Archive for the ‘power dynamics’ Category


Dear Professor X

Some weeks ago, you asked me why rape culture had become so prevalent, particularly in the university environment. As an ethicist, it seemed you were troubled by an apparent cultural shift that casually denigrated women: you mentioned it several times, and we were both puzzled. I didn’t have a ready answer for you: like any woman, I have been on the receiving end of off-hand sexism, off-colour remarks and a generic insouciance about sexual assault for all of my adult life and much of my childhood. But, beyond reaching for the usual hackneyed explanations of the structural features of phallocentric societies, I could not give you an answer that satisfied me. Now I think I can.

You see, Professor X, one of the key causes of rape culture in the university, and its various nefarious adjuncts (the systematic demeaning of women on the basis of their gender; employment inequality; the evaluation of women on the basis of their appearance or qualities ‘appropriate’ to females), is you. Or, at least, it is people like you: senior academics at the top of their profession, men—usually—who set and maintain the culture in which others work and study.

I have known you for some time, in my capacity as your graduate student. During that time, it is fair to say that we got to know each other fairly well: hours and hours of conversations on everything from movies to food to child-rearing to sexuality, and the malaise of everyday life. I went to your place, met your family, had drinks with you: normal things that adults on good terms do together. I confided in you, you confided in me; you met my husband and professed friendship to us both. But then, as life sometimes does, things started to go a little awry for me. But you were a friend: you gave me advice and hugs and time and I appreciated that. Life is rarely so gentle: in the midst of these few weeks, I had something of a mental health breakdown and, as a friend, I told you about this. And that is where things went wrong.

The day after I told you, you felt it was appropriate to tell me about your own sexual proclivities, your fetishes for bondage and sadism. I was not overly troubled by this, certainly; we are adults and I am no stranger to various subcultures, including this one. Your timing, though, was strange: my husband could not understand why you were offering to teach us bondage techniques at our place. I was perturbed by the fact that you encouraged him to physically chastise me for some innocuous thing. I was also surprised that you felt it appropriate to send us photographs of some items in your house, items associated with torture and bondage. You invited us round to your place to ‘see’ all this stuff; you told me it would be fun to hang out with me like that. And so it went on, hours of messages over two nights, inappropriate comments and information about how you use your domination techniques to persuade students and others.

I do not suggest that any of this explains the prevalence of rape culture in the university. No. You know me better than to expect such gauche naivete: it is not your sexual preferences and bad timing that make you a danger to women in the university environment. Instead, it is this: when, as a friend, I might have expected support, you chose that moment of vulnerability to move in with your sexual fantasies.

Then, you turned on me. When we didn’t go along with your invites, you viciously cut me off. Over the next few days, systematically excluded me from the university, advised colleagues that I was vulnerable, volatile and unsafe to have around. You disclosed personal information about me to various parties in the university, blaming me for your distress. I cannot continue my studies, as has been long agreed, because of your sudden fears about having disclosed things about yourself that you think might damage your reputation. You forbade me from contacting you—but you contacted me several times—and insist that I collaborate with no-one in the department. You have fundamentally destroyed my life plans, disrupted my family life—and justified all this to your colleagues on the grounds that I am distressed, vulnerable and—‘therefore’—too unsettling to have in your department.

And that, Professor X, is why rape culture has become so endemic in the university environment. It is because men like you fundamentally believe that women like me—vulnerable, hurting, susceptible to claims of friendship or not—can be toyed with, dispensed with, and used as means to ends that are intended solely to protect you and your ill-gotten reputation. I would have kept your confidences, not for you but for the protection of your family and because, ultimately, I believe that people’s sexual proclivities are broadly their own business: until today, I resisted all my friends’ advice to protect myself, because I could not bear the thought that your misjudgements might negatively affect your family. But in keeping that silence, I allowed you to portray me to others as the person in the wrong, as the one who (in spite of my lowly status as a student and the supposed ‘high regard’ that you told me people in your centre held me in) was a risk to your department. It is my life that fractured and fell apart, not yours—and none of that mattered to you, because I am simply a disposable woman who deserves not protection, but predation, exclusion and opprobrium to ensure the ‘greater good’ of maintaining a man in his elevated, powerful position.

I wish you well, but I will not maintain my silence any longer. Women deserve better than this.

