Archive for the ‘implicit bias’ Category

I am a female faculty member at a mid-sized, teaching-centered state university. Although I have great colleagues and am quite happy with my current job, I fear that subtle sexism in the field may hinder the further development of my career … and I am saddened to realize that it probably already has.

Despite my efforts to gain the respect and recognition of the (mostly male) advanced scholars in my field, I definitely feel like I’ve hit a plateau or, sure, I’ll say it, a glass ceiling. I have been fairly successful getting papers published, so that’s not the problem. But this does not translate into respect or recognition at the conferences that I go to in my research areas. That is what has been irritating me lately.

For example, I have attended X conference for 6 of the last 8 years. The conference is very specialized, and the review process for getting a paper on the program is highly competitive. Still, I manage to have a paper accepted regularly. Moreover, I am one of the most active participants in the conversation at the conference each year. I know everyone’s name, as there are only about 50 of us. Despite all of this, several of the older male participants that make up the “base” of the society do not know my name. They do not bother to look up or share any biographical details when they present me. They do not read or cite my work. They have given leadership roles in the organization to male grad students over me, although I am now an Associate Professor.

I have also been going to Y conference regularly for 14 years (since my first year of graduate school up to the present). At this conference, participation is by invitation only, and you are either invited as a non-presenting participant or as a presenting participant. This approach is problematic, but would be less so if it were based on merit in any sense. Those invited to give special papers at this conference are invariably picked among (a) a group of 5 or 6 core (older male) professors and (b) their male colleagues or male (“golden boy”) students. Invites to the presentation spots on the program almost never go to females. If they do, they are usually the wives of core members. Over the past 14 years, only one of the female students of the core group have been invited to present (married to a core member). Meanwhile, about 15 male students have been invited. Highly successful female faculty have, on the other hand, been invited to take on service jobs for the organization. I can think of about a dozen women right now who gradually stopped coming to the conference, although they should be among its leadership by now.

In a field where mentoring relationships are essential to networking, it’s clear to see that lack of substantial, long-term mentorship of women philosophers is partially to blame for the low number of women in leadership positions. Although my advisor was personally very encouraging to me when I was dissertating, I am beginning to recognize that he was much more helpful to his male students in terms of real, long-term mentoring and networking. After I completed my dissertation, he never followed up with me to see about my research, to invite me in on a project, to invite me to give a talk, etc. Like many of the inspiring, successful male professors I had around me as a graduate student, none seemed to want to transition to treating me as a peer in the field. They seem very happy to have me participating in their conferences (often, I feel, as a token woman), but they seem to have no interest in really engaging my work.

Lately, I have been talking with a couple of women who are senior in the field about these things, and that makes all the difference. I hope to persuade one of them to act as a mid-career mentor for me. I don’t think it is too late to find a good mentor, but I think I need to stop expecting it to come from these male figures in the profession that I originally imagined it would come from.

Many of my experiences with peers, mentors, and scholars in the field have been extremely positive…faculty and peers are usually highly professional and supportive. But of course, even a minority of negative experiences make a tremendous difference for women in the workplace.

Earlier in my academic path, as I moved into upper-level courses with mixed undergraduate/graduate level students, I first noticed how shocked both peers and some professors were when I contributed constructively to discussions. At first I thought it was weird…maybe flattering? I didn’t have enough experience in academia to have much to compare people’s responses to my work with. Then it slowly dawned on me (duh!) that the male undergraduates didn’t receive the same shocked “gee whiz look at the new circus act” responses when they made normal contributions in lecture. The shock at my adequate to good performance in philosophy seminars was…yep, because I was a woman. I almost blamed myself for being so naive as to not see it immediately.

My most common everyday experience was this–in working groups, at conferences, in small talk over beer…me engaging in academic discussion often results in someone yelling at me, or being extraordinarily sensitive.

One example. I went with a large group to dinner at the end of a conference. I was stuck at the end of the table with someone I hadn’t met yet, so I began making small talk with him. “Where are you from? What did you think of the conference? What program are you affiliated with?” He mentioned that he was really interested in theater and Derrida. I was glad that I had something small to connect over, said that was very interesting, and he must be familiar with Derrida’s work on Artaud. I had also recently written on the topic. His countenance changed completely. He said, “Oh. What was your thesis?” …he was insistent that I give him the exact parameters of my argument. When I obliged he kept interrupting me mid-sentence saying “no, no, no. you’re wrong”. I truly only gave him the outline of my thesis statement (which I thought was strange he wanted so specifically, as it was previously a casual conversation that neither of us were particularly invested in) I finally just stopped talking and let him “have the floor” and he began yelling (yes yelling) at me about how I clearly didn’t understand anything about deconstruction and I was wrong. wrong. wrong.

