Archive for the ‘sexual assumptions’ Category

I have been thinking for awhile now about sending in my own experiences of harassment and discrimination. There are actually too many to list in detail, but here are a few:

1. As an undergraduate I was invited to be a TA. Very soon, the sixty-something professor I was working with started inviting me to his house to discuss philosophy and when I accepted, he asked me if I would pose nude for his art (I was actually quite surprised to see a similar story posted here since I imagined that such a thing would be rare.) He then professed his love for me- making things very uncomfortable since we had to finish out the semester together. I was young and naive (17) and let the whole thing slide.

2. I had just completed my first year at a top graduate program and was excited to receive an excellent evaluation by the graduate adviser that I had been perceived to be a very good student- at the top of my incoming class. Shortly after that, I was approached by a very influential (married) member of the department to be his RA. I had never had a class with him so I thought that this was because I was doing so well in the program. One month into working with this man, as I was pointing out some of the flaws in one of his arguments, he put his hand on my knee and said “I can’t concentrate on what you are saying because you are just so beautiful.” I was stunned and asked him if we could get back to work. Later, I learned that this sort of thing was common- that he treated many women philosophy grad students the same way, but that it was unwise to report him because he was so famous the department would never really punish him and I would get pegged as a trouble maker.

3.I have heard other male grad student deriding female grad students in a way that makes it clear that they were taking their perceived shortcomings as representative of all female philosophers. These fellow grad students also were much more interested in my sex life than in hearing my ideas. I have had it implied by these fellow grad students that I and other women were at this top philosophy program, not because of their abilities but because of some sort of affirmative action. (I do not mean to suggest that all the male grad students in my department were this way, but the few that were made it really uncomfortable to be a women philosopher.)

4. I have been ignored, talked over, and talked down to on may occasions. When I gave an objection to a view in a philosophy seminar, just ten minutes later, the teacher credited and praised a male student for having come up with the objection. The male student had not even spoken. After conference talks and elsewhere, I have had speakers talk to the other men in a group, but ignore my comments and questions or give cursory, dumbed-down responses.

5. I have been asked, after receiving favorable reports from professors, if I am sure that it this was not just because I am pretty that I was getting such good reviews.

6. I have been told that women are not cut out for philosophy and that they are not as gifted in math and logic and this is why they should probably stay away from ‘hard philosophy’ like metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of mind (the areas I work in.)

On the bright side, I have experienced many ‘enlightened’ men who have been nothing but gracious and supportive- giving me hope that the tides are changing.

I am one of those ‘junior scholars’, a woman at that, who are more often than not mistaken by students as ‘one of them’ (which, in many ways, I am). My work is in social and political philosophy, a male-dominated discipline, and I write on questions of power, sovereignty, and violence, themes that are traditionally regarded as masculine. As a consequence, I feel like my age, gender, and appearance put me at a comparative disadvantage with regard to my academic career. In order to compensate for these ‘deficits’, I experience more pressure to produce solid scholarship than most of my more senior or male colleagues. (This is by no means an objection to working hard and doing good research. In fact, I believe that the discipline would benefit immensely if everyone felt the same need to ‘prove themselves’.)

At conferences, in particular, people usually show interest in my work only after they hear my papers. I am, therefore, a big fan of presenting on the first day of a conference, and I dread being on the graveyard shift and having meaningful conversations in a general atmosphere of departure. This cannot always be avoided, and so I often struggle to be recognized and respected as a peer in the profession.

Now, I’m not saying that none of this is my fault. Even though I think of myself as an open and outgoing person, I might have to be more obnoxious and less uncomfortable cornering people. Or I might have to do more advance research about each and every conference participant to have something impressive to say. (Unfortunately, my 6/6 teaching load this year is preventing me from doing this.) However, another possibility suggested itself at a conference I recently attended, and it would entail using what I see as my comparative disadvantage – age, gender, appearance – to my benefit.

The national conference makes a point of gender equality in membership and acceptance rates of papers. This year, 48% of the papers selected through double-blind peer review were written and presented by women. Many panels engaged with questions of gender, equality, justice, representation, and exclusion in incredibly nuanced, critical, and productive ways. I met some great people on the first two days, and even more great people after my presentation on the penultimate panel of the last day. The response to my paper was surprisingly positive, I received measured, generous, and extremely helpful feedback, and some colleagues even said that my paper changed their pretty firm position on the topic.

