Archive for the ‘power dynamics’ Category

Men’s Monologues

Posted: December 3, 2012 by Jender in ignoring women, implicit bias, power dynamics

I am a senior woman philosopher visiting an ivy league college this week. While spending time in some of the local cafes, I have overheard (unintentionally) a number of conversations among students about material they must be encountering in their philosophy courses.

What interests me, as someone who is aware of the stories on this blog, is that the conversations — the three that I heard — all consisted of a young man giving an extended monologue on the subject to what were clearly his peers, usually an audience of 2 or 3 mostly *silent* others, always including a woman student. Now sometimes the woman of the group would comment, but only very feebly and very briefly. In fact the women I saw seemed quite awed and intimidated by the person giving the monologue.

What I found even more interesting was the fact that the remarks of the young men on, say, Plato’s Republic, though perfectly fine, were in no way so compelling to warrant such a rapt response from the women. (Having taught this stuff too many times, I guess I am a bit jaded.)

I guess the “female descent” (a term I read on this blog) is well in place by the time these women got to university.

I wanted to pull these women aside and tell them there was so much in that little social interaction that they needed to pay attention to. Instead I hope they’ll read this post!

Here is a story. I have sat on this for years. It makes me reflect on how important it is to be careful about what feminism involves. Many years ago I travelled a long way to take up a new job in a philosophy department. I had taught feminist philosophy in my home country for many years. But the head of department in my new job said I could do this no longer. There was someone appointed at the same time as me to teach feminist philosophy from a European perspective and we thought it would be a great course if I added my analytic philosophy perspective. But, said our boss, it would ‘look bad for him on the faculty if it looked like he had two feminists in his department.’ My near-decade of experience drawing up a course from scratch was confined to my bookshelves. A year later, another young woman joined, in her first post, her PhD not even yet submitted, and for reasons I never discovered, she was allowed to teach more or less the exact same course I would have taught. I suspect one thing, that despite being female, she represented that alluring, mythical creature that philosophers the world over should be lashing themselves to the mast to avoid: the Bright Young Thing.
So there were three women in the department, and each overtly feminist. But there was a difference. A decade older than the others, I was subject to a principle of exclusion. Only one colleague put this explicitly. As far as she was concerned, feminism was about promoting the interests of YOUNG women, who’d been discriminated against. Being in my thirties, I was no longer young, on this measure, and didn’t count. I never could work out how come two newly qualified young women who had sat in classes and been taught feminism could claim to be discriminated against relative to one who had pushed and shoved to create a course in feminism, with much support but also with some brutish opposition, and certainly with few resources. But there you go. The brand of feminism did not seem to be about justification so much as simple power politics – putting young women forward, regardless. My feminist philosophy course material continued to languish unused.
I found out exactly how committed my colleagues were to promoting young women in philosophy. The next year I went on maternity leave. While I was away, two significant things happened. One, I came back to find that my two colleagues had organised an invitation-only conference to promote women philosophers. This was in the days before internet, and I had no idea it was on. Anyone could attend, but only invited women could speak. I was not invited. The conference took place a few days after my return from maternity leave. Yes, that’s right, you heard it, this was arranged while I was on maternity leave. You know, I was busy doing that thing that women do that some feminists think has been an obstacle to female progress.
And, what’s more, for some inexplicable reason, the conference was on the topic of my doctorate. Without a shadow of a doubt, I would have been the best qualified woman in the whole geographical area to talk at that conference. I attended one day but could not bring myself to attend the second. I was humiliated and confused.
Secondly, I found that during my leave, a permanent job had been advertised. One of the women was on a permanent job, but I and one of the others were on fixed term contracts. The areas of speciality in the advertised post exactly coincided with the areas of speciality of this other woman, but nonetheless were sufficiently close to mine that I considered applying. That is, until the head of department sidled up to me and warned me not to, because ‘the department’ was hoping that the other woman would get it. (Uh? I was a member of ‘the department’ and I certainly wasn’t hoping she’d get it. I was hoping I’d get it.) I spoke to several people who all said they’d been told the same. I wanted to complain to equal ops, but no one would support me. When the woman duly got the job, several people who’d previously been friendly stopped speaking to me – being the only one who’d voiced open disagreement with the biased appointment process. But if feminism is about promoting women regardless – if it’s just a power struggle – who is to say that these actions were not perfectly feminist? I for one was so demoralised after all this, together with other problems with the department, that I resigned. I could not bear to go into work again. Years later I still have not get my career back on track. A single parent, my children have felt this too having spent several years of their childhoods living below the poverty line. I mention this point only to bring home the realities of this. We are not just talking about the chance to do some high-brow intellectual activity. We are talking about tangible discrimination, tangible loss of opportunity, real unhappiness at work. There are those who of course have pointed out that feminism should take account of differences between women. But a feminism that then grabs the high ground to promote one woman over another – is it worthy of the name?

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!

Obliviousness

Posted: March 16, 2012 by Jender in power dynamics, slowness of progress

I don’t want to give you my name and email address. But, I am sick, sick to death of men who are sympathetic to women’s success and still seem totally oblivious to the disproportionate amount of work women do caring for children, doing housework and generally enabling men to focus on careers whilst women clean up after them like children. I’ve been up since 5am and I’m now going to bed at 11pm… all without any time for myself.

Not as women-friendly as it looks

Posted: October 28, 2011 by Jender in power dynamics

From the outside our department appears woman-friendly. The ratio of female to male faculty is pretty good. But many departmental decisions are made by just a handful of male faculty and are pushed through at department meetings, or sometimes not even at meetings. On matters that are decided by vote at meetings, those faculty often vote as a block. One gets the sense that matters were discussed by them in advance behind closed doors where they first reached a collective decision. An equal number of female and male faculty does not translate into equal distribution of power in the department.