A fully grown man, whom I had just met, red in the face, yelling at me in a restaurant. This drew the attention of our dinner partners…some joined in because they were worried by the suddenly yelling man and others because they were interested in the topic. A ‘spirited’ conversation about Derrida and the nature of deconstruction ensued. However, typical of my interactions in philosophy/religion, there was a spirited edge to the exchange that made me more than uncomfortable. Namely, that same man, forty minutes later still red in the face pointing at me, discussing his intense displeasure about my only barely formulated, preliminary (pretty standard, non-controversial) thoughts on deconstruction. Multiple friend from the dinner agreed, the discussion would not have played out like that if I were a fellow man.

That’s just one anecdote. I have plenty of others, which I think demonstrates what women in academia are up against almost every time they speak or express a position. Think about this calculation for a second “I could contribute to this discussion…but what are the chances that someone will yell or get defensive at my standard contribution. Is it worth the hassle?” and the collective toll it takes over an entire career? And people wonder why women are statistically so much less likely to speak up in academic settings.

Of course, beyond the everyday grab-bag of “who is going to get offended by my very existence” there’s also blatant sexual harassment. I’ve experienced it from one faculty member during undergrad (not religion or philosophy field) with some questionable physical contact (blame it on cultural differences, sure) and an insistence that he will “buy [me] drinks anytime, once [I] graduate.” At another conference, I was low-key accosted by a senior (married) faculty member from another university. He introduced himself to me, and was very interested in speaking to me during coffee breaks. After one evening session, he asked me to go back to his hotel bar to get drinks with him. I declined. He asked variations multiple times afterward, and confronted me on his last night about “not following through” on the plans I had made with him…which, to be clear, I had never made.

This is significant, in that my academic career has barely begun. These are situations that come off as uncomfortable, somewhat funny, very damning anecdotes about the gender climate in academia in general, philosophy/religion specifically. I should have reported the “inappropriate physical contact” professor at my own university. There was enough evidence…but my reasoning at the time was that I was not particularly troubled by his behavior, so it wasn’t worth my time. But what of the women that could be troubled by his behavior? That might be truly victimized? It was a failure of thoughtfulness and solidarity on my part.

But of course, how can women win on this front? Under-report sexual harassment, and you’re complicit in the problem. Over-report and jeopardize your own career by being labeled “troublesome”…”doesn’t play well with others”

I just received a truly depressing email announcing a new volume in my area. It starts off in a good way, then we get to this part (replacing names with variables):

“The contributors include luminaries such as a, b, c, d, and e. Other prominent contributors include f, g, h, i, and j.”

At first, the email made me delighted. I was delighted to see so many female contributors. But then I paused. The so-called “luminaries” were all men. The other “prominent” contributors were the rest: the women.

This was a first for me. Apparently, the editors went to a lot of trouble to find female contributors only to subtly put them down and belittle them in the end.

Do Women and Minorities Have an Advantage on the Job Market?

This story is for everyone who thinks women and minorities have an unfair advantage on the job market in philosophy.

My old department is typical in a lot of ways: It is a well-respected, undergraduate-only program at a state university that is not the flagship; the faculty is 100% white and almost all male; and the philosophy majors look a lot like the faculty. It is similar to many philosophy departments at state universities and liberal arts colleges across the country.

Two years ago we were doing a search. Early on, a person from the EO office came to brief us on the rules. We were told, in a 60-minute presentation, about all the ways we might be biased against female and minority candidates, and many of the ways we could attempt to overcome those biases. We were also told that it was appropriate to seek to hire someone who would be a good role model for students from underrepresented groups, including women. (In fact, I had managed to convince my former colleagues to include, among the preferred criteria in the ad for the position, something about attracting female and minority students to the major.)

“But,” one of my former colleagues asked the EO officer, “isn’t it illegal to prefer a candidate on the basis of gender or race?”

The EO officer hemmed and hawed and said various things. My former colleagues proceeded to grill her, asking for definitions and principles, which were then refuted by counterexamples, leading to further attempts by the EO officer to clarify, and still more refutations and counterexamples. The EO officer kept trying to get across the message that although it is illegal to prefer a candidate merely on account of race or gender, there were nevertheless many nuanced ways the department could attempt to address its extreme lack of diversity. But my former colleagues were having none of it. Their sole takeaway from the meeting was that it is illegal to prefer a candidate based on gender or race.

After that a very curious thing happened. During search committee meetings, A would say, about every 20 minutes (or so it seemed), “It’s illegal to prefer a candidate just because she is female!” And this would be met with enthusiastic murmurs of agreement by all of my other former colleagues. Soon all of my former colleagues took up A’s call, and would repeatedly blurt out, à propos of nothing, “It’s illegal to prefer a candidate on account of race or gender!”

Meanwhile, I noticed a second, very odd phenomenon. Every time I said something positive about a female candidate (even casually, in the hallway or in someone’s office), the immediate response by my former colleagues was to make a case against that candidate. If I said of some female candidate, “I really liked x’s writing sample,” the response would be, “But there was a line in one of her letters that made me wonder if she is the strongest candidate from her department,” or “But she went to college at an Ivy League school, so she might not be the best fit for us.” Meanwhile, if I said anything positive about a male candidate, the response was always just to agree, and perhaps to add a further positive comment about that candidate. (This was such a striking and uncanny phenomenon that I went out of my way to test it, thinking that I was imagining the effect. And sure enough, it was really happening.)

