Archive for the ‘self-doubt’ 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 am a Ph.D. student in philosophy. My research interests are in a subfield that is mostly male dominated. In the graduate seminars I am enrolled in, I am the only woman student. This week I e-mailed a classmate a paper I had found online, that look interesting and was related to my research, but that I knew was also related to his. I wrote that he hoped he would find it helpful. The next day he thanked me for the paper. I told him I hadn’t had a chance to read it yet, but would like to talk about it in the next few days.

Later that afternoon I found out he had sent out a draft of a paper he was working on that was a response to some of our other peers. All male, and all of whose research interests were less relevant than mine. I can’t help feeling hurt. Similar things (not being sent drafts of papers being circulated to other students) have happened in the past, and I was able to brush it off. But this is the first time it has been a paper that a) would not have been written (at least not as soon) if it weren’t for my input, and b) is directly related to my research. The climate in my department is quite amiable, but because we are friends I don’t want to confront him about why he didn’t think to send me a draft. I don’t want to be labeled as overly sensitive, I can’t help but feel like this is because he believes that I will not have anything relevant to say, despite the fact it is on a topic directly related to my research.

I’m scared. I’ve been told by many that one of the best things about graduate school is having peers willing to discuss topics you are interested in, and I feel like I am missing out. I am also worried that without this, I will not do as well in my studies as others.

As an MA student, I enrolled in a metaphysics seminar that was well outside my field. Having never done coursework in metaphysics, I had hoped that the seminar would bring me up to speed on contemporary debates in a way that a survey course could not. I’d also taken courses with the professor before and enjoyed his teaching style. Three weeks into the course, after struggling with an expansive and dense reading list, there were only seven students left in the class – and among them, I was the only woman. The material was obviously difficult for everybody, and much of the class time was spent deciphering the weekly readings.

In one class, I asked a question about the reading and the professor was particularly dismissive, essentially telling me that my comment was irrelevant to the debate we were studying. In that moment, looking around the room and again noticing that I was the only woman, I was bombarded with an internal dialogue that distracted me for the rest of the class. Was the professor being dismissive because I’m woman? Did I not understand the material in the first place because I’m a woman? If the professor wasn’t being dismissive because I’m a woman, was he being dismissive because I’m legitimately inept? Did the other students think my comment was irrelevant and stupid? Did they think I asked it because I’m a woman? Am I just imagining that he was being dismissive because I’ve been reading all of this stuff about the status of women in philosophy? Or has reading this stuff made me more prone to notice these things? Am I feeling all of this self-doubt because I’m a woman? Even if I’m intelligent enough to understand this stuff, and I’m projecting some attitude onto the professor that he doesn’t hold, does that make me crazy? Does philosophy require some kind of self-confidence that I obviously lack? Am I getting so upset about this because I’m a woman? Am I getting so upset about getting uspet about this because I’m a woman? Should I even be in this course? Should I even be in this field?

Further discussions with my classmates assured me that my question was not irrelevant, that the tone of the professor during that entire class session was particularly dismissive, and that everyone else in the class was having difficulty with the reading as well. I ended up doing well in the course, and in some ways was reassured that my stream-of-consciousness during that particular class session was ill-founded. In retrospect, the thing that now bothers me most about that experience is that I don’t think any of my male classmates has had to deal with the spiral of insecurity, rationalizing, and uncertainty that left me shell-shocked that day.

A friend recently asked me which posts on this blog were mine. In looking for them, I came across this one, which I had forgotten about.

The way I had written it at the time, one might think that whatever problems I was facing were entirely in my head. Looking back, I phrased it as I did because I was afraid to say more. I didn’t have faith that I belonged in graduate school, but not because I was imagining that I didn’t nor because I was unjustifiably anxious. It was because my first day on campus the professor who I had intended to work with told me that after seeing my application, he wouldn’t be surprised if I performed so poorly that I failed out and that I didn’t have the right ‘pedigree’ for students at a program of this caliber. Waiting in the hall outside my first seminar, I overheard a group of male students in my cohort discussing that the women in our cohort might have been admitted because of affirmative action rather than merit. And this was just what happened before classes actually began.

