Well, I’d say it’s just like being a woman in general: tougher, more badass, and (*oh lord did she really say it*) better. I’ve never liked the expression “man, you need to grow a pair” (or any of its equivalents), but to highlight the message it tries to convey behind its childish facade, it does indeed take something extra – and no, not ‘a pair’ – to be a woman in philosophy.

It takes courage.

As opposed to the situation for our male counterparts, it seems to be demanded of women a primary explanation as to why we – being non-male – are even here, at the up until recently males only party known as philosophy. In other words, before we can Do, we must Defend.

This is unfair.**

Still, the lack of fairness at this “party” does not mean that we, i.e. women, can’t have one heck of a night. In fact, I argue, we are the ones who can go home and rightfully say “Not only did I work some philosophical magic today, but I also made the world a bit better.”

Because regardless how many questions, frowns or any type of belittling looks are thrown upon us, we Stay and we Do philosophy.

And this makes being a woman in philosophy tougher, more badass, and (*you bet your bum she said it*) better.

**Clarification of statement just made: to treat x with less respect than y due to a discriminatory cause is unfair, and any average philosopher will (hopefully) agree on that.

Many of my experiences with peers, mentors, and scholars in the field have been extremely positive…faculty and peers are usually highly professional and supportive. But of course, even a minority of negative experiences make a tremendous difference for women in the workplace.

Earlier in my academic path, as I moved into upper-level courses with mixed undergraduate/graduate level students, I first noticed how shocked both peers and some professors were when I contributed constructively to discussions. At first I thought it was weird…maybe flattering? I didn’t have enough experience in academia to have much to compare people’s responses to my work with. Then it slowly dawned on me (duh!) that the male undergraduates didn’t receive the same shocked “gee whiz look at the new circus act” responses when they made normal contributions in lecture. The shock at my adequate to good performance in philosophy seminars was…yep, because I was a woman. I almost blamed myself for being so naive as to not see it immediately.

My most common everyday experience was this–in working groups, at conferences, in small talk over beer…me engaging in academic discussion often results in someone yelling at me, or being extraordinarily sensitive.

One example. I went with a large group to dinner at the end of a conference. I was stuck at the end of the table with someone I hadn’t met yet, so I began making small talk with him. “Where are you from? What did you think of the conference? What program are you affiliated with?” He mentioned that he was really interested in theater and Derrida. I was glad that I had something small to connect over, said that was very interesting, and he must be familiar with Derrida’s work on Artaud. I had also recently written on the topic. His countenance changed completely. He said, “Oh. What was your thesis?” …he was insistent that I give him the exact parameters of my argument. When I obliged he kept interrupting me mid-sentence saying “no, no, no. you’re wrong”. I truly only gave him the outline of my thesis statement (which I thought was strange he wanted so specifically, as it was previously a casual conversation that neither of us were particularly invested in) I finally just stopped talking and let him “have the floor” and he began yelling (yes yelling) at me about how I clearly didn’t understand anything about deconstruction and I was wrong. wrong. wrong.

A fully grown man, whom I had just met, red in the face, yelling at me in a restaurant. This drew the attention of our dinner partners…some joined in because they were worried by the suddenly yelling man and others because they were interested in the topic. A ‘spirited’ conversation about Derrida and the nature of deconstruction ensued. However, typical of my interactions in philosophy/religion, there was a spirited edge to the exchange that made me more than uncomfortable. Namely, that same man, forty minutes later still red in the face pointing at me, discussing his intense displeasure about my only barely formulated, preliminary (pretty standard, non-controversial) thoughts on deconstruction. Multiple friend from the dinner agreed, the discussion would not have played out like that if I were a fellow man.

That’s just one anecdote. I have plenty of others, which I think demonstrates what women in academia are up against almost every time they speak or express a position. Think about this calculation for a second “I could contribute to this discussion…but what are the chances that someone will yell or get defensive at my standard contribution. Is it worth the hassle?” and the collective toll it takes over an entire career? And people wonder why women are statistically so much less likely to speak up in academic settings.

Of course, beyond the everyday grab-bag of “who is going to get offended by my very existence” there’s also blatant sexual harassment. I’ve experienced it from one faculty member during undergrad (not religion or philosophy field) with some questionable physical contact (blame it on cultural differences, sure) and an insistence that he will “buy [me] drinks anytime, once [I] graduate.” At another conference, I was low-key accosted by a senior (married) faculty member from another university. He introduced himself to me, and was very interested in speaking to me during coffee breaks. After one evening session, he asked me to go back to his hotel bar to get drinks with him. I declined. He asked variations multiple times afterward, and confronted me on his last night about “not following through” on the plans I had made with him…which, to be clear, I had never made.

