Although implicit sexism is a problem, it bothers me when people share stories to the effect of “people treated me harshly because I was a woman,” as has sometimes happened here. Such things surely happen, but sometimes it’s difficult to tell when instances of harsh treatment are due to one’s sex or simply to “common discourtesy.” (Sometimes, of course, it is easy to tell.)
I’d like to share about my (fairly recent) first experience as a female graduate student giving comments on a paper by a tenured male philosopher at a professional conference. It was my first semester in graduate school. I was 22.
And I was treated with a great deal of respect. The presenter’s responses to my comments were thoughtful, and he acknowledged that some of the issues I’d raised were real problems for his paper. Before the session, the presenter introduced himself to me and suggested we go on a first-name basis, which lessened the power differential. It occurs to me that perhaps he made that suggestion in order to keep me from embarrassing myself by too-formally addressing him as “Dr. X,” as I had written in the comments I’d sent him.
In a later session, I asked a good question in Q&A. (Someone called it “the question that needed to be asked.”) After that, I attended the presentation of the chair of that earlier session, and raised my hand in Q&A. When the presenter called on me, the male graduate student sitting behind me assumed the presenter had meant to call on him, and so started speaking. But the presenter said, “No. I was calling on…” and referred to me by my name, which he had learned without introduction.
I don’t suppose the treatment I received was anything other than common courtesy (that is, I don’t have any reason to think it was a response to my sex), but that’s the point, isn’t it? Since I was unknown, I was treated in accordance with what merit I was able to demonstrate at the time. I continue to find this experience deeply encouraging.