Archive for the ‘sexual harassment’ Category

-Being the only woman in a class of 15 men

-Having to pull aside a colleague to tell him I am in class to learn and not to be sexually harassed

-Being pursued rather aggressively by a professor only to be silenced on behalf of your academic career

-Having a classmate to ask me just how gay I am on a scale of 1 to 7 after denying him an unsolicited sexual advance

Many of my experiences with peers, mentors, and scholars in the field have been extremely positive…faculty and peers are usually highly professional and supportive. But of course, even a minority of negative experiences make a tremendous difference for women in the workplace.

Earlier in my academic path, as I moved into upper-level courses with mixed undergraduate/graduate level students, I first noticed how shocked both peers and some professors were when I contributed constructively to discussions. At first I thought it was weird…maybe flattering? I didn’t have enough experience in academia to have much to compare people’s responses to my work with. Then it slowly dawned on me (duh!) that the male undergraduates didn’t receive the same shocked “gee whiz look at the new circus act” responses when they made normal contributions in lecture. The shock at my adequate to good performance in philosophy seminars was…yep, because I was a woman. I almost blamed myself for being so naive as to not see it immediately.

My most common everyday experience was this–in working groups, at conferences, in small talk over beer…me engaging in academic discussion often results in someone yelling at me, or being extraordinarily sensitive.

One example. I went with a large group to dinner at the end of a conference. I was stuck at the end of the table with someone I hadn’t met yet, so I began making small talk with him. “Where are you from? What did you think of the conference? What program are you affiliated with?” He mentioned that he was really interested in theater and Derrida. I was glad that I had something small to connect over, said that was very interesting, and he must be familiar with Derrida’s work on Artaud. I had also recently written on the topic. His countenance changed completely. He said, “Oh. What was your thesis?” …he was insistent that I give him the exact parameters of my argument. When I obliged he kept interrupting me mid-sentence saying “no, no, no. you’re wrong”. I truly only gave him the outline of my thesis statement (which I thought was strange he wanted so specifically, as it was previously a casual conversation that neither of us were particularly invested in) I finally just stopped talking and let him “have the floor” and he began yelling (yes yelling) at me about how I clearly didn’t understand anything about deconstruction and I was wrong. wrong. wrong.

A fully grown man, whom I had just met, red in the face, yelling at me in a restaurant. This drew the attention of our dinner partners…some joined in because they were worried by the suddenly yelling man and others because they were interested in the topic. A ‘spirited’ conversation about Derrida and the nature of deconstruction ensued. However, typical of my interactions in philosophy/religion, there was a spirited edge to the exchange that made me more than uncomfortable. Namely, that same man, forty minutes later still red in the face pointing at me, discussing his intense displeasure about my only barely formulated, preliminary (pretty standard, non-controversial) thoughts on deconstruction. Multiple friend from the dinner agreed, the discussion would not have played out like that if I were a fellow man.

That’s just one anecdote. I have plenty of others, which I think demonstrates what women in academia are up against almost every time they speak or express a position. Think about this calculation for a second “I could contribute to this discussion…but what are the chances that someone will yell or get defensive at my standard contribution. Is it worth the hassle?” and the collective toll it takes over an entire career? And people wonder why women are statistically so much less likely to speak up in academic settings.

Of course, beyond the everyday grab-bag of “who is going to get offended by my very existence” there’s also blatant sexual harassment. I’ve experienced it from one faculty member during undergrad (not religion or philosophy field) with some questionable physical contact (blame it on cultural differences, sure) and an insistence that he will “buy [me] drinks anytime, once [I] graduate.” At another conference, I was low-key accosted by a senior (married) faculty member from another university. He introduced himself to me, and was very interested in speaking to me during coffee breaks. After one evening session, he asked me to go back to his hotel bar to get drinks with him. I declined. He asked variations multiple times afterward, and confronted me on his last night about “not following through” on the plans I had made with him…which, to be clear, I had never made.

This is significant, in that my academic career has barely begun. These are situations that come off as uncomfortable, somewhat funny, very damning anecdotes about the gender climate in academia in general, philosophy/religion specifically. I should have reported the “inappropriate physical contact” professor at my own university. There was enough evidence…but my reasoning at the time was that I was not particularly troubled by his behavior, so it wasn’t worth my time. But what of the women that could be troubled by his behavior? That might be truly victimized? It was a failure of thoughtfulness and solidarity on my part.

But of course, how can women win on this front? Under-report sexual harassment, and you’re complicit in the problem. Over-report and jeopardize your own career by being labeled “troublesome”…”doesn’t play well with others”


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.

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?

