Archive for the ‘objectifying women’ Category

I am writing this to tell any potentially discouraged readers to hang in there. I have experienced sexual harassment, dismissiveness, discrimination on the job, and other offensive behavior throughout my time as a grad student and professor in philosophy. Yet I love doing philosophy and teaching so much that none of this can dissuade me from my purpose. I feel lucky to have this rare opportunity to be a philosopher, and nobody’s sexist crap is going to stop me. Don’t let it stop you either if you love philosophy.

As an undergrad philosophy major, I cannot count the number of times I made a point that was dismissed or ignored by the professor, only to have a male student make the same point and receive praise. All of my male undergraduate professors actively discouraged me from applying to grad school on the grounds that my abilities were not up to par. Nevertheless, I was accepted by four top-20 programs.

My grad school mentors were wonderful, supportive, and egalitarian. Unfortunately, from other faculty I witnessed several instances of both physical and verbal sexual harassment of female grad students. For three years, I was the only romantically unattached, heterosexual female grad student in my program. I was pestered and harassed almost daily by the male students, including everything from offensive sexual comments made in the middle of class to relentless efforts to hook up. The specific physical attributes of female students who took philosophy grad courses were enthusiastically discussed in our dept. lounge. Every time the department sought student input into a hiring process, my preference for a candidate was attributed by the other students, in front of the faculty, to my supposed romantic attraction to him. I was frequently quizzed by fellow students about which faculty member(s) or student(s) I would be willing to have sex with, hypothetically, despite my refusal to respond.

When I began attending conferences and APA events, my trusted mentors had to tell me which male professors I should avoid being alone with. Sometimes they accompanied me to parties so that I wouldn’t be harassed. While this may seem like a negative story about the prevalance of sexism, it’s just as much a positive account of the other guys who had my back and wouldn’t tolerate bad behavior. Eventually I received many interviews and a few job offers, and all of my success on the job market was directly attributed by my fellow male students to the fact that I am female.

Once I became a professor, I learned what it is like to work closely with men who cannot seem to visually acknowledge your head up there above the breasts. I learned to deal with male students who tried to intimidate me about grades or come on to me. (Specifically, I learned to keep my office door open, and to inform someone else as soon as a student started behaving strangely toward me.) I do not work in feminist philosophy myself, and apparently that has encouraged several male professors to share with me their view that feminist philosophy is junk and not really philosophy. For a while another single female worked in my department. Some male professors hoped that I might be able to report on her sex life, about which they knew nothing but suspected everything. I have had to listen, in the department office, to my colleagues’ descriptions of escapades at strip clubs.

Though all of the aforementioned events were annoying, they did not intimidate me. The sexism that nearly shook my resolve came later, in the form of having my research devalued because I was female, being judged according to different standards from men in pre-tenure reviews, being pressured to take on more teaching and advising duties than others, and eventually being treated unfairly with respect to family/medical leave. Luckily, my resolve is fairly stout. In the hiring process, I have seen numerous female candidates ignored either because their cvs mention the word feminism, or because they are perceived to do “soft” work in ethics. In awarding scholarship funds to our own students, my colleagues consistently downplay females who have stronger records on paper in favor of males with whom they are friendly. My teaching evaluations are good, but male faculty have often commented (in direct contradiction to the facts) that this is probably because I am not a rigorous teacher or strict grader. I am treated like a secretary whenever menial tasks like note-taking must be done, and one of my colleagues (who happened to vote unsuccessfully against tenuring me) told me in all sincerity that I would make a good secretary.

I’m now past worrying about what my colleagues say to or about me. However, I want to create a terrific climate for our students, insofar as it is in my power. I have had to choose my battles for the sake of preserving both job and sanity, but in the long run I’m winning the war. To all the women and men who want to change things: don’t lose heart!

My experiences as a graduate student in philosophy range from having been hit on relentlessly by one of the tenured faculty to being considered obviously second rate. The males, it seems, were automatically considered to have an advantage irrespective of their philosophical talent. Whereas, the females were looked upon with dubiousness. Being called “fresh meat” by that same tenured faculty to one of my male colleagues which was later reported to me privately. That same “fresh meat” professor had pursued other female graduate students and was known to ‘be on the prowl.’ Other factors in the department included the golden-boy phenomenon reported by other women at this site. There was one or two males thought to be brilliant and despite all of us being accepted into the program, we had to withstand the endless admiration of these individuals. And no women were considered “golden.”