I do not say this to brag, but in order to give reasons for why I felt like I had succeeded in ‘proving myself’ as a scholar with intellectual merit who deserves to be taken seriously by her peers. Even though I find it unfair that I had to work harder and give a better paper than many colleagues in order to be recognized, at least it paid off.

Or so I thought.

When I returned home, the following email was waiting in my inbox:

Hi [X],
This is [….] from the […] conference. I found your email by googling you. It was nice meeting you. Unfortunately you are married.
Hope to see you soon.

‘Unfortunately you are married?’ Well, it is indeed unfortunate that I have to participate in an unjust, unequal, and historically oppressive institution to be able to be with my partner. But surely the sender of this presumptuous message did not email me to express his discomfort with the institution of marriage and his sympathy with my unfortunate situation of being part of an unjust tradition. What was unfortunate, in the eyes of the sender, was the fact that, because I was married, he and I could not hook up.

It is bad enough to have to accept that being a good scholar is not enough to be taken seriously, that I have to be better than others to get the same recognition. Knowing that, no matter how hard I work, I will only be judged as a potential sexual partner makes me sad, angry, and hopeless. What do I have to do to be visible as an equal member of the profession rather than an object of sexual desire?

I do not know. What I do know, however, is that telling someone that unfortunately they are married, is never a good idea. It is not a clumsy, maybe backhanded, compliment. It is an inappropriate, unprofessional, offensive, and – to be honest – incredibly dumb statement. Knowing that it came from someone who works on normative ethics and global justice only makes it all the more inappropriate, offensive, and dumb. It also makes me wonder about the state of a discipline that is concerned with the kinds of questions that arise when philosophers think about right actions. And it brings into sharp view the glaring disconnect between theory and practice. Lastly, I wonder if the sender thinks it would have been nicer to meet me if I was not married. Clearly, it never crossed his mind that I might not be available to him even if I were single (be it because I might not be interested in him in particular or in men more generally), or that I might actually be available despite being in a relationship (not just because people cheat, but also because people live in all sorts of alternative and, yes, open relationships).

I might be overthinking this. Unprofessional and obnoxious creeps might ultimately be the exception. But I do not want to end up at the next conference, suspicious and guarded, finding it even more difficult to have meaningful conversations with people who take a sincere and professional interest in me and my work.

I recently attended a conference in Asia. Over the three day period, there were something like sixty talks. It was not a small conference. I was one of three or four women in attendance.On the way home, I noted that I felt good and that it had been an excellent conference. I found this odd, given the maleness and foreignness of the conference (this point about foreignness is supposed to pick up on the thought that one is more likely to feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar environments/groups etc.) I quickly realised that it had been the first conference I had been to where no one tried to have sex with me, or involve me in something, in some way, inappropriate.
Every single conference I have ever been to has invariably involved some guy (often older and more established) trying to get me to go home with him; some guy telling me about how lonely and sad his life is in some far off department a million miles from home – and I must feel the same way too (so we should go home together); some guy telling me that he noticed my figure, or my outfit whilst I was giving a talk; some guy asking me if I am sleeping with my advisor (because isn’t that what girls do?); some guy telling me I *should* be sleeping with my advisor; some guy explaining to me that the new female appointment in the department only got the job (over him) because she was a woman; some guy crying into his cocktail over the fact that his wife finally found out about the graduate student he’d been sleeping with (and now that the marriage was clearly over maybe I wouldn’t mind some too); some guy explaining to me that the only reason he goes to conferences is to pick up. The list goes on.

At the conference in Asia, no one seemed to be interested in the fact that I was wearing a skirt. And no one felt compelled to tell me about their romantic tragedies and personal problems. And no one tried to get me to go home with them. In fact, no one really tried to talk to me at all – and if they did it was about my work or the political situation in some Asian country, or something of the like. And this was a relief.
I left the conference feeling smart, confident and like a human being. I got good feedback on my talk, attended some good talks and met some nice people (that’s what conferences are for, isn’t it?) Instead of the usual ‘post conference blues’ where I feel disgusted, inadequate, dumb and convinced that if I were actually even vaguely capable someone would talk me to about something other than the fact that their wife wants to leave them.

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!

I’m a first year grad student on a philosophy programme where only 4 out of the 28 first year graduates are female. I studied Physics as an undergraduate, which had a similar gender-ratio so I’m very used to male-dominated environments. I have never previously felt judged, discriminated against or intimidated based on gender.

