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 innuendos’ 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 am a MA student in a competitive humanities graduate program at a prestigious university. Upon first discovering this blog I was absolutely shocked by the sheer scale of misogyny that is operating within undergraduate and graduate programs on both a national, and international level. Now, after spending the past seven months working within a graduate-level academic environment I can safely say that I am considerably less shocked.
On the first day of my program-mandated introductory philosophy seminar the professor asked that all class members choose a topic off of a compiled list that would serve as the basis for our final term presentation. Since no one else in my (all-male) class had chosen Marxist theory, I offered to structure my presentation around Marx’s conception of historical materialism. In response, my professor said that he thought that I would find Marxism, “too hard,” and that I should switch presentation days with a male member of my class so that I could present on an “easier topic.” This switch may have been justified if I were struggling in the class, but this was the first time I had ever met this professor and he had no basis upon which to evaluate my intellectual abilities.
A second incident occurred a few months into the program. During the Fall semester all MA’s and PhD’s within my program are required to apply to a variety of grants in the hopes that an external funding agency will back our proposed research projects. In order to meet the grant requirements, all students are required to submit two academic letters of reference. Since I was new in the department I decided to ask one of my seminar instructors if it would be possible for him to provide me with such a reference. He said that he would have no problem with writing me a letter, but he said that he would like to have a beer with me later on during the week to discuss my research interests further (which would presumably help him to write a better letter of support). The night after meeting with this faculty member I received an email from him saying that he found my research interests “sexy” and would enjoy hearing more about my work at a later date.
Finally, at the end of the Fall semester my supervisor suggested that I meet with a faculty member working within another department, as he was working on a similar topic and would be able to provide me with some in-depth feedback on a paper that I had recently written. The meeting started out really well, with the faculty member providing me with a useful critique of my latest work. He ended the meeting on a different note however, saying that since he had done something for me, “would I be willing to do something for him in return?” After shifting uncomfortably in my seat for a few minutes he ended the conversation by saying “nevermind” and looking away. I left our meeting shortly after, saying that I was running late and had to catch a train.
Although my experiences are not as extreme as those mentioned by other female contributors, I do feel as though they are examples of sexist acts, and that members of academic communities should be taking action against chauvinism in all of its forms.
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 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.
This is absolutely minor in comparison to some of the horror stories I have read on this blog, but I think it speaks to some of the subtle ways in which philosophy can still be a man’s game.
Last summer, I presented at a prestigious conference in my field. The conference organizer (who is known for his strange sense of humor) wore a t-shirt with a slogan on it each day of the conference.
This would have seemed unprofessional enough in and of itself, even at a conference with a laid-back atmosphere. But two of the shirts he wore were extremely inappropriate, especially in a field in which women are underrepresented and often (inadvertently or even intentionally) made to feel uncomfortable.
One shirt read “That’s What She Said.” The other had a picture of a killer whale leaping over a wall while a boy stood underneath it (like in the movie Free Willy) with a speech bubble that said “Look at the size of that willy!”
I was amazed that this organizer showed such poor judgment. I am not easily offended, but it bothered me that the conference organizer, who was setting the tone for the entire conference, did so by wearing t-shirts with male-dominated sexually innuendo.
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.
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.
As a graduate student finishing up her PhD, I went on the job market this last year. As if this wasn’t hard enough, my advisor made it even worse. I was speaking with some of the female faculty members in my department, asking what I should wear to my interviews and job talks and upon hearing this my advisor came out of his office and said I should just “wear a bikini and heels” to the interviews, and that would get me a job. I could tell the other faculty members were offended too, but none of us really knew how to handle it. He continued and said I could also wear dominatrix boots at which point one of the female faculty members joked that if he didn’t stop he would get fired. I then said I had to go and left. Every time I meet with him he comments on my clothing, which is really just female work attire, though I do like to wear heels. I don’t know if he does this because he’s just awkward about how to relate to women or if he really does find women’s clothing and my body interesting enough to comment on all the time.
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.
This happened fairly recently.
I did my undergraduate degree in a small philosophy department. The only female lecturer was temporary and filling in until a permanent, as it turned out male, lecturer could be hired. Early in my 1st year there was a department meal out. Towards the end of the meal, and after I’d had a couple of drinks for Dutch courage (I’m quite a shy person), I went over to the table all the male lecturers were sitting at to chat to them. We started talking about party tricks and out of the blue, he hadn’t spoken to me before that point (in fact I’d never met him before), the head of the department told me “a real party trick would be if I could drip hot wax on your nipples”! All the other lecturers at the table laughed loudly. I was absolutely stunned and utterly humiliated. I went bright red and didn’t say anything. As soon as I could (without it being obvious why) I went back to my own table. From that point onwards I avoided him as much as I could and would go red and get embarrassed every
time I saw him. As a result the two mandatory courses of his I took were my lowest grades… ever.
No-one I have ever told that story to has thought it was inappropriate for a head of department to say that to a timid first year he’s only just met. They’ve all found it hilarious and told me to lighten-up.
