I was scheduled to be a speaker at a workshop in my area, which was canceled due to lack of funding. The conference organizer wrote this to me:
unfortunately for the only other workshop i have in mind the organizing theme is one where you won’t fit, but on the other hand for purely cynical political reasons i will need a token woman.
When I replied that I didn’t want to be his token anything and found his attitude disrespectful, he told me that the cancelled workshop
was 50% women, so if any of them were tokens they would have a hard time guessing this.
I tried one more time:
Yes, but please also don’t tell them shitty, undermining things. “I will need a token woman” is a rotten thing to say to somebody you want to come to your conferences. (Sometimes friends can say rotten things to each other as jokes, but that one definitely crossed a line.)
sorry if you found the joke offensive, but that is the effect of the “gendered conference campaign” which it seems almost everybody but me thinks is a great idea.
I’m almost certainly not organizing any more conferences, thanks for your interest in participating in my nonexistent one.
Archive for the ‘trivialising women’ Category
I’m the author of this entry. While I can report that my life as a professional philosopher so far has been mostly positive, the fact that I am young female faculty (the two other female faculty members are more senior than I) often means that I am treated with much less respect than my colleagues.
I am teaching my first graduate seminar this semester, and I have a great group of grad students–both male and female–who participate actively in it. We read one of my papers on a new approach to solving a key problem in my area of specialization. One (male) student had an objection to my account, but it seemed that his worry was orthogonal to my main project.
When I explained how my account could sidestep his objection, he countered with what he thought was an illustration of his point… using an example involving my mother. He actually started his objection with “Does your mommy…”, before getting to his irrelevant point! There is not a single other faculty member to whom I could imagine he would possibly have taken this tone.
Because at this stage I had done so much mental eye-rolling and it was clear to the other students in the class that his objection was not on point, it was easy to move on without having to dwell on the issue. But the fact that it is almost a week after the incident, and I am writing about it here (and have considered writing about it for that long) suggests that maybe this is something I should have called out in class.
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.
All the following events happened to me, a woman in philosophy, with different people (some women), at different stages of my career as an undergraduate and graduate student.
I once found myself hugged by one of the professors I worked with, in his office. He wanted to be empathized with for the troubles he was having in his personal life: he said he needed “some love”. I was paralyzed by the surprise and embarrassment. Fortunately another student knocked on the (closed) door and he let me go.
Another professor frequently looked at my body when talking to me during office hours. I never knew how to deal with it, and it made me extremely uncomfortable, mostly because I suspected he was not paying attention to what I was saying.
I was at a conference with my partner, also a philosophy student. My advisor made sure to introduce my partner, who is not one of his advisees, to all the members of the admissions committee of a very good department to which my partner was applying. At the same conference there was a famous philosopher, with whom my advisor was on friendly terms. I was writing my undergraduate thesis on the work of this famous philosopher. I thought my advisor would introduce me, given how he behaved with my partner who wasn’t even his advisee, but I waited in vain. I therefore introduced myself to the famous philosopher and talked to him about my work (the famous philosopher—also, guess what, a man—did not really engage in the conversation, but answered politely to my questions with, more or less, yes or no). When I told to my advisor that I had introduced myself, he merely said “good job!” My partner was a man.
A different advisor often remarked on my outfits (in the presence of other students) and declared he was in love with me in an email. He was married and he sort of made clear it was a form of Platonic love. He did always engage me philosophically, but I refrained from seeing him as much as I would have wanted because I feared he would take it as a sign of romantic interest.
At a conference once I wore a summer dress that left my shoulders and part of my back bare. I later found out that some women graduate students and a woman faculty member berated me because of my “skimpy clothes”, through which I “debased the entire category of women”. They wondered how women could be taken seriously if they dressed like that. Admittedly, these quotes are second-hand. The faculty member works on feminist philosophy.
A male colleague once told me laughingly that a bunch of male graduate students were exchanging emails about my dissertation topic, which was so “feminine”. He did not seem to think for a moment that there was anything wrong with that behavior, or with expecting me to share his amusement.
Another male colleague, who had been hitting on me constantly and who had talked about my “boobs” in front of other male students, once asked me—again in front of other colleagues—why I presented myself like a “whore”. In the past, I had always acquiesced and tried to go along with the jokes (because they are only jokes, right, and you don’t want to come out as one of those party poopers without sense of humor). This time I coldly replied: “I don’t present myself as a whore at all, why do you see me that way?”. To my surprise, he shut up!
When I was at another department as a visiting student, one of the students there, with whom I had a fling, boasted to prospective students that among the benefits of the program there was being able to sleep with visiting students. I was right there.