I became worried that female and minority candidates were not getting a fair shake in our search process. So I began to pay closer attention to how candidates from different demographic groups were being evaluated. What I found was that writing samples by women and minorities were deemed “murky” and “unclear”, while similar writing samples by white men were judged to be “deep” or “provocative”. Similarly, white men who said something in their cover letters about being committed to increasing diversity in philosophy were given major points for that, while women and minorities who had actually done things – organized special events, created programs to improve the climate for women and minorities in their departments, etc. – were given no credit for their work along that dimension. At one point, A even said of such a white man (one who had mentioned his commitment to increasing diversity in his cover letter, but had not yet actually done anything about it), “I think he would be better on our preferred criterion [attracting female and minority students] than any of these women or minorities!”

Then something nearly inexplicable occurred. I got a call from the department chair, informing me that I was being formally accused, by B, of illegally discriminating on the basis of race or gender, and that he (Department Chair) was backing up the accusation. In accordance with the official procedure, I was to meet in the chair’s office with B and Department Chair to determine whether the matter could be resolved informally, or would instead have to proceed through the official steps that could result in my being disciplined.

My initial thought was that I was being pranked. But at the meeting with Department Chair and B, the latter claimed, in an oddly triumphant way, that I had said in a recent meeting that I thought Candidate X would be good at attracting female students because she is a woman. I replied that I distinctly remembered saying that Candidate X would be good at attracting female students because she is a woman who is a particularly charismatic teacher with a proven track record of attracting female students to the major, and who would serve as an excellent role model for women in our program. “No,” Department Chair told me, “It’s like B here claims. You said Candidate X would be good just because she is a woman.”

I had been choosing my words very carefully since the beginning of the search, given my former colleagues’ bizarre behavior, so I knew exactly what I had said in the meeting. But Department Chair told me that he was not interested in my recollection of what I had said. He made it very clear that although he was going to let me off the hook this time, any future behavior by me regarding the search that could be interpreted as discriminating against white men would be dealt with severely, as illegal discrimination on the basis of race or gender.

It seemed clear that the whole exercise had been designed to have a chilling effect on me, so as to keep me quiet during the remainder of the search. I didn’t actually believe that Department Chair would take the matter to anyone outside the department, nor did I believe that I was in any danger of being disciplined if he did. But the episode did have a chilling effect on me, insofar as it showed me how determined my former colleagues were not to hire a woman or a minority candidate.

Which, of course, we didn’t. And although my former colleagues stubbornly (and absurdly) insist that they are as pro-diversity as anyone else in philosophy, and always simply hire the best philosopher, regardless of race or gender, it’s clear in retrospect that women and minorities never had much of a chance in that search. (Or any of the many searches that took place over the 17 years I was with that department, none of which resulted in an offer being made to a woman or a person of color.) The amount of implicit bias displayed in my old department’s searches over the years was embarrassing, and the amount of explicit bias in the most recent search was shameful.

Maybe my old department is unusual in its reactionary attitudes. And my sense is that at least some philosophy departments are genuinely concerned about the discipline’s historic lack of diversity. But my fear is that among undergraduate-only philosophy departments, at state universities and liberal arts colleges, that attitude is actually quite common. In any case, because of what I have seen of searches firsthand, from the inside, you cannot convince me that women or minorities have some kind of advantage on the job market. In fact it seems obvious to me that just the opposite is still true.

Three experiences as an invited speaker in different geographical locations.

The chair is late for my talk. I find my way to the seminar room with plenty of time but find the room locked. I find someone who has the keys and set up on time. Eventually, after 15 min delay, I start my presentation. Due to the delay I make my talk shorter to 35 min in hope to accommodate more questions. As soon as I finish the presentation the chair claims that because I started late, I only have 5 min for questions. I receive interesting questions and the audience shows enthusiasm and engagement. However, the chair decides to take over and ask a series of condescending questions that offer no constructive discussion on the content of the talk. They insist on speaking over me and eventually people start leaving the room. I try desperately to accommodate more questions from the audience, but the chair continues to dominate and patronises me on every response. By the end, he has kept me 30 min over and there is no one left in the room. I do not get thanked for my talk and there is no one to applaud. I leave the room feeling like my talk went poorly even though the audience showed nothing but appreciation and interest.

I arrive on time for my presentation, set up everything and notice that the audience is almost entirely made of mature male academics. Before I start my presentation one of them loudly refers to me as ‘young lady’ and after I start my presentation he interrupts me and asks me to speak up because my ‘voice is too weak’. The questions session is dominated by condescending and dismissive questions. No woman asks a question. After a while people start leaving the room. Eventually the chair says they are very busy with work the next day and leaves. Despite my attempts, I am never reimbursed for the trip.

