How not to treat the only woman who speaks

Posted: January 10, 2013 by Jender in ignoring women, implicit bias

I studied [at University X] as a graduate student and returned a few years ago. My position was as a philosopher in another faculty, so I had only associate membership of the philosophy faculty. I started going to the moral philosophy seminars, held every week. To my surprise, despite being moral philosophy, there was only a minority of women in the audience, and often, few or no other women from the audience would speak. I tried to ask questions as often as I could, often being the only woman in the room to open her mouth. For months after first attending, I honestly thought there was a rule that, these seminars being intended for faculty members, as an associate member, I was only allowed in as a favour and therefore was not allowed to speak unless nobody else in the room had any more questions. It was only after some time that I noticed that anyone at all, not even just university members, was welcome to the seminars, that I realised this was just the way the chair did things – ignoring my attempts to ask a question. I tried all sorts of tricks such as wearing bright pink, sticking my hand up straight away, sitting at the front, in a pathetic attempt to get noticed. It improved a bit.
Last time I went, yet again, I was the only female audience member to speak (out of an audience of 40 – 50). I had started to take note of these things, so I noticed that the chair allowed each and every person who spoke to engage in dialogue with the speaker. But when I spoke, I had the by now half-expected reply ‘you don’t understand’. This has happened to me, and to other women I know, so often. I DID understand perfectly well, actually. But the chair then cut me off – I alone of all questioners was not allowed to explain my point further or engage in dialogue with the speaker. We were not running out of time – there was plenty of time to at least allow me to show that I was not some twit who was incapable of grasping the speaker’s paper. But no. In front of a room full of my colleagues and students, it was left that I had not really asked a question, or found a problem in the paper, or made a contribution to debate, I had simply NOT UNDERSTOOD WHAT WAS GOING ON.
I have come to the conclusion that there really is no more point in speaking at these particular seminars. The net result is that a room full of people just hear the one woman who spoke up being told that she did not understand the paper, and then being shut up. Silence would have been less damaging to my reputation, and to the reputation of women in general.

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