Archive for the ‘Bad news’ Category

I am a bearded white male with a PhD in philosophy who stopped working in philosophy departments per se some years ago. I left in part because of what I saw as the discipline’s shoddy treatment of feminist philosophy in general and my female colleagues in particular. Since then I have become a research scientist respected in another field.

Ironically, the fact that I did graduate work in feminist epistemology as well as in analytic epistemology has proved an asset in doing science. I oftentimes acknowledge my philosophical background in my professional talks, crediting it for my theoretical range and ability to write clearly.

Recently I had a female undergraduate student come up to me after a talk I gave. She asked me for advice as to whether to go to graduate school in philosophy or in my adopted field, and told me that she had been accepted to top programs in each. However, and when I enquired as to which schools she was considering, the philosophy departments she mentioned were programs known to me as programs intolerant of pluralism.

I looked her in the eye and told her that while I believed the situation in philosophy graduate programs had gotten better over the years, I said that based on my experience she would be likely to encounter a systemic tradition of sexism within the discipline and might well even experience sexual harassment in those programs.

I could see how crushing my snap reaction was for her to hear, and it made me instantly second guess whether I had in fact told her right thing. I felt this even more acutely when, on reflection, I realized I probably would not have offered the same snap advice to a male student.

She and I did manage to have a little more hurried conversation about the relative advantages and disadvantages of a philosophic education versus a scientific one, but in the end I am afraid I may have discouraged a bright young woman from entering–and perhaps helping to change–my old profession.

I hope she has the guts to enter it anyway; frankly, all sorts of people discouraged me from entering graduate work in philosophy on practical grounds as well–though never on grounds that had to do with my being male.

A few years ago, I left my university’s philosophy department. I had been there about 20 years, hired with tenure and assuming that I would be able to participate as an equal in its affairs. I forgot I was the only tenured woman. One of the first things my new chair told me was that he liked my skirts as short as possible. The second thing he told me was that I was making less than a man who had been hired with tenure at the same time as I had because the man had “a family to support.” Things did not improve. When the department was audited, it told the Dean that the mistakes were my fault, even though they originated before I arrived on campus. When I engaged in free-ranging departmental debate, I was told that I was overly emotional. When I was passed over as chair it was because, the out-going chair said, I made him feel stupid. When I applied for an administrative position at the university, a member of the department told the search committee I was power-hungry. I could go on (and on). I have not had these problems in my new department.

I was referred to your interesting website recently and it revived unpleasant memories from my time as a graduate student in philosophy several years ago. I was in my second year of studies at a top philosophy department in the US. I took a course in X that was offered by a very prominent male philosopher who also happened to be quite active and outspoken in attempts to improve the position of women in philosophy. Once after class I mentioned to him that I was considering the possibility of writing a dissertation under his supervision, and he seemed supportive as I was among the best students in his course. One evening toward the end of the term we discussed possible topics for my thesis in his office. At one point during that conversation he stood up, looked at me in a strange way and said that he had an irresistible desire to touch my breasts. As he approached me I recoiled in disgust and rushed outside. When I later told some of my friends what happened they wondered why I was so shocked about the incident because they said this professor hitting on female students was common knowledge in the department. This was too much for me. It obviously meant that this behavior was tolerated and that none of my other teachers in that department felt any obligation to do anything about it. I left the program after a few weeks for good and never returned to philosophy studies again. I am telling you this story mainly because I would like your readers to know that sexual harassment is sometimes practiced even by those who nominally subscribe to feminism and who pose as advocates of women’s rights and equality.

Here’s the picture they paint of what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy: I’m sexually harassed by my professor in grad school. I somehow manage to get a job anyhow (probably as a “token” woman). I do twice as much service as my male colleagues. My students hold me to higher standards than my male colleagues. Somehow I manage to publish in good journals anyhow. But I am not invited to conferences (though some organizers might lie and say they invited me). My work is not cited, never anthologized, and not included on any syllabi.

It’s a wonder there are any of us left.

