Archive for the ‘assumptions about mothers’ Category

As someone who doesn’t want children, when I started my MA I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about the career setbacks women often experience when juggling work and home life. I was wrong. The two body problem is enough all by itself to put me off pursuing a career in Philosolophy. In the time it has taken me to complete my MA, I have seen 5 male staff members (at all stages of career advancement) join and/or leave the department, moving internationally or interstate, with female partners in tow. Not a single female has been hired by the department or moved on elsewhere for the sake of their career.

Of the female staff members whose stories I know (who have been there the whole time I have), one has spent significant amounts of time apart from her husband in order for them to both pursue their careers, and the other has a relationship in which both parties have made concessions and turned down good jobs in order to always be in the same place (it has worked out pretty well for them, but it could easily not have).

The message: men can take all the job opportunities they want, partnered or not. Women have to choose between living with a partner and career advancement.

Several years ago I visited the Department X as a prospective graduate student in philosophy. A group of prospective and current grad students gathered that evening for drinks at a local bar, and discussion turned to the faculty, and eventually the lone female faculty member at the time: Y. One of the other prospective students commented, “Can you believe she drives a minivan?!?” My interest was piqued. This was heartening news. “Y drives a minivan?” I thought. “Maybe I can do this after all. Maybe I can be a woman and a mother and a philosophy professor all at once.” I was childless at the time, but I was hungry for signs that a person like me – a woman with an interest in family life – could find a place in the world of philosophy. These signs are few and far between. The previous one came when my undergraduate advisor told me that she had gone to a Tupperware party. I suspect she still has no idea how important that one comment was to my decision to try graduate school in philosophy.

It wasn’t until later that night that it dawned on me that the speaker did not mean the comment the way I took it. He meant it derisively. He meant that it was preposterous to think that someone could be a philosopher and a mommy. I felt so stupid. In my eagerness for a role model I had completely overlooked his tone. I also felt very, very angry – both because he had sneered at one of my heroes and because he had shit all over one of my cherished and rare points of identification with professional philosophy. “Fuck him,” I thought. “Y is the amazingly accomplished professor, and he’s just a prospective grad student. What does he know?”

I ended up attending a different graduate program in philosophy, and now, several years into the program, I am married and pregnant with twins. Faced with the challenge of squeezing two infant car seats and a labrador retriever into the back seat of a sedan, we bought a minivan. This prompted some reflection on “the minivan comment” that I remember so clearly.

The truth is that I find it harder and harder to muster that “fuck you” spirit every time I feel like an outsider. I have never felt so alienated from the profession of philosophy as I do now that I am pregnant – and I didn’t exactly feel like “one of the gang” prior to being pregnant, either. I have formed close friendships with other grad students in my program, but almost all of them are men whose attitudes toward family life range from indifferent to downright hostile. Most are not in committed long term relationships, and none have children or have even expressed an interest in having children. From what I have seen of the faculty in my program, these demographics do not change very much at the professor level, either. I guess some of the indifferent male grad students go on to find partners and have children as faculty, but they certainly aren’t driving the minivan themselves.

I am angry at myself for being in this position, for being isolated and without woman friends or friends of any gender who are having children. Lately I think that graduate school was a huge mistake: as much as I enjoy studying philosophy, I wasn’t thinking clearly about whether a career in philosophy would fit in with my other plans and interests. If I had been thinking clearly, I probably would have sought a career in which I would be employed by now at a job with maternity leave benefits, so that I would have something to come back to after the first few weeks or months of my children’s lives. Instead I am standing at that juncture between graduate school and a post-doc or employment, unsure that I even want to mount the exhausting and demoralizing campaign one needs to mount to get a job in this profession. I love philosophy, but I suspect I could also love (or at least like!) another profession that is not so inhospitable to mothers.

