What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?

“Who’s ready for the gang bang?”

During my first two years as a graduate student I was the only female PhD student in a department with a single female on the tenure track (who also happened to be on maternity/sabbatical for two semesters during my first two years). In my second year a male student arrived who demonstrated a lot of negative and demeaning attitudes toward women, often objectifying them by relating information about the identity of their porn star twin. Perhaps the incident that made me most uncomfortable during this time occurred when he walked into a room full of our fellow graduate students (all male), and me, and loudly asked, “So, who’s ready for the gang bang?”

Not wanting to make any waves, I took to rolling my eyes and avoiding engagements (both social and professional) where he would be present. However, toward the end of that year I discovered that our incoming class of graduate students would include a few women. While I had put up with his behaviour to that point, I felt it would be irresponsible to knowingly allow other women to enter this environment without at least trying to protect them.

I worked up a little courage (the real kind, not the whiskey-induced kind ;)), and approached the chair of our department with a request that none of the new women be placed into an office that would be shared with this particular graduate student. I explained the situation in a rather vague manner, not wanting to get anyone in trouble, but still wanting to get my point across. When he pressed me for details I shared the “gang bang” incident with him, hoping that combined with my general description of his attitude would be enough.

In response the chair asked if there was anyone else in the department who could provide more details. Fortunately, a few of my fellow graduate students had assured me that they would back me up if I needed it.

I suspect the chair’s motivation came from some sort of desire to provide protection against baseless accusations. However, I do wonder what would have happened if I didn’t have these friends in the department. Would my set of stories have been enough to warrant any intervention? Further, what would his attitude be if I came to him with another concern, about another individual in the department? I clearly do not have much in the way of power here.

In the end, after a male colleague of mine went to him and insisted, the chair not only protected our new women’s office space, but he pulled this graduate student aside for a little chat. He framed the discussion in terms of “professional behaviour in a professional setting”, and while he did not name any names, it is difficult to believe it wasn’t abundantly clear that I (the only female graduate student around) was the complainant.

Regardless, that graduate student’s behaviour underwent a transformation, and he has since managed to constrain his baser instinct most of the time.