It just got harder to find female participants

Posted: November 28, 2015 by jennysaul in Uncategorized

I was invited to do a commentary on a paper for a high profile philosophy blog. It was on a topic that I published one paper on a few years ago, but since moved away from, so I suspected that I was the token female commentator rather than one of the first people to come to mind.
Nevertheless, I had done a lot of research on the topic before, and was happy to brush up on recent developments in order to do a decent job with the commentary. The paper was not very well written, so my main complaint was that it was difficult to tell what the main claim was (was it X or Y?), and what the motivations for that claim were (if it’s claim Y, then why are details A, B, C necessary?). I suggested a simpler logical formalism that as far as I could tell would do all the work required. I asked, genuinely hoping for clarification of points that were very confusingly elaborated in the paper, what the reasons were for needing a more complicated model, and what my simpler proposal missed. I posed my questions in technical language, and provided a clear alternative, so if he had wanted to engage with my comments, and he actually had an answer to my question, it would have been easy to reply constructively.
In retrospect I should have known that it might nevertheless be read as saying “I’m just a stupid girl and math is hard. Won’t you please explain it to me?” which is essentially how he interpreted it. The reply to my comments by the author didn’t engage with my commentary at all. In a reply that was less than half the length of his reply to any other commentary, he essentially waved his hand in the air in dismissal, and suggested that I should read his paper more carefully. Even though I knew that lack of care in reading was not the problem, I dutifully read it again, and still it was not at all clear.
I figured it would be useless to engage him any further, but for the sake of the audience’s impressions of the exchange, I decided to press the point once more in the online discussion forum, making it clear that my problem was not general lack of comprehension skills, but rather a detailed question about the content of the paper. Again he was utterly dismissive, but I hope that readers could at least see through his arrogance.
I drew two conclusions from this experience:
1) When an editor asks a token female to contribute to such a discussion, they have a responsibility to make sure that the other participants don’t act dismissively towards her, at least if they are genuinely concerned with representing diverse viewpoints. It would have been easy and entirely appropriate for the editor to tell the author that his response to my commentary was not fit to print, and to ask him to revise it.
2) Never again will I spend time that I could have been spending writing a paper of my own being a token female in such a discussion. It just got harder for well-meaning event organizers to find female participants.

The harms of accepted, wanted advances

Posted: November 23, 2015 by jennysaul in Uncategorized

Many posts on here, and in my life, as about male faculty making unwanted advances. This is disgusting,and creates an awful and violent atmosphere. There are many instances of just horrid comments made in passing. But what I want to address here is the physic and emotional harms that come from accepted wanted advances.

In my MA, I had a supervisor who was I was very excited to be working with. His own work touched on feminist thought, critical race, and politics, so I assumed he knew about the state of the discipline. He recommended this very blog to me. His own background was similar to mine, so we spent a lot of time talking about what it was like to be a first-generation college student, to be from poverty and afraid that any moment someone would take what we had found away. He was vegetarian, and I vegan, so we would talk about that, too (however, he was lying, he eat meat). I really respected him, and I had had so few mentors in my life that I wasn’t always really aware he was flirting with me or treating me differently. I thought we were both friends and academic equals. I thought he cared about my mind and ideas.

He told me I was like the first girl he ever fell in love with, totally insecure and beautiful. The kind of girl that you always feel scared to be with because she doesn’t realize how amazing she is, and one-day will and will be totally out your league. I took that as a compliment, however weird it was. The thing was, I wanted him to like me. I even wanted him to love me. The first night we had sex, I was so drunk that I hardly remember it. I remember making out with him in public, and in our small college town it was certainly not discrete. I remember saying I should go home, and him pulling my arm and wanting to go even though I thought I should say no. After that, we had a one week fling. I was cheating on my boyfriend, and him his wife. He told me many details about other students and faculty, I knew all the department business, which I ought not have known. But I felt wanted, like I was special and that nothing was going to change my place in the department, or my own life. He went away on a fellowship, and wrote me love letters, and sexy letters. He told me he loved me, and wanted me to leave my boyfriend, and he would finish the process of divorce with his wife (from whom he told me he was separated).

Then, abruptly, one day he told me it was over. Not just over, but that I shouldn’t’ contact him. I was supposed to write my thesis over that summer, so I was a little at a loss as to how to write it without him. He didn’t answer me. I moved away, telling my chair I’d work from a different city. My supervisor continued to ignore me, only occasionally asking for chapters.

