I was helping at a two day conference that a colleague had organised. On the morning of day one, I stood behind a table, handing out conference packs. A young man came to pick up his conference pack, and when I gave it to him, he asked: “how long have you been pretty for?”
I responded: “I’m sorry, that is an inappropriate question.”
He asked: “Why?”
I explained: “Because we’re both here in a professional capacity. I am not here to be pretty. My appearance is irrelevant. Besides: it happens too often that people at conferences acknowledge my appearance or gender before they acknowledge my work. It’s just not very nice.”
He said: “Well, I’m sorry to hear it happens too often for you, but I meant it as a compliment, so I wont apologise.” And he walked away, leaving me baffled.
However, five minutes later, he returned, saying: “On second thought, I do apologise. I’m sorry, my remark was inappropriate.”
I was surprised, but glad it was resolved so I said it was ok.
The next day, during the tea break, the young man came to me and said he had been thinking about the situation. He asked me to explain further what exactly was at stake in such a situation. We had a constructive discussion. We challenged and questioned each others’ views respectfully and sincerely like one would hope a respectful conversation between two philosophers goes. At the end of the tea break, he had convinced me that his inappropriate question was genuinely not motivated by ill-will or machismo, really just a compliment, albeit clumsy. And he said I had opened his eyes to what it must be like to be a woman in academia, an issue he had never really given much thought. He even held the view that such ignorance was the responsibility of men themselves, they really ought to know better. We parted on a friendly footing.
One soul at a time.
Archive for the ‘Good news’ Category
I’m worried that negative stories drive women away from a field that badly needs them – and I don’t think that negative stories cover the whole spectrum of women’s experience in philosophy.
For my own part, I’m finishing my doctoral degree at a school that is decent but not extraordinary by any means. Throughout my educational career, I’ve always been respectfully treated by my professors and peers. I have had my ideas taken seriously in class and outside of class, been invited to participate in both student-led and faculty-led reading groups and present at conferences. I was not the only woman in my incoming class, but was often the only woman in classes. When this happened, I often did not notice this fact until well into the semester – whether other women were taking a class with me did not play a large role in how much the class material interested me or how I was treated as a student. For the most part, I enjoyed my classes, and when I didn’t, it was for reasons unrelated to being a woman (e.g. the professor was boring, the content was uninteresting to me, etc).
During the course of my studies, I got engaged and later married – there were no comments made by my peers or professors except congratulations. Since then, I have continued to be encouraged to publish, apply for tenure-track positions, and participate in conferences.
The only time I was treated inappropriately, it was by an elderly visiting lecturer who decided to be “flirtatious.” The professor who was hosting him was horribly embarrassed by his behavior, tried to extricate me from the situation (though of course, being the rather clueless person that I was, I thought that would be more awkward and I stuck around longer than necessary), and apologized profusely for it afterwards. I found my professor’s response and willingness to make amends for the situation laudable but unnecessary for me (the visiting professor had merely made an inappropriate comment).
Ultimately, philosophy is like any other profession: there are some jerks, and these people could make your life horrible if you end up working with them. The majority of people in the profession, though, are excellent, thoughtful, respectful people who make good friends and colleagues. And I’m pretty sure this goes for both women and men.
As an UG, I attended a university that is moderate to mediocre in reputation. I say this as someone from a city that is highly concentrated with Ivy-leagues and their close seconds, so I went into the school feeling like I was already as a bit of a disadvantage if I wanted an academic career.
I chose to major in philosophy and a science, and pursue a B.S. over a B.A. I was maybe one of a handful of women in both departments when I started school, something that really changed (to my excitement) by the time I graduated. While in both of these departments, I was consistently approached by professors to participate in various out-of-classroom academic events, asked to mentor or speak with younger students (sometimes females, but most of the time just youngins) and even given a scholarship award based on merit in the philosophy department (ironically, the day I was awarded was the day I told them I had decided to minor in philosophy but fulfill the entire curriculum- I didn’t want to take the liberal arts requirements to get a B.A. as opposed to the B.S.). Suffice to say, I, as a very young-looking, outspoken, and conventionally good-looking enough female, was treated as one of the most favored students in the entire department (I not only felt/ appreciated this, but was told this by many other students in the department). As a consequence, other students (male and female) came to me with respectful, even playful discourses (I remember running away laughing from a male philosophy student as he shouted through our dorm room, “Examples don’t constitute arguments!”) and some even came to me for advice on papers when we were in the same classes. I had an excellent experience, graduated with my degree in science, and never looked back at it with anything but fond memories.
It wasn’t until reading this site, hearing from other female Philosophy students, and looking further into the matter that I realized that my situation wasn’t the norm. It had never even occurred to me that I should or could have been grateful for being treated the way all the other students were treated- that this was such a persistent and pervasive problem in other schools, and that I was lucky to escape something I didn’t know still existed.