I don’t know whether I will stay or go – or even if I will have the option to stay, given that I don’t have a job. But there is one thing that I want to say to all of the women philosophers out there who are reading this: let your students know about the activities you do that go against the philosopher stereotype. Mention your gardening, taking your kid to swim lessons, painting your fingernails, redecorating your kitchen, your recommendation for the best laundry stain remover. Yes, these comments might seem off-topic when the student is there to talk to you about Hume or incompatibilism or whatever. But find ways to drop in little clues and hints now and then. I can only speak for myself, but tiny comments like these have played a huge role in getting me to me to stay in the professional philosophy pipeline as long as I have. The impact can be enormous.

There’s probably a technical term for this kind of signaling that I don’t know, but it’s the opposite of the “whistling Vivaldi” type maneuver that a minority person uses to signal to members of the dominant class around him that he fits in. It’s a signal of hope to other outsiders – and women who are interested in having an active family life are definitely outsiders in philosophy.

My account brings not much new to the shocking posts I read on this blog, but mainly confirms that they are part of a wider structural problem. I did half of my first degree in philosophy. Prior to commencing my studies there, a female friend and previous graduate recommended the department to me, but warned me that I need to watch out for Dr X and Dr Y as they’d come onto female students. I never experienced any form of sexual advances myself, but during my time there I learned about several sexual encounters, affairs and occasional relationships between male lecturers/ tutors and female students. Generally (perhaps not in every case) I think this is an abuse of power from the side of the lecturers who are in charge of students’ grades and future prospects.

My former philosophy department had a similar set-up as many of the departments mentioned on this blog – exclusively male leadership, and out of the whole staff team only a couple of staff members were female. I was fortunate enough to at some point be taught by an excellent female lecturer, who had left the department due to department-internal conflicts (unknown to me, but they were between her and apparently several male colleagues) and ran her courses from a different department. Courses run by that lecturer are my best memories of my time in philosophy – I suspected that she never fully received the recognition she deserves.

In my final year or so, I asked on a department-internal online forum why there was no course offered on a prominent female or non-white philosopher – indeed, these were generally found only sparsely on our reading lists. On the same forum, several male student ‘colleagues’ posted some ‘jokes’ along the lines of ‘women to the kitchen!’. Then a prominent lecturer responded to my post, saying that it ‘doesn’t matter’ whether a philosopher was male or female, white or black – all that mattered what the philosophical theories produced by them. He overlooked that his assertion was informed by a particular epistemological bias and completely unacceptable as a generalised statement. Furthermore, even in more maths-based philosophy as in the area he worked in, there is a case to be made for making sure that there is a women-friendly climate in general and women get the same recognition as men, so they feel supported to produce the best work they can. I was disappointed. As some others on here said, the most depressing thing is that these are supposedly people who are educated in equality & diversity, and highly educated in general.

As a graduate student, I changed subject and never looked back. I’m now often in strongly female-dominated working constellations – even though recently my (female, self-proclaimed feminist) supervisor told me half-jokingly, ‘Don’t get pregnant while in graduate school!’. This comes at a time when one of my colleagues is struggling with her department being unsafe for her pregnancy, and there are huge delays in making it safe despite repeated pleas from her (male) supervisor. Not that I’m planning to get pregnant anytime soon, but – ouch!

I am writing this to tell any potentially discouraged readers to hang in there. I have experienced sexual harassment, dismissiveness, discrimination on the job, and other offensive behavior throughout my time as a grad student and professor in philosophy. Yet I love doing philosophy and teaching so much that none of this can dissuade me from my purpose. I feel lucky to have this rare opportunity to be a philosopher, and nobody’s sexist crap is going to stop me. Don’t let it stop you either if you love philosophy.

As an undergrad philosophy major, I cannot count the number of times I made a point that was dismissed or ignored by the professor, only to have a male student make the same point and receive praise. All of my male undergraduate professors actively discouraged me from applying to grad school on the grounds that my abilities were not up to par. Nevertheless, I was accepted by four top-20 programs.