Upon arrival to give an invited talk to a big class of students and members of staff I discover that the chair has not advertised the talk sufficiently in advance. 10 minutes after my talk is supposed to start I find myself alone with the chair in a big auditorium. Eventually he calls two of his friends who are members of staff and they appear. I start the presentation. I was told that many students were going to attend this seminar because they were interested in the topic and I was an expert on it, so I had prepared an hour-long detailed presentation. I give the whole presentation and after I finish the three men admit they do not know much about the topic and do not have questions. Despite of that, they start asking me some completely irrelevant questions, not about my talk, and continue to keep me there for over an hour. Eventually the two leave and I am left with the chair. Tired and desperate to get back to the hotel, which was hours away from the campus, I ask how to get back as it was late and I was not sure there are services running to the city. The chair tells me that there is only one bus and that I might have already missed it (it was already late in the evening). They then tell me they have to drive back due to busy schedule the next day and leave. Due to an incident on the road I managed to get the last bus just before it leaves, but I could have easily been stuck there with no way to get back to the city. I was, again, not thanked for my talk or the massive trip I had to make to be there.

Several things I heard from senior male professors during my degrees that made me seriously doubt I have any hope in the profession.

After expressing fascination with a course a new (female) member of staff was offering, on feminist philosophy of science, my advisor tells me not to waste time on ‘rubbish philosophy’ and do ‘serious subjects’. He also condescendingly described the really established female professor offering this subject as not ‘too poor given the pointless field in which she works’. I took the subject anyway and to this day consider it one of the most rewarding experiences. Going against the advice of my advisor, however, was not to my benefit.

I was told that I have to watch out not to get pregnant because that would be the end of my career.

I was told I cannot expect to peruse an academic career if I am in a serious relationship and that if one wants to succeed in academia one needs to forget about their personal life (this came from an academic who, of course, was married with children).

I was told that publishing in the most prestigious journals in my field before I even submit my thesis is not an accomplishment and I should not feel confident that I will make it in the profession, that one needs to ‘do a lot more to prove themselves’. My male colleagues who did not have such accomplishments were told they are great and will surely have a career (and they now do).

One of my referees describes me in his reference letter as ‘hardworking’, ‘reliable’, ‘organised’, ‘diligent’ and a ‘great tutor’, despite the fact I overachieved during my degree and outperformed most of my colleagues in the department in terms of research output. I never received the same support and recognition as the male students and was never made to think I have a future in academia.

I’m sick of feeling like an imposter in this discipline, and I’m sick of having to work twice as hard as all the guys to get even roughly comparable marks, and I’m sick of being told I should be grateful for tiny changes. So I have some questions I need answered.

Why do I have to sit in a class on [topic removed] listening to people defend a rapist? Why do middle aged, middle class, white men in philosophy think they have the epistemic authority to moralise about gendered violence? Why isn’t their attempt to justify rape acknowledged to be as threatening as it is?

How come my lecturer thinks it’s acceptable to advance the idea that there shouldn’t be protocols against faculty-student relationships when we literally *just* read a book about a professor who rapes his student? How come he thinks it’s okay to do this in a philosophy classroom, knowing full well that philosophy is the worst discipline for sexual harassment and assault of female students by male faculty?

Why do I have to feel afraid or intimidated of potential supervisors or lecturers? Why are there still so many instances of harassment and assault against women in philosophy departments and why does no one seem to care? Why do I have female classmates who start grad school with the expectation that they’ll be harassed? And why is it so heartbreaking to hear them confess that they’re worried they’re unattractive when they’re *not* hit on? How warped is that?

Why do I have to research PhD positions based on an entirely different set of criteria to men? How come I don’t get to apply to departments based on potential supervisors or ranking? How come I have to make sure I pick a department that has philosophers of my gender working in it? How come I have to make sure I pick a department where no male faculty have been investigated for sexual misconduct?

Is it any wonder that male students are getting better marks than me when I’m working a day job on top of this degree to survive? As well as the domestic and emotional labour that comes with my gender? And if my marks suffer as a result, how am I supposed to compete for funding to even make it to grad school?

Why do I have to fight so hard for every little thing, like getting rid of the title ‘Philosopher King’ for the president of the Philosophy Club? Why is it so hard for others to accept gender neutral language? If we can’t even do that, in a student club, how are we going to increase women’s representation in the discipline?

If academic philosophy is as competitive as Olympic level sports, like my supervisor says, how come men get away with performance enhancing drugs and I don’t? Why am I treated differently? Why don’t I get mentoring, and extra help, and networking opportunities?

How come when I ask for things, like tutoring assignments, or comments on my work, I get made to feel like I’m too aggressive or pushy or demanding (when I even *get* a response), but when male students do it they’re motivated go-getters?

How come when I try to talk in in class and give arguments I’m called ‘too emotional’ instead of passionate? Why do men think it’s okay to talk over me? How come I get interrupted not only by classmates but *by my own students?* How come people don’t take me seriously as a philosopher when I have good marks and extracurriculars to back me up?