I think the main difference here, honestly, is that because my school had a reputation as being less than elite, the professors were what I’d call “teaching professors” (think “teaching hospital” but in philosophy). They weren’t at the tops of their fields, nor were they churning out pieces for reputable journals like clockwork. This gave them the freedom to, well, mentor their students instead of competing with them. It made it such that students who were sincerely interested or invested in philosophy -male or female and even un-identified in one case- were treated with complete and utter respect and appreciation. The number of times I awkwardly approached a male professor to chat about some idea that came into my head at 3 AM the morning before and was met with nothing but an open mind…I feel blessed now to have gone to the school I went to.
The point of my story? I think there seems to be a heavy theme of “at X impressive university” and “Y elite school” within a lot of these posts. Perhaps the problem is cultural, but not the culture of philosophy in general…philosophy in the context of privilege and elitism. My advice to aspiring young philosophers? Go to the shitty schools. Make them better with your presence. Squeeze everything you can out of anyone who is willing to give you the opportunity, and take what you learn with you wherever you go. There is hope! The elites are only elites because they are coveted. Take that away from them…who knows what the future of philosophy could look like.
I’ve been going to philosophy conferences for 15 years now, but recently I had an odd experience at one. I slowly realised that my social status at this particular conference was basically mud. When I asked questions in a talk they were immediately laughed off as confused or ludicrous. When I made a point over lunch people ganged up to misinterpret it and contemptuously tell me how misinformed and mal-intentioned I was. It took 3 minutes of assertive clarification for people to grudgingly admit that I had a coherent question. It’s the way you might expect someone to be treated if they had committed some terrible social gaffe at the beginning of a conference – like aggressively criticising a graduate student, or saying something outright racist – but I couldn’t remember doing anything like that.
The experience of those 2-3 days really sticks out because of how unusual it was. As my career has developed I’ve found that people have gradually taken me more seriously, listened more carefully to things I have to say, and been slower to dismiss something that sounded odd or wrong without pushing me further for clarification. Not everywhere, of course – siblings, parents and taxi-drivers still treat me like I know nothing and most of what I say is insane – but in professional contexts, I’ve been benefiting from a gentle rise in social status.
Except at this one conference. And there were a few things I noticed as a result. One was that certain high status individuals – both men and women – noticed, at least at some level, what was going on with the group dynamics and intervened in either a neutral way, or in a way that was friendly towards me (“wow, people who do X sometimes get really upset when you ask them about Y, don’t they?”) and others sought me out for conversation where the subtext seemed to be “I don’t really know why all these others are acting like this, but I don’t want to be a part of that. Tell me about your work…” I was really grateful to these people, because they made me feel less like I was going insane. And it made me think: this is one of the reasons why allies are important. It made me want to be a better ally in the various situations when I’m one of the people with higher status. I want to be the one who sends the implicit message: “To hell with them. I’d like to talk to you. Tell me about your work…”
A second thing was that the memory of the experiences festered. In my hotel room at night I’d be going over them again and again in my mind trying to figure out why this was happening, and wondering whether it was just my imagination. I came up with many, many different theories. Maybe it was something to do with the way I was dressed? (I was pretty sure my skirt wasn’t see-through but perhaps when I was chairing the light was behind me?) Maybe it was that combined with generally being too confident and ‘uppity’? Maybe philosophers of X are just more conservative? Maybe it was because I forgot that person’s name when I was chairing. Maybe I accidentally offended someone on the first day? Maybe I accidentally offended someone putting together an edited volume last year? Maybe they all really, really hate something about my work. Was I being scapegoated for some criticism these people had suffered at the hands of another philosopher? Did they hate my advisor perhaps and I’m a proxy for him? Maybe one vindictive person had made up some kind of awful story about me and spread it to the others on the first day? Was I inadvertently doing something during talks that was really annoying to the people sitting behind me? and on and on. But I never figured it out, and one of the consequences of that is that I’m still interpreting and re-interpreting the events in my head, wondering whether I was just the victim of chance, or whether it was me, something about me, something I did, that caused all this. Should I be feeling ashamed? I just don’t know.
I left the Twilight Zone that was that conference and life went back to normal. I had a million other things to do, and a week later I went to a different conference, where nothing similar happened, I gave a good talk and the crack in my self-esteem was plastered over. But the whole experience – the intensifying of the being-excluded-from-the-in-group experience – really reminded me of some of the effects of having low social status, and of dealing with all those micro- (and not so micro-) aggressions. You are left with these terrible doubts: was it me? Did I bring this on myself somehow? And in the absence of a clear way to rule them out, this is exhausting and undermining. I’m fortunate; I got to walk away with nothing but a few unpleasant memories. (And a few good ones too, of the individuals who treated me with decency.) But low social-status isn’t always something society lets you leave behind.
