Archive for the ‘low numbers of women’ Category

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.

As an MA student, I enrolled in a metaphysics seminar that was well outside my field. Having never done coursework in metaphysics, I had hoped that the seminar would bring me up to speed on contemporary debates in a way that a survey course could not. I’d also taken courses with the professor before and enjoyed his teaching style. Three weeks into the course, after struggling with an expansive and dense reading list, there were only seven students left in the class – and among them, I was the only woman. The material was obviously difficult for everybody, and much of the class time was spent deciphering the weekly readings.

In one class, I asked a question about the reading and the professor was particularly dismissive, essentially telling me that my comment was irrelevant to the debate we were studying. In that moment, looking around the room and again noticing that I was the only woman, I was bombarded with an internal dialogue that distracted me for the rest of the class. Was the professor being dismissive because I’m woman? Did I not understand the material in the first place because I’m a woman? If the professor wasn’t being dismissive because I’m a woman, was he being dismissive because I’m legitimately inept? Did the other students think my comment was irrelevant and stupid? Did they think I asked it because I’m a woman? Am I just imagining that he was being dismissive because I’ve been reading all of this stuff about the status of women in philosophy? Or has reading this stuff made me more prone to notice these things? Am I feeling all of this self-doubt because I’m a woman? Even if I’m intelligent enough to understand this stuff, and I’m projecting some attitude onto the professor that he doesn’t hold, does that make me crazy? Does philosophy require some kind of self-confidence that I obviously lack? Am I getting so upset about this because I’m a woman? Am I getting so upset about getting uspet about this because I’m a woman? Should I even be in this course? Should I even be in this field?

Further discussions with my classmates assured me that my question was not irrelevant, that the tone of the professor during that entire class session was particularly dismissive, and that everyone else in the class was having difficulty with the reading as well. I ended up doing well in the course, and in some ways was reassured that my stream-of-consciousness during that particular class session was ill-founded. In retrospect, the thing that now bothers me most about that experience is that I don’t think any of my male classmates has had to deal with the spiral of insecurity, rationalizing, and uncertainty that left me shell-shocked that day.

I was employed as a feminist philosopher in a department where I was the only woman; that is to say, I was employed to teach feminist theory in philosophy. From the beginning there were questions about my competency, about the nature of my work, and with that, very little support from my male colleagues. I felt very undermined, and this did not help my profound lack of confidence. I was given no mentoring, and the one senior woman in a cognate discipline, was an anti-philosopher. She had no sympathy or understanding for what I was doing. One of my colleagues came and shouted at me in front of a grad student when I sent him an email in which I mis-spelt his name. As a result, I moved my office. No-one came to invite me back to the department; no-one tried to sort the issue out. No-one apologised. To this day the former colleague has never acknowledged his role in my moving office. I eventually returned to another office in the department but the whole event was ignored and never spoken of. When I unsuccessfully applied for a promotion at the very same time my first book with a first rate publisher was published, no-one helped me out or suggested I lodge an appeal. Yet there were clearly politics involved in my lack of success. When I was head of the department, my male colleagues basically ignored me or undermined any of my efforts to secure pedagogical changes that would benefit the discipline. I resigned in frustration and everything went back to as it was. I left suddenly, without any goodbyes after giving appropriate notice. No-one seemed to care that I left, or why. I became a philosopher because I love ideas and their exploration. That has not changed, but I feel emotionally and intellectually abused by my whole experience.

I was on the job market this year. I was told (more than once) by our placement director that if I got a job that would show that “the department should admit more female grad students.” Nothing was said of my abilities or accomplishments.

My account brings not much new to the shocking posts I read on this blog, but mainly confirms that they are part of a wider structural problem. I did half of my first degree in philosophy. Prior to commencing my studies there, a female friend and previous graduate recommended the department to me, but warned me that I need to watch out for Dr X and Dr Y as they’d come onto female students. I never experienced any form of sexual advances myself, but during my time there I learned about several sexual encounters, affairs and occasional relationships between male lecturers/ tutors and female students. Generally (perhaps not in every case) I think this is an abuse of power from the side of the lecturers who are in charge of students’ grades and future prospects.

My former philosophy department had a similar set-up as many of the departments mentioned on this blog – exclusively male leadership, and out of the whole staff team only a couple of staff members were female. I was fortunate enough to at some point be taught by an excellent female lecturer, who had left the department due to department-internal conflicts (unknown to me, but they were between her and apparently several male colleagues) and ran her courses from a different department. Courses run by that lecturer are my best memories of my time in philosophy – I suspected that she never fully received the recognition she deserves.

