A classic worry about affirmative action

Posted: October 9, 2010 by Jender in women are tokens

I got an email recently from a very prestigious department, asking me to give a talk. When I got the email, I wasn’t excited; I wasn’t proud. I was thinking: I wonder if they’re interested in my work, or if they were just aiming to have more women on their colloquium list.

Women in philosophy are given special consideration when it comes to jobs, talks, graduate school admissions. As a result, if you’re a woman and you get an opportunity, people are justified in wondering what role that special consideration played. Women who get an opportunity fall into three categories: (a) those who would have gotten it without help, (b) those would wouldn’t have gotten it without help — where their not getting it would have been unjust, and (c) those who wouldn’t have gotten it without help — where their not getting it wouldn’t have been unjust. I.e. women such that if gender were to disappear entirely, no one would be adding their work to the colloquium list. There is a lot of talk on feminist blogs about category (b), and not a lot of talk about the other categories. In particular, not a lot of talk about the ways in which some women in (a) are hurt by the fact that there are women in (c). I think that they can be hurt in two ways: they can’t know that they
could have gotten where they are without help, and they are constantly confronting others who can’t know it either. Let’s say you go to a conference and the other talk by a woman is really bad. It’s clear to everyone that she was invited in part because she’s female. And then on the next day, it’s your turn to give your talk. How does that feel?

I’m angry that there is sexism in the profession. But I’m also very angry about the movement to give women special consideration for opportunities. That’s mainly because I suspect that I’m in category (a), and that every day, I am dealing with people who have the false expectation that my gender played a role in getting me where I am: conference audiences, graduate students, colleagues. But it’s also partly because given current practices in the profession, it’s difficult for me to ever know for sure what category I’m in. And that’s a painful uncertainty that my male colleagues simply do not face.

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