I am writing this to tell any potentially discouraged readers to hang in there. I have experienced sexual harassment, dismissiveness, discrimination on the job, and other offensive behavior throughout my time as a grad student and professor in philosophy. Yet I love doing philosophy and teaching so much that none of this can dissuade me from my purpose. I feel lucky to have this rare opportunity to be a philosopher, and nobody’s sexist crap is going to stop me. Don’t let it stop you either if you love philosophy.
As an undergrad philosophy major, I cannot count the number of times I made a point that was dismissed or ignored by the professor, only to have a male student make the same point and receive praise. All of my male undergraduate professors actively discouraged me from applying to grad school on the grounds that my abilities were not up to par. Nevertheless, I was accepted by four top-20 programs.
My grad school mentors were wonderful, supportive, and egalitarian. Unfortunately, from other faculty I witnessed several instances of both physical and verbal sexual harassment of female grad students. For three years, I was the only romantically unattached, heterosexual female grad student in my program. I was pestered and harassed almost daily by the male students, including everything from offensive sexual comments made in the middle of class to relentless efforts to hook up. The specific physical attributes of female students who took philosophy grad courses were enthusiastically discussed in our dept. lounge. Every time the department sought student input into a hiring process, my preference for a candidate was attributed by the other students, in front of the faculty, to my supposed romantic attraction to him. I was frequently quizzed by fellow students about which faculty member(s) or student(s) I would be willing to have sex with, hypothetically, despite my refusal to respond.
When I began attending conferences and APA events, my trusted mentors had to tell me which male professors I should avoid being alone with. Sometimes they accompanied me to parties so that I wouldn’t be harassed. While this may seem like a negative story about the prevalance of sexism, it’s just as much a positive account of the other guys who had my back and wouldn’t tolerate bad behavior. Eventually I received many interviews and a few job offers, and all of my success on the job market was directly attributed by my fellow male students to the fact that I am female.
Once I became a professor, I learned what it is like to work closely with men who cannot seem to visually acknowledge your head up there above the breasts. I learned to deal with male students who tried to intimidate me about grades or come on to me. (Specifically, I learned to keep my office door open, and to inform someone else as soon as a student started behaving strangely toward me.) I do not work in feminist philosophy myself, and apparently that has encouraged several male professors to share with me their view that feminist philosophy is junk and not really philosophy. For a while another single female worked in my department. Some male professors hoped that I might be able to report on her sex life, about which they knew nothing but suspected everything. I have had to listen, in the department office, to my colleagues’ descriptions of escapades at strip clubs.
Though all of the aforementioned events were annoying, they did not intimidate me. The sexism that nearly shook my resolve came later, in the form of having my research devalued because I was female, being judged according to different standards from men in pre-tenure reviews, being pressured to take on more teaching and advising duties than others, and eventually being treated unfairly with respect to family/medical leave. Luckily, my resolve is fairly stout. In the hiring process, I have seen numerous female candidates ignored either because their cvs mention the word feminism, or because they are perceived to do “soft” work in ethics. In awarding scholarship funds to our own students, my colleagues consistently downplay females who have stronger records on paper in favor of males with whom they are friendly. My teaching evaluations are good, but male faculty have often commented (in direct contradiction to the facts) that this is probably because I am not a rigorous teacher or strict grader. I am treated like a secretary whenever menial tasks like note-taking must be done, and one of my colleagues (who happened to vote unsuccessfully against tenuring me) told me in all sincerity that I would make a good secretary.
I’m now past worrying about what my colleagues say to or about me. However, I want to create a terrific climate for our students, insofar as it is in my power. I have had to choose my battles for the sake of preserving both job and sanity, but in the long run I’m winning the war. To all the women and men who want to change things: don’t lose heart!