I was once at a dinner with faculty members and graduate students, and during what I thought was a philosophical conversation, I made the mistake of mentioning, as a philosophical example, a detail of my personal life that routinely gives the impression to men that a woman is “easy”. After that, a faculty member started to mildly flirt with me, to my surprise and dismay. He stopped after I stopped saying hi to him in the halls, or acknowledging him in any way. For all that time, I felt guilty, as if I was the one who did something wrong.
Later on, in a seminar discussion, I made sure to make a similar point without using my personal life, but by using a sociological generalization. Still, what the men present in the seminar took home was that I was “easy”, and another faculty, during an evening out, made a joke about me that gave the impression that I had relaxed sexual morals. Other male students felt entitled to make similar jokes. I wrote an email to the professor, explaining why his joke was inappropriate. He apologized profusely. So that one went well! (It goes without saying that whether or not I am actually “easy” is irrelevant here.)
Once I was visiting my partner who was in a different PhD program. Prospective students were also visiting that department at the time and I joined them for a night out. I kept asking people about their research interests. Nobody ever asked me about mine. I was just his girlfriend, after all.
There have been many more events similar to this last one, which, more than sexual harassment in its various forms, arguably constitute the most damaging way of undermining women’s academic self-esteem: instances of subtle, widespread, and often unconscious forms of sexism. I personally experienced what so many women reported experiencing on this blog: a woman makes a point, sees it fall flat, and then hears the same point being repeated by a man and acknowledged; a woman is paralyzed by stereotype threat; a woman is rarely, if ever, asked to read or discuss a male colleague’s work; and so forth.
A final meta-reflection: it took me a long time—in fact, more than a year—to finish writing this submission. It was not because I had a hard time putting together anecdotes. (In fact, I left some out.) It was because I spent a long time worrying about being identified, and subsequently worked on making the submission as anonymous as possible.
My preoccupation with anonymity was not only due to the fear of backlashes in the professional sphere, but mainly due to the fear of disrupting some friendships that I still hold with some people mentioned in the post. After all, some of the offenders are still my friends, and this is absolutely unsurprising. Human beings are weak-willed, opaque to themselves, inconsistent, and prone to error. All human beings, men and women (and people who refuse to identify with one gender) alike! Many men who say something offensive and who slip into sexist behavior don’t mean it, don’t realize it, or can’t help it. They may regret it afterwards, but are unable to apologize. They may apologize, but then do it again.
My aim in submitting this post is, like everybody else on this blog, to share my experience as a woman in philosophy, and to highlight sins but not to point my finger against the sinners. Some sinners deserve to be pointed at, of course. Unfortunately, the worst offenders, in virtue of the gravity of their crimes, often go unreported and hence unpunished. But in my case, my main aim is to contribute to make my male and female colleagues aware of things that happen to women in philosophy, hoping that this will bring about awareness and change.
Blogs like this one should not be seen by men as a self-righteous “J’accuse” to specific (mostly male) individuals, but as an appeal to all people of good faith who want to improve the profession. As a post on the Feminist Philosophers blog recently reminded us, the status of women in the profession (and of all minorities, if I may add) is everyone’s business.
When I was a (male) phil. major undergrad, I was dating the smartest and most sophisticated phil. major, by miles, in our leiter-top-10 dept. She convinced my (female) thesis advisor to work with me. But we had to keep our relationship a secret in the dept., lest she be perceived as simply my girlfriend. That sucked, but I get it, maybe more now (after years of grad school) than I did then.
I attended a fabulous session at the Pacific APA this week that opened with dismaying introductions. There was one primary speaker (a male) and two commentators (one male and one female). The male chair opened the session by introducing all three presenters. When introducing both men he mentioned several of their notable publications and spoke very highly of each of them. He then introduced the woman by stating her name and institutional affiliation; that was it. He did not mention any of her publications (of which she has many!), nor did he “talk her up” in the way he did the two men.
I leaned over and whispered to the female graduate student from my department who was attending the session with me that the introductions seemed sexist to me. She said that she had been thinking the same thing and was glad that I had said something. At least I was able to validate her interpretation of this event as an instance of sexism, though I failed to speak up more vocally on behalf of my accomplished female colleague.
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.
On being part of a couple: 6 years ago my husband accepted a very prestigious professorship at University X in country Y. I work in the same field but am much more junior (at the time I was 10 years out of my Ph.D.), so I did not ask for a position for myself, though I did expect to be offered a minor, temporary position. Before leaving for the new job the star philosopher who had recruited my husband met with me to discuss my options. The star philosopher suggested to me that I put together a combination of grants and working half-time in a particular segment of the commercial sector, consonant with my interests. (For the sake of anonymity let us say it is a restaurant, more or less what the level was here.) I objected to this, wanting to remain in academia. My career wasn’t going badly at all! We agree that I would apply for grants for two years, and then everyone would take stock at that point.