In my final year or so, I asked on a department-internal online forum why there was no course offered on a prominent female or non-white philosopher – indeed, these were generally found only sparsely on our reading lists. On the same forum, several male student ‘colleagues’ posted some ‘jokes’ along the lines of ‘women to the kitchen!’. Then a prominent lecturer responded to my post, saying that it ‘doesn’t matter’ whether a philosopher was male or female, white or black – all that mattered what the philosophical theories produced by them. He overlooked that his assertion was informed by a particular epistemological bias and completely unacceptable as a generalised statement. Furthermore, even in more maths-based philosophy as in the area he worked in, there is a case to be made for making sure that there is a women-friendly climate in general and women get the same recognition as men, so they feel supported to produce the best work they can. I was disappointed. As some others on here said, the most depressing thing is that these are supposedly people who are educated in equality & diversity, and highly educated in general.

As a graduate student, I changed subject and never looked back. I’m now often in strongly female-dominated working constellations – even though recently my (female, self-proclaimed feminist) supervisor told me half-jokingly, ‘Don’t get pregnant while in graduate school!’. This comes at a time when one of my colleagues is struggling with her department being unsafe for her pregnancy, and there are huge delays in making it safe despite repeated pleas from her (male) supervisor. Not that I’m planning to get pregnant anytime soon, but – ouch!

On being alone

Posted: June 4, 2012 by Jender in low numbers of women

When I started my undergrad (1990), I was drawn to philosophy and I could have chosen that discipline. There was not one other female student in any of my classes, not one female professor, not one female philosopher on the syllabus or curriculum. I was a freak alone with others that would see only my sexuality, and I believed them. Not any more.

I know what Wittgenstein meant when he said “A philosopher who is not taking part in discussions is like a boxer who never goes into the ring.”

Thank you for creating this forum for women to write their stories. It heals my philosophical soul.

I had had many years of experiences with extreme sexism before I got a Ph.D in philosophy in my forties, but that doesn’t make sexism in the refined circles of academia any less humiliating and undermining.

I took philosophy courses in a master’s program at a well-respected state university. One of my master’s thesis advisors harassed me into a affair using quid pro quo pressures; I was desperately afraid this advisor would not sign my thesis if I broke off the relationship, so I waited to end it until after it was signed. I knew I should report this behavior, but others informed me it was a well-known pattern of this professor and nothing would be done. Also, I was old enough to have known better, I thought.

Later, when I was a graduate student in an Ivy League Ph.D. program in philosophy, a male professor used the following example in class to distinguish between two persons: “Smith beats his wife, while Jones doesn’t.” This was intended to be a funny example, and had apparently gotten laughs from earlier generations of students when the university was all male, but no one laughed in the late 1980s with both men and women in the class. Finally the professor noticed the glares coming from many of the students and said, “Perhaps I should have chosen a more sensitive example.” Even old dogs can learn new tricks.

In my first year in that doctoral program, I helped to organize a student colloquium series and gave the first presentation, in which I presented as my own work what was in fact my own reconstruction of an argument from one of Plato’s dialogues. A fellow graduate student, male, asked me if I had done the argument reconstructions myself, despite its being clearly presented as my own work. This was an insulting question which I believe he probably would not have asked of a male graduate student.

Also in my first year of graduate school, after a visiting speaker finished his talk, a male professor invited him and some of us graduate students to his house for refreshments. I was the only female graduate student who attended, and the only female at the gathering except for the host’s wife. I was wondering how I would fit in, when someone started the conversation with the question of which university had the best combination of football team and philosophy department. The men present began to engage in an intense and exhaustive comparison of football teams and philosophy departments, with an eye to ranking them. Not following sports and not being interested in such a ranking, I felt conspicuously female, excluded, incapable of participating, and marginalized. So I decided to talk with my host’s wife, which was much more interesting. This incident is only statistically sexist and was probably entirely unintentional; if I had been a female football fan, I could have held my own.
Still, what proportion of football fans are female? How considerate was it to choose a question that a female graduate student would be less likely, given the average relative frequency of male to female football fans, to be able to relate to?

Later that year, at the annual department party, a senior male professor cornered me and tried at length to persuade me to marry another one of the senior male professors, who was lonely and needed a wife. This conversation made me feel reduced to my reproductive and nurturing function, and quite invisible as a beginning philosopher.

Later in my time there, a fellow graduate student, a male, asked to sit in on my pre-arranged independent study with my male dissertation advisor, and I agreed. However, the advisor spoke almost exclusively to him rather than me, and I felt I had to fight to get a word in edgewise all semester. From this I learned that the practice of philosophy, as many males see it, is not about cooperating to discover the truth, but rather about competing to get the approval of the – mostly male – authority figures.