Freedom. After dealing with direct sexual harassment, rumors spread by a male colleague that I slept with him to receive attention at a conference – I was in a deeply committed relationship and rather disgusted by the colleague – then having to deal with the fallout of other male figures making sexual jokes about me at the conference, listening to comments about my breasts, weight, face and ‘f@ckabilty’ accusations that I received scholarships because I am a woman – not due to any skill on my part – and the general apathy of my graduate adviser as well as the majority of my professors…. I am free. I have left my department and am changing my career (despite having to earn a new bachelors/MA in my new career).

I can study philosophy on my own, if I so choose. My new career fits well enough with the topics I was studying in philosophy. And, having worked in other places than a philosophy department, I know that I will rarely experience anything near the level of harassment and apathy that I did in my last department. In fact, the men I work with are generally extremely excited to work with a woman who is interested in the same things they are.

Call me weak, call me half-hearted, but sometimes one needs to know when to get out. Judging from the similarities between an abusive relationship and my ex-department – other things shall remain unmentioned – I know better than to think that my department will change anytime in the next 10 years.

Lately (as in, over the last yearish), I am finding myself constantly — constantly — thinking about quitting academic philosophy, and finding something else to do. (I’ve worked outside the field before, so I know that I could do so.) This is despite the fact that I am actually in department that is genuinely pretty women-friendly, compared to the department where I did my MA, and where other women I know are situated.

I can’t help but think that this is at least partially a function of simply being a woman in this field. It doesn’t seem to me like the men I work with seem to even consider leaving. Yet the thought is almost constantly on my mind. It’s on my mind:

Every time I hear something explicitly or implicitly sexist uttered by another philosopher (or academic, generally). Every time I hear male colleagues talk about their female undergrad students like objects for consumption. Every time I see benefits given to men but not women. Every time I get comments (positive or negative) from colleagues on my clothes, shoes, hair, nails, weight, make-up, etc. (happens almost daily). Every time I hear the men talk about how a woman needs to lose weight or got ‘surprisingly’ fit — a conversation that never seems to happen about the men. Every time they act like women are making up whatever problems they encounter, particularly with reference to this blog. Every time I look around and realize I have no black colleagues, or that I am the only minority woman working as a philosopher in my entire geographic region.

Every time another brilliant, amazing woman I work with confides in me her fear, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy. Every time I comfort her with the assurance that she is not alone, that she great, and realize that I need to hear that constantly as well. Every time a good and trustworthy friend tells me how great they think I am at what I do, and I find myself unable to believe them.

Every time I have a disparaging thought about another women who is a philosopher. Every time another woman says something disparaging about other women philosophers.

WRT to a previous post — An Open Call for Reasons to Stay — many people mentioned that sexism is present in every work environment. Yet I’ve worked in several fields outside of philosophy before and never dealt with the kind of sexist bullshit I deal with on a daily basis as a philosopher. These things happen daily, weekly, monthly. I face one of these things every day. The psychological effects — loss of confidence, imposter syndrome, anxiety, etc. — compound every time it happens.

People might also think “Maybe she doesn’t love philosophy.” The truth is that the only time I experience joy in philosophy anymore is when I am alone, reading. And every time I think “Why do I put up with this?” I struggle to find an answer. It’s psychologically exhausting, and I don’t know anymore if I have the emotional and physical resources to do it. Of course, though, if I quit, it’s because I’m a woman, and so I’m not made of tough enough stuff.

I really don’t think my male colleagues understand dealing with this sort of thing. As one of them told me recently, “I don’t know why you aren’t a happier person.”

I have lost track of how many times the conversations I have with male graduate students (my department is overwhelmingly male, even by philosophy standards), and even male junior faculty turn to the following topic: What female philosophers or students (even undergrads!) they’d really like to sleep with (or, even better, would be willing to sleep with).

It’s not that I’m naive and I just can’t believe they talk about this. But really, do I have to hear a junior faculty member at my top ten program tell me that that he’d really like to “nail” a very distinguished female philosopher in my field? Do I have to listen to this shit?

And the answer, of course, is yes. Yes, I do have to listen to this shit, time and again.

The posts about breasts reminds of the very widely admired philosopher who likes to take photographs looking down women’s shirts. At least sometimes this occurs in his hotel room at a conference, when the day’s meetings are over. Not everyone who ends up in his room shares his idea of fun, and there has been blood shed over it. Or so I have been told.

