What it’s like to stick up for a woman in philosophy

Posted: May 1, 2011 by Jender in harassment

During my first year of grad school at a Leiter-ranked department, I was politically and verbally attacked by another grad student, and then publicly attacked by that student and a full professor. As best as I can tell, I was attacked for refusing to look the other way while they bullied and scapegoated a female classmate. At the time, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing (I’m male). I’d recently returned to philosophy from a career in a corporate world where such things simply aren’t tolerated.

In hindsight, the worst part wasn’t the attacks, although they became increasingly bizarre, and because they were bizarre, scary. Rather, the worst part was the response of the faculty and administration of the university. I was receiving a steady stream of disparaging email, full of vague accusations. For reasons that were never clearly articulated, I was threatened with removal from my position as TA. Much of this email was cc’d to my classmates, the chair of my department, and eventually even a lower-level Dean. Despite the fact that I never responded in kind, no one on the faculty seemed able to register the significance of what was happening. Even prominent feminist (and feminist-friendly) philosophers seemed to interpret the situation as a personality conflict, or perhaps a ‘he said/she said’ case. It was neither. My first year ended with my physician advising me to take a medical leave of absence from the program, based on the ongoing harassment. I felt isolated and betrayed.

In the end, I took the pile of email to the Dean’s office, with legal options in hand. Very little was actually done, though the harassment did come to an end. That fall, the offending professor told me that—due to my behavior the previous year—I could never work for him again. He appeared earnest and sincere. I had to laugh (and did).

I wish I knew why no one was willing to stick up for me. Most likely, there was some kind of double-think going on. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but *everybody* implicitly knew about the professor in question. He was like some carefully kept open secret no one felt equipped to deal with it. In hindsight, that more than anything is what made the experience so terribly destructive.

I’d like to think the denial and passivity I encountered wouldn’t be there if it happened today … or at least, not to the same degree.

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