I have been disingenuously promised research assistantships and letters of recommendation, in return for dinner dates and car rides. I have been asked if I was married while my colleagues have been asked what they think. I have been told that I’m both cute and idiotic. I have passed on professional opportunities because I am a woman, and no one would believe that I deserved those opportunities — accepting would make me seem like a slut, since men make it on merit, and women make it in bed. So, ironically, I have been praised as professional for having passed on professional opportunities. I have been the lone woman presenting at the conference, and I have been the woman called a bitch for declining sexual relations with one of the institutions of hosts. I think I have just about covered the gamut of truly egregiously atrocious sexist behaviour. So I just have this one question that I think I need answered: Is the choice between doing philosophy, and living under these conditions, or saving yourself, and leaving the discipline?
This is an open call for reasons to stay.
Because this blog does not allow comments, I’m cross-posting to Feminist Philosophers, where you can reply.
Rather than share a specific story, I just wanted to say *ditto* regarding many of the anecdotes that have already been posted. I am a female professor. Over the course of my graduate education and the years I have been employed as a faculty member, I have experienced the following at least once (though in most cases, quite more than once): students behaving especially confrontational in a way that they do not with my male colleagues; referees addressing me as “he/him” in their comments on my journal submissions; male faculty making salacious comments to me; being ignored/dismissed at conferences and in other professional contexts; general behavior/comments that suggest to me that I am not respected as my male colleagues are by administrators, philosophers, graduate students, secretaries, students; being on the short end of unequal distribution of department resources. I also sometimes get the sense that when I invite a male to discuss philosophy that either they or their partner assume that I am taking more than a professional or collegial interest. This can be an obstacle to networking. I have, on account of these experiences, considered leaving the field.
I am happy to respond to this request for more on what’s its like to teach philosophy as a woman. I am a tenured professor at the metropolitan center campus of a very large urban junior college. I’m a “woman of color” in my late-twenties, and have been teaching here full-time for some years.
The issues I face as a teacher are not just from my students, but from my older colleagues, and have to do with age, race, and culture as much as they do with gender.
Let’s start with my students. Almost all of my students are minorities, predominantly Black American, Hispanic American, and Hispanic or Carribean immigrants. They are evenly split among men and women. About half of them are either immigrants or first generation Americans. Most of them come from impoverished backgrounds. Many of them are multilingual. (These are not my impressions — they are the statistical facts about my institution. What follows is my observation.)The student population is highly conservative, almost of all of them accepting “traditional” misogynistic values regarding family, the role of women, and sexuality/sexual preference.
I have to fight very hard to be taken seriously, particularly since I am a young woman of color teaching a required subject that is not viewed as important by most of my students, and directly challenges most of the conventionally held beliefs of the student demographic. My male colleagues (regardless of age) and older/white female colleagues, on the other had, are treated with due deference and respect. Male students, in particular, treat me badly, (but so do female studnets) assuming that I am dumb or ditsy. I am also, like the previous author on this subject, routinely called “Miss” rather than the college-wide standard “Professor” or “Ms.”, which I request as an alternate. The male students assume it is acceptable to call me by my first name, use obscene language in my presence, interrupt me when I am talking, argue with me about grades, make sexual implications. On the worst occasions, they talk to me as though I am a somoene they are hitting on with cheesy lines in a bar or
club. Most of my male students are clearly not used to being told they are wrong or out of line by women. I have been called, by students, “a bitch” “an ice queen” “soulless” “uncaring” “unemotional” “flaky” “dumb” and a whole host of other things, directly to my face by male students. This is depsite the fact that, on the whole, my teaching is evaluated positively by 80-90% of my students on end of the semester course surveys. When I teach issues relating to sex or sexuality, like reproductive rights, pornography, sexual harassment/discrimination, etc. male students feel it is appropriate to belittle or undermine the problems (my male colleagues who teach the subject do not seem to have the same problem).
This is not helped by my older, white female colleagues, who make a constant commentary on my clothing and styling choices (all of which are more conservative than I’d really prefer and very professional). I have been told by them that I look like “I am going on a date”, “I am appearing on MTV”, “I am going out for cocktails” and “I am out to catch a man”. I have been asked “if male students actually pay attention to what I am saying” in class rather than how I look. I have been told, upon getting a new haircut, that it was a good idea because “it makes me look more sexual, which will make students pay attention”. Comments are also frequently made about any weight that I gain or lose, and about how nice my skin, hair, nails, etc. look as gauges of my health.
But not all is bad. Here are some of the good things. When I get great, successful, amazing students, they appreciate how hard I work and I get an amazing sense of accomplishment. What I do is essentially social justice work, serving an oppressed and disadvantaged population who has been deprived of the many educational privileges I received as a member of the middle class. Many of my female students have told me that I am a role model of independence for them, and that my example helps them solidify their ambitions to achieve professional success and break the financial barriers that leave them dependent on men — their fathers or husbands. When I talk about my background — I, too, came from a highly conservative immigrant family — many women come and speak to me after about how I achieved my freedom and independence, and how I overcame the obstacles in my way. I know that I change the minds of at least some of my students about gender roles and misogyny, and that’s enough. Some
of my male students come to respect me and change their attitude and behavior towards women; I have witnessed it first hand. And if I can help some people challenge misogyny in their own lives, then I think my struggle is worth it — and I will continue to try.
I’m a philosopher and I’m a lesbian. as soon as I started my PhD and I gathered enough confidence with my professors I came out. A significant percentage of the predominantly male department displayed sometimes quite sexist behaviour, and often downright macho outbursts, all cleverly placed in class jokes and convenient social occasions. But after I came out something very interesting happened. at the end of year party I found myself in the company of a professor who started making comments about an attractive girl, a master student at the party, clearly looking for my complicity as a lesbian. another one later did the same, with even heavier sexually charged comments, regarding one of his undergraduates.
What took me by surprise is that in their eyes my womanhood (and btw I’m also very feminine) eclipsed behind my lesbianism, as they assumed that explicit comments they would NEVER have shared with women in the dept (also they whispered secretively and giggling) were instead ok with me, as we both shared a sexual interest in women!