On being socialised to help

Posted: March 18, 2015 by jennysaul in assumptions about women

I was recently at a seminar, and the presenter was having trouble with his powerpoint presentation. The chair of the session was trying to help, but nobody else seemed to be paying attention. At some point the chair asked if anybody had technical competencies with a Mac. I am utterly incompetent with technology (or at least this is my self-conception) but I do own a Mac and had trouble in the past with powerpoint so I said I could try to help. But, since nothing was working out, the chair asked whether anybody had a laptop. I said I had one and we could use mine. Nobody among the attendees was, again, seemingly paying much attention.

Only when I was on my way out to get my laptop I realized that I was the only woman among 13 participants.

I came back with the laptop, helped to set up, fixed a couple of issues that arose during the presentation.

I know most of the participants to that seminar. They are great guys, respectful and collegial. I am sure that each of them, if asked directly to help, would have helped. But I also suspect that few, if any, of them were socialized to be helpers.

I hear the objection that might arise “it’s just a coincidence, it has nothing to do with gender”. Ah, if only I hadn’t seen this kind of things happen over and over, if only I hadn’t heard so many other women noticing these situations, if only we didn’t have all the evidence that women do more service work in Academia…
And yes, they are small things, of course they are. But they add up so fast, and it is unpleasant to feel that you are the one who’s expected to make coffee, clean up, fix practical issues.

Concluding on a positive note: at the Q&A the chair called on me for the first question, even though I was in his peripheral vision and someone else had clearly raised his hand before me. I took that as a thank you note.

I graduated with a double major in philosophy and a STEM field from a top-20 university a few years back, and then I spent a year working full-time while deciding if I wanted to apply to law school, grad school in philosophy, or grad school in my scientific field. I concluded that I missed philosophy too much to stay away, so I began putting together my application.

Unsatisfied with any of my undergraduate papers, I decided to start afresh, and I wrote something entirely new. I sent it to the head of the department of my alma mater, with whom I had taken several classes, asking if he might give me some feedback on my new paper and write me a rec. He agreed, and to ensure that I could get the best possible feedback (and recommendation, because I wasn’t 100% sure he remembered me), I drove 3 hours from my home to meet him in his office in person.

All was fine until he decided to use an example to explain how the wills of two individuals could come into conflict (I have no idea why he thought I needed that explained to me). His example of choice? Him raping me.

At the time, I was just too shocked to respond, and I was young enough (22 years old) that I couldn’t even decide if it was inappropriate or I was being overly sensitive. But he was also writing my recommendation letters, so even if I had realized how gross (and vaguely threatening) it was to casually discuss raping someone 40 years his junior, I’m not sure I’d have felt like I could have said anything. He was basically BFFs with the department head AND the DGS of my favorite program, and I knew it.

So we finished our meeting, and I drove home. I eventually got into the school of my choice, where I have NOT had a professor mention raping me, and since I have grown older, I’ve stopped feeling icky about the incident and just started mentally giving the old creepster the middle finger whenever I think about it. I’ve still dealt with the garden-variety paternalism and pet names (sweetie, honey, etc) from our department dinosaurs like most of the female graduate students here, but I’ve also had supportive, conscientious male professors who are lovely human beings.

That being said, I’m finishing my dissertation in 6 months and blowing this popsicle stand. I can’t even with these dudes. Shit’s toxic.

Why did it go that way?

Posted: February 24, 2015 by Jender in Uncategorized

What I am describing is something that happened about 10 years ago. I was a master student then. My department at the time was hiring, and they whittled down the shortlist to four candidates. Each candidate was to present a paper to the general public (in reality only the department members and interested students would attend). They then would make the final decision of hiring with that presentation in mind. I only attended this particular female philosopher’s presentation because I was interested in the topic, and did not attend anyone else’s.

I do not remember much about the content of the paper, but I remember *vividly* the reception of the paper. It was absolutely hostile. Right off the bat the first question was very critical, and there was no relent. There was no woman department member present, as far as I can remember.

Reviewing this incident 10 years on, with zero memory of the content of the paper, there are only two conclusions that can be drawn: 1) the paper was crap, and she deservedly got the criticisms. 2) the paper was not crap, but the implicit assumptions about women kick in. They found faults in every little details.

Scenario #2 would be a simple case of sexism, but sometimes I think it is less sinister than just some old geezers thinking “women can’t do X”. They shortlisted her. And that particular female philosopher at the time was holding down a tenure in another part of the country. So obviously they thought she could do the job. Sometimes it could be just a combination of old habits die hard and a bad case of bandwagoning. Or maybe there was just some other internal department politics that had nothing to do with gender or that particular philosopher.

