Archive for the ‘Maleness of philosophy’ 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.

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”

While obtaining my BA in Philosophy, I realized immediately the vastness in the gender gap. It was madly intimidating the first few weeks when you realize that in most of the higher level philosophy classes, you are indeed the ONLY female. I quickly came in embrace my place outside of the boys club. In a positive light, it drove me to become a better writer and harder worker. I cannot tell you how may times I got the under the breath “She’s too pretty to have anything good to say” whispers. Or the slack jawed expression that I would receive when I would have to confirm time and time again to my fellow male students that YES this is my major and YES I am sure. The one that really takes the cake was a sentence from a professor that goes as follows, “It’s really not worth me explaining because you’re attractive and attractive females do not need to be overly educated to get what they want. A man will take care of you.”

So to all of my female philosophers out there, STAY, do not apologize for being yourself, we need you!

I’m just finishing my first year at a ‘top-ranking’ (whatever that means) PhD program. Before starting this program, I studied philosophy in Canada at two distinct institutions. Never, before coming to this program, have I felt so uncomfortable being a woman in philosophy. Even in situations where I was the only woman enrolled in a course, I did not find it to be a problem (other than the fact that there being only one woman enrolled in a grad class of 15 is a problem in itself).

Even though I have had some quite negative experiences at my present program, I gather from the testimony of others that I have actually been treated pretty well and taken somewhat seriously, comparatively. Many of my colleagues have experienced sexism, sexual harassment, and blatant discrimination, which I have been fortunate to have somehow avoided.

What I am struggling the most with are day-to-day microaggressions. Little things like noticing that your professors seem to be much more comfortable with and close to students who are men. Certain professors have groups of students that they converse with, laugh with, and seem to have a genuine report with. Relationships of this sort are not developing for me–nor do I see them existing among any of the graduate students who are women.

Additionally, no one has really shown any interest in the fact that I am there (or any of the women in my year, for that matter). Isn’t that sort of the job of the faculty? Taking interest in the new students? Getting to know them?

Regarding classroom dynamics, I notice that questions and comments are received much more favourably when they are presented by a student who is a man. When a woman asks a question or raises a comment, it tends to be a) misunderstood b) not deemed interesting enough to warrant attention/development, or c) briefly discussed only to be brought up again by one of the men, which somehow changes it into a point worthy of more attention. Rarely do I hear a professor (who is a man) praise any of the women for their contributions to discussion.

And I could go on…

Anyway, I’m so frustrated by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done about issues like these. Overt problems (even though they are hard to deal with too) are a completely different thing–for there are at least usually systems in place for sexual harassment, blatant discrimination, etc. It is frustrating and depressing to think that there may not be anything that can be done about the sorts of problems I have been mentioning. Plus, there is always the worry that my interpretation of what is going on is not correct. I often feel like I might just be looking for things that aren’t there, or seeing patterns where there really aren’t any. I think that, deep down, I know this isn’t true, but I don’t trust my personal experience enough to feel like I have anything solid that would warrant some sort of action. My observations and experiences have been corroborated by many other women in the department, but it still feels so hopeless.

I love philosophy–at least I thought I did–but this whole experience is really making me wonder whether I can continue in such an environment. I’ll never be part of the boys club, and the time I spend in my department is a constant reminder of that.

I did my M.A in philosophy in east Asia, which is more of a Confucian Tradition. When I was interviewed for admission, one of the Confucian professors said that girls are simply not fit for higher education. When I took a Confucian course taught by another professor, I heard him say something like “the contribution females can make to philosophy is to become a supportive wife of a great philosopher.”