However, in the five months I have been a grad student, I’ve become peculiarly sensitive to the reaction of my male peers, who have frequently indicated that, first and foremost, I’m a girl.

To list some of my experiences:

1. At the end of a particularly challenging class on the history of modern logic, in which I was the only woman, a male student I had never met before approached me and began to explain some of the concepts that had been touched on. I had made absolutely no indication that I needed help, and certainly looked no more puzzled than anyone else in that class.

2. At our regular socials, the conversation is generally focused on philosophy or whatever people are specifically working on. We are primarily research students, and since we rarely attend class, do not know each other well. At these events, one of my male peers only ever talks to me about his romantic or sexual experiences. He talks to everyone else about Wittgenstein.

3. A male peer, who I also count as a good friend, never engages me in any academic conversation. Whilst he asks the men for their academic opinions on a talk we all attended together, he quizes me only on my love-life and my attitude towards sex. When I initiate a philosophical discussion, he patronises me and quotes Aristotle (for example) at me, even if we are discussing a subject that I specialise in, and he does not. The same ‘friend’ regularly flatters me with ‘you’re one of the smartest girls I’ve met, and you’re hot’, and has tried to kiss me, though he has admitted that he does not harbour any romantic feelings towards me. (To give some context to the attempted kiss: he was offering me essay advice at the time. Unfortunately, it is not possible to pass of the incident as a mistake at a party.)

4. Another male peer is in two classes with me, and yet he has never acknowledged me, either in a personal or academic capacity. I struggle to get my voice heard amongst the group of very confident and articulate men. Last week, I managed to make a few original points and actually engage with the discussion. This coursemate finally noticed me, and proceeded to initiate some small talk after the class. I then received an email from him inviting me out on a date. Clearly, if I am worthy of attention at all, it is in a romantic, rather than academic setting.

I am left with the overriding impression that to them, I represent a rare opportunity for a romantic dalliance with someone who at least approaches their intellectual capacity. I’m just intelligent enough to be good company, but not quite intelligent enough to be worthy of a rigorous philosophical discussion. To them, I am not their peer, an individual with individual interests, both academically and personally, but rather a symbol: a young woman in academic philosophy.

I am about to start my PhD at an excellent Leiter ranked program. I have a BA and and MA from excellent schools. I have worked closely with ground breaking philosophers in my field. I have published, I have an excellent teaching resume, phenomenal letters of recommendation, and moreover I love my job. I am a good philosopher, and I am thinking about leaving philosophy.

I have been a secretary and a chauffeur. I have been disingenuously promised research assistantships and letters of recommendation, in return for dinner dates and car rides. I have been asked if I was married while my colleagues have been asked what they think. I have been told that I’m both cute and idiotic. I have passed on professional opportunities because I am a woman, and no one would believe that I deserved those opportunities — accepting would make me seem like a slut, since men make it on merit, and women make it in bed. So, ironically, I have been praised as professional for having passed on professional opportunities. I have been the lone woman presenting at the conference, and I have been the woman called a bitch for declining sexual relations with one of the institutions of hosts. I think I have just about covered the gamut of truly egregiously atrocious sexist behaviour. So I just have this one question that I think I need answered: Is the choice between doing philosophy, and living under these conditions, or saving yourself, and leaving the discipline?

This is an open call for reasons to stay.

Because this blog does not allow comments, I’m cross-posting to Feminist Philosophers, where you can reply.

Rather than share a specific story, I just wanted to say *ditto* regarding many of the anecdotes that have already been posted. I am a female professor. Over the course of my graduate education and the years I have been employed as a faculty member, I have experienced the following at least once (though in most cases, quite more than once): students behaving especially confrontational in a way that they do not with my male colleagues; referees addressing me as “he/him” in their comments on my journal submissions; male faculty making salacious comments to me; being ignored/dismissed at conferences and in other professional contexts; general behavior/comments that suggest to me that I am not respected as my male colleagues are by administrators, philosophers, graduate students, secretaries, students; being on the short end of unequal distribution of department resources. I also sometimes get the sense that when I invite a male to discuss philosophy that either they or their partner assume that I am taking more than a professional or collegial interest. This can be an obstacle to networking. I have, on account of these experiences, considered leaving the field.