This is in response to the call for stories of sexism being taken seriously. I’ve posted about this story here before so I won’t get into the details of the harassment. I will say that it was so extreme, I thought everybody must a) know about it, and so b) not care, given that it had been going on for so long. After a year and a half of kind of unbelievable harassment, which you’re fairly confident your colleagues are more or less indifferent to, you’re pretty despondent. But, about midway through my second year, my MA advisor, we’ll call him A, asked me to stay a minute after one of our meetings. A told me that another professor with whom I was close had relayed to him some concerns about my wellbeing, and did I want to talk to him? I was really surprised when he asked about it, to be honest. But I was close enough with A, and I knew that he definitely wasn’t close with my harasser, so I explained what had happened and how things were now. A was aghast when I gave him the details, and promptly thereafter things started to get fairly serious. I forwarded a swath of emails to A and to the dean, and over the next couple of weeks A accompanied me to a handful of meetings with the dean, in which we discussed my options. I was withdrawn from all of my classes with my harasser and he was basically given a university wide restraining order. In the aftermath I worried about what the Ws would look like on my transcripts (I was applying to PhD programs at the time) and about what my harasser might say to people about me. As for him, I don’t think the issue followed him around professionally in any way, or in any way affected his standing in the dept. I think the seriousness with which the matter was treated was a mater of protecting me from any more harm, and not directed at preventing this person from perpetrating these abuses again. It did come to my attention, in talks with A and the dean throughout this process, that my harasser was not a first time offender. So on the one hand, I think my department really let me down. On the other hand, I think A really stepped up and stood by me. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing.
While it’s important to raise awareness to the difficulties faced by women and other minorities in philosophy, there is a danger of scaring people away, as this recent blog entry exemplifies.
We should not lose sight of how culture in academia (and in philosophy in particular) has already changed for the better.
To exemplify, a few days ago I got offered (but had to decline, unfortunately, for reasons not to do with the conference or its organization) an invitation to a conference, where the organizers offered to find on site child care for my infant, and to schedule my talk to accommodate the fact that I’m breastfeeding him. They went at great lengths to make sure that the fact that I have a small baby would not prevent me from speaking at the conference. I am really impressed by the organizers, and I am sorry that I had to decline the invitation.
One woman’s response to the last post (since I don’t have a blog, but I do have a job in philosophy):
I’m sexually harassed by my professor in grad school. No. Did this happen? I don’t think so, but since there were only two women in my program, perhaps the sample size is too small to be significant.
I somehow manage to get a job anyhow (probably as a “token” woman). Oh yes (it was the eighties). Not only that, the all-male department I joined were delightedly high-fiving each other at having found a “suitable” candidate (read: from the same grad school as two of them). However, it can be satisfying to be hired as a token and go on to teach well, publish, and get tenure; since expectations are so low, everything you do that is competent is greeted with thinly veiled astonishment, then relief, and finally just seen as normal (okay, it took years, but it did happen).
I do twice as much service as my male colleagues. No, this is not permitted: there are departmental guidelines for each rank, and only full professors are at all likely to take on extra service.
My students hold me to higher standards than my male colleagues. Okay, this is true, but it is also the case outside philosophy. Men are perceived as more authoritative and knowledgeable, at least until they open their mouths. In fact, this is one of my stock examples of the difference between appearance and reality. With a little prompting, students will happily gave examples . . . . and then we’re engaged in a good discussion of confirmation bias, stereotyping, and other epistemological puzzles. Make their prejudices work for you!
Somehow I manage to publish in good journals anyhow. Yes, well, this is a tough question to answer straightforwardly, since I have a gender-ambiguous first name; what influence that may have had is hard to detect.
But I am not invited to conferences (though some organizers might lie and say they invited me). I have been invited, but after the first ten years or so I admitted to myself that I don’t enjoy conferences very much. Now I attend only infrequently and selectively (tenure is a beautiful thing).
My work is not cited, never anthologized, and not included on any syllabi. No, I get my share of citations, although my field is pretty esoteric even for philosophy — in what I now recognize as a thoroughly sexist way, I was wary of ethics and aesthetics as quasi-traditional fields for women and went into an arcane backwater of metaphysics instead.
It’s a wonder there are any of us left. Is it? I like my job, my students and most of my colleagues. I probably make more money and definitely have more job security than most women my age (57). Any male-dominated field is going to pose certain challenges, and I fervently wish that this site had existed when I was a philosophy major and a grad student. But don’t lose heart. The good life and philosophy are not incompatible for women.