If this is one of the better departments, how come I had to set up a society for women in philosophy? How come we still only have three women in the faculty? If this is a good department, what’s grad school going to look like?

But most of all, if I’m a good student, and a good tutor, and have the potential to be a good philosopher, how come I have to keep asking myself the question men never have think about; whether I should even stay in philosophy at all?

After all the ups-and-downs, ins-and-outs, rough-and-tumble politics of a graduate career, as a “woman of color” (a term which I despise, but for which no adequate substitute really exist), the final nail was hammered into the coffin of my philosophical aspirations just over two years ago. My Ph.D. program expelled me, under the thin veneer of academic failure. Internal appeals failed me, and the prospect of pursuing external appeals through various deans and administrators, even should they succeed, seemed to exhausting to consider. As information about how other (white, male) graduate students were treated, it became clear to me that had I received even slightly comparable consideration and treatment, I would have been able to finish. No one will ever admit my expulsion had to do with race or gender, and indeed, there is a very good story about why I was expelled and department policies. On paper, it is all legitimate. The story completely fails to explain why white, male students were not subject to the letter of the law, and given chances I was not owed. The message was clear: THEY can fuck up frequently and continue, but YOU are always a fuck-up and we will run you out.

There was definitely a grieving process. After all, a Ph.D. in Philosophy had been my singular objective for more or less a decade – my entire adult life, at the time. I organized my life around, I made my choices to reflect it. It occupied a significant portion of my emotional life. It defined, in part, who I thought I was.

That was, as I said, about two years ago. As life moved on, my life changed form. Though employed as a philosophy professor at a community college, and, thus, technically a professional philosopher, I began to mentally disassociate myself from the profession. I no longer identify as a professional philosopher. When, in social settings, someone says, “You are a philosopher?” my joking response is to say, “Shhh! Don’t tell anyone!” and promptly change the subject. Rather than regularly checking blogs, I wandered onto them only occasionally – sometimes realizing months had passed since I’d visited them (once a daily activity) – and then only in some sort cathartic rubber-necking type moments. I signed off of email lists and gave away books (well, not all of them, but a lot of them). I stopped listening to philosophy podcasts, and gradually eliminated all but a few philosophers from my social life. The ones who are still in my life are people with whom I, as a stringent rule, never discuss the profession or philosophy at all, except as a passing remark here and there.

I became involved in legislative advocacy for higher education in my state (so I still deal with plenty of, uhm, colorful behavior). I subscribed to the local symphony. I went to hear bands and traveled to places where I wasn’t going to conferences. I made friends who are artists and real estate agents and accountants and school teachers and chefs and most definitely not philosophers.

I realized recently that I was happier than I had been in years. In fact, I was happier than I had been since I first started taking philosophy classes as an undergrad. This realization was both joyous – that I had recovered from such a brutal and unfair ending to my hopes and ambitions – and melancholy – that something, which I had loved so much and brought me so much joy when I first encountered it, had been reduced, through the racist and sexist actions of its principle advocates – to a increasingly distant memory that is better banished from my life.

I wonder how many people out there feel the same way.

Although I have been a long time reader of your blog, I am not a woman, nor am I a philosopher. I am, however, in a related field, and find myself interacting fairly regularly with philosophers both at academic philosophy conferences and over the internet. I would like to share with you the substance of an outrageous exchange I have borne witness to via a listserv I am subscribed to.

For those readers that don’t use them, a listserv is an email list where messages are sent to a large number of subscribers. Often, people have conversations with each other over the listserv via “reply-all” email messages (which means that everyone on the listserv ends up as a silent party to these).

Usually, my listserv has been generally apolitical and professional. However, recently a series of exchanges occurred that were very ugly indeed. The context of this exchange was that the candidates for prestigious graduate postdoctoral and graduate fellowships had been announced. Three of the fourteen positions had gone to female applicants. A female professor suggested that—given the large number of applications—female applicants were badly underrepresented in the small sample of successful applicants. Her concerns were rudely dismissed. But the manner of this dismissal is what shocked me. It revealed the side of professional philosophy that accepts casual misogyny and is dismissive of taking action against it.

In order to provide evidence of this, I’ll reproduce the important parts of this conversation here verbatim. I have removed any reference to any individual, the specific fellowship, or the specific subfield of philosophy. Remarks that I did not find offensive are not reproduced here.

Female Professor:
“Has there been a year when the majority [of the successful applicants] were women? In the case of a confidential selection process, has there been a year in which the committee doing the selecting contained a majority of women? Apparently, whenever you start and whenever you stop counting, the count looks very similar from year to year, which is in itself interesting information. Why, when women are more than half the population and quite a bit more than half the students, would anyone claim to see any bias here? What sort of point is that to make?”

Male Professor #1:
“Dear [Female Professor #1], would you please consider to accept it as a matter of fact that in the field of [philosophy subfield] there are less active women than men?! If you want a quota reflecting this fact, three out of ten speakers should be women at the most. If you don’t like the fact of there being less women than men in the field, try to encourage girls and women to occupy themselves with it. No reason to annoy everyone with your foolish bleating all the time.”