I am not providing excuse for the aggressors, I am just saying the cause of that particular ill treatment may be more complicated than a simple case of sexism (if there is ever such a thing as a “simple” case). At the time, of course, I had zero intent on digging deeper…

As to scenario #1, as we all know, academic Anglo-American philosophy is extremely adversarial, it could well happen to anyone regardless of gender. That doesn’t make it ok IMO, because the person they were criticizing had one in four chance of being their colleague. It was not the best way to showcase the social dynamics of the department! The extreme adversarial nature also needs to change IMO. It just ended up like workplace bullying, and nothing more. This aspect is still stubbornly the same 10 years on.

In the end, obviously the female philosopher didn’t get the job. The funny/good thing is, she ended up doing reasonably well in terms of publications 10 years on. The one that got away may not be the one after all.

Final disclaimer: I have been drifting away from academic philosophy for the past 10 years, but now decide to finally come back. Life experiences outside academia have done nothing but improve my perspectives.

A happy ending

Posted: February 13, 2015 by Jender in failure to perceive problem, Good news

I was helping at a two day conference that a colleague had organised. On the morning of day one, I stood behind a table, handing out conference packs. A young man came to pick up his conference pack, and when I gave it to him, he asked: “how long have you been pretty for?”
I responded: “I’m sorry, that is an inappropriate question.”
He asked: “Why?”
I explained: “Because we’re both here in a professional capacity. I am not here to be pretty. My appearance is irrelevant. Besides: it happens too often that people at conferences acknowledge my appearance or gender before they acknowledge my work. It’s just not very nice.”
He said: “Well, I’m sorry to hear it happens too often for you, but I meant it as a compliment, so I wont apologise.” And he walked away, leaving me baffled.

However, five minutes later, he returned, saying: “On second thought, I do apologise. I’m sorry, my remark was inappropriate.”
I was surprised, but glad it was resolved so I said it was ok.

The next day, during the tea break, the young man came to me and said he had been thinking about the situation. He asked me to explain further what exactly was at stake in such a situation. We had a constructive discussion. We challenged and questioned each others’ views respectfully and sincerely like one would hope a respectful conversation between two philosophers goes. At the end of the tea break, he had convinced me that his inappropriate question was genuinely not motivated by ill-will or machismo, really just a compliment, albeit clumsy. And he said I had opened his eyes to what it must be like to be a woman in academia, an issue he had never really given much thought. He even held the view that such ignorance was the responsibility of men themselves, they really ought to know better. We parted on a friendly footing.

One soul at a time.

On being corrected

Posted: January 30, 2015 by jennysaul in failure to take women seriously

I am a middle-aged woman who regularly teaches a course in the history of modern philosophy. I use standard anthologies on the topic and present a survey from Descartes to Kant. More than once I have been “corrected” by undergraduates on my choice of materials for the course. In one case, I was told that what I was teaching was not philosophy, and in another, I was told that I had made the mistake of teaching philosophy rather than history (even though this was a designated philosophy course). I don’t mind students asking questions about why we are reading the materials I have chosen or what it means that a philosophy course has to do with history, but I remain stunned that students with little to no background in the course find it appropriate to correct the (tenured) professor on what she is teaching them.

I am an ABD grad student at a well respected school. We hosted a conference a few weeks ago, and an older man (perhaps retired?) who described himself as an “interested Independent scholar” attended. After attaching himself to the young women in attendance at every opportunity, he cornered me to tell me about his new revolutionary philosophical theory, he told me that I “have a bright future in philosophy, though it will most likely be as a full time secretary or mother, doing philosophy on the side”.

Are there women philosophers worth studying?

Posted: January 18, 2015 by jennysaul in Uncategorized

In my master’s program in philosophy, a male student asked our male professor why we weren’t discussing female philosophers to which he answered that women philosophers didn’t contribute enough material to warrant study. He also said that they (women philosophers) did not write metanarratives and therefore were not substantive to the philosophical debate. My face turned red and I wanted to say something but I remained silent. I told our librarian what I’d heard and she pulled up a database that featured women philosophers which inspired me. I then contacted said philosophy professor and told him of my findings. He scolded me and said I should never mention that he said there was a dearth of female philosophers. He then proceeded to treat me poorly in every class I had with him. I feared I would not graduate (although fortunately I did). If I had it to do over again, I would have created a committee of others to address the situation to avoid being persecuted.