In an earlier post (“Avoid the Elites”) another person expressed their experience doing philosophy at a college that was not elite. While her experience is truly a breath of fresh air from the hundreds of experiences listed on this site, unfortunately it’s not guaranteed by attending a non-elite college. My own experience as a graduate student in a non-elite college was drastically different from hers and more in line with the other accounts on this site. (I wonder if this treatment differs based on education level- it’s easier for teaching schools to focus on developing female undergraduate students than it is for them to teach and encourage female graduate students. My own experience as an undergraduate student in philosophy at a different public university was certainly less hostile towards women.)
When I was a graduate student I found myself in two very disturbing situations. The first one occurred early in my graduate career. Our department hosted a conference and after the conference several graduate students decided to go out for dinner and drinks (this was a common occurrence). I joined them that evening because I wanted to get to know the other students in the department and there were other female graduate students who went out as well. After dinner and a drink I went outside to call a cab to bring me back to my apartment on the other side of town. A male graduate student in the department followed me and waited until I finished my call. Then he proceeded to grab me and forced a kiss confessing he wanted me. I pushed him away and told him off then waited inside the restaurant with the remaining graduate students for my cab to come. The male student pursued me and continued to badger me, reaching out and groping me whenever he passed by (and he made sure to pass by several times). The remaining graduate students were men and they didn’t say anything to him despite the fact they all observed the harasser wasn’t listening to my protests. Over the next several weeks the male student who harassed began sending sexual propositions via email and made several sexual remarks about me in the classroom before the professor arrived. I spoke to another female graduate student about the situation (as she had a problem with a male student before) in an attempt to get some advice on how to proceed. Our conversation was overheard by a friend of the male who harassed me and he reported parts of what was said to the dean of graduate affairs. He insisted that I was making the harasser’s time in the department difficult by creating rumors about him. A few days later I was approached by the faculty-student liaison and reprimanded for spreading rumors and making the department a hostile environment. This scolding occurred right near a group of philosophy graduate students. I tried to explain to the liaison the actual events which occurred that night but he said that wasn’t what he was told. He finally agreed to look into the matter and speak with the male harasser. I found out he never spoke with the male harasser.
My second experience occurred when I was working on my dissertation. I was assigned a junior faculty member as my dissertation advisor and mentor (because my topic was one he had recently wrote several articles on). In the early stages of writing my dissertation this male faculty member would meet with me once every month. About four months in, he stopped answering my emails and cancelled our previously scheduled meetings (usually on the day we were supposed to meet a few hours before the meeting). I wasn’t too worried at first because this male faculty member recently had some major changes in his personal life. It was only when I discovered that he become the advisor for three new male graduate students who were also starting their dissertation that I was concerned. Four months had already passed and I was nowhere near ready to write my prospectus. I continued to email my advisor and would occasionally get replies but they were vague and unhelpful. I looked at his responses (or lack thereof) charitably – obviously a result of his changing personal life. A month later, one of the male students he took on after me completed his dissertation prospectus and was well on his way towards writing his dissertation. In the month after that, another male student he was advising also completed their prospectus. I spoke with the second male student about how he found working with our advisor. He said nothing but praise and he even stated that our advisor would reply to his emails late in the evening and always wrote back to email within 24 hours. I continued to find strained communications with my advisor. I really didn’t understand how he could have time to work with two new students and get them to the point of completing their prospectus but he couldn’t even answer an email from me. I was at the top of my class and I had finished all of my degree requirements minus the dissertation. The other students still were completing the language requirement. I told my advisor in the beginning I wanted to finish my dissertation as quickly as possible considering my ABD status. Frustrated, I ended up changing my dissertation topic entirely so that I would have a renowned female philosopher at my university as my advisor. During my last year as a graduate student I discovered that the male junior faculty advisor I was initially assigned to had treated other female graduate students the same way he treated me. He ignored female graduate students when they participated in his class and he would not respond quickly (if he responded at all) to emails sent by female graduate students. He didn’t act this way with male students. I was very grateful and honored to have the senior female faculty member as my dissertation advisor despite the fact I had to drastically change my area of interest – so maybe it really was a blessing disguised as a curse.

Today I (a female grad student) was discussing with my partner (a male grad student) some of the comments Ruth Chang makes about sexual harassment in her recent 3am interview. He was shocked at senior philosophers confessing to Chang that they don’t consider expressing romantic interest in a student to be particularly problematic, as he (reasonably) considers it to be wildly inappropriate. To be clear, everything he said was supportive, and he is very understanding of the issues women in philosophy face, but still two of the things he said (and especially my reactions to them) struck me as noteworthy.

1) “I can’t believe someone would really think that was okay!”
I reeled off the names of four people we know personally who we know to have expressed interest in students or junior colleagues, and in fact to have gone further than mere expressions of interest. (This includes one who person he knows harassed me as an undergraduate). He agreed that in some sense he knows that people do it, but still can’t get his head around the idea that they would think it is okay.

2) “Imagine if I was talking one-on-one with [senior member of staff] and she admitted that she was attracted to me. That would be so horrible and so inappropriate!”
This made me realise that even the most empathetic of male philosophers will have trouble fully understanding the extent of ‘what it’s like’, because I only recognised this point myself during our conversation: whenever I have ever had a meeting with a male member of staff I am on some level worried that they might express interest in me, or that I will realise that they are interested in me, or that they will think that I am interested in them. I can’t think of a single exception to this, and now I’m feeling exhausted at the prospect of a career filled with such stressful interactions.