Male Professor #2:
“Perhaps, [Male Professor #1], it’s condescending remarks (and worse) like yours that suggest the climate is not very welcoming?”

Male Professor #1:
“My remark was not very polite because it’s not polite at all to constantly accuse others of working against women in [subfield] while organizing conferences etc., which is very tiring.”

Male Professor #3:
“Facts concerning distribution of gender across a population should have no bearing on facts concerning distribution of abilities in [philosophy subfield] (and thus determination of meritorious holders of academic positions in [philosophy subfield]).”

The outcry that followed basically amounted to “stop talking about this – we can discuss academic politics at our yearly meeting.” Although other posters took the idea that women face systemic discrimination, the idea of questioning the selection process for the fellowships was not discussed.

As I said before, I am not a woman, nor am I a philosopher. I am not concerned about the fellowships—I obviously have no stake in who gets them. But I know that these comments reveal a “blunt sexism” that I find unacceptably narrow-minded and dismissive. It angers me on behalf of the female philosophers I know—any of whom might find that similar sexist attitudes might cost them a chance at a fellowship someday—and I felt that I could, at least, share this outrageous episode with this blog. Academia, and particularly philosophy, should be capable of dealing with this problem than to tell a respected female academic (publically!) to “stop bleating”.

As I look back at what just happened, I’m confused. I don’t know what the “answer” is, if there is one, and I do not mean to shame anyone personally (although in this case I am tempted to think that this might be well deserved). I was just disgusted and after mulling it over, I thought I should submit it to you.

To some degree, I feel ashamed and foolish for not speaking out more than I did; I should have given a strong, all-caps retort defending the right of female philosophers to question arcane (and clearly sexist) selection policies. It all happened quickly, and I didn’t really grasp what was happening until the “bleating” comment came out (just like everyone else, I tune out boring email–like discussing selection policies–and just like everyone else I probably shouldn’t). That is a reason but not an excuse.

I hope that I can spread awareness about the unfair selection procedures for fellowships with this submission to your blog. Young academics need to be able to see what is happening behind the curtain, and in this case it reveals that sexism is surprisingly overt.

I’m becoming increasingly aware (as I move into the second half of my 50s) of what appears to be sexism or ageism, or perhaps both combined, among philosophy students, both male and female.
Here is some of the story.

Our main research-preparation Masters programme involves the student selecting an area of study to work on in detail with a tutor, two modules with two different tutors per semester. Currently all the Faculty in my department, apart from myself, are male. These male colleagues are generally overloaded with requests from the students to supervise their studies for the Masters programme, while students rarely if ever ask to work with me; and there comes a point when a preferred male colleague is so hard pressed that he tells the graduate student officer not to send any more to him. In a recent case where this happened, the graduate officer asked me whether I would take the student on, since the student wanted to work in an area in which I have up to date expertise and some research reputation to the level required. I agreed to take the student, but when the Grad Officer proposed this arrangement to the student, the student declined to do that topic and opted for a different topic that would justify him being assigned to a young and relatively inexperienced male colleague. This was a male student, one who had come from elsewhere and had never met me. Rather to the discomfort of the graduate officer, this student had apparently changed topic to avoid being assigned to me (distinguished senior professor) and to facilitate being assigned to a junior, relatively unknown though very capable, male colleague. It is hard to know what the reason for this move was, other than that working with a middle aged woman was distasteful, or that he hoped to be more lucky with getting a male supervisor for the topic if he postponed it to do in the second semester.

I think these events are becoming noticeable because I am now in a position of being very senior and (at least in theory, though not in practice) highly regarded in my field, beyond my own university and in the academic world globally, so it looks odd when a student refuses opportunities to study with me.

You begin to look for a reason. And then you begin to see a pattern.

For it is not that I have a reputation for bad teaching: on the contrary, after teaching my own Masters taught module for one of our interdisciplinary programmes, all the students on that module wanted to have me to supervise their dissertation. Yet at the same time there is a female PhD student working in my field, whose review at the end of the probationary year I served on. She had been experiencing problems with her first (male) supervisor, and rightly saw after the review that she needed to change supervisors to solve the problem, and that the advice she had received from the review panel was helpful, yet she insisted on transferring to work not with me (who has published on her chosen themes) but with the other (male) member of her review panel. Unsurprisingly this has not helped much, and she has recently been coming to me to get advice and support because her current supervisor is overworked and finds it hard to give constructive advice to his PhD students, particularly if he thinks that they are not making good progress.