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 graduated with a double major in philosophy and a STEM field from a top-20 university a few years back, and then I spent a year working full-time while deciding if I wanted to apply to law school, grad school in philosophy, or grad school in my scientific field. I concluded that I missed philosophy too much to stay away, so I began putting together my application.

Unsatisfied with any of my undergraduate papers, I decided to start afresh, and I wrote something entirely new. I sent it to the head of the department of my alma mater, with whom I had taken several classes, asking if he might give me some feedback on my new paper and write me a rec. He agreed, and to ensure that I could get the best possible feedback (and recommendation, because I wasn’t 100% sure he remembered me), I drove 3 hours from my home to meet him in his office in person.

All was fine until he decided to use an example to explain how the wills of two individuals could come into conflict (I have no idea why he thought I needed that explained to me). His example of choice? Him raping me.

At the time, I was just too shocked to respond, and I was young enough (22 years old) that I couldn’t even decide if it was inappropriate or I was being overly sensitive. But he was also writing my recommendation letters, so even if I had realized how gross (and vaguely threatening) it was to casually discuss raping someone 40 years his junior, I’m not sure I’d have felt like I could have said anything. He was basically BFFs with the department head AND the DGS of my favorite program, and I knew it.

So we finished our meeting, and I drove home. I eventually got into the school of my choice, where I have NOT had a professor mention raping me, and since I have grown older, I’ve stopped feeling icky about the incident and just started mentally giving the old creepster the middle finger whenever I think about it. I’ve still dealt with the garden-variety paternalism and pet names (sweetie, honey, etc) from our department dinosaurs like most of the female graduate students here, but I’ve also had supportive, conscientious male professors who are lovely human beings.

That being said, I’m finishing my dissertation in 6 months and blowing this popsicle stand. I can’t even with these dudes. Shit’s toxic.

Three experiences as an invited speaker in different geographical locations.

The chair is late for my talk. I find my way to the seminar room with plenty of time but find the room locked. I find someone who has the keys and set up on time. Eventually, after 15 min delay, I start my presentation. Due to the delay I make my talk shorter to 35 min in hope to accommodate more questions. As soon as I finish the presentation the chair claims that because I started late, I only have 5 min for questions. I receive interesting questions and the audience shows enthusiasm and engagement. However, the chair decides to take over and ask a series of condescending questions that offer no constructive discussion on the content of the talk. They insist on speaking over me and eventually people start leaving the room. I try desperately to accommodate more questions from the audience, but the chair continues to dominate and patronises me on every response. By the end, he has kept me 30 min over and there is no one left in the room. I do not get thanked for my talk and there is no one to applaud. I leave the room feeling like my talk went poorly even though the audience showed nothing but appreciation and interest.

I arrive on time for my presentation, set up everything and notice that the audience is almost entirely made of mature male academics. Before I start my presentation one of them loudly refers to me as ‘young lady’ and after I start my presentation he interrupts me and asks me to speak up because my ‘voice is too weak’. The questions session is dominated by condescending and dismissive questions. No woman asks a question. After a while people start leaving the room. Eventually the chair says they are very busy with work the next day and leaves. Despite my attempts, I am never reimbursed for the trip.

Upon arrival to give an invited talk to a big class of students and members of staff I discover that the chair has not advertised the talk sufficiently in advance. 10 minutes after my talk is supposed to start I find myself alone with the chair in a big auditorium. Eventually he calls two of his friends who are members of staff and they appear. I start the presentation. I was told that many students were going to attend this seminar because they were interested in the topic and I was an expert on it, so I had prepared an hour-long detailed presentation. I give the whole presentation and after I finish the three men admit they do not know much about the topic and do not have questions. Despite of that, they start asking me some completely irrelevant questions, not about my talk, and continue to keep me there for over an hour. Eventually the two leave and I am left with the chair. Tired and desperate to get back to the hotel, which was hours away from the campus, I ask how to get back as it was late and I was not sure there are services running to the city. The chair tells me that there is only one bus and that I might have already missed it (it was already late in the evening). They then tell me they have to drive back due to busy schedule the next day and leave. Due to an incident on the road I managed to get the last bus just before it leaves, but I could have easily been stuck there with no way to get back to the city. I was, again, not thanked for my talk or the massive trip I had to make to be there.