This is significant, in that my academic career has barely begun. These are situations that come off as uncomfortable, somewhat funny, very damning anecdotes about the gender climate in academia in general, philosophy/religion specifically. I should have reported the “inappropriate physical contact” professor at my own university. There was enough evidence…but my reasoning at the time was that I was not particularly troubled by his behavior, so it wasn’t worth my time. But what of the women that could be troubled by his behavior? That might be truly victimized? It was a failure of thoughtfulness and solidarity on my part.

But of course, how can women win on this front? Under-report sexual harassment, and you’re complicit in the problem. Over-report and jeopardize your own career by being labeled “troublesome”…”doesn’t play well with others”

Which one is sexist?

Posted: June 3, 2016 by jennysaul in Uncategorized

In the article I used the following utterance as an example: “OMG!! The exam was soooo hard, my head literally exploded!” I used it as an example for how we sometimes use words (in this case ‘literally’) to convey the exact opposite of these words’ literal or conventional meaning. I added that “while most of us will rightly infer that the speaker is an overly dramatic teenage girl, and interpret the sentence accordingly, an interpreter who adheres only to the conventional meaning of ‘literally’ will be very surprised and even worried by such an exclamation.”

The reviewer had some legitimate reservations about this example, but I was struck by their prefatory remark that “these cutesy examples should be eliminated in academic papers, I think. The example is borderline sexist…”

While I did treat the example humorously, and attributing the utterance to a teenage girl is admittedly stereotypical, I was surprised by how it was received, because I was actually trying to diversify the range of examples traditionally used in philosophy of language, and imply that the ways teenage girls (again, stereotypically) talk are equally legitimate, and deserve academic consideration. I think it is sexist to call the example cutesy, implying that it has less theoretical weight, so my immediate reaction was to attribute the comment to the reviewer being an OWM. But perhaps this example and the way it is presented do backfire, which I would of course like to avoid. What do you say?

I just received a truly depressing email announcing a new volume in my area. It starts off in a good way, then we get to this part (replacing names with variables):

“The contributors include luminaries such as a, b, c, d, and e. Other prominent contributors include f, g, h, i, and j.”

At first, the email made me delighted. I was delighted to see so many female contributors. But then I paused. The so-called “luminaries” were all men. The other “prominent” contributors were the rest: the women.

This was a first for me. Apparently, the editors went to a lot of trouble to find female contributors only to subtly put them down and belittle them in the end.

 

Dear Professor X

Some weeks ago, you asked me why rape culture had become so prevalent, particularly in the university environment. As an ethicist, it seemed you were troubled by an apparent cultural shift that casually denigrated women: you mentioned it several times, and we were both puzzled. I didn’t have a ready answer for you: like any woman, I have been on the receiving end of off-hand sexism, off-colour remarks and a generic insouciance about sexual assault for all of my adult life and much of my childhood. But, beyond reaching for the usual hackneyed explanations of the structural features of phallocentric societies, I could not give you an answer that satisfied me. Now I think I can.

You see, Professor X, one of the key causes of rape culture in the university, and its various nefarious adjuncts (the systematic demeaning of women on the basis of their gender; employment inequality; the evaluation of women on the basis of their appearance or qualities ‘appropriate’ to females), is you. Or, at least, it is people like you: senior academics at the top of their profession, men—usually—who set and maintain the culture in which others work and study.

I have known you for some time, in my capacity as your graduate student. During that time, it is fair to say that we got to know each other fairly well: hours and hours of conversations on everything from movies to food to child-rearing to sexuality, and the malaise of everyday life. I went to your place, met your family, had drinks with you: normal things that adults on good terms do together. I confided in you, you confided in me; you met my husband and professed friendship to us both. But then, as life sometimes does, things started to go a little awry for me. But you were a friend: you gave me advice and hugs and time and I appreciated that. Life is rarely so gentle: in the midst of these few weeks, I had something of a mental health breakdown and, as a friend, I told you about this. And that is where things went wrong.

The day after I told you, you felt it was appropriate to tell me about your own sexual proclivities, your fetishes for bondage and sadism. I was not overly troubled by this, certainly; we are adults and I am no stranger to various subcultures, including this one. Your timing, though, was strange: my husband could not understand why you were offering to teach us bondage techniques at our place. I was perturbed by the fact that you encouraged him to physically chastise me for some innocuous thing. I was also surprised that you felt it appropriate to send us photographs of some items in your house, items associated with torture and bondage. You invited us round to your place to ‘see’ all this stuff; you told me it would be fun to hang out with me like that. And so it went on, hours of messages over two nights, inappropriate comments and information about how you use your domination techniques to persuade students and others.

I do not suggest that any of this explains the prevalence of rape culture in the university. No. You know me better than to expect such gauche naivete: it is not your sexual preferences and bad timing that make you a danger to women in the university environment. Instead, it is this: when, as a friend, I might have expected support, you chose that moment of vulnerability to move in with your sexual fantasies.

