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.
Archive for the ‘Why else….?’ Category
When my freshman/sophomore year professor asked if I would be interested in taking a class he was teaching this semester because it would involve more discussion (something new to him), my boyfriend’s first thought was that the teacher wanted in my pants. He asked what grades I’d received in the previous classes, how old the teacher was, and if I was “really” that great of a student. When you’re female it’s basically assumed that any success or offers are simply a result of being sexy to a man. It couldn’t be because I was actually a good student. Even I questioned my professor’s motivations instead of assuming that maybe I was being contacted because my professor knew I would contribute to the class. However, I was recommended for a philosophy major and have kept up with the other men in my degree. It’s just sad to know that even those closest to me will hesitate to assign me the credit I’m due. There’s always the booty question floating over women’s heads.
When I was in graduate school, one of our female faculty members was dating a (white male) rising star at another university. A group of senior ranked (white male) faculty spilled this news to a few graduate students, adding that she “must be a good philosopher if he is f*cking her”.
During your first round of story-gathering, I sent a story about my experiences as a graduate student in the 80s. In light of the discussion that is taking place in the blogs about the Lance et al Proposal of Shunning, I wanted to tell another story. (FYI Mark Lance is an old friend.)
Here’s the story:
For those who doubt the lingering effects of harassment or who think it might be difficult to ascertain who the serial harassers are, let me offer this. I spent three hellish years being harassed and finally driven out of a highly ranked department. Two years later I applied to another graduate program in the same institution, in the social sciences. After I submitted my application, I had a meeting with the department chair who said “Wow. You have some pretty decent academic credentials.” I answered with something like, “Um, you sound surprised?” He said, “Well, you were a graduate student in [that department] and you’re a woman… I’m sorry, I just assumed you slept with someone.”
Yeah. I didn’t enroll in that department either. The twenty-eight-year-old me didn’t have the strength or confidence to confront what I assumed would be a widespread presumption about my abilities. I gave up on an academic career.
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.
The first two points aren’t so positive, but the last one is.
First, though this has improved quite a bit, many people in my department have either never spoken to me at all, or spoken to me to tell me that I’m anti-feminist, either because of the area of philosophy I work on or because I’m friends with certain faculty members (who are generally incorrectly viewed as anti-feminist) in the department. My first year here almost none of the women in the department would talk to me at all. Even when I tried to explain to people that I came to philosophy through feminism, that I was committed to certain feminist principles, etc., I got written off. Without revealing too much, it was also (incorrectly) assumed by many people (and directly stated to me a few times) that I was only here because I had slept with one of the male faculty members. I think this completely off-base piece of gossip was probably a large part of the cause of the women (and some of the men) in the department treating me badly. What was especially hard about this is that I (until recently) felt like I didn’t have any other women to talk to about these issues, because for the most part they were alienating me.
Second, I’ve recently been given some opportunities/encouraged by certain philosophers to do some things that others have not been so encouraged to do. Lots of people have simply expressed happiness and congratulations and encouragement for me, but others have suggested that I have only received this attention/these opportunities either because someone in charge wanted to sleep with me, or because they simply needed more women at conference X or in special journal edition Y, etc. Needless to say, the above two issues have had a major negative impact on my confidence as a philosopher, but I’ve noticed, also, on my personality in general– I tend to be much more reserved and intimidated in all sorts of situations, not just philosophical ones.
Third, I just wanted to say that others in the profession– both in departments I am or have been affiliated with, and people that I meet professionally, both women and men– have been extremely supportive of me, and it has very clearly not had anything to do with the fact that I am a woman. Of course, when it is men, I often get the this-person-is-only-supportive-of-you-because-he-wants-to-get-in-your-pants talk from others, so the support is bittersweet in a way.
I know there have been a lot of comments in this vein on the blog, but I really hope that people realize how prevalent this is in philosophy– I’ve heard all sorts of similar things said about other young (and not-so-young) female philosophers, not just about myself, and it’s really damaging in so many different ways. I also really want to be clear that it comes from all sorts of people– feminists, anti-feminists, women, men, etc., and that most of us (myself included) have probably been complicit in this sort of behaviour without realizing it at some point.
I spent four years as an undergraduate student and one as a graduate student taking philosophy courses in a department where I was one of very few female students (often the only one in a particular class). The department has a fairly high number of female faculty members and I always felt that all the faculty members I encountered supported and encouraged me. I took several classes from a certain (male) professor in the department who was known for being a particularly harsh grader. I put extra time and effort into his classes, sought his advice on papers and eventually learned to think and write in a way that won his approval. This experience was invaluable for me, and the hard work I put into these classes was what made me want to become a philosopher. Several times, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student male colleagues of mine suggested that the only reason I was doing well when so many others were not was that I must be sleeping with the professor. The (always male) students who said this to me felt it was perfectly acceptable to do so in front of large groups. No one ever came to my defense (or that of the professor). My eventual transfer to another department was in part motivated by a desire to escape the offensive comments of my fellow students.
I (male) publish with prof. x (female). We have also taught joint seminars, and given quite a few joint talks. On at least four occasions (including one formal solicitation to apply for a job) people have assumed we are married. (It would be remarkably easy to determine that we are not; in fact that we are both married to other people. There is no evidence beyond the joint work to suggest that we ever had any relationship beyond the professional, which indeed we have not.) None of this had sexist intent, indeed was in some ways friendly and generous (offering to create a second position). But we all need to think about the climate we create for students or junior faculty who are considering joint work if they get the idea that the default assumption among the community is that a man and a woman working together must be having sex.
A few years ago, when I was a student, I had developed a close (completely nonsexual) relationship with a male professor, who was my mentor and advisor. We would work together on a lot of things and consequently, hang out together frequently, although never outside of school. It apparently got to a point where the other male faculty felt uneasy as if something would happen, that the department chair would intentionally go out of his way to make sure that my professor and I weren’t in close proximity of each other. Because of this, nothing ever got done and I ended up extremely distraught to a point where I was close to quitting philosophy all together.
I was a female philosophy graduate student. A (male) friend and I met two male philosophers at an APA and had a long philosophical conversation with them. They later emailed us both and invited us to their small invitation-only conference. I told my mother and she said “a man you met at a conference invited you to his small conference? He just wants to sleep with you.” Ouch.
(Sometimes the sexism that affects women in philosophy is sexism in the wider world.)
When I was offered my job four years ago, I negotiated a spousal hire for my husband. I was the only one of us who applied for a job at that institution, the job opening was in my area, not his, and the department was resourceful and enthusiastic enough that they managed to create a brand new position for my husband.
Near the end of my first year, in a coffee shop (that was, incidentally, nowhere near the women’s studies department), I ran into a philosophy grad student that I had seen around the department but hadn’t formally met. He said to me that he had seen me around and wondered if I was a new grad student. (I was/am a middle-aged full professor.) I told him no, I was a professor. He said: “In what, women’s studies?” I said no, in philosophy. He looked confused and said he didn’t know who I was. Just to make small talk (even though I was royally annoyed by now) I told him that I knew who he was because he was taking my husband’s seminar that term. He said, “Oh, you’re xxx’s wife? So THAT’S why you’re here!”
A junior friend went to a conference where she met a Big Name. The Big Name was impressed by her work, and offered to write her a reference. My friend was recently writing an application, and was going to put Big Name as one of her referees. But a colleague suggested it would work against her because people would wonder why Big Name was writing her a reference, and assume it could only be because she’d slept with him. A further poll of colleagues revealed this was highly unlikely. But my friend’s confidence was knocked by the whole incident.