Breasts and logic class

Posted: May 15, 2011 by Jender in objectifying women

When I was a female philosophy undergraduate at a very well respected American university, I had an elderly male logic professor who would look down my shirts. I don’t have big boobs nor did I wear extremely low-cut tops, but this professor would glance down when he spoke to me, even when he was in the middle of lecture! I have never had this happen to me before. I considered dropping out of the class but I was the only girl in a very small class and I didn’t want this to be the reason. Somewhere in my mind, I didn’t want him to win. Instead I wore high collared shirts whenever I had his class. I hesitated to go to his office hours when I needed help. This experience put a very bad taste in my mouth for a very long time.

Before taking a class with this professor, I had wonderful experiences at my philosophy department, which employed a number of female faculty. My other philosophy professors have always been very professional and supportive; they’ve continuously encouraged me to go to graduate school for philosophy. Today, I’m at a highly ranked PhD program but sometimes I wonder if I could have been a stronger logician if I didn’t spend part of the semester worrying about what to wear to class.

“It must be the tits”

Posted: May 13, 2011 by Jender in objectifying women, Why else....?

I am a female philosophy professor, newly tenured. And I have large breasts. Last year, a colleague of mine found out about a certain honor I had received for my work and his response was “It must be the tits.”

And he’s my least sexist colleague

Posted: April 13, 2011 by Jender in objectifying women

I am the only women in an all-male department at a state institution without a graduate program. I have a younger male colleague who is a beloved teacher. He was talking to me about some of our very attractive students and the whole reason being a prof had its perks was these women. Normally such attractive women would be out of his league, but since they would see him in his element, the classroom, they would be attracted to him due to the power difference. What it is like to be a woman in philosophy for me is that this man is one of my least sexist colleagues.

One of my male colleagues made the comment that he got “distracted” during class if one of his female students wore clothing that was sexy or revealing. This was not “distracted” in the sense that he would notice that her clothing was inappropriate in some way or that she was overdressed, but rather that he found himself sexually stimulated and unable to concentrate on teaching.

I told him that I had never experienced this and he was amazed! He asked: “You mean to tell me you wouldn’t be distracted if one of your hot male students came to class shirtless?” My answer was no, because I don’t see my students as targets for sexual desire. I do not feel attracted to them because (I reasoned) it is totally inappropriate for me to see them that way. The response from my male colleagues was that it was fine (and in fact impossible for them not to!) for them to have sexual thoughts about their students as long as they never acted on it. They reacted to my experience with utter disbelief, as though I had some magical power to turn off my libido any time I wanted to.

I have encountered this mindset in graduate school and in my professional life. It horrifies me to think that any of my professors were secretly ogling me as an undergraduate. If female undergraduates are fair game for (imagined) sexual conquest, what about graduate students or colleagues? When do we just get to be philosophers?

It wasn’t fun as a woman in philosophy (graduate school late 80s, first job mid 90s), especially in my field (language and mind). No women professors, few women colleagues (one, and venomous, alas), etc. But…having held it together through the creeps, freaks, weirdos, patronizing incompetent ego-maniacs, and hysterics, I found myself writing and researching in an area that is populated by very few, very smart people. All men. All about 20 or more years older than me. Wasn’t my original AOS but it was related. I had an idea, followed it up, and found myself defending it and its developments to these guys, all of whom had been doing it since I was in college. They have been supportive, constructively critical, friendly, warm, and (can I say it again) supportive. No weirdness. No creepy innuendos. No bullshit.

I think about it sometimes when I get home after a conference where we’ve been duking it out on the finer points of topics in this AOS. Why couldn’t they have been on my dissertation committee? The one that refused to pass my work (even after I published 2/3 of it in a major philosophy journal)? Why couldn’t they have been my teachers? My early colleagues? I tend to think of my career as (cf. above) having successfully navigated–at some cost–the miserable losers that tried to take me down along the way. Imagine having interested, mature, non-dysfunctional teachers and colleagues instead?

One of my friends from graduate school says “Well, you were pretty hot in your 20s. Now you’re in your 40s, not as hot”. Oh SNAP!

In graduate school (late 80s) and first T-T job (early 90s) I certainly experienced any number of ham-fisted attempts by professors and other grad students (all male) to let me know that if I wanted to play with big boys I couldn’t go screaming “sexism” every time one of them made an untoward comment (“you need to be more submissive”) or worse (conducted the job interview on all fours on the bed in the hotel suite).