Then, you turned on me. When we didn’t go along with your invites, you viciously cut me off. Over the next few days, systematically excluded me from the university, advised colleagues that I was vulnerable, volatile and unsafe to have around. You disclosed personal information about me to various parties in the university, blaming me for your distress. I cannot continue my studies, as has been long agreed, because of your sudden fears about having disclosed things about yourself that you think might damage your reputation. You forbade me from contacting you—but you contacted me several times—and insist that I collaborate with no-one in the department. You have fundamentally destroyed my life plans, disrupted my family life—and justified all this to your colleagues on the grounds that I am distressed, vulnerable and—‘therefore’—too unsettling to have in your department.

And that, Professor X, is why rape culture has become so endemic in the university environment. It is because men like you fundamentally believe that women like me—vulnerable, hurting, susceptible to claims of friendship or not—can be toyed with, dispensed with, and used as means to ends that are intended solely to protect you and your ill-gotten reputation. I would have kept your confidences, not for you but for the protection of your family and because, ultimately, I believe that people’s sexual proclivities are broadly their own business: until today, I resisted all my friends’ advice to protect myself, because I could not bear the thought that your misjudgements might negatively affect your family. But in keeping that silence, I allowed you to portray me to others as the person in the wrong, as the one who (in spite of my lowly status as a student and the supposed ‘high regard’ that you told me people in your centre held me in) was a risk to your department. It is my life that fractured and fell apart, not yours—and none of that mattered to you, because I am simply a disposable woman who deserves not protection, but predation, exclusion and opprobrium to ensure the ‘greater good’ of maintaining a man in his elevated, powerful position.

I wish you well, but I will not maintain my silence any longer. Women deserve better than this.

While obtaining my BA in Philosophy, I realized immediately the vastness in the gender gap. It was madly intimidating the first few weeks when you realize that in most of the higher level philosophy classes, you are indeed the ONLY female. I quickly came in embrace my place outside of the boys club. In a positive light, it drove me to become a better writer and harder worker. I cannot tell you how may times I got the under the breath “She’s too pretty to have anything good to say” whispers. Or the slack jawed expression that I would receive when I would have to confirm time and time again to my fellow male students that YES this is my major and YES I am sure. The one that really takes the cake was a sentence from a professor that goes as follows, “It’s really not worth me explaining because you’re attractive and attractive females do not need to be overly educated to get what they want. A man will take care of you.”

So to all of my female philosophers out there, STAY, do not apologize for being yourself, we need you!

I’m just finishing my first year at a ‘top-ranking’ (whatever that means) PhD program. Before starting this program, I studied philosophy in Canada at two distinct institutions. Never, before coming to this program, have I felt so uncomfortable being a woman in philosophy. Even in situations where I was the only woman enrolled in a course, I did not find it to be a problem (other than the fact that there being only one woman enrolled in a grad class of 15 is a problem in itself).

Even though I have had some quite negative experiences at my present program, I gather from the testimony of others that I have actually been treated pretty well and taken somewhat seriously, comparatively. Many of my colleagues have experienced sexism, sexual harassment, and blatant discrimination, which I have been fortunate to have somehow avoided.

What I am struggling the most with are day-to-day microaggressions. Little things like noticing that your professors seem to be much more comfortable with and close to students who are men. Certain professors have groups of students that they converse with, laugh with, and seem to have a genuine report with. Relationships of this sort are not developing for me–nor do I see them existing among any of the graduate students who are women.

Additionally, no one has really shown any interest in the fact that I am there (or any of the women in my year, for that matter). Isn’t that sort of the job of the faculty? Taking interest in the new students? Getting to know them?

Regarding classroom dynamics, I notice that questions and comments are received much more favourably when they are presented by a student who is a man. When a woman asks a question or raises a comment, it tends to be a) misunderstood b) not deemed interesting enough to warrant attention/development, or c) briefly discussed only to be brought up again by one of the men, which somehow changes it into a point worthy of more attention. Rarely do I hear a professor (who is a man) praise any of the women for their contributions to discussion.

And I could go on…

Anyway, I’m so frustrated by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done about issues like these. Overt problems (even though they are hard to deal with too) are a completely different thing–for there are at least usually systems in place for sexual harassment, blatant discrimination, etc. It is frustrating and depressing to think that there may not be anything that can be done about the sorts of problems I have been mentioning. Plus, there is always the worry that my interpretation of what is going on is not correct. I often feel like I might just be looking for things that aren’t there, or seeing patterns where there really aren’t any. I think that, deep down, I know this isn’t true, but I don’t trust my personal experience enough to feel like I have anything solid that would warrant some sort of action. My observations and experiences have been corroborated by many other women in the department, but it still feels so hopeless.

I love philosophy–at least I thought I did–but this whole experience is really making me wonder whether I can continue in such an environment. I’ll never be part of the boys club, and the time I spend in my department is a constant reminder of that.