Archive for the ‘difficulty of problems’ Category

Now that I’m a mid-career woman in philosophy, I’m facing a new problem: how to talk to my junior female colleagues about gender issues. I want to give them what I didn’t have: an older woman who can reassure them that they’re not imagining things, commiserate about disrespectful behavior from students and colleagues, and brainstorm solutions. I want to warn them about the extra service work they’ll be pressured to take on and the few colleagues from whom it’s best to keep one’s distance. But when I’ve tentatively broached these topics, my junior colleagues have reassured me that they’ve never experienced sexism in the profession, from students or colleagues, and that this department is wonderful and egalitarian. They almost seem to resent my raising gender issues, as if it’s patronizing for me to worry about them. Perhaps it is. But, having participated in hiring and personnel discussions for my junior colleagues, I know full well that they have experienced sexism. Quite a bit of it, in fact. Yet I don’t think I should tell them that. They need to find their own place in the department, form their own relationships. I certainly won’t be helping them by getting them to feel hostile or wary towards the department. And maybe I’ve been wrong about things. Maybe I interpret everything through a gender lens, and if I had just been a more optimistic and forgiving person from the beginning, my first years in the profession would have been happier and more productive. So I’ve taken to just giving generic advice that’s appropriate for all: keep writing, show your work around, don’t let service and teaching work drain you. And inside I wonder if maybe I’ve just been imagining things all along.

I was at a bar with three colleagues, each of whom are a) male, b) my friends, and c) self-identified feminists. So there were four philosophers in a bar, at a 3:1 male-to-female ratio. The table was discussing a book that only half in attendance had actually read. Now, I was one of the two folks who had read the book. It should surprise you, then, to learn that for the life of me, I could not get a word in edgewise! 3/4 people were talking, and only 1/3 of those speaking had read the book under discussion, but every freakin’ time I tried to speak, I was summarily shut down, talked over, and/or ignored. I managed to successfully complete exactly one sentence, which was very directly dismissed by my friend. He blinked at me, then flatly ignored my comment, proceeding to respond to a prior comment from another male colleague. At that point I gave up. I was disheartened and sad to be treated this way by my friends. I picked up my phone, only to find that it was out of batteries, and tossed it back down on the table, frustratedly. One colleague took notice of my frustration and asked what was the matter, to which I responded rather directly, “Well there is nothing else for me to do at this table, and now my phone is out of batteries.” His response? “That sucks. So anyway, how was your weekend with [my partner]?” Shocked and appalled by this totally unnatural segue, I retorted, “We don’t have to stop talking about philosophy!” [implying of course: just because you’re going to include me, now.] Totally unawares, he sincerely replied, “No! I really wanted to know how your weekend was!” He didn’t even realize what he had done. I aggressively voiced that I was bored (because nobody would let me talk about the book they were already talking about, which I had actually read!) and his response was to ask about my boyfriend.

All three of these guys are my friends, they are self-identified feminists, and they take themselves to be good allies. I’ll bet if I told this story back to them in another context, all three of those guys would be appalled. But from the inside, they had no idea what they were doing. That, to me, was totally shocking. And, I might add, really painful! Because you know, you get a little hope fire going in your belly when you meet (straight, white) male allies, and you think, “Progress! Hope! A way forward! Evidence of change!” And then you have these experiences that reinforce how devastatingly insidious the norms of gender and power are. And it just feels like you’re Sisyphus, rolling the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll back down on your again.

I am Dean of Studies of English Majors [at a major European university]. Last December, 2 students (one woman and one man) came to inform me that they were having trouble with a colleague of mine. It soon turned out that all the 3rd-year students were actually being morally and sexually harassed by the said colleague, and that they had been for the last two years. Men were ignored, women were made to feel that they were objects of pressing desires from that individual and that their grades depended on their silence and willingness to be nice.

I assured them that they had my support and that of the University and informed them that they could act so as to put a stop to that abusive behaviour.

Well… the chair of the Department did not see the situation in the same way, all the more so as he did meet the colleague who complained that his reputation was “being sullied”.
The Dean of the Faculty, (a woman), refused to see the students.