On a more positive note: My time at that University did get better and I ended up getting on quite well with three of the lecturers… plus the head of department moved to a different university.
At a previous institution, I was one of five TAs for a 300+ student Introduction to Ethics course. The (tenured) professor was known for his “controversial” teaching style and examples. The semester I TA’d this included:
- On the first day of class, in an introductory discussion of RU-486 and abortion, the professor mimed a woman flushing a fetus down a toilet (complete with sound effects).
- As a means of illustrating the difference between acknowledging a fact implicitly and acknowledging it explicitly, the prof asked all the women in the room to raise their hands if they thought they were “sexy.” People giggled and nobody did it. Then the prof says that, well, see, there’s a difference between acknowledging that there are sexy women in the room, and “announcing that they give you a hard on.”
- On the second exam, which covered a section on pornography, a section on Kant on lying, and a section on “friends with benefits” relationships, there were 15 questions. Three of these questions were about the act of ejaculating on a woman’s face in pornography. One of the questions was about Kant. I had a female student come up to me while I was proctoring the exam to clarify what the professor meant in a question asking “How ejaculation functions differently in straight porn and in gay porn.”
- Upon seeing a student texting in class, he stopped lecturing and went on a tirade about disrespect that culminates in him yelling at the entire lecture hall of students that he will “fuck them all” if they continue to disrespect him. He then abruptly cancels class. This sort of thing happened repeatedly.
As an undergraduate major in philosophy, I remember being (perhaps overly) pleased when philosophy faculty encouraged me to pursue a graduate degree in the field, or when a professor offered what I now think of as “over the top” sort of praise. The Chair of the department was one such professor. He told me that my work was “close to publishable.” He told me that I was “the best student” he had had in his ten years of teaching.
My interactions with the Chair, let’s call him Prof X, were purely professional. And then, more than ten years later, when I was about half-way through grad school, he sent me an out-of-the-blue email. I quote:
“Gosh, you are memorable… You were different in maturity blah, blah. Maybe I had a crush, who knows, who cares. Main thing… is to connect, re-connect… Love, [Prof X]… Oh my very private cell is…”
Now, I realize that this is just a run-of-the-mill “wanna hook up?” email which poses no immediate physical threat. I assume that Prof X was in an altered mental state or otherwise not thinking clearly when he sent it. I recognize that he was simply being candid about his feelings and probably intended no harm.
But the thing is, the email did do harm. Significant harm. As a graduate student with all the usual anxieties and uncertainties about my ability, I suddenly started worrying that my undergraduate success was a product of something other than philosophical ability. I suddenly became wary, uneasy, and overly analytical about my interactions with male faculty and colleagues. I suddenly became anxious when a male colleague or faculty member expressed interest in my work, wondering what the real motive for the interest was.
I have never had – and never will have – a relationship with a philosopher, but more than one philosopher has expressed interest in something other than my work. How many of the philosophers who have expressed an interest in my work were really interested in something else? And how many of the philosophers who didn’t express an interest in my work were uninterested because they weren’t interested in something else?
Trust is a very fragile thing, easily broken and difficult to rebuild.
I’m an advanced grad student in a program which is considered one of the best places to study feminism. Just two years ago, in one of our seminars, we were discussing Aristotle on sexual difference when one of our male grad students decided to tell the class that it’s true that women are passive and that this is because “the penis goes in the vagina.” When asked to clarify what he meant, he explained further that “the penis is active and the vagina is passive.” Our professor did not speak up and, aside from one feeble attempt to argue against the student, my classmates were silent. A handful of us spoke later about how we didn’t expect to be silenced in a department that sells itself on diversity.
The following semester, I was in a translation course that featured a professor who found ways to make rather shocking comments about anal sex, masturbation, and other sexual topics completely unrelated to the course material. Of course, each time I thought of a clever response to bring us back on topic, after the fact.
So much for a supportive environment.
Early on in my graduate studies in the late 90s at a highly ranked philosophy department the following incident happened to me. One evening I came into the graduate student computer cluster to check my email. Two other graduate students were already there, both more advanced than me, male, and now tenured at ranked departments. One of them briefly glanced at me, snorted, and said: “You look like a Polish prostitute!” Then he turned back to his work. The other student briefly laughed out loud and went on with his business. The comment would have been out of place and hurtful even if it had been true. As it is, I am not Polish (nor do I look particularly Polish, as far as I can tell), I was not wearing any make-up, and my outfit consisted of ordinary Jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt, and an old vintage jacket that used to belong to my grandfather. I don’t think I have ever seen a polish prostitute, but I am pretty sure that grandfather-jackets and sneakers are not among their
In my first year of grad school (this decade), I found out that some of the male students had discussed a ranking of the female grad students’ attractiveness. I believe there was also a ranking based on “cup-size.” When I expressed to one of the offenders that the behavior was inappropriate, I was badgered for being oversensitive and philosophically interrogated for what he thought were groundless restrictions on mere conversation between male friends. It was all suggested that my concern about the list was really just a matter of my insecurity about my place on it!