I was worried that if I told anyone (even anonymously) why, exactly, I felt so out of place, the people who had behaved inappropriately might recognize themselves in the stories and hold it against me for sharing them here. I am still afraid of that actually, but I’m also now of the view that if speaking the truth about my own experiences costs me relationships, those aren’t relationships worth protecting.

I’ve been going to philosophy conferences for 15 years now, but recently I had an odd experience at one. I slowly realised that my social status at this particular conference was basically mud. When I asked questions in a talk they were immediately laughed off as confused or ludicrous. When I made a point over lunch people ganged up to misinterpret it and contemptuously tell me how misinformed and mal-intentioned I was. It took 3 minutes of assertive clarification for people to grudgingly admit that I had a coherent question. It’s the way you might expect someone to be treated if they had committed some terrible social gaffe at the beginning of a conference – like aggressively criticising a graduate student, or saying something outright racist – but I couldn’t remember doing anything like that.

The experience of those 2-3 days really sticks out because of how unusual it was. As my career has developed I’ve found that people have gradually taken me more seriously, listened more carefully to things I have to say, and been slower to dismiss something that sounded odd or wrong without pushing me further for clarification. Not everywhere, of course – siblings, parents and taxi-drivers still treat me like I know nothing and most of what I say is insane – but in professional contexts, I’ve been benefiting from a gentle rise in social status.

Except at this one conference. And there were a few things I noticed as a result. One was that certain high status individuals – both men and women – noticed, at least at some level, what was going on with the group dynamics and intervened in either a neutral way, or in a way that was friendly towards me (“wow, people who do X sometimes get really upset when you ask them about Y, don’t they?”) and others sought me out for conversation where the subtext seemed to be “I don’t really know why all these others are acting like this, but I don’t want to be a part of that. Tell me about your work…” I was really grateful to these people, because they made me feel less like I was going insane. And it made me think: this is one of the reasons why allies are important. It made me want to be a better ally in the various situations when I’m one of the people with higher status. I want to be the one who sends the implicit message: “To hell with them. I’d like to talk to you. Tell me about your work…”

A second thing was that the memory of the experiences festered. In my hotel room at night I’d be going over them again and again in my mind trying to figure out why this was happening, and wondering whether it was just my imagination. I came up with many, many different theories. Maybe it was something to do with the way I was dressed? (I was pretty sure my skirt wasn’t see-through but perhaps when I was chairing the light was behind me?) Maybe it was that combined with generally being too confident and ‘uppity’? Maybe philosophers of X are just more conservative? Maybe it was because I forgot that person’s name when I was chairing. Maybe I accidentally offended someone on the first day? Maybe I accidentally offended someone putting together an edited volume last year? Maybe they all really, really hate something about my work. Was I being scapegoated for some criticism these people had suffered at the hands of another philosopher? Did they hate my advisor perhaps and I’m a proxy for him? Maybe one vindictive person had made up some kind of awful story about me and spread it to the others on the first day? Was I inadvertently doing something during talks that was really annoying to the people sitting behind me? and on and on. But I never figured it out, and one of the consequences of that is that I’m still interpreting and re-interpreting the events in my head, wondering whether I was just the victim of chance, or whether it was me, something about me, something I did, that caused all this. Should I be feeling ashamed? I just don’t know.

I left the Twilight Zone that was that conference and life went back to normal. I had a million other things to do, and a week later I went to a different conference, where nothing similar happened, I gave a good talk and the crack in my self-esteem was plastered over. But the whole experience – the intensifying of the being-excluded-from-the-in-group experience – really reminded me of some of the effects of having low social status, and of dealing with all those micro- (and not so micro-) aggressions. You are left with these terrible doubts: was it me? Did I bring this on myself somehow? And in the absence of a clear way to rule them out, this is exhausting and undermining. I’m fortunate; I got to walk away with nothing but a few unpleasant memories. (And a few good ones too, of the individuals who treated me with decency.) But low social-status isn’t always something society lets you leave behind.