We ran into each other at a conference, after all this silence, and he held my hand under the table and held a door closed and refused to let me leave a room until I agreed to kiss him. Everyone saw this, and it was all very embarrassing. He told the entire party at the after event that I was a heartbreaker, and ruining his marriage. To this day, one of the participants there still tells people I got to where I am by sleeping my way there (to be clear, I am not at a top 50 school). The day after he told me he was hopelessly in love with me, and couldn’t’ do anything. He missed me and knew we could work it out. I knew it was not the thing to want, but I felt better hearing it.

After that, he texted me and told me from now on never to email him unless it was a chapter, and only to address him as Dr., never by is name, but said he still thought we should work together. Shortly after this, his wife called and harrassed me. She told me I was a bad feminist, and that she would call every school I was applying to for PhD and tell them I was a slut who ruined her marriage. He completely ignored me for a month after that. I finally got him on his office phone. We talked and he nearly cried and begged me not to tell anyone and to stay his student. I did. I should not have. Eventually I finished, but not through his support. I spent the next year so depressed and so full of self-doubt that I had to stop working. I was bed ridden and was so completely unsure of my abilities.

I started a PhD program the next year and was unable to do the work because I had lost confidence in myself. It was only in transferring out of that program and starting again now, four years later, that I have any sense of self-worth. I still think I am a horrible philosopher and have very bad anxiety. I mistrust almost every philosophical intuition I have and am, at times, convinced that maybe I did sleep myself to where I am–no where great. I was sharp and eager, and now I am in a middle of the road school, and don’t try very hard. I refuse to have a male supervisor, which is a little hard to explain without the whole story, which I don’t want to share. I wish so much I could go back to myself four years ago, and tell myself that no matter how much I thought I wanted that attention, that it was so inappropriate of him, and would totally wreck me. I guess this is a story about what it is like to be a woman in philosophy who accepts the invitation, and one way it can go. There are sad lonely male faculty members who prey on insecure female students, maybe never with the intention of harm, but it has to stop.

Do Women and Minorities Have an Advantage on the Job Market?

This story is for everyone who thinks women and minorities have an unfair advantage on the job market in philosophy.

My old department is typical in a lot of ways: It is a well-respected, undergraduate-only program at a state university that is not the flagship; the faculty is 100% white and almost all male; and the philosophy majors look a lot like the faculty. It is similar to many philosophy departments at state universities and liberal arts colleges across the country.

Two years ago we were doing a search. Early on, a person from the EO office came to brief us on the rules. We were told, in a 60-minute presentation, about all the ways we might be biased against female and minority candidates, and many of the ways we could attempt to overcome those biases. We were also told that it was appropriate to seek to hire someone who would be a good role model for students from underrepresented groups, including women. (In fact, I had managed to convince my former colleagues to include, among the preferred criteria in the ad for the position, something about attracting female and minority students to the major.)

“But,” one of my former colleagues asked the EO officer, “isn’t it illegal to prefer a candidate on the basis of gender or race?”

The EO officer hemmed and hawed and said various things. My former colleagues proceeded to grill her, asking for definitions and principles, which were then refuted by counterexamples, leading to further attempts by the EO officer to clarify, and still more refutations and counterexamples. The EO officer kept trying to get across the message that although it is illegal to prefer a candidate merely on account of race or gender, there were nevertheless many nuanced ways the department could attempt to address its extreme lack of diversity. But my former colleagues were having none of it. Their sole takeaway from the meeting was that it is illegal to prefer a candidate based on gender or race.

After that a very curious thing happened. During search committee meetings, A would say, about every 20 minutes (or so it seemed), “It’s illegal to prefer a candidate just because she is female!” And this would be met with enthusiastic murmurs of agreement by all of my other former colleagues. Soon all of my former colleagues took up A’s call, and would repeatedly blurt out, à propos of nothing, “It’s illegal to prefer a candidate on account of race or gender!”

Meanwhile, I noticed a second, very odd phenomenon. Every time I said something positive about a female candidate (even casually, in the hallway or in someone’s office), the immediate response by my former colleagues was to make a case against that candidate. If I said of some female candidate, “I really liked x’s writing sample,” the response would be, “But there was a line in one of her letters that made me wonder if she is the strongest candidate from her department,” or “But she went to college at an Ivy League school, so she might not be the best fit for us.” Meanwhile, if I said anything positive about a male candidate, the response was always just to agree, and perhaps to add a further positive comment about that candidate. (This was such a striking and uncanny phenomenon that I went out of my way to test it, thinking that I was imagining the effect. And sure enough, it was really happening.)

