At the beginning of my undergraduate degree I had a routine meeting with the undergraduate advisor for the department. When I entered his office he looked me over quite thoroughly then asked me if I really wanted to major in Philosophy or if perhaps I had made a mistake when choosing my major. My immediate thought was “he doesn’t think I belong here….is there something obvious that he can tell just by looking at me that indicates that I don’t belong here studying philosophy?” I went on to do an MA in Philosophy but that experience epitomized the remainder of my philosophical education and is the main reason I am no longer in the field.
I’m becoming increasingly aware (as I move into the second half of my 50s) of what appears to be sexism or ageism, or perhaps both combined, among philosophy students, both male and female.
Here is some of the story.
Our main research-preparation Masters programme involves the student selecting an area of study to work on in detail with a tutor, two modules with two different tutors per semester. Currently all the Faculty in my department, apart from myself, are male. These male colleagues are generally overloaded with requests from the students to supervise their studies for the Masters programme, while students rarely if ever ask to work with me; and there comes a point when a preferred male colleague is so hard pressed that he tells the graduate student officer not to send any more to him. In a recent case where this happened, the graduate officer asked me whether I would take the student on, since the student wanted to work in an area in which I have up to date expertise and some research reputation to the level required. I agreed to take the student, but when the Grad Officer proposed this arrangement to the student, the student declined to do that topic and opted for a different topic that would justify him being assigned to a young and relatively inexperienced male colleague. This was a male student, one who had come from elsewhere and had never met me. Rather to the discomfort of the graduate officer, this student had apparently changed topic to avoid being assigned to me (distinguished senior professor) and to facilitate being assigned to a junior, relatively unknown though very capable, male colleague. It is hard to know what the reason for this move was, other than that working with a middle aged woman was distasteful, or that he hoped to be more lucky with getting a male supervisor for the topic if he postponed it to do in the second semester.
I think these events are becoming noticeable because I am now in a position of being very senior and (at least in theory, though not in practice) highly regarded in my field, beyond my own university and in the academic world globally, so it looks odd when a student refuses opportunities to study with me.
You begin to look for a reason. And then you begin to see a pattern.
For it is not that I have a reputation for bad teaching: on the contrary, after teaching my own Masters taught module for one of our interdisciplinary programmes, all the students on that module wanted to have me to supervise their dissertation. Yet at the same time there is a female PhD student working in my field, whose review at the end of the probationary year I served on. She had been experiencing problems with her first (male) supervisor, and rightly saw after the review that she needed to change supervisors to solve the problem, and that the advice she had received from the review panel was helpful, yet she insisted on transferring to work not with me (who has published on her chosen themes) but with the other (male) member of her review panel. Unsurprisingly this has not helped much, and she has recently been coming to me to get advice and support because her current supervisor is overworked and finds it hard to give constructive advice to his PhD students, particularly if he thinks that they are not making good progress.
Now I am marking the undergraduate dissertation of a student who took some of my UG modules before choosing his dissertation topic. The dissertation topic is in my main field of expertise, the one on which my own publications are globally recognised. After enrolling for the dissertation module, the student approached a young male colleague who works in a different area of philosophy to approve his topic and agree to supervise it. Once or twice during the preparation of the dissertation, the student consulted me for advice on matters of scholarly practice in the field (how to reference the works, what edition to use, whether some view was regarded as loony); now the dissertation is on my desk and the old question surfaces in my mind again. Why? And why are all my own publications on this field missing from his bibliography? Why are only two of the authors in his bibliography female, and those two are not philosophers but references to other aspects of context (the translator of some poetry in translation, and a historian of religion)? This is happening despite the fact that the students are taught by a woman for almost all their work on this part of philosophy during their undergraduate training, and yet immediately they want to do their research on it with a man, and to read the work of men. And yet, they do not think my teaching is bad. The student feedback is good. They enjoy and value their tutorials with me. It inspires them to want to go on and do more. That’s why they are choosing a dissertation in this field. So what is going on?
Is it that a woman teaching you in your beginner years is like a primary school teacher, who prepares you to go on to work with the more demanding stuff that men do, when you are grown up? Or is it that a middle-aged woman doesn’t provide the erotic charge that makes one-to-one work thrilling? Or is it that you know that a reference from a woman will carry no weight for your graduate school application or your research fellowship application? Or what exactly?
As an MA student, I enrolled in a metaphysics seminar that was well outside my field. Having never done coursework in metaphysics, I had hoped that the seminar would bring me up to speed on contemporary debates in a way that a survey course could not. I’d also taken courses with the professor before and enjoyed his teaching style. Three weeks into the course, after struggling with an expansive and dense reading list, there were only seven students left in the class – and among them, I was the only woman. The material was obviously difficult for everybody, and much of the class time was spent deciphering the weekly readings.
In one class, I asked a question about the reading and the professor was particularly dismissive, essentially telling me that my comment was irrelevant to the debate we were studying. In that moment, looking around the room and again noticing that I was the only woman, I was bombarded with an internal dialogue that distracted me for the rest of the class. Was the professor being dismissive because I’m woman? Did I not understand the material in the first place because I’m a woman? If the professor wasn’t being dismissive because I’m a woman, was he being dismissive because I’m legitimately inept? Did the other students think my comment was irrelevant and stupid? Did they think I asked it because I’m a woman? Am I just imagining that he was being dismissive because I’ve been reading all of this stuff about the status of women in philosophy? Or has reading this stuff made me more prone to notice these things? Am I feeling all of this self-doubt because I’m a woman? Even if I’m intelligent enough to understand this stuff, and I’m projecting some attitude onto the professor that he doesn’t hold, does that make me crazy? Does philosophy require some kind of self-confidence that I obviously lack? Am I getting so upset about this because I’m a woman? Am I getting so upset about getting uspet about this because I’m a woman? Should I even be in this course? Should I even be in this field?
Further discussions with my classmates assured me that my question was not irrelevant, that the tone of the professor during that entire class session was particularly dismissive, and that everyone else in the class was having difficulty with the reading as well. I ended up doing well in the course, and in some ways was reassured that my stream-of-consciousness during that particular class session was ill-founded. In retrospect, the thing that now bothers me most about that experience is that I don’t think any of my male classmates has had to deal with the spiral of insecurity, rationalizing, and uncertainty that left me shell-shocked that day.
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.
One of my undergraduate philosophy professors used to use the example that maybe he is a creep who uses one of his hobbies to lure children to his garage. It was awhile ago, so I can’t remember the context except that maybe it had to do with knowledge and being able to know the truth about someone. I think that it probably just didn’t cross his mind that this example might have the strong potential to trigger child sexual abuse survivors.