I am one of those ‘junior scholars’, a woman at that, who are more often than not mistaken by students as ‘one of them’ (which, in many ways, I am). My work is in social and political philosophy, a male-dominated discipline, and I write on questions of power, sovereignty, and violence, themes that are traditionally regarded as masculine. As a consequence, I feel like my age, gender, and appearance put me at a comparative disadvantage with regard to my academic career. In order to compensate for these ‘deficits’, I experience more pressure to produce solid scholarship than most of my more senior or male colleagues. (This is by no means an objection to working hard and doing good research. In fact, I believe that the discipline would benefit immensely if everyone felt the same need to ‘prove themselves’.)
At conferences, in particular, people usually show interest in my work only after they hear my papers. I am, therefore, a big fan of presenting on the first day of a conference, and I dread being on the graveyard shift and having meaningful conversations in a general atmosphere of departure. This cannot always be avoided, and so I often struggle to be recognized and respected as a peer in the profession.
Now, I’m not saying that none of this is my fault. Even though I think of myself as an open and outgoing person, I might have to be more obnoxious and less uncomfortable cornering people. Or I might have to do more advance research about each and every conference participant to have something impressive to say. (Unfortunately, my 6/6 teaching load this year is preventing me from doing this.) However, another possibility suggested itself at a conference I recently attended, and it would entail using what I see as my comparative disadvantage – age, gender, appearance – to my benefit.
The national conference makes a point of gender equality in membership and acceptance rates of papers. This year, 48% of the papers selected through double-blind peer review were written and presented by women. Many panels engaged with questions of gender, equality, justice, representation, and exclusion in incredibly nuanced, critical, and productive ways. I met some great people on the first two days, and even more great people after my presentation on the penultimate panel of the last day. The response to my paper was surprisingly positive, I received measured, generous, and extremely helpful feedback, and some colleagues even said that my paper changed their pretty firm position on the topic.
I do not say this to brag, but in order to give reasons for why I felt like I had succeeded in ‘proving myself’ as a scholar with intellectual merit who deserves to be taken seriously by her peers. Even though I find it unfair that I had to work harder and give a better paper than many colleagues in order to be recognized, at least it paid off.
Or so I thought.
When I returned home, the following email was waiting in my inbox:
This is [….] from the […] conference. I found your email by googling you. It was nice meeting you. Unfortunately you are married.
Hope to see you soon.
‘Unfortunately you are married?’ Well, it is indeed unfortunate that I have to participate in an unjust, unequal, and historically oppressive institution to be able to be with my partner. But surely the sender of this presumptuous message did not email me to express his discomfort with the institution of marriage and his sympathy with my unfortunate situation of being part of an unjust tradition. What was unfortunate, in the eyes of the sender, was the fact that, because I was married, he and I could not hook up.
It is bad enough to have to accept that being a good scholar is not enough to be taken seriously, that I have to be better than others to get the same recognition. Knowing that, no matter how hard I work, I will only be judged as a potential sexual partner makes me sad, angry, and hopeless. What do I have to do to be visible as an equal member of the profession rather than an object of sexual desire?
I do not know. What I do know, however, is that telling someone that unfortunately they are married, is never a good idea. It is not a clumsy, maybe backhanded, compliment. It is an inappropriate, unprofessional, offensive, and – to be honest – incredibly dumb statement. Knowing that it came from someone who works on normative ethics and global justice only makes it all the more inappropriate, offensive, and dumb. It also makes me wonder about the state of a discipline that is concerned with the kinds of questions that arise when philosophers think about right actions. And it brings into sharp view the glaring disconnect between theory and practice. Lastly, I wonder if the sender thinks it would have been nicer to meet me if I was not married. Clearly, it never crossed his mind that I might not be available to him even if I were single (be it because I might not be interested in him in particular or in men more generally), or that I might actually be available despite being in a relationship (not just because people cheat, but also because people live in all sorts of alternative and, yes, open relationships).
I might be overthinking this. Unprofessional and obnoxious creeps might ultimately be the exception. But I do not want to end up at the next conference, suspicious and guarded, finding it even more difficult to have meaningful conversations with people who take a sincere and professional interest in me and my work.