An outrageous exchange

Posted: August 20, 2014 by Jender in bullying, ignoring women, implicit bias, insults, low numbers of women, Maleness of philosophy, slowness of progress

Although I have been a long time reader of your blog, I am not a woman, nor am I a philosopher. I am, however, in a related field, and find myself interacting fairly regularly with philosophers both at academic philosophy conferences and over the internet. I would like to share with you the substance of an outrageous exchange I have borne witness to via a listserv I am subscribed to.

For those readers that don’t use them, a listserv is an email list where messages are sent to a large number of subscribers. Often, people have conversations with each other over the listserv via “reply-all” email messages (which means that everyone on the listserv ends up as a silent party to these).

Usually, my listserv has been generally apolitical and professional. However, recently a series of exchanges occurred that were very ugly indeed. The context of this exchange was that the candidates for prestigious graduate postdoctoral and graduate fellowships had been announced. Three of the fourteen positions had gone to female applicants. A female professor suggested that—given the large number of applications—female applicants were badly underrepresented in the small sample of successful applicants. Her concerns were rudely dismissed. But the manner of this dismissal is what shocked me. It revealed the side of professional philosophy that accepts casual misogyny and is dismissive of taking action against it.

In order to provide evidence of this, I’ll reproduce the important parts of this conversation here verbatim. I have removed any reference to any individual, the specific fellowship, or the specific subfield of philosophy. Remarks that I did not find offensive are not reproduced here.

Female Professor:
“Has there been a year when the majority [of the successful applicants] were women? In the case of a confidential selection process, has there been a year in which the committee doing the selecting contained a majority of women? Apparently, whenever you start and whenever you stop counting, the count looks very similar from year to year, which is in itself interesting information. Why, when women are more than half the population and quite a bit more than half the students, would anyone claim to see any bias here? What sort of point is that to make?”

Male Professor #1:
“Dear [Female Professor #1], would you please consider to accept it as a matter of fact that in the field of [philosophy subfield] there are less active women than men?! If you want a quota reflecting this fact, three out of ten speakers should be women at the most. If you don’t like the fact of there being less women than men in the field, try to encourage girls and women to occupy themselves with it. No reason to annoy everyone with your foolish bleating all the time.”

Male Professor #2:
“Perhaps, [Male Professor #1], it’s condescending remarks (and worse) like yours that suggest the climate is not very welcoming?”

Male Professor #1:
“My remark was not very polite because it’s not polite at all to constantly accuse others of working against women in [subfield] while organizing conferences etc., which is very tiring.”

Male Professor #3:
“Facts concerning distribution of gender across a population should have no bearing on facts concerning distribution of abilities in [philosophy subfield] (and thus determination of meritorious holders of academic positions in [philosophy subfield]).”

The outcry that followed basically amounted to “stop talking about this – we can discuss academic politics at our yearly meeting.” Although other posters took the idea that women face systemic discrimination, the idea of questioning the selection process for the fellowships was not discussed.

As I said before, I am not a woman, nor am I a philosopher. I am not concerned about the fellowships—I obviously have no stake in who gets them. But I know that these comments reveal a “blunt sexism” that I find unacceptably narrow-minded and dismissive. It angers me on behalf of the female philosophers I know—any of whom might find that similar sexist attitudes might cost them a chance at a fellowship someday—and I felt that I could, at least, share this outrageous episode with this blog. Academia, and particularly philosophy, should be capable of dealing with this problem than to tell a respected female academic (publically!) to “stop bleating”.

As I look back at what just happened, I’m confused. I don’t know what the “answer” is, if there is one, and I do not mean to shame anyone personally (although in this case I am tempted to think that this might be well deserved). I was just disgusted and after mulling it over, I thought I should submit it to you.

To some degree, I feel ashamed and foolish for not speaking out more than I did; I should have given a strong, all-caps retort defending the right of female philosophers to question arcane (and clearly sexist) selection policies. It all happened quickly, and I didn’t really grasp what was happening until the “bleating” comment came out (just like everyone else, I tune out boring email–like discussing selection policies–and just like everyone else I probably shouldn’t). That is a reason but not an excuse.

I hope that I can spread awareness about the unfair selection procedures for fellowships with this submission to your blog. Young academics need to be able to see what is happening behind the curtain, and in this case it reveals that sexism is surprisingly overt.

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