However the harasser decided to put a stop (?) to his inappropriate behaviour.

I have sadly discovered that we were quite alone in that ugly situation. Some of my female colleagues did support us, as did some administrative staff. The authorities did not want to have “problems” and ducked their heads.

Some times, I am not proud or content to be working in higher education.

I don’t want to go into too many details because I suspect the people I’m referencing read this blog. I’m a female graduate student currently, and my department is attempting to address a number of problems associated with climate. It’s just so frustrating to have faculty ask me for advice on what to do, at the expense of my own comfort in the department, and then not listen to what I say. It’s even more frustrating when they then turn around and ask me to do extra work to help them, because I’m “important” and “knowledgeable.” If I’m so knowledgeable, shouldn’t they believe me when I tell them about problems with climate? It’s disappointing to be here, especially since I know that it’s likely nothing will ever happen to make this department more welcoming to future female (and other minority) students.

I recently returned from a conference at which I encountered the most contentious member of my dissertation committee. This fellow delayed my defense by 1) not reading my dissertation until the day before my originally scheduled defense date and 2) threatening to fail me if my defense date was not pushed back. My original defense date was cancelled the night before I was supposed to defend. This caused me to be a graduate student for an additional summer term. Because he was in Europe for the summer, he did not get around to reading the chapters of my dissertation relevant to his interests until late summer. This caused me to be a graduate student for an additional fall term. He did not actually read my revisions or my other chapters until late in the fall term, at which point I finally mustered the courage to say to him, enough is enough. I was allowed to defend late in the fall term, but lost a job as a result.

I count the interaction at this last conference as a win. Yes, he did approach me in a thinly veiled contentious manner, but I managed to avoid any private interaction for the most part. It is unfortunate that I have to do this, but one of my other committee members recommended this approach to him, complete avoidance in the profession, after my defense. I will not be able to avoid him completely, but I can certainly avoid any private interaction with him.

I started studying philosophy as an undergrad almost exactly 10 years ago, and have just finished my PhD and started a TT job. In all of this time, I’ve counted myself extremely lucky to have never dealt with any of the horror stories that so many other women on this blog have had forced upon them. To the contrary, I’d had some really exceptional male mentors who have been warm, kind, open, and supportive without ever making me feel in the least uncomfortable or treating me in any even remotely inappropriate way – and this has been especially important because I’ve always struggled with self-doubt in relationship to work, and thought about quitting many, many times. My undergraduate honors thesis advisor, especially, has always been my model of an ideal teacher and mentor – that is, until today. A friend from undergrad just sent me a text message telling me that he had gossip about this professor – apparently, he had not only married an ex student of his, but was seeing a student in my class while still married to her.

And it’s the next part that I don’t really know how to put into words. I feel sick to my stomach, and I’m doubting myself in a way that I haven’t in years. Not only was he my idol and my reason for wanting to be an academic as an 18-year-old – he was also the first person to show enthusiasm for my work, and that enthusiasm and belief continued to bolster me in moments of self-doubt all of the way through my PhD. And now I’m sitting here, crying at my computer and feeling sick to my stomach because I suddenly feel like I can’t trust one of my earliest and most formative reasons for trusting myself and my work. I worry that he didn’t think that my work was good at all – that I was just another potential student to sleep with. And even worse, a part of me worries that my work (or do I really mean “I”?) wasn’t good enough for him to think that I was worth sleeping with, since he never treated me in any even remotely inappropriate way. The last part is the worst because I don’t endorse that feeling at all – there is no part of me that thinks that a professor 20 years older than you wanting to sleep with you is a compliment. I hate that I can feel so unsure of myself so long after the fact, and I hate that I can’t shut up this voice in my head that is saying odious things that I can’t endorse but can’t ignore either.

I know just how minor this in comparison to virtually every other experience reported on this blog. Part of what terrifies me, though, is that I am suddenly struck by how much I can’t begin to imagine how destabilizing and terrible those experiences must be – if something this small, this indirect, and this long ago is making me feel so out of place in philosophy, how do so many of the women who have experienced so much worse ever stay? And when so many women do experience so much worse, how are there any left at all?

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.