Archive for the ‘women held to different standard’ Category
This happened within the last three years. I had to be on a search committee outside my area because I’m the only woman in the department (our affirmative action office doesn’t like male-only search committees). It was clear from the beginning that half the committee already had their guy chosen and the other half had their guy (both guys already having been met on the conference circuit). But to please affirmative action, a woman also had to be offered a campus visit. There was an excellent female candidate from a top-5 program, with glowing letters of rec (the other two candidates were from much lower-ranked programs). But for one of the committee members, what finally swayed him to vote for her to get a campus visit was that he happened to know she was married to a top-notch person in a cognate field, and “I’m sure her husband checks over her work, so that gives me more confidence that her work is good.” So we had the campus visits and the female candidate did very well. Nearly everyone agreed she was the smartest of the three. She was also described as “charming” and “delightful.” Now there was a danger she might actually be hired. Suddenly new concerns were raised. Her website was checked to see how far along her papers were. Her dissertation summary was read to see if it was really that promising. And then a search committee member contacted a buddy of his, someone who just graduated from a second-tier program and who happens to know the candidate. The buddy said those glowing letters of rec from top people didn’t really mean anything because the people in her (top-5) program were just trying to get her out. So on the basis of that one junior person’s word, all the letters were discounted. That, added to the vague worries about her potential, torpedoed her case, and we hired one of the guys who had been wanted all along. I think a good case could have been made for hiring any of the three candidates, so it’s not that the outcome was unjust, but the process itself was completely unfair. Unfortunately, I have no way to prove that — it would be my word against everyone else’s — so I’ve just kept my mouth shut.
What I’m angry about today
I’ve seen a number of posts on this blog and elsewhere from women worrying that some of their advancement has come “because they are women.” And I get that. Especially when so many of our experiences already seem designed to make us wonder whether we belong here.
But for god’s sake, given the overwhelming evidence that women (among others) are systematically: dissuaded from pursuing philosophy; excluded from the kinds of (often informal) discussions where much serious training occurs; dismissed or ignored when they formulate arguments without bombast, and derided or censured when they formulate arguments sharply… given all this, why on Earth aren’t male philosophers worrying that some of their own professional advancement has come because they are male?
If the women’s concern is any legitimate reason for worrying about having affirmative action, it seems to me that the state of the discipline is a much stronger reason for worrying about *not* having affirmative action. And “affirmative action” here has to mean far more than a token effort to consider women in hiring before dismissing them. It has to mean really engaging, at all levels of training and hiring, with the full set of forces that push women out of philosophy, and thinking hard about the role our “meritocratic” judgments play in that process. Personally, I care much more about the thoughtfulness and openness with which people approach those questions than about whether I agree with the particular institutional solution they settle on.
I was blessed with a supportive male advisor who is very well liked. One of the things that people like about him is his ability to ask questions in a very gentle way — seeming as though he is just asking for information, but really providing devastating objections. I tried my best to emulate his style, but found that my points were consistently missed and/or dismissed. I find that I have to be extremely direct and forceful in order to be heard at all. Then, of course, I am cast as “aggressive”; people have even asked me why I am not more like my advisor.
I guess this is an old story, but what’s sad is that it is still happening.
In the early 1990′s, when I was a young, female, assistant professor, I was assigned to team-teach a large Introduction to Moral Philosophy course with two senior male colleagues. At my institution, this course was typically taught as a history of ethics course with a focus on several main historical figures representing different traditions.
This was my first time teaching the course, although my two colleagues had taught it many times before. The syllabus they planned to use, like the previous syllabi for the course that I had seen, had no writings by female philosophers on it.
I said that I thought it was important that we include women in the syllabus and suggested several, including Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson, but my colleagues would not budge. One of them said to me: “You show me a woman of the stature of Aristotle, and I will put her on the syllabus.” I was not able to get him to agree that the work of any female moral philosopher was worthy enough to be taught in this course. However, this professor’s own work in ethics (which was nowhere near as influential as that of the women I’d proposed) *was* included on the syllabus.
To this day, I vacillate between amazement that I didn’t leave the profession right then and there and satisfaction that I stayed in it long enough to see these two colleagues retire.