I did not handle the suggestion to work (even half-time) outside of academia, or the remark of one colleague, that my husband’s salary is so high, why did I even need a job?or the general atmosphere, very well. In fact I was so upset, I mentioned my situation to a few of my husband’s new colleagues (at parties, after a glass of wine). They did not feel sympathy for me—probably a natural response, when someone is indiscreet in that way.
Final result: I very soon come to be regarded as “difficult.” The grant situation doesn’t really work out, although I do end up getting funded for 1.5 years, sort of after the fact. Life in country Y becomes untenable, in spite of friendships formed with some very nice people in the end. My husband and I both return to our previous jobs. I obtain tenure. My career takes up where it left off. I publish, I receive prestigious fellowships, I receive numerous invitations to speak—though never in country Y, which has hosted so many in my field.
Moral(s) of the story: When you are exposed to sexism, don’t lose your composure. You are supposed to be quiet about it. Second moral of the story: don’t tag along when your other half gets a great job, hoping you will be offered something too. Third moral of the story: work hard and you will be able to look back on the hard times from a better position.
Quitting teaching philosophy in my department is on my mind:
Every time my male colleague laughs at me behind my back with our students.
Every time my male colleague ridicules me in front of our students.
Every time my male colleague asks our students to discuss my teaching style with him behind my back.
Every time my male colleague dismisses a point I make in a meeting without good reason, and expects that his mere dismissal of my point is sufficient for others, and myself, to accept his position.
Every time my male colleague treats me with utter contempt, then turns around and asks for my advice on student issues/publishing/the job market/life in general.
Every time my male colleagues pretend they are not on campus so they don’t have to meet with me to discuss departmental business, and sit laughing together about the fact that I am on my own in my office trying to run a meeting effectively through google chat instead of meeting with them in person.
Every time one male colleague, who claims to be a feminist, follows the lead of the other male colleague in demeaning or marginalizing me, presumably because it’s easier for him to fall in line than to challenge oppression.
Recent mention of ‘golden boys’ reminded me of an experience I had in grad school. One year, my department had an opportunity to nominate a single PhD student to contend for a substantial dissertation research grant from the University. Unbeknownst to me, my ‘golden boy’ status led to my nomination; in doing so, the department passed over another extremely well-qualified female student. But, one of the department’s few female faculty members took it upon herself to nominate the female student in addition to me.
As it turns out the selection committee got it right, and the better candidate won. When the winner was announced, a senior (male) faculty member took it upon himself to inform me of the situation. He told me that, I was the department’s “unanimous top choice”; that female faculty member X was “being insubordinate” by going “behind the department’s back”; and that the winner “wouldn’t have won had she not been a female”.
It would take far too long to list every aspect of implicit and explicit bias, subtle and blatant sexism in this brief conversation. I was simply shocked, particularly since I wouldn’t have known any different had this faculty member not pulled me aside. All I could manage to say was that I was happy my fellow student had won, and that I was convinced she really deserved it more than I did.
Looking back, I wish I had taken the opportunity to call out the sexism on this occasion (and in particular to stand up for the actions of the female faculty member). It still bothers me, and makes me question whether the other benefits I received in grad school were merited, or were merely the result of gender bias in my favor.
A list of worries I have for female assistant professors…
These worries, which may be a little clumsy, constitute a sort of working list that I stay more or less conscious of. I just keep seeing these issues arise, and have dealt with them first hand in my own case. In every case they echo [stories I have recently seen in discussions on the internet]
Do not coauthor, you will not get credit for your work like a male colleague would.
You are expected to be a good teacher, so the outlier comments on your student reviews will be a focus of your colleagues. They will expect you to satisfy the class entirely, since you are female.
You will not get credit for any invited publications, regardless of where they go. (This happened to me.)
Invited talks will not count.
You will be asked by your colleagues “who you know” when it comes to any invitation. Again, you will not get credit for these like your male colleagues will.
You can gauge the low expectations your colleagues have for your work by their first reaction to news of a publication- what question do they ask? If it reveals the expectation that your publication is in a lower quality venue than it in fact is, then you have an uphill battle. Your tenure packet will need to be much better than it would be if you were similar but male.
The poster sent a follow-up email noting that despite these worries she did get tenure.