Here is a story. I have sat on this for years. It makes me reflect on how important it is to be careful about what feminism involves. Many years ago I travelled a long way to take up a new job in a philosophy department. I had taught feminist philosophy in my home country for many years. But the head of department in my new job said I could do this no longer. There was someone appointed at the same time as me to teach feminist philosophy from a European perspective and we thought it would be a great course if I added my analytic philosophy perspective. But, said our boss, it would ‘look bad for him on the faculty if it looked like he had two feminists in his department.’ My near-decade of experience drawing up a course from scratch was confined to my bookshelves. A year later, another young woman joined, in her first post, her PhD not even yet submitted, and for reasons I never discovered, she was allowed to teach more or less the exact same course I would have taught. I suspect one thing, that despite being female, she represented that alluring, mythical creature that philosophers the world over should be lashing themselves to the mast to avoid: the Bright Young Thing.
So there were three women in the department, and each overtly feminist. But there was a difference. A decade older than the others, I was subject to a principle of exclusion. Only one colleague put this explicitly. As far as she was concerned, feminism was about promoting the interests of YOUNG women, who’d been discriminated against. Being in my thirties, I was no longer young, on this measure, and didn’t count. I never could work out how come two newly qualified young women who had sat in classes and been taught feminism could claim to be discriminated against relative to one who had pushed and shoved to create a course in feminism, with much support but also with some brutish opposition, and certainly with few resources. But there you go. The brand of feminism did not seem to be about justification so much as simple power politics – putting young women forward, regardless. My feminist philosophy course material continued to languish unused.
I found out exactly how committed my colleagues were to promoting young women in philosophy. The next year I went on maternity leave. While I was away, two significant things happened. One, I came back to find that my two colleagues had organised an invitation-only conference to promote women philosophers. This was in the days before internet, and I had no idea it was on. Anyone could attend, but only invited women could speak. I was not invited. The conference took place a few days after my return from maternity leave. Yes, that’s right, you heard it, this was arranged while I was on maternity leave. You know, I was busy doing that thing that women do that some feminists think has been an obstacle to female progress.
And, what’s more, for some inexplicable reason, the conference was on the topic of my doctorate. Without a shadow of a doubt, I would have been the best qualified woman in the whole geographical area to talk at that conference. I attended one day but could not bring myself to attend the second. I was humiliated and confused.
Secondly, I found that during my leave, a permanent job had been advertised. One of the women was on a permanent job, but I and one of the others were on fixed term contracts. The areas of speciality in the advertised post exactly coincided with the areas of speciality of this other woman, but nonetheless were sufficiently close to mine that I considered applying. That is, until the head of department sidled up to me and warned me not to, because ‘the department’ was hoping that the other woman would get it. (Uh? I was a member of ‘the department’ and I certainly wasn’t hoping she’d get it. I was hoping I’d get it.) I spoke to several people who all said they’d been told the same. I wanted to complain to equal ops, but no one would support me. When the woman duly got the job, several people who’d previously been friendly stopped speaking to me – being the only one who’d voiced open disagreement with the biased appointment process. But if feminism is about promoting women regardless – if it’s just a power struggle – who is to say that these actions were not perfectly feminist? I for one was so demoralised after all this, together with other problems with the department, that I resigned. I could not bear to go into work again. Years later I still have not get my career back on track. A single parent, my children have felt this too having spent several years of their childhoods living below the poverty line. I mention this point only to bring home the realities of this. We are not just talking about the chance to do some high-brow intellectual activity. We are talking about tangible discrimination, tangible loss of opportunity, real unhappiness at work. There are those who of course have pointed out that feminism should take account of differences between women. But a feminism that then grabs the high ground to promote one woman over another – is it worthy of the name?

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!

So many more stories

Posted: February 7, 2012 by Jender in Bad news, sexual harassment

Since it has been a while since there has been an update, I just wanted to say that there are so many more stories than the ones that get posted here. I hear horror stories from friends of mine. They are not my stories to share, so I won’t repeat details. It is just sickening that the misogyny in our profession is so pervasive, and so many of the stories are things you’d never know about unless you were personally involved, or unless someone who was involved told you directly.