A friend recently asked me which posts on this blog were mine. In looking for them, I came across this one, http://beingawomaninphilosophy.wordpress.com/2011/10/17/the-biggest-obstacle-is-having-some-faith-that-i-belong-here/ which I had forgotten about.
The way I had written it at the time, one might think that whatever problems I was facing were entirely in my head. Looking back, I phrased it as I did because I was afraid to say more. I didn’t have faith that I belonged in graduate school, but not because I was imagining that I didn’t nor because I was unjustifiably anxious. It was because my first day on campus the professor who I had intended to work with told me that after seeing my application, he wouldn’t be surprised if I performed so poorly that I failed out and that I didn’t have the right ‘pedigree’ for students at a program of this caliber. Waiting in the hall outside my first seminar, I overheard a group of male students in my cohort discussing that the women in our cohort might have been admitted because of affirmative action rather than merit. And this was just what happened before classes actually began.
I was worried that if I told anyone (even anonymously) why, exactly, I felt so out of place, the people who had behaved inappropriately might recognize themselves in the stories and hold it against me for sharing them here. I am still afraid of that actually, but I’m also now of the view that if speaking the truth about my own experiences costs me relationships, those aren’t relationships worth protecting.
Archive for the ‘trivialising women’ Category
A highly abridged list of incidents:
I got excellent teaching evaluations from my students. But the Chair discounted the report citing the my “good looks” and NOT my “teaching” as the explanation for the high marks.
I was repeatedly denied a raise and told among other reasons that I didn’t need one because I didn’t have “a family” or “children” and that I just thought that I was “better than everyone else.”
I was initially denied an office and told that I shouldn’t have expected one because I “failed to negotiate for it” and I shouldn’t complain because I was “lucky to have a job” despite turning down several other offers. Then they tried to put my office in Women’s Studies.
I was repeatedly the subject of discussions about the fit of my clothing and general appearance. I was told that I need to “dress” like “an adult” “behave like an adult,” but probably cannot/will not until I have “real responsibilities” (i.e. children).
I arrived on campus and met with several undergraduates who report sexual harassment and discrimination by a certain professor in my department. I report the incident to the Chair with substantiating documentation and it is ignored. The offender is then given emeritus status so he can retain his office on campus to meet with students.
I was required to meet with faculty assistance center social worker and eventually ADA officer for special permissions to have my dog on campus (which was agreed to prior to accepting the position) while no male faculty member with a dog (of which there are several on our floor) was required to do so.
I go up for tenure and I am told by the Chair that my friends cannot write letters for me. When I explain that my area is very small and that my colleagues in the area of expertise are all friends, the Chair says “you know what I mean….” intimating that my relationship with these colleagues was sexual.
I recently graduated with my bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and am in a relationship with someone who is in a top graduate program in philosophy. Today, we were discussing the most “meaningful” thing we have learned recently: without going in to much detail, we have to decide on one “meaningful” thing in order to include it in a survey.
I have been reflecting recently over the complexities of the mother/daughter relationship, so I said that I have learned that I spend a good deal of my daily life doing things in order to avoid becoming my mother (I had in mind, specifically, something my partner is aware of: struggling with an eating disorder).He responded with “You haven’t learned a meaningful thing that has to do with the lofty life? Like, existential, philosophical stuff”?
I felt my heart plummet into my stomach. I immediately became defensive and rattled off ways that the mother-daughter relationship was a deeply “existential, philosophical” topic: how a mother is faced with her own mortality upon giving birth, the phenomenological experience of pregnancy, etc…
He responded with something that he’s learned recently about explicit and implicit moral principles.
It feels like I have to defend why the female experience is worthy of philosophical analysis. It feels like I am not taken seriously the moment I talk about what I want to talk about. It feels like I need to transform my thoughts into useless philosophical jargon. It feels like my relationship has tension now, because his words hurt my self-perception. It makes me second-guess my recent applications to graduate programs. It feels like I am not a philosopher–like my thoughts, feminine, worthless–will be forever excluded from the realm of the “lofty, the existential, the philosophical”.
When I was an undergraduate in philosophy, some of my friends and I started a philosophy undergraduate group. Naturally, amount the ten or so of us, there were only two women, myself included.
Most of the time, this was not a problem for me – I was used to hanging out with the boys, and I could argue just as hardheadedly as the rest of them. My male professors were probably the most supportive mentors I could have ever hoped to find; they were encouraging and always very generous with their time. For the most part, the sexism I did encounter straight on was from my male peers toward my female professors. They would challenge them to unrelated logic questions, complain that their subject matters were less worthwhile and (quite wrongly – many of them were top in their field) accuse them of being worse professors than my male professors. I contested them hotly on each point after class, knowing how badly women professors tend to do on subject evaluations, and how this hurts their chances at tenure.
Nonetheless, fearing ostracism by my peers, I never took any courses in feminist philosophy, nor actively discussed feminist issues with my peers.
I did, however, on one occasion feel personally insulted by my peers. We would host public talks, debates, or movie screenings fortnightly. One week one of my closest male friends suggested discussing autonomy and alcohol consumption. He wanted us to debate whether or not a drunk or ‘impaired’ person should be found at fault for rape, given various scenarios (a drunk victim, or ambiguous consent, for instance). My heart still races and I still get hot in the face remembering this topic being brought up. I have to admit I went a little hysterical at the suggestion – I told them I would boycott the group if they chose to discuss that subject. Having been the subject of sexual assault, (although no alcohol was involved), it seemed ridiculous to me to even ask whether someone who had willingly gotten drunk could possibly be found innocent of sexual assault due to their ‘impaired’ state. My friends laughed at me and told me to calm down, that it was a serious philosophical question.