My grad school mentors were wonderful, supportive, and egalitarian. Unfortunately, from other faculty I witnessed several instances of both physical and verbal sexual harassment of female grad students. For three years, I was the only romantically unattached, heterosexual female grad student in my program. I was pestered and harassed almost daily by the male students, including everything from offensive sexual comments made in the middle of class to relentless efforts to hook up. The specific physical attributes of female students who took philosophy grad courses were enthusiastically discussed in our dept. lounge. Every time the department sought student input into a hiring process, my preference for a candidate was attributed by the other students, in front of the faculty, to my supposed romantic attraction to him. I was frequently quizzed by fellow students about which faculty member(s) or student(s) I would be willing to have sex with, hypothetically, despite my refusal to respond.

When I began attending conferences and APA events, my trusted mentors had to tell me which male professors I should avoid being alone with. Sometimes they accompanied me to parties so that I wouldn’t be harassed. While this may seem like a negative story about the prevalance of sexism, it’s just as much a positive account of the other guys who had my back and wouldn’t tolerate bad behavior. Eventually I received many interviews and a few job offers, and all of my success on the job market was directly attributed by my fellow male students to the fact that I am female.

Once I became a professor, I learned what it is like to work closely with men who cannot seem to visually acknowledge your head up there above the breasts. I learned to deal with male students who tried to intimidate me about grades or come on to me. (Specifically, I learned to keep my office door open, and to inform someone else as soon as a student started behaving strangely toward me.) I do not work in feminist philosophy myself, and apparently that has encouraged several male professors to share with me their view that feminist philosophy is junk and not really philosophy. For a while another single female worked in my department. Some male professors hoped that I might be able to report on her sex life, about which they knew nothing but suspected everything. I have had to listen, in the department office, to my colleagues’ descriptions of escapades at strip clubs.

Though all of the aforementioned events were annoying, they did not intimidate me. The sexism that nearly shook my resolve came later, in the form of having my research devalued because I was female, being judged according to different standards from men in pre-tenure reviews, being pressured to take on more teaching and advising duties than others, and eventually being treated unfairly with respect to family/medical leave. Luckily, my resolve is fairly stout. In the hiring process, I have seen numerous female candidates ignored either because their cvs mention the word feminism, or because they are perceived to do “soft” work in ethics. In awarding scholarship funds to our own students, my colleagues consistently downplay females who have stronger records on paper in favor of males with whom they are friendly. My teaching evaluations are good, but male faculty have often commented (in direct contradiction to the facts) that this is probably because I am not a rigorous teacher or strict grader. I am treated like a secretary whenever menial tasks like note-taking must be done, and one of my colleagues (who happened to vote unsuccessfully against tenuring me) told me in all sincerity that I would make a good secretary.

I’m now past worrying about what my colleagues say to or about me. However, I want to create a terrific climate for our students, insofar as it is in my power. I have had to choose my battles for the sake of preserving both job and sanity, but in the long run I’m winning the war. To all the women and men who want to change things: don’t lose heart!

This is a copy of an email exchange with our head of school. What is shocking is that he shows NO AWARENESS AT ALL of any gender issues around academic environment or hiring – e.g. he thinks treating all cases the same is equivalent to treating equally, and blythely he claims that our policies are “robust”…The equality and diversity officer (a man) ignored the email entirely.

Dear Prof. P, (cc Dr Z, Equality and Diversity officer),

As Prof. P knows, I have announced my intention to take 2 semesters of
maternity leave from this coming September.

I heard today that the school does not approve of getting cover for
maternity leave. This seems like a really problematic policy to me. I
totally understand that we should be able to cover our regular automatic
sabbaticals without getting teaching fellows, and even that we should be
able to cover funded research leave. However, maternity leave and other
unpredictable leave seem like a different sort of case. and in the case of
maternity leave in particular, the current policy raises equality and
diversity issues.

In asking my colleagues to cover for me, the school is asking my colleagues
to do extra work – not work that can be built into our contracts, because as
I said, unlike with regular sabbaticals, and even funded research, it is not
predictable and also fairly rare given the gender balance in our department.
In fact, in my 8 years in this philosophy department I am the
only full time staff member to have taken maternity leave. So far as I know,
before that only one person ever did.