As one of only 3 Assoc. or Full at my institutions, I was asked to serve on a hiring committee. We found 3 top, top female candidates– this is the first for any previous hiring committee on which I served. The first turned us down, as did the second to take positions at top, top universities. Perhaps this is a first good sign for women in philosophy, not only that the top three were women, but that they had choices and multiple offers.

After this, it was announced we would move to the third candidate, also a woman, and her name released to the department. Two of the men in the department ( I was the only woman at the time) decided to google her and found she had written a an article on abortion in additional to other publications in high ranking journals –all published in top journals, much higher-ranked journals than any of the men’s publications. They objected to the arguments, found them distasteful, then recruited a 3rd man to the cause, thought it would cause an unnecessary controversy on campus. Most of the dissenting arguments to the hire were based on complete ignorance of philosophical arguments about abortion, and from those not in fields in any way connected to applied ethics. The majority of department was still in favor of hiring her. A meeting was called. In initial discussion, the question of our department’s commitment to academic freedom was raised, and points raised about the high rankings of the journal publications. To the question of academic freedom, the main dissenting voice to hire said openly, “let her practice her academic freedom somewhere else.”

Despite knowing that the majority was in favor of this the candidate, the department chair refused to bring the question to a vote and moved the question to which other candidate were next in line to be interviewed (all men) in the interest of “departmental harmony”.

Yet it has created more disharmony – the trust among the department members is gone. Further, this placing of the happiness of one gender at the academic and employment rights has been repeated: At the request of ass’t male professors, I was told by the chair that I “had” to do major work for the department during the summer holiday. It was a major department project, all of the men claimed “I have plans, sorry, catch me in the fall.” I was told the project was due before the fall. I too had plans, but that didn’t matter. My equal rights to time to do my own research, to have personal time, was set aside. Bullying followed when I later objected to this: “you don’t care about the students or the department, you are so selfish.” I was aghast, and still am, even not straight out of grad school, that such ad hominem abusives were thrown at me for trying to protect my equal right to have a holiday. Followed by, “it was the only way for the department to get the work done and to have harmony, which is only disrupted because you can’t accept that you needed to do work.” This was on top of teaching a triple overload the previous semester and a double overload the previous semester. (and still getting an article out, thank you.) Harmony, interpreted as the happiness of the males) is priority, even when it comes at the employment rights, the careers and the academic freedom of women in the profession. I refuse to do any departmental service this semester, and will do so the next. And just like the men, I won’t do it openly, just a “huh? didn’t see that email”

A sampling of “minor” incidents that occurred while completing my Ph.D. at a top 25 program:

grad students loudly discussing at a quasi-official departmental event which prominent female philosophers they would sleep with and why

a visiting faculty giving a talk on the topic of cognitive penetrability being asked by the moderator whether a particular case would count as “double penetrability .. uh oh… *planned pause for comic effect* … *uproarious laughter by everyone except for the speaker who looks annoyed*”

a faculty stopping his lecturing to turn and look at me and say (in response to my adjusting my cardigan) “Did you just flash me?” *everyone laughs expect me, I blush purple*. He continues “Because it looked like you just flashed me.” I sit in stunned and embarrassed silence and don’t attend that class again.

a very major, famous philosopher in my department being asked what he thought of a (young, pretty, femme) philosopher’s colloquium talk. Apparently her work can be summed up in a *single word*: “lightweight”

one tenured, famous professor discussing with straight male grad students which female grad students are “hot”; describes some as “dogs”

myself having to carefully plan where I am standing at a party because a *very* drunk grad student is being handsy with everyone in the room (men and women alike). this is an official department party and no faculty seem to notice or care the obvious discomfort this student is causing others. (nor do they seem concerned that the grad student is himself *this drunk* at an official function, and might himself benefit from support or help).

in response to my asking one or two clarificatory questions in a grad seminar, the instructor’s responding (with extreme annoyance): “does someone want to explain it to her?” (a male grad student later contacts me about the incident, saying he felt bad for not calling out the faculty’s bad behavior in the moment)

there being 2-3 all-male entering classes; this is not considered a problem

a faculty member chatting me up at a department event, asking me why I entered philosophy. the tone isn’t curiosity, it’s sheer bewilderment. (I cannot *imagine* him asking my male peers this, in this tone)

the general style of interactions at colloquium and seminars being combative, unprofessional, dismissive, and uncomfortable

other grad students rolling their eyes and loudly sighing at questions they perceive to be obvious or confused (and faculty failing to call out such behavior)

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?