On having low social status

Posted: January 15, 2014 by Jender in failure to take women seriously, Good news, ignoring women, implicit bias, self-doubt

I’ve been going to philosophy conferences for 15 years now, but recently I had an odd experience at one. I slowly realised that my social status at this particular conference was basically mud. When I asked questions in a talk they were immediately laughed off as confused or ludicrous. When I made a point over lunch people ganged up to misinterpret it and contemptuously tell me how misinformed and mal-intentioned I was. It took 3 minutes of assertive clarification for people to grudgingly admit that I had a coherent question. It’s the way you might expect someone to be treated if they had committed some terrible social gaffe at the beginning of a conference – like aggressively criticising a graduate student, or saying something outright racist – but I couldn’t remember doing anything like that.

The experience of those 2-3 days really sticks out because of how unusual it was. As my career has developed I’ve found that people have gradually taken me more seriously, listened more carefully to things I have to say, and been slower to dismiss something that sounded odd or wrong without pushing me further for clarification. Not everywhere, of course – siblings, parents and taxi-drivers still treat me like I know nothing and most of what I say is insane – but in professional contexts, I’ve been benefiting from a gentle rise in social status.

Except at this one conference. And there were a few things I noticed as a result. One was that certain high status individuals – both men and women – noticed, at least at some level, what was going on with the group dynamics and intervened in either a neutral way, or in a way that was friendly towards me (“wow, people who do X sometimes get really upset when you ask them about Y, don’t they?”) and others sought me out for conversation where the subtext seemed to be “I don’t really know why all these others are acting like this, but I don’t want to be a part of that. Tell me about your work…” I was really grateful to these people, because they made me feel less like I was going insane. And it made me think: this is one of the reasons why allies are important. It made me want to be a better ally in the various situations when I’m one of the people with higher status. I want to be the one who sends the implicit message: “To hell with them. I’d like to talk to you. Tell me about your work…”

A second thing was that the memory of the experiences festered. In my hotel room at night I’d be going over them again and again in my mind trying to figure out why this was happening, and wondering whether it was just my imagination. I came up with many, many different theories. Maybe it was something to do with the way I was dressed? (I was pretty sure my skirt wasn’t see-through but perhaps when I was chairing the light was behind me?) Maybe it was that combined with generally being too confident and ‘uppity’? Maybe philosophers of X are just more conservative? Maybe it was because I forgot that person’s name when I was chairing. Maybe I accidentally offended someone on the first day? Maybe I accidentally offended someone putting together an edited volume last year? Maybe they all really, really hate something about my work. Was I being scapegoated for some criticism these people had suffered at the hands of another philosopher? Did they hate my advisor perhaps and I’m a proxy for him? Maybe one vindictive person had made up some kind of awful story about me and spread it to the others on the first day? Was I inadvertently doing something during talks that was really annoying to the people sitting behind me? and on and on. But I never figured it out, and one of the consequences of that is that I’m still interpreting and re-interpreting the events in my head, wondering whether I was just the victim of chance, or whether it was me, something about me, something I did, that caused all this. Should I be feeling ashamed? I just don’t know.

I left the Twilight Zone that was that conference and life went back to normal. I had a million other things to do, and a week later I went to a different conference, where nothing similar happened, I gave a good talk and the crack in my self-esteem was plastered over. But the whole experience – the intensifying of the being-excluded-from-the-in-group experience – really reminded me of some of the effects of having low social status, and of dealing with all those micro- (and not so micro-) aggressions. You are left with these terrible doubts: was it me? Did I bring this on myself somehow? And in the absence of a clear way to rule them out, this is exhausting and undermining. I’m fortunate; I got to walk away with nothing but a few unpleasant memories. (And a few good ones too, of the individuals who treated me with decency.) But low social-status isn’t always something society lets you leave behind.

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