I started studying philosophy as an undergrad almost exactly 10 years ago, and have just finished my PhD and started a TT job. In all of this time, I’ve counted myself extremely lucky to have never dealt with any of the horror stories that so many other women on this blog have had forced upon them. To the contrary, I’d had some really exceptional male mentors who have been warm, kind, open, and supportive without ever making me feel in the least uncomfortable or treating me in any even remotely inappropriate way – and this has been especially important because I’ve always struggled with self-doubt in relationship to work, and thought about quitting many, many times. My undergraduate honors thesis advisor, especially, has always been my model of an ideal teacher and mentor – that is, until today. A friend from undergrad just sent me a text message telling me that he had gossip about this professor – apparently, he had not only married an ex student of his, but was seeing a student in my class while still married to her.

And it’s the next part that I don’t really know how to put into words. I feel sick to my stomach, and I’m doubting myself in a way that I haven’t in years. Not only was he my idol and my reason for wanting to be an academic as an 18-year-old – he was also the first person to show enthusiasm for my work, and that enthusiasm and belief continued to bolster me in moments of self-doubt all of the way through my PhD. And now I’m sitting here, crying at my computer and feeling sick to my stomach because I suddenly feel like I can’t trust one of my earliest and most formative reasons for trusting myself and my work. I worry that he didn’t think that my work was good at all – that I was just another potential student to sleep with. And even worse, a part of me worries that my work (or do I really mean “I”?) wasn’t good enough for him to think that I was worth sleeping with, since he never treated me in any even remotely inappropriate way. The last part is the worst because I don’t endorse that feeling at all – there is no part of me that thinks that a professor 20 years older than you wanting to sleep with you is a compliment. I hate that I can feel so unsure of myself so long after the fact, and I hate that I can’t shut up this voice in my head that is saying odious things that I can’t endorse but can’t ignore either.

I know just how minor this in comparison to virtually every other experience reported on this blog. Part of what terrifies me, though, is that I am suddenly struck by how much I can’t begin to imagine how destabilizing and terrible those experiences must be – if something this small, this indirect, and this long ago is making me feel so out of place in philosophy, how do so many of the women who have experienced so much worse ever stay? And when so many women do experience so much worse, how are there any left at all?

Why do I do this to myself?

Posted: June 14, 2012 by Jender in self-doubt, sexual harassment

I am a female graduate student who has never experienced anything negative from male (or female) professors or other students. My entire undergraduate career was spent as the only female student in my program with all male professors and never once did I get the sense that my opinion was disregarded. And now in my graduate (M.A.) program I feel the same; we have a large percentage of women and (at least to my knowledge) we are not considered to be any less philosophically minded than our male counterparts. Our female faculty, too, are well-respected in the department.

But it seems that I impose on myself the fears that I, and my opinion, will be disregarded because of my gender. I have fought for years internally and in conversation with the idea that I am a ‘feminist’ philosopher or that I am interested ethics – which, coincidentally, are both included in my list of interests.

I have wondered if my application to my graduate program was accepted over other, more qualified, male students. I am anxious to speak up in class. I avoid giving my own opinion in casual conversation with philosophers I don’t know very well because I am afraid I will sound stupid. I consciously display my engagement ring around male philosophers as a talisman to ward off sexual advances before they occur. I will probably not list “feminist philosophy” or “gender studies” or anything of the sort on my PhD applications.

But I have to ask myself, why I do this to myself if I have only experienced positives? And how do I stop the self-torment and self-imposed limitations to my philosophical ability? It’s obviously true that there is rampant sexism in philosophy and that women face much more challenges that our male counterparts, but how much do we perpetuate it ourselves?

I know that, at least for me, I feed into it much more than others do. And if this is also the case for others, it leaves me wondering if sexism can ever be fully eradicated if our own minds are the most immediate barricade to our success before we even encounter external pressures. So the question I am left with is which changes first? And how do I change one without the other changing as well?