The way to get this approval was to fight, conceptually, in an agonistic way. One of my professors encouraged me to get more “ammunition” against a philosopher I was writing about. This military analogy turned me off and set me back, as I wanted to see philosophy as a cooperative enterprise in search of truth.

Another fellow graduate student (a married male) was heard in the student lounge bragging about how many female undergraduates he planned to sleep with now that he was going to be a teaching assistant.

In seminars the same thing happened to me as has happened to many other female graduate students in philosophy – my point would be ignored, but when a male made the same point, it was recognized as valuable.

At my first job, in the mid-1990s, a one-year at a midwestern state university, one of my colleagues in the Philosophy Department had a pornographic picture on his office wall. I went into his office and told him that this constituted a hostile atmosphere for his female students and advisees, not to mention his colleagues. When he told me it had “sentimental value” (!) for him, I suggested he remove it and hang it up at home. He replied that his wife wouldn’t allow it in the house. Shouldn’t that have been a clue as to its inappropriateness? Another male colleague, when told of this exchange, explained that the first colleague had actually improved over time, as he no longer displayed his collection of Playboy and Penthouse magazines on the coffee table in his office! So things must be getting better, as many on this blog have argued.

While I had been a feminist activist for many years before pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy, and I had taken many courses in feminist thought, I had not studied feminist philosophy as an AOS or AOC for my Ph.D. degree, so it did not appear on my CV. While I was searching for a tenure track job, the chair of a hiring department asked me to add “philosophy and feminism” to my CV. I found out later that the line had been given to the Philosophy Department on the condition they hire a woman who could teach in the Women’s Studies program. I reflected that I had the background and experience to teach in a Women’s Studies program, so I agreed to change my CV. That is how I was hired into my present position – the male philosophers apparently tried to hire a non-feminist female philosopher who could teach Women’s Studies from a non-feminist perspective. So they got a little surprise when I turned out to be a radical feminist!

Many of the entries on this blog refer to affirmative action, as if there is some stigma attached to being an affirmative action hire. I think women and minorities should worry about the so-called ‘unfair’ advantage given by affirmative action exactly when the white males start worrying about the unfair advantage given by white male privilege. Instead, look to your own achievements and do your best work. If the white males ever start apologizing to you about their white male privilege giving them an unfair advantage, then, and only then, should you even consider mentioning the countervailing “advantage” given to you by affirmative action. Affirmative action exists to help counteract the pervasive unconscious and conscious sexist biases which this blog documents, and we shouldn’t undermine that very important function.

Now that I have tenure and have served as chair of my department at my state university, I find I love my job as a philosophy professor. We have hired new colleagues who are feminist, or at least who try their best not to be sexist, and I have published quite a few articles, often in journals edited by women, and feel freer than ever to study and think and write about what I want to study and think and write about. I enjoy teaching and continually revamping my courses and pedagogy, only seldom receiving openly sexist treatment from students, though I can relate to many of the comments of others about expectations that, as a female, I should be more lenient and understanding. Leniency should be limited to justified circumstances, but instead of some women professors trying to be less understanding, I think some male professors should work to become more understanding! Students need and deserve understanding and respectful teachers.

Recently, I served as an outside evaluator for a nearby philosophy department which had just previously hired a fifth philosopher, their first woman, who was then serving as chair. The senior philosopher in her department would only refer to her as their “fifth man,” even though she is a woman! Some old dogs have trouble with the new tricks.

It is disheartening to think that philosophy as a discipline runs on status competition among males, but that is the picture that emerges from this blog and from a book called “The Sociology of Philosophy” by Randall Collins. Also, I recommend C.P. Snow’s old novel “Strangers and Brothers,” in which he tries to describe in detail the operations of what he calls “private power,” or power as it is used behind the scenes by men. This novel is particularly relevant as it features men jockeying for power in an academic setting.

Thanks for this blog. It has given me encouragement to once again propose that our university prohibit even consensual relations between faculty and students. Currently we prohibit sex between faculty and students during the semester when the student is in the faculty member’s class, the strongest policy we could get through the governance process. Some faculty are apparently very worried about the rights of the accused and the probabilities of false accusations. And I shall try with renewed energy to integrate my feminist values into my own work by more diligently calling sexist assumptions into question in my classes, by including more work by women and feminist philosophers, and by working to create a more egalitarian and supportive environment within the discipline of philosophy.