Now that I’m a mid-career woman in philosophy, I’m facing a new problem: how to talk to my junior female colleagues about gender issues. I want to give them what I didn’t have: an older woman who can reassure them that they’re not imagining things, commiserate about disrespectful behavior from students and colleagues, and brainstorm solutions. I want to warn them about the extra service work they’ll be pressured to take on and the few colleagues from whom it’s best to keep one’s distance. But when I’ve tentatively broached these topics, my junior colleagues have reassured me that they’ve never experienced sexism in the profession, from students or colleagues, and that this department is wonderful and egalitarian. They almost seem to resent my raising gender issues, as if it’s patronizing for me to worry about them. Perhaps it is. But, having participated in hiring and personnel discussions for my junior colleagues, I know full well that they have experienced sexism. Quite a bit of it, in fact. Yet I don’t think I should tell them that. They need to find their own place in the department, form their own relationships. I certainly won’t be helping them by getting them to feel hostile or wary towards the department. And maybe I’ve been wrong about things. Maybe I interpret everything through a gender lens, and if I had just been a more optimistic and forgiving person from the beginning, my first years in the profession would have been happier and more productive. So I’ve taken to just giving generic advice that’s appropriate for all: keep writing, show your work around, don’t let service and teaching work drain you. And inside I wonder if maybe I’ve just been imagining things all along.
I’ve been going to philosophy conferences for 15 years now, but recently I had an odd experience at one. I slowly realised that my social status at this particular conference was basically mud. When I asked questions in a talk they were immediately laughed off as confused or ludicrous. When I made a point over lunch people ganged up to misinterpret it and contemptuously tell me how misinformed and mal-intentioned I was. It took 3 minutes of assertive clarification for people to grudgingly admit that I had a coherent question. It’s the way you might expect someone to be treated if they had committed some terrible social gaffe at the beginning of a conference – like aggressively criticising a graduate student, or saying something outright racist – but I couldn’t remember doing anything like that.
The experience of those 2-3 days really sticks out because of how unusual it was. As my career has developed I’ve found that people have gradually taken me more seriously, listened more carefully to things I have to say, and been slower to dismiss something that sounded odd or wrong without pushing me further for clarification. Not everywhere, of course – siblings, parents and taxi-drivers still treat me like I know nothing and most of what I say is insane – but in professional contexts, I’ve been benefiting from a gentle rise in social status.
Except at this one conference. And there were a few things I noticed as a result. One was that certain high status individuals – both men and women – noticed, at least at some level, what was going on with the group dynamics and intervened in either a neutral way, or in a way that was friendly towards me (“wow, people who do X sometimes get really upset when you ask them about Y, don’t they?”) and others sought me out for conversation where the subtext seemed to be “I don’t really know why all these others are acting like this, but I don’t want to be a part of that. Tell me about your work…” I was really grateful to these people, because they made me feel less like I was going insane. And it made me think: this is one of the reasons why allies are important. It made me want to be a better ally in the various situations when I’m one of the people with higher status. I want to be the one who sends the implicit message: “To hell with them. I’d like to talk to you. Tell me about your work…”
A second thing was that the memory of the experiences festered. In my hotel room at night I’d be going over them again and again in my mind trying to figure out why this was happening, and wondering whether it was just my imagination. I came up with many, many different theories. Maybe it was something to do with the way I was dressed? (I was pretty sure my skirt wasn’t see-through but perhaps when I was chairing the light was behind me?) Maybe it was that combined with generally being too confident and ‘uppity’? Maybe philosophers of X are just more conservative? Maybe it was because I forgot that person’s name when I was chairing. Maybe I accidentally offended someone on the first day? Maybe I accidentally offended someone putting together an edited volume last year? Maybe they all really, really hate something about my work. Was I being scapegoated for some criticism these people had suffered at the hands of another philosopher? Did they hate my advisor perhaps and I’m a proxy for him? Maybe one vindictive person had made up some kind of awful story about me and spread it to the others on the first day? Was I inadvertently doing something during talks that was really annoying to the people sitting behind me? and on and on. But I never figured it out, and one of the consequences of that is that I’m still interpreting and re-interpreting the events in my head, wondering whether I was just the victim of chance, or whether it was me, something about me, something I did, that caused all this. Should I be feeling ashamed? I just don’t know.
