Consequences of avoiding sexual harassment

Posted: December 10, 2010 by Jender in sexual harassment

Most of the stories on this blog have concerned actual cases of harassment, expressions of bias or discriminatory behavior. But there is another, and perhaps more subtle, kind of professional disadvantage affecting women philosophers: the negative consequences of avoiding situations where we judge (with some justification, it seems) that harassment or discrimination is likely to result.

Call this the “behavioral burka” effect.

I limit the kind of socializing I do with colleagues after a few awkward encounters early on in my career. Any situation involving philosophers I don’t know well and more than two glasses of wine I generally avoid (so no after-dinner bar rounds). This has negative effects, since I don’t get to know other scholars as well as I would have liked and I don’t get to talk philosophy in informal settings as much as I would have liked. I spent only fifteen minutes at the Smoker the year I was on the job market (enough to shake hands with interviewing departments, and to escape before any tipsy philosopher could do or say anything inappropriate. (Even so, I was asked by a member of an interviewing department whether there was any relation between me and a scantily clad actress of the same last name. Time to go home!).

I have also turned down a very attractive job offer in a top-ranked department after a former teacher warned me of a sexual harassment issue in the past. This was a department with an excellent reputation in my area of specialization.

Many of my male colleagues are cautious about the type of interaction they have with their female advisees for fear of being perceived as harassers. While their male graduate students are invited over to the house or out for a drink, female students are not. That way, everyone can rest assured that nothing bad will happen to the female grad students. But of course, these female grad students also miss out on opportunities: informal discussion is the material that future papers are made of.

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