Archive for the ‘Maleness of philosophy’ Category

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.”

I am a female student of philosophy at a German University, writing my master thesis. Over the last years I became more and more aware of male dominance in society in general and in philosophy in particular and this makes it harder for me to bear more and more meetings, seminars, talks, conferences, colloquia etc.

I try to change the situation at our Institute: I talk to my fellow students (male and female alike), organize workshops on women* in philosophy and power structures in seminars, but it won`t change anything.

Now the semester began and I hear man talking, hear man fighting, see man sitting where women should sit and talk and many even fight as well. These man are nice or ok as individuals, but unbearable in groups, because they don`t want to know. They don`t want to know about their priviliges, there status, their society-given right to be wherever they want to be and to say whatever they want to say without being questioned their right to speak at all. And therefore they don`t care.

Their only way to connect to critique of male-oriented behaviour is by re-recognizing situations, for example then they can say: But I am nervous by speaking out loud just as you are! NO! This is not the same! You do not get discriminated because of your gender!

I do love philosophy, I want to do a ph.d., but I really don`t know if I can stand these male environment for a couple of years more. It makes me angry, sad and sick of after each meeting. It preoccupies my mind, keeps me away from work, makes me questioned, if this is worth it.

And in case male readers may wonder: I am nonetheless quite good in what I am doing.

 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.

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.

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.