So it is totally clear to my colleagues that they are doing extra work
because of me. In fact, anecdotally, last time when I came back from
maternity leave I was made to feel like I owed everyone favours, and did a
considerable amount of extra work because of that.

But my point here is not about me or my case in particular, it is about a
general policy that seems designed to make people resent their colleagues
going on maternity leave, and make it hard for women to feel comfortable
about maternity leave.

It is also, of course, a disincentive to hiring women. Imagine that my
colleagues, mostly men, are deciding between two candidates to hire.
One is a woman of child bearing age, the other is not. The possibility of
the woman taking maternity leave has now become a serious disincentive to
hiring her – my colleagues know that they will have to pick up her work when
she has a baby.

I have spoken to our head of department in philosophy, and several
of my colleagues about this. I think my view has wide support.

Thanks for taking this into consideration.

Dr Q

Dear Dr Q,

Thank you for your email. There appears to have been some mis-understanding
here, as there is no special policy in the School regarding cover for
maternity leave.

Requests for additional teaching associated with maternity leave are taken
together with all other forms of request for teaching support in the context
of the overall subject area teaching plan and the balancing of workload.
Indeed, this is why we have such a plan. To give one indication of this: in
the coming year, even taking into account your own leave, Philosophy will
have more teaching staff available than they have in this current year. So,
far from this being an issue of lack of equality, my own view is the precise
opposite: we deal with this issue in exactly the way that we deal with all
forms of request for additional teaching support and in this respect
maternity leave is treated in exactly the same way as all other forms of
leave such as research/sabbatical leave entitlements.

So there should be no question of colleagues feeling that they are ‘doing
extra work’ or experiencing resentment – planning for covering all sorts of
staff leave is a perfectly normal part of our teaching planning processes.
(Across the School, a number of our colleagues have taken both maternity and
paternity leave.)

And just to be clear: our appointment processes are robust, and there is no
scope within them for any sort of ‘disincentive to hire women’. Indeed you
might remember that in just this last month, we appointed a woman to a
senior lectureship in Philosophy.

Best wishes

Prof. P

A woman philosopher writes…

While at……volunteer night, I took on packing condoms into baggies and folding brochures. It was blast. Here comes the agony of female descent. To our surprise, the director came in and joined in for friendly conversation. An assistant director introduces another young woman to the director: “Yes, this is so and so and she is a grad student at the …molecular biology…..works at lab…..” etc…..The director is excited! The assistant director turns to me and says: “This is so and so…..she has three young children…….in school full time…..” The director turns away immediately to the other young woman and engages in a conversation. I swear a snooty sound just came from her direction.
I am the poster child for the female struggle: rape, kid at a young age, growing up in poverty and the system….Yet when I assert myself and attempt to give back to my community, I am not worthy. This is only one example. Many times in my life and career, I have been stricken with stereotypical notions of where my level of intelligence registers and how useful I am to the feminist world because of my life circumstance (i.e. children and late to finish college). Either I am cast aside as a non-worthy source of intellect or simply patronized. Did I try to engage and throw my weight with her? Yes. Did I get a response? No.
Perhaps it was most shocking because of the hierarchy of transgressions from female to female in a progressively feminist environment; no matter how subtle. Am I offended or hurt? Sure.

“Worried Mum”

Posted: April 2, 2012 by Jender in assumptions about mothers, trivialising women

Careless talk costs lives – well, costs publications anyway. I had some thoughts, pretty well worked together, about a topical issue in medical ethics and shared them with a male colleague, because I thought he was more of an expert in the area and might want to publish something jointly on the topic. Not only did he publish these under his own name in a blog, but I appeared – not as fellow academic who had initially alerted him to the problem and who also happens to have published in the very area – but as ‘worried mum’ who came to him with her concerns.