I left the meeting in a huff, slamming the door.
Now I am in grad school, and the friend who brought the topic up claims to be a serious feminist (although he himself is not an academic). I have trouble believing him since he still doesn’t understand what was wrong the many times he has brought up the above scenario since.
Another friend who was in the group has visited me recently, and he confided to me that our mutual friends used to think that I was not very good at philosophy, and that they were surprised I did so well on my graduate school applications, despite the fact that I was always one of the most active members of the philosophy group, and despite the fact that I graduated as one of the top students in the major. Now they say that I am very good, and that they misjudged me (only a couple of them ever went on to grad school themselves).
I am still pretty sure the only reason they ever thought that I wasn’t good because they were sexists, and confused my anger at their continued offenses for philosophical incompetence. And now I feel guilty that I constantly excused them anyway. Maybe we should never have been friends. I feel I have indirectly contributed to the bad climate for women by never bringing up any of the issues as feminist issues, and by avoiding feminist subjects as philosophically illegitimate. Nonetheless, if I had not remained friends with them and cut my teeth in debates with them, I would probably only be half as good a philosopher as I am.
1. I got engaged, and a senior male professor jokingly tells me not to “go getting pregnant now,” thinking he’s giving me good career advice. I’m pregnant the next year and have two kids before I finish my PhD, which I do in 6 years (earning two masters degrees along the way).
2. I’m at an international conference, out to drinks with some other students. One student goes on about how women can never be good at logic. I tell him he’s just plain wrong (telling him how I tutored two male students in my logic class because they couldn’t keep up as well as I could) and that ridiculous opinions like his do keep people from pursuing his specialty, to its detriment. As great as some of us ladies are, some of us would prefer never want to have to regularly socialize with asshats like him, even if it meant not pursuing logic as a specialty.
3. Same international conference, a senior person in my field casually tells me that I must be sleeping with my advisor. When I get angry and say hell-no, he tells me I protest too much, and that it must be true. I do not tell anyone about this for 3+ years, not even my spouse, because I am so upset that anyone would have the nerve to say something like this and, worse yet, that, if this douchebag has the nerve to say it, then others must think it is also true and believe that my only worth to my advisor is in my pants and not in my work or intellectual worth.
Thanks for the vent.
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.
I am an undergraduate student of philosophy. I almost finish my last year.
Some months ago I was talking with another female classmate about a certain class. She was a close friend of professor of that class and told me what he thought about me.
I used to wear a lot of skirts, blouses and ribbons so he nicknamed me “Lolita”, I also participate a lot in class and colleagues of his think I am brilliant and dedicated. Well, not him.
He thought I was arrogant and pretentious, like an annoying little girl. That no one that young (20) and FEMALE should behave like that. Being tenacious and strong looks well on a man but makes a girl look hysterical.
He never hid his hatred for me and my grades were never excellent even when my texts were good.
Needless to say that a friend of mine, a man, who behave just like me was his favorite. It’s a shame he is one of the most brilliant minds in my college and an expert in the topics I’m interest in. Philosophical collaboration is being damaged with mysoginistic thought.
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 female philosophy professor on a graduate admissions committee. This year I found the following sentences in a letter of recommendation for a female student:
“You will have to forgive a bit of political incorrectness, but I think it important. #### happens to be a beauty and enhances her fine looks with a careful attention to her grooming and clothes.”
Naturally, after recovering from my initial sense of shock that someone would put this in a recommendation letter, I tried hard to ignore the comment; it is plainly irrelevant to the applicant’s academic prospects. Yet I found that the comment was nevertheless infecting my evaluation the file: rather than taking the academic content of the letter seriously, I started thinking about whether the letter (as well as all the others) wasn’t as strong as it was just because of the student’s looks. More disturbingly, and for reasons that I find difficult to state, I also felt I was having a harder time taking the student’s own writing seriously, once her physical traits had been brought into the foreground.
I do hope that I ended up successfully overcoming whatever biases this comment introduced and that I judged the file fairly. Nevertheless, reflection both on the terrible judgment of the letter writer and my own involuntary reactions to it left me with a sense of despair.
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.
One of the things I regret about my time in graduate school is that I let the attitudes of (some of) the men affect how I dressed. I stopped wearing anything to campus other than jeans and a plain top after receiving various unsolicited, rather insulting comments in my early years. For instance, during my first year I wore a striped shirt and a much older grad student told me I looked like I belonged in an Old Navy commercial. (No offense to Old Navy, but it was clearly an insult.) Another time I wore a dangly necklace and another fellow grad student (but virtual stranger) passed me in the hallway and exclaimed “What is THAT?!” This might sound like a trivial issue, but it really took the wind out of my sails. I was so envious of the women in other humanities departments who walked around on campus with their groups of friends, all wearing their skirts, bright colors, and interesting jewelry. It makes me sad to realize now how vulnerable and isolated I must have felt, especially since I was a confident person before graduate school. I wish I’d just forbidden the culture in academic philosophy from touching that dimension of my life, right from the start.
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.
Careless talk costs lives – well, costs publications anyway. I had some thoughts, pretty well worked together, about a topical issue in medical ethics and shared them with a male colleague, because I thought he was more of an expert in the area and might want to publish something jointly on the topic. Not only did he publish these under his own name in a blog, but I appeared – not as fellow academic who had initially alerted him to the problem and who also happens to have published in the very area – but as ‘worried mum’ who came to him with her concerns.