I did my M.A in philosophy in east Asia, which is more of a Confucian Tradition. When I was interviewed for admission, one of the Confucian professors said that girls are simply not fit for higher education. When I took a Confucian course taught by another professor, I heard him say something like “the contribution females can make to philosophy is to become a supportive wife of a great philosopher.”
Archive for the ‘assumptions about women’ Category
A few years ago, I was working with one of my professors to prepare a co-authored paper for publication. This professor was keen on having our meetings over lunch. I didn’t really approve, and I tried several times to convince the professor to have our meetings over coffee, without much success. I was told, however, that there’s nothing wrong with this, unless it turns out that there is. So, I continued to go to lunch with this professor and we talked about the paper, but I always felt uncomfortable (we probably went about 10 times in total).
This story, however, is not about the professor — nothing untoward happened. It’s about one of my fellow students, at the time. One day, this student found himself in the same venue as the professor and me, during lunchtime. We said ‘hello’ and then processed with business as usual. My fellow student was otherwise engaged, so he didn’t sit with us.
Later in the day, when people were gathering for a talk, and while only students were in the room, this fellow student asks me, loud and clear:
X, does your husband know you’re meeting with professor Y over lunch?
I started saying that I resent the implication, although not the one he’s clearly making. And that I won’t dignify such a question with an answer. To which, my fellow student said something to the effect that he made a joke and that I don’t have a sense of humor.
No one else said anything, although other students were holding their breaths to see if this will become a quarrel.
I left the table, went back to a corner and tried hard to focus on the talk.
I recently attended an interdisciplinary conference and had a quite revealing experience with a fellow male philosopher. Most of the students at the conference were computer scientists, mathematicians, or linguists. There were some philosophers, but they were in the minority of attendees.
It was break time and I was near these two male students who were introducing themselves to each other. One of them was a philosopher (P) and the other was a mathematician (M). P says to M, “so, you must be a computer scientist or a mathematician, right? Which one?” M says, “I’m a mathematician. That’s a good guess! Haha.” P tells M that he is a philosopher and that there aren’t a lot of them there. I was excited that there was another philosopher there and was excited to introduce myself to them and to the other philosopher so we could talk philosophy.
I walk up to them and say hello. P says to me, “I could probably guess what you are. You’re a linguist, right?” I said, “No, I’m actually a philosopher, just like you. Why would you assume that I’m a linguist?” He said I look like one and that philosophers are in the minority. I was baffled and walked away.
I felt sick the rest of that day. P assumed that M was a computer scientist or a mathematician, but for me, the only option was a linguist. Was it because I was a female and a minority and the male student was male and white? I’m not sure. Even if philosophers were in the minority, why couldn’t I be one of them? What does a linguist look like? Sure, a lot of linguists at this conference were female (and based on statistics, there are more women than men studying linguistics), but I didn’t think that his assumption of me was fair.
That interaction left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t let it ruin the rest of my time at the conference, but I was upset and angry that he judged me before he learned anything about me. What was more alarming was that he made his judgment so effortlessly and with a bit of enthusiasm. Although I didn’t let that experience ruin my time at the conference, it was hard not to feel “othered” during talks where I was one of the few women and underrepresented minorities in the crowd. Also, I felt that if he saw me as a linguist, then maybe other students (male and female) saw me as a linguist, instead of as a computer scientist, mathematician, or philosopher. There’s nothing wrong with being a linguist. What is messed up is if the assumption is that one is a linguist (rather than one of the other labels above) because one is a woman, minority, or both. It was a moment that highlighted my “otherness” in academic philosophy.
I was participating in an intensive research seminar and had a brief opportunity to meet with its accomplished, distinguished director. I was excited and nervous to discuss my project-in-progress. One of the first bits of feedback he gave me was that I would “make a good mother.” Although a significant compliment, on its face, it seemed a deeply problematic way of communicating that I shouldn’t continue on in philosophy, and it made me consider the professional costs of things I especially value about myself: empathy, kindness, intellectual humility. I said, “Thank you. I think so, too,” although I’d known for a long time that motherhood was not in my future.
Today I was in my office catching up on some grading. My door was open and a faculty member at another campus location whom I have never met came by to talk about an undergraduate symposium I was organizing. He stuck his head in, saw me at my computer, surrounded by papers and said “I don’t suppose Professor xxxxxxx (me) is in, is he?” I looked at him and said,”yes, I am. Can I help you?” He had the nerve to act surprised, but not embarrassed at his mistake.
I’m a PhD student in a related field. Some time ago, I fell in love with a technical, highly male dominated subfield of philosophy. I was confident that I would make the transition into philosophy…and then I started hearing about philosophy’s “woman problem.” Then I started to experience it myself. Though I have training in certain formal methods, it was infuriating to discover that philosophers were inclined not to believe that I do in fact have this training or who just assumed that the male students were “smarter” than me, despite no evidence that this was the case. I’m sick and tired of philosophers automatically taking me less seriously than they do their male students.
My university’s philosophy department is known for having a good climate (!!), and yet it’s so much worse than my current (not philosophy) department. Meanwhile, the phil departments I’ve looked into transferring into are known for having even worse climates!
I don’t think I’ll change fields after all.
I was recently at a seminar, and the presenter was having trouble with his powerpoint presentation. The chair of the session was trying to help, but nobody else seemed to be paying attention. At some point the chair asked if anybody had technical competencies with a Mac. I am utterly incompetent with technology (or at least this is my self-conception) but I do own a Mac and had trouble in the past with powerpoint so I said I could try to help. But, since nothing was working out, the chair asked whether anybody had a laptop. I said I had one and we could use mine. Nobody among the attendees was, again, seemingly paying much attention.
Only when I was on my way out to get my laptop I realized that I was the only woman among 13 participants.
I came back with the laptop, helped to set up, fixed a couple of issues that arose during the presentation.
I know most of the participants to that seminar. They are great guys, respectful and collegial. I am sure that each of them, if asked directly to help, would have helped. But I also suspect that few, if any, of them were socialized to be helpers.
I hear the objection that might arise “it’s just a coincidence, it has nothing to do with gender”. Ah, if only I hadn’t seen this kind of things happen over and over, if only I hadn’t heard so many other women noticing these situations, if only we didn’t have all the evidence that women do more service work in Academia…
And yes, they are small things, of course they are. But they add up so fast, and it is unpleasant to feel that you are the one who’s expected to make coffee, clean up, fix practical issues.
Concluding on a positive note: at the Q&A the chair called on me for the first question, even though I was in his peripheral vision and someone else had clearly raised his hand before me. I took that as a thank you note.