But it’s not just men with a problem. When I came up for tenure, one of my senior colleagues, female, 10 years older, refused to sign off on the tenure bid (I had been reappointed unproblematically at every level every year beforehand). In her view, the only reason the rest of my colleagues were supporting me for tenure was that “they all wanted to sleep with me” and “that she reminded them of their first wives, which is why they were ignoring her”. She admitted *in writing* that she hadn’t read any of my research, but insisted that “I had no research program” (2 books, 5 articles). She insisted that I get external reviews of my research (policy forbidden at tenure level at my school) and when it came in very positive, tried to have it removed from my file. She never once observed me teaching a class for my file in any year prior–but insisted she had to, the day after my mother died, the day before the file was due.

Yet another reason to dislike the APAs

Posted: October 19, 2010 by Jender in objectifying women

(This happened around ten years ago.)

The first time I attended an APA as a grad student I was excited to go to talks and meet people. I was introduced to a group of guys — all Assistant Professors at the time — who spent most of the evening pointing out women they had slept with and telling humiliating stories about those women.

When I got up to leave the smoker one of the guys left with me and waited until we got to a remote part of the hotel to describe the size of his and his colleagues’ penises and what would await me if I stayed at the conference. I’m not much of a prude, but that night I left in tears.

He is now at a top university and quite successful in his field.

I’m a relatively recent entrant to the profession (Ph.D. within the last few years). I won’t waste time now on egregious behavior I’ve witnessed from men in the profession (ranging from salacious remarks to putting hands on me in an empty classroom), because it so obviously violates the norm. What bothers me more is that it is consistently intimated that young women owe the attention they receive to their attractiveness. This typically comes by way of the suggestion that were I not young and female, I would not have received the same treatment from older scholars (male, of course). I have also heard plenty of gratuitous remarks, from men and women, about the physical attributes of various women making their way in the profession: for instance, that a woman was offered her job (at a Leiter-top-10 department) because she was “pretty”. This kind of discounting of women’s contributions invites us to think that what we have to say is of less interest than how we look. The institution of anonymous review takes on tremendous importance in this context, as an antidote to that kind of doubt.

I had brought together a very interdisciplinary group, combining neuroscientists and philosophers in a way less common, perhaps, in 1996. Several years later, our wonderfully supportive female dean was replaced by a male dean. I went to talk to him about developing the program. He said, inter alia, “When I think of you, I think first of your charm, and then your jewelry, and so far there’s not much else.”

As you might guess, it was downhill after that. Eventually he was fired, but he did a lot of damage to me and others. In particular, he worked to convince my chair – and through him other members of the department – that I was tricky and deceitful, “with not much else”. One consequence was that I could not get anything in the college approved. I was stopped, and the damage lasted well after his departure.

A succession of chancellors and provosts took steps to protect me; I could not be more grateful to them. The members of my group – scientists, psychologists, and so on – were amazingly supportive. I was very fortunate.


At the end of a graduate seminar on a hot new (but very long and not clearly written) book, its author was invited to campus to speak to our seminar as well as give a colloquium talk.  I had struggled mightily with this book all semester.  Rather than answer my questions, all the philosopher did was to invade my personal space and ask whether I ironed my hair.


Summer philosophy institute (40+ people, not the small NEH seminars):  a famous philosopher, one of the core faculty members for the institute (with wife in tow), systematically propositioned each of the 5 women participants, telling us each he’d “respect us in the morning.”  When we all turned him down, he started on the wives of the male participants.  In each category of women, he started with the youngest and worked up the age ladder.

Bikini Car Wash? Really?

Posted: October 6, 2010 by Jender in objectifying women, trivialising women

At a department meeting last year, we were discussing possible fundraising initiatives. A male colleague more senior than I joked that we could have a car wash and that I could wear a bikini. Seriously.

When I was a junior faculty member, I returned from a trip to another university to give a talk.  I entered the lounge where faculty and grad students gathered and a colleague asked me how the talk went.  I conveyed my positive experience and added that a physicist came to the talk (it was on metaphysics) and after the discussion came up to ask further questions.  I was surprised and pleased by this.  My colleague replied: “Are you sure he was really interested in your talk and not something else…[hint, hint]?” I was shocked, but everyone else in the lounge (all male) had a good laugh.