Archive for the ‘low numbers of women’ Category

-Being the only woman in a class of 15 men

-Having to pull aside a colleague to tell him I am in class to learn and not to be sexually harassed

-Being pursued rather aggressively by a professor only to be silenced on behalf of your academic career

-Having a classmate to ask me just how gay I am on a scale of 1 to 7 after denying him an unsolicited sexual advance

Over the weekend I initiated a discussion about gender equality in our department on our philosophy club facebook page. The conversation began by pointing out the unequal ratio of men and women represented by the posters in our seminar room (10 to none). Following was an explanation of how a friend of mine volunteered her time to create a few posters of women to hang in the room. I have received some positive comments in response to the original post but to my surprise, there is one student who offered quite a lengthy negative response. I won’t include the entire transcript here, just a few notable quotes from this self-proclaimed “counter-part man philosopher.”

“you think you will “help alleviate some of the symptoms of the larger problem of underrepresentation of women in philosophy,” but as my analysis has just show: no, I don’t think you “help alleviate . . . the larger problem,” but rather: you aggravate it. You don’t make thing better, you only make it worse. So, be careful, I like to warn you, let heed over a proverb that says: “The road that leads to hell is paved with good intentions.”

“I guess your feeling of “to be the only woman in a class of 15 men” must be like that of my feeling if I were to be the only men in the class of 15 women, which I would like a lots, I like it even more if those women are young, attractive, beautiful, and charming—the qualities that I think you lack!”

“Oh, do you know why philosophy course, especially advanced seminar graduate course, is almost always has no female student like you, to a rather extreme point of the male/female ratio of 15 to 1 such as the course which you are in right now, (my name)? I may be wrong but it is my belief that female students cannot—to borrow the phrase from a movie starred by Tom Cruise— “handle the truths” of philosophy; that is to say, being able to handle the truths of philosophy is some sort of—again, to borrow a film title from Tom Cruse—“Mission Impossible” for female students to accomplish. Put it differently, female students must have the feeling that the truths of philosophy somehow and in someway just, in the words of Robert Kegan in the book with the same title—“In Over Our Heads” to grasp. The matter can be stated simply thus: philosophy is not for the “weak of mind” and “the faint of heart.”

“When whoever you are that have great, impactful, or influential ideas or thoughts; have accomplished great, important, significant, or revolutionary deeds, actions, or performance but I ignore you solely because you are a woman, then I am guilty of or violate the principle of fairness and justice. But if you have nothing significant, important, impactful, influential, or revolutionary to say, then why you want or demand me to listen to you?”

“I think the real reason why women philosophers have not been well-represented or under-represented is because their ideas, thoughts, writings, or works are not as great, causing big impacts, and influential as their counterpart men philosophers, and not because of the fact that they are women.”

“your philosophic ideas, works are plainly not as great and influential as those philosophical giants decorated and represented on the seminar walls” (These are Ghandi, MLK, and Plato?)

“I hope I make my point clear: you are not well-represented or underrepresented not because you are a woman, but because your ideas, thoughts, and intellectual works are not quite that great, important, causing big impact, or influential.”

“Does any woman philosopher who has world’s shattering, significantly important, and greatly influential ideas, thoughts, and intellectual works but get ignored and underrepresented?”

“Oop, I should have better quoted from some female philosopher (like Simone de Beauvoir) rather than from the poor male Sartre, shouldn’t I?”

Then in a private message:

Him: I have read quite a great number of great works on the subject matter of feminism, from both men and women writers, I even currently take such Philosophy and Feminism, of which for some reason you dropped out. My point is: I am not ill-informed as you think I am!

Me: Three weeks into a feminism course, you must be an expert on the female experience.

Him: No, not really, I have read lots of works on the subject matter of feminism, from both the perspectives of men writers as well as women writers.

Me: So you must understand feminism from a woman’s perspective then.

Him: I guess I do, both from my theoretical reading and from being a man who has married thrice (three times) to three women, and divorced as many times! In my life I have been living and in contact with female human being such as my mother, aunts, sisters, and female cousins and nephews, so I think I have a good grasp as to what and how those female human folks may think and value different from us men!

Well, I’d say it’s just like being a woman in general: tougher, more badass, and (*oh lord did she really say it*) better. I’ve never liked the expression “man, you need to grow a pair” (or any of its equivalents), but to highlight the message it tries to convey behind its childish facade, it does indeed take something extra – and no, not ‘a pair’ – to be a woman in philosophy.

It takes courage.

As opposed to the situation for our male counterparts, it seems to be demanded of women a primary explanation as to why we – being non-male – are even here, at the up until recently males only party known as philosophy. In other words, before we can Do, we must Defend.

This is unfair.**

Still, the lack of fairness at this “party” does not mean that we, i.e. women, can’t have one heck of a night. In fact, I argue, we are the ones who can go home and rightfully say “Not only did I work some philosophical magic today, but I also made the world a bit better.”

Because regardless how many questions, frowns or any type of belittling looks are thrown upon us, we Stay and we Do philosophy.

And this makes being a woman in philosophy tougher, more badass, and (*you bet your bum she said it*) better.