Now I am marking the undergraduate dissertation of a student who took some of my UG modules before choosing his dissertation topic. The dissertation topic is in my main field of expertise, the one on which my own publications are globally recognised. After enrolling for the dissertation module, the student approached a young male colleague who works in a different area of philosophy to approve his topic and agree to supervise it. Once or twice during the preparation of the dissertation, the student consulted me for advice on matters of scholarly practice in the field (how to reference the works, what edition to use, whether some view was regarded as loony); now the dissertation is on my desk and the old question surfaces in my mind again. Why? And why are all my own publications on this field missing from his bibliography? Why are only two of the authors in his bibliography female, and those two are not philosophers but references to other aspects of context (the translator of some poetry in translation, and a historian of religion)? This is happening despite the fact that the students are taught by a woman for almost all their work on this part of philosophy during their undergraduate training, and yet immediately they want to do their research on it with a man, and to read the work of men. And yet, they do not think my teaching is bad. The student feedback is good. They enjoy and value their tutorials with me. It inspires them to want to go on and do more. That’s why they are choosing a dissertation in this field. So what is going on?

Is it that a woman teaching you in your beginner years is like a primary school teacher, who prepares you to go on to work with the more demanding stuff that men do, when you are grown up? Or is it that a middle-aged woman doesn’t provide the erotic charge that makes one-to-one work thrilling? Or is it that you know that a reference from a woman will carry no weight for your graduate school application or your research fellowship application? Or what exactly?

I remember once, as a female graduate student in philosophy, trying to raise some serious complaints about a senior male philosopher who was making the climate for me and several other junior women in the philosophy department miserable. He was utterly disrespectful of the work of women, regularly making female students cry when alone with him in his office (an achievement of which, I was told by his friends, he was rather proud). He ignored my work and belittled my ideas, and he did the same to other women in front of me. He once lost his temper and yelled at me in front of a group of other philosophers, for pressing a philosophical objection to his view which he did not know how to address. My male philosopher friends said he seemed like “an OK guy” to them although some of them had heard he was “funny about” women.

In response to my complaint, all that happened was that another senior philosopher in the department (a friend and colleague of the person I’d complained about) held a meeting with the two of us. This was terrifying for me. At the meeting, the person I had complained about told me off, saying (and I can still picture his face as he said this) “Don’t just get upset and take it out on me”.

His friend and colleague, the only other person in the room, stood by and said nothing when this remark was made.

It was agreed that I wouldn’t work with him any more, and nothing else was done. The philosopher who arranged the meeting told me explicitly that if I were to try and take things any further it would not go well for my career.

I began suffering from an ongoing panic attack disorder at this time which has had a huge impact on my life ever since and is still not entirely resolved after ten years. I very nearly quit philosophy. (I’m glad I didn’t; I’m good at it, and as soon as I was away from that environment I was very successful in the profession.)

At a careers advice meeting for aspiring academics, the senior philosopher who had organised that meeting announced to the audience that, in professional philosophy, things are no different for women than they are for men.

The man I complained about was then promoted. He currently holds a top-rank position at an elite university.

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.

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.

What gets mentioned

Posted: December 11, 2013 by Jender in implicit bias

A book review by a man, of several books in a row, two by male authors, one by me, i.e. a female author. Two books (mine and one by a male author) are revised Phd-thesis. For the other book, this is not mentioned at all. For my book, it is mentioned twice, in a belittling tone à la “we cannot expect so much from it because it is only a revised Phd thesis” (comparing it to another book by a male author that has a completely different focus). Sigh…

A few years ago I [presented] my research at a conference. My talk was chaired by a semi-well known… male professor who is known to be condescending towards female academics. I had traveled a long way to attend this conference and present my research and was really looking forward to receiving questions on my paper. The chair not only cut my talk in half on the excuse that we were running late, giving me less than 15 min to present my paper, but did not allow me to answer any of the questions that the very few people were allowed to ask. Instead, every time I started answering the questions he interrupted me and insisted talking over me and claiming I did not understand the main view I was criticizing. I tried to explain to him why he had misunderstood my argument, but he spoke over me and did not allow me to address any of the criticisms, he just spoke over me until he told me my time was up. I was really disappointed to have lost the opportunity to discuss the questions, especially given that some established philosophers came to see my talk, so I approached them in the coffee break and attempted to discuss their questions. This did not last long; the chair came to join the discussion by standing between me and the professor who had asked the question. The chair turned his back at me and started talking to the professor referring to me as ‘she’ and saying how all I said was wrong. I was right there; able to hear him undermining me and absolutely excluded from the discussion. Having worked with the most established proponent of the view I discussed and published several papers on the topic, I did not feel threatened by the groundless accusations. I felt disappointed that he completely wasted my time and the resources of my institution that funded my trip by depriving me of the opportunity to discuss my research with academics who were actually interested in what I had to say.

Who gets the questions

Posted: August 3, 2013 by Jender in ignoring women, implicit bias

Fairly recently, a colleague at a different university and I wrote a paper together and were invited to present our research at a well-funded, selective philosophy workshop on the topic. I am a theoretician, and my colleague is more of an experimentalist, and we were presenting joint work on some experiments that we had designed together but which my colleague had carried out. My colleague is very senior, extremely well known, and at one of the top 2 programs in the field. I am more junior (having then recently gotten tenure), at a top 10 program. (I was honored to be asked to co-author something, in fact. It’s great for my cv.) We both are in a branch of cognitive science, not philosophy.