My senior year of college I took a course with the chair of the philosophy department at my small, wealthy, southern liberal arts college. (It was the sort of place where women wore pearls to the gym). I was a brash Yankee girl who very much objected to the sorority culture and standards of southern femininity, and so dressed accordingly. He, by contrast, was a meticulously neat, old-fashioned man, who clearly wished he could drape a tablecloth over me so as to be spared the sight of my sartorial choices. Unfortunately, he couldn’t ignore me, because I sat in the front of room, spoke frequently, and was, by far, the best student there.
One day, when discussing Dewey’s Democracy and Education, I asked some question about Dewey’s methodology. The professor asked if I minded being used as an example to clarify his point. I said, no, not at all, and he proceeded to say this: “X has a lot of problems – her wardrobe, what she is going to do tonight, her wardrobe, finding a date for the spring formal, her wardrobe…..”
At the time, I was mostly furious for the way he assigned such stereotypically shallow, feminine concerns to me. My real concerns at the time were the domestic violence counseling I was doing to support myself, the international fellowships I was applying for (one of which I won), and the grad schools I was applying for (all of which accepted me). Looking back, I’m still offended by his totally unjustified assumption that I was not a serious student, but even more outraged that he thought it at all appropriate to comment on my physical appearance in front of the entire class. Fortunately, he has since retired.
There is one form of general criticism that I find female philosophers unproportionally often exposed to. I am a graduate student in philosophy. I try to explain by means of some examples:
1. At a public, well attended conference a very influential and respected male professor from one of the top US-universities tells the only female professional philosopher who is presenting a paper that her work is “not useful” and that “in philosophy one needs to think very hard”, suggesting that she had not been thinking hard enough. This happened during the public discussion of her contribution. This remark immediately set an end to the beforehand lively discussion of the paper.
2. In a monograph prepared for publication a male professor calls the way a female colleague sets up logical arguments “distasteful” and a “semantic pollution”. The male philosopher refused to remove these remarks when criticized for their inadequacy.
3. A female graduate student in philosophy is told by a male professor that her papers are “unreadable” and that she does not know “what philosophy is”.
4. While discussing topics related to the work on metaphysics of a female professor in the department, one of her male colleagues mentions that he thinks that metaphysics does not have a proper subject matter. Similarly, when talking about a research project about X the chief investigator of which is female, one of her male colleagues makes public that he does not understand why research on X should be interesting.
What these cases have in common is that a form of criticism is voiced which is general in a way that makes it very hard to respond. Normally, criticism both can and should be helpful. But a criticism which question the legitimacy or usefulness of one’s work, or denounces it to not be philosophical, does not ask for improvement and does not allow any answer. It does not challenge a single argument, but questions the work as a whole. I have never experienced a male philosopher to be exposed to criticism of this general sort.
I am a female graduate student in a fairly well ranked PhD program in the philosophy of science. My undergraduate institution had a fairly small philosophy program with an even smaller masters program. As an undergraduate, during the time I was just beginning to work seriously as a philosopher of science, I had a somewhat depressing, reoccurring interaction with an older graduate student. Given the size of the program there was a small, yet close group of undergraduates (many of whom are now in graduate programs) who would come to class early and discuss the readings or whatever topic we happened to be interested in at time. About five minutes before class began this particular graduate student would come in. Every time it was the same; he would engage intellectually with the male students (I was the only female in the group at the time) and then make some comment about my appearance. It amazed me that twice a week, for 12 weeks, he would walk into class and have a new superficial but equally insulting comment. “Nice shoes.” “You look good today.” “I really like that scarf.” Now these comments, on their own, many not cause the reader to feel as offended as I was. I did not find the content to be particularly irksome, but it was the context that made these comments hurtful. Every comment reaffirmed that he did not consider me to be a part of the philosophical community, at least not in any meaningful way. I was there, in his eyes, only as an ornament, only as an intellectual outsider (an inferior one at that). It was hurtful. But worst of all, it really did isolate me. Many of my fellow students were sympathetic, but no one could really relate. However, the one positive thing that came out of the loneliness of that situation was that it forced me to be strong and stand up for myself. I shouldn’t have had to, but the skill has proven itself useful over the years.
As a young undergraduate philosophy student, I was excited to find out that soon I would go to my first dinner with a ‘real’ philosopher from a neighboring school, along with a few of my classmates. I was the only female there, and upon meeting me the professor remarked how sweet I was. Everyone giggled, and I found myself doing the same not wanting to ruin the pleasant atmosphere. He didn’t say anything remotely serious to me the rest of the night, while he questioned my classmates on their higher values.
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.