**Clarification of statement just made: to treat x with less respect than y due to a discriminatory cause is unfair, and any average philosopher will (hopefully) agree on that.

 I am a woman who recently started a job in a department with a long history of being all more mostly male. I don’t know most of my colleagues very well yet but they seem nice and well intentioned. Still it feels strange to be the only woman at some meetings, in those contexts, my gender is something that I am aware of. Recently a man I’ve never interacted with who works in another area of campus (though has some affiliation with my department) contacted me electronically to ask me for coffee. I thought it was a collegial invitation, perhaps to welcome me or get to know the new hire but after I accepted he wrote back referring to his positive thoughts about my appearance. I told him that any coffee meeting would be just friendly and his response suggested that he didn’t really take my clarification all that seriously. Some people suggested to me that they thought he might just be very awkward or going through a tough time. But is there any excuse for this?

I recently attended an interdisciplinary conference and had a quite revealing experience with a fellow male philosopher. Most of the students at the conference were computer scientists, mathematicians, or linguists. There were some philosophers, but they were in the minority of attendees.

It was break time and I was near these two male students who were introducing themselves to each other. One of them was a philosopher (P) and the other was a mathematician (M). P says to M, “so, you must be a computer scientist or a mathematician, right? Which one?” M says, “I’m a mathematician. That’s a good guess! Haha.” P tells M that he is a philosopher and that there aren’t a lot of them there. I was excited that there was another philosopher there and was excited to introduce myself to them and to the other philosopher so we could talk philosophy.

I walk up to them and say hello. P says to me, “I could probably guess what you are. You’re a linguist, right?” I said, “No, I’m actually a philosopher, just like you. Why would you assume that I’m a linguist?” He said I look like one and that philosophers are in the minority. I was baffled and walked away.

I felt sick the rest of that day. P assumed that M was a computer scientist or a mathematician, but for me, the only option was a linguist. Was it because I was a female and a minority and the male student was male and white? I’m not sure. Even if philosophers were in the minority, why couldn’t I be one of them? What does a linguist look like? Sure, a lot of linguists at this conference were female (and based on statistics, there are more women than men studying linguistics), but I didn’t think that his assumption of me was fair.

That interaction left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t let it ruin the rest of my time at the conference, but I was upset and angry that he judged me before he learned anything about me. What was more alarming  was that he made his judgment so effortlessly and with a bit of enthusiasm. Although I didn’t let that experience ruin my time at the conference, it was hard not to feel “othered” during talks where I was one of the few women and underrepresented minorities in the crowd. Also, I felt that if he saw me as a linguist, then maybe other students (male and female) saw me as a linguist, instead of as a computer scientist, mathematician, or philosopher. There’s nothing wrong with being a linguist. What is messed up is if the assumption is that one is a linguist (rather than one of the other labels above) because one is a woman, minority, or both. It was a moment that highlighted my “otherness” in academic philosophy.

This is not a story per se. It’s a reflection prompted by reading your wonderful blog. How I wish it had existed when I was in grad school in the late ‘70s trying to decide on a career. I was almost a woman in philosophy and before spending a few hours immersed in your blog thought I had “chosen” not to pursue my favorite subject. I see now that I was driven out.

For the first time I’ve stopped to imagine how different it would have been had I been a man with political philosophy as my favorite (and hence best) subject. I graduated summa cum laude in political science from a major state university. I completed my doctoral exams with distinction in all four of my fields, including political philosophy. Even in my chosen major field of comparative politics, I focused on philosophy of religion. I had a published work while still in grad school. And yet, no professor, no TA EVER in the eight years I spent at university suggested I might do philosophy. Would that have happened to a male? Uh, no.

The exclusion began my first day in political philosophy as an undergrad. I read through the syllabus and asked the TA whether we were really going to have a 100 per cent male viewpoint in the course and wasn’t there anyone who could represent the thinking of the other half of the human race? Nope. The great philosophers are ALL male but don’t worry their approaches are universal, or some such crap. It ended with me choosing a very difficult and non-theoretical dissertation topic involving intensive field research. Despite receiving excellent grant funding, I lost confidence and never finished. (I felt it arrogant to try to write in depth on a culture and system I’d only observed for a year.) I ended up with a decent career and a good life BUT…

The dissertation I really wanted to write was on how gender influenced moral philosophy. My thinking was that holding the primacy of compassion as a moral virtue, as Rousseau did, for example, might give women a moral edge over men and this is a possibility for which philosophers were, and perhaps still are, not yet ready. Much of the history of moral philosophy may represent efforts to assert male moral superiority. Take, for instance, Kant’s rejection of natural ethics to discover that ethics are a product of free will. “Morality requires not a natural relation of man-to-man, but a relation of man-to-duty. For an act to be called good,” he said, “it is not sufficient to do that which should be morally good that it conforms to the law; it must be done for the sake of the law.” Moral acts were those done not for natural reasons but for the sake of the law; in other words, for a reason men would be much more likely to cite than women.

It’s possible that this is not an original observation or that my understanding of Kant may be dead wrong. I don’t know because that’s not ultimately what I studied and that suited everyone just fine.

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?