At the meeting, we jointly presented our joint work with powerpoint slides my colleague had prepared: I spoke for about 20 minutes, and my co-author for about 20 minutes, and then we took questions. Here’s where we fell through the looking-glass: every one of the questions from the 10 attendees (9 men, 1 woman) was directed at me, the junior non-experimentalist. Almost every one of the questions (mostly about the experimental design, results, alternatives, etc.) would have been better asked of my co-author, and for most of them, I did indeed simply turn to my co-author and turn the floor over with no comment.

Afterwards, my co-author and I remarked on this shocking and bizarre behavior. By now I presume the reader has guessed that I am a man and my co-author a woman. QED.

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.

We are discussing two scenarios in seminar that seem to provide a similar result, and I ask how we can claim that the results are equivalent when there was no justification in one case for a belief about certain contents. Specifically, I said “This seems odd to me. How can we say that A “knows” what P means in the exact same way that B “knows” what P means, if A has no prior knowledge and no justification but B is a native speaker of the language that P is written in?”

A classmate responded with “you didn’t mean to say “know,” but that’s okay” and made a patting gesture with his hand at the side of his desk, slightly below desk height.

The professor entered the discussion: “Actually, I think that she inadvertently made a good point even if she didn’t mean to.”

I was still sitting right there. No one answered my question, and no one explained to me how I was using the word “know” in a way that was different from the way that my classmates were using the word “know” in the same discussion, or why it was appropriate for their claim but not my question.

Let me preface this by saying that I am truly grateful to all of the women and men who have made, and who continue to make, our discipline a more welcoming, inclusive, and equitable discipline. I consider myself honored to know and work with some amazing, supportive, philosophers. That said, we are not there yet. Things are not changing quickly enough. We, as philosophers and as human beings, should not tolerate anything less than equity any longer.

Ever since its inception, I have found this blog therapeutic. Many of the stories here comport all too well with my own experience. There is some comfort in knowing that I am not alone. I have been amazed, time and again, when colleagues and friends express surprise at the stories they find here. I am amazed that they do not realize similar things are happening in such close proximity to themselves. I am amazed that some of my colleagues—some of whom have, at times, behaved horrifically themselves—fail to recognize the inequality that is right in front of them.

I note this because I have myself been discriminated against, harassed, propositioned, excluded, talked over, disparaged, and so on. Many of my own colleagues either don’t know the details, or haven’t noticed events that have taken place right in front of them. They don’t realize that what might seem like one-off bad jokes, disrespectful comments, and offers of romantic and sexual interaction are just small pieces of a much larger pattern. They don’t realize the extent to which harassment, discrimination, and even assault take place within our discipline.

We tend to think the problems are someplace else. We tend to think our friends cannot possibly be part of the problem. We cannot possibly be part of the problem. Often, we are mistaken.

Philosophers: Take notice. Listen. Act. Please. These are not just anonymous stories on a blog. These are real people. Real lives. Real suffering. Sometimes your colleagues, and sometimes your friends.

Differential treatment by chair

Posted: April 30, 2013 by Jender in implicit bias

I recently experienced an unpleasant dismissal by both a speaker and session chair at a major conference where I was a commentator.

The session to which I refer was divided into a number of pairs of speakers and commentators. My session was last, and I therefore had the opportunity to see how the previous speakers and commentators (all males) were treated by the male session chair.

As is the norm, the speaker usually responds to comments before opening the floor to questions from the audience. However, as soon as my comments were finished, without hesitation the chair began to accept questions from the audience, giving the speaker no chance to respond to my comments. This had not happened to the preceding male commentators.

At the end of each sub-session, the chair had asked the male commentators if they had further responses to make during questions and after the last question, and also made remarks pertaining to the content of the comments, which he mentioned he had read prior to the session. I was entirely ignored, and he had clearly not read my comments.

As I got up to leave at the end of the session, the chair acknowledged that he had forgotten to ask for a response to my comments, although he seemed to take this matter lightly and did not apologize. The male speaker said that this was fine. He himself had also never acknowledged receipt of my comments by email prior to the session. When my comments were alluded to sympathetically in questions from the audience, he dismissed them as being irrelevant to his main argument. In the course of verbalizing this dismissal, he managed to entirely forget my name.

Although this incident is comparatively minor, it was evident to audience members that I had been treated distinctly differently to the male commentators. Given that this was in front of a 90% male audience, it unhelpfully reinforces the notion amongst male philosophers that female philosophers need not be attended to as to their male counterparts.

This might have been easier to bear (though by no means lacking in blameworthiness) if the paper on which I was commenting had been worthy of my time. But it had been classified as a “weak acceptance” as it fitted well with the program.

I have mostly, and certainly recently, experienced considerable respect from my male colleagues – so this dismissal has served as a timely reminder (as though one were needed) that there is absolutely no room for complacency.