I left the Twilight Zone that was that conference and life went back to normal. I had a million other things to do, and a week later I went to a different conference, where nothing similar happened, I gave a good talk and the crack in my self-esteem was plastered over. But the whole experience – the intensifying of the being-excluded-from-the-in-group experience – really reminded me of some of the effects of having low social status, and of dealing with all those micro- (and not so micro-) aggressions. You are left with these terrible doubts: was it me? Did I bring this on myself somehow? And in the absence of a clear way to rule them out, this is exhausting and undermining. I’m fortunate; I got to walk away with nothing but a few unpleasant memories. (And a few good ones too, of the individuals who treated me with decency.) But low social-status isn’t always something society lets you leave behind.
I was at a bar with three colleagues, each of whom are a) male, b) my friends, and c) self-identified feminists. So there were four philosophers in a bar, at a 3:1 male-to-female ratio. The table was discussing a book that only half in attendance had actually read. Now, I was one of the two folks who had read the book. It should surprise you, then, to learn that for the life of me, I could not get a word in edgewise! 3/4 people were talking, and only 1/3 of those speaking had read the book under discussion, but every freakin’ time I tried to speak, I was summarily shut down, talked over, and/or ignored. I managed to successfully complete exactly one sentence, which was very directly dismissed by my friend. He blinked at me, then flatly ignored my comment, proceeding to respond to a prior comment from another male colleague. At that point I gave up. I was disheartened and sad to be treated this way by my friends. I picked up my phone, only to find that it was out of batteries, and tossed it back down on the table, frustratedly. One colleague took notice of my frustration and asked what was the matter, to which I responded rather directly, “Well there is nothing else for me to do at this table, and now my phone is out of batteries.” His response? “That sucks. So anyway, how was your weekend with [my partner]?” Shocked and appalled by this totally unnatural segue, I retorted, “We don’t have to stop talking about philosophy!” [implying of course: just because you're going to include me, now.] Totally unawares, he sincerely replied, “No! I really wanted to know how your weekend was!” He didn’t even realize what he had done. I aggressively voiced that I was bored (because nobody would let me talk about the book they were already talking about, which I had actually read!) and his response was to ask about my boyfriend.
All three of these guys are my friends, they are self-identified feminists, and they take themselves to be good allies. I’ll bet if I told this story back to them in another context, all three of those guys would be appalled. But from the inside, they had no idea what they were doing. That, to me, was totally shocking. And, I might add, really painful! Because you know, you get a little hope fire going in your belly when you meet (straight, white) male allies, and you think, “Progress! Hope! A way forward! Evidence of change!” And then you have these experiences that reinforce how devastatingly insidious the norms of gender and power are. And it just feels like you’re Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down on your again.
There is fellow academic at my school who I like and admire as a friend and colleague, but I struggle endlessly with mixed emotions knowing that he lives his personal life in a highly misogynistic way.
He has had relationships and secret affairs with students, and made passes at students; some were his own students too.
When confronted about his sexual harrassment and relatiosnhips with students, he will deny it and claim that he doesn’t know where these “rumours” are coming from. However, he knows perfectly well exactly what is being spoken about. And if he knows that you know too, then rather than denying his behaviour he will attempt to justify it, claiming there was consent and denying any power imbalance.
His behaviour has been addressed by our school and he is no longer permitted to engage in friendships or events with students anymore. But rather than reflecting on his behaviour, now he instead dates students in other schools! These students sadly have no idea that they are a notch on the bed in a long line of graduate students – and I often wonder how this would effect their “consent”.
He actively seeks relationships that involve a clear power imbalance: the women are his students, they are siginificantly younger than him, they are underage, he is paying for their sustanence, he is in a position to advance their career, and so on.
And he often lies about these relationships to people who are concerned about the power differential. When female friends attempt to educate him on this, rather than avoiding future relationships with a power imbalance or seeking to equalise power in current relationships, he simply denies that it can exist.
We befriended a female student who was visiting from another university. She came to work with him (and others) and was deeply embarrassed to find out that people had assumed the academic work was a ruse to cover an affair. Of course, people’s assumptions were justified based on his past behaviour.
How can we respect someone as an academic, and as a colleague, and expect them to respect us as women in academia and in philosophy, when the way they behave in their personal life is riddled with subtle misogyny and abuse of power? When will academia be a safe place for women?
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.