I became worried that female and minority candidates were not getting a fair shake in our search process. So I began to pay closer attention to how candidates from different demographic groups were being evaluated. What I found was that writing samples by women and minorities were deemed “murky” and “unclear”, while similar writing samples by white men were judged to be “deep” or “provocative”. Similarly, white men who said something in their cover letters about being committed to increasing diversity in philosophy were given major points for that, while women and minorities who had actually done things – organized special events, created programs to improve the climate for women and minorities in their departments, etc. – were given no credit for their work along that dimension. At one point, A even said of such a white man (one who had mentioned his commitment to increasing diversity in his cover letter, but had not yet actually done anything about it), “I think he would be better on our preferred criterion [attracting female and minority students] than any of these women or minorities!”

Then something nearly inexplicable occurred. I got a call from the department chair, informing me that I was being formally accused, by B, of illegally discriminating on the basis of race or gender, and that he (Department Chair) was backing up the accusation. In accordance with the official procedure, I was to meet in the chair’s office with B and Department Chair to determine whether the matter could be resolved informally, or would instead have to proceed through the official steps that could result in my being disciplined.

My initial thought was that I was being pranked. But at the meeting with Department Chair and B, the latter claimed, in an oddly triumphant way, that I had said in a recent meeting that I thought Candidate X would be good at attracting female students because she is a woman. I replied that I distinctly remembered saying that Candidate X would be good at attracting female students because she is a woman who is a particularly charismatic teacher with a proven track record of attracting female students to the major, and who would serve as an excellent role model for women in our program. “No,” Department Chair told me, “It’s like B here claims. You said Candidate X would be good just because she is a woman.”

I had been choosing my words very carefully since the beginning of the search, given my former colleagues’ bizarre behavior, so I knew exactly what I had said in the meeting. But Department Chair told me that he was not interested in my recollection of what I had said. He made it very clear that although he was going to let me off the hook this time, any future behavior by me regarding the search that could be interpreted as discriminating against white men would be dealt with severely, as illegal discrimination on the basis of race or gender.

It seemed clear that the whole exercise had been designed to have a chilling effect on me, so as to keep me quiet during the remainder of the search. I didn’t actually believe that Department Chair would take the matter to anyone outside the department, nor did I believe that I was in any danger of being disciplined if he did. But the episode did have a chilling effect on me, insofar as it showed me how determined my former colleagues were not to hire a woman or a minority candidate.

Which, of course, we didn’t. And although my former colleagues stubbornly (and absurdly) insist that they are as pro-diversity as anyone else in philosophy, and always simply hire the best philosopher, regardless of race or gender, it’s clear in retrospect that women and minorities never had much of a chance in that search. (Or any of the many searches that took place over the 17 years I was with that department, none of which resulted in an offer being made to a woman or a person of color.) The amount of implicit bias displayed in my old department’s searches over the years was embarrassing, and the amount of explicit bias in the most recent search was shameful.

Maybe my old department is unusual in its reactionary attitudes. And my sense is that at least some philosophy departments are genuinely concerned about the discipline’s historic lack of diversity. But my fear is that among undergraduate-only philosophy departments, at state universities and liberal arts colleges, that attitude is actually quite common. In any case, because of what I have seen of searches firsthand, from the inside, you cannot convince me that women or minorities have some kind of advantage on the job market. In fact it seems obvious to me that just the opposite is still true.

I am currently the only female graduate student in philosophy at a quite well-renowned European university. A while ago a fellow student of mine (male) had an appointment with my supervisor (also male), who had read and commented on a text of his. They do not know each other, and my friend was a bit nervous about the meeting. To cheer him up, I said something like “don’t worry, XXXXX always delivers his critics in a decent way”, whereby my “friend” looked at me and said: “yeah… But you know, I think the difference here is that I’m male and you’re female. XXXXX is probably not criticising your work as hard as he would if you weren’t a girl”.

Gratuitous rape joke

Posted: October 20, 2015 by jennysaul in Uncategorized

This comic was sent to a junior faculty colleague at another institution in a message addressed to all members of the department. Here is the dialogue:

Kant: Hey, Hume.
Hume: Yes, Kant?
Kant: Do you know the difference between your mother and the categorical imperative?
Kant: I never violated the categorical imperative.
Hume: [crying]

I wonder how others might respond to the receipt of such comic by one’s senior colleague.

Such an appropriate job

Posted: October 13, 2015 by jennysaul in failure to take women seriously

Three years ago I wrote to two colleagues in the department of a university I have visited before, asking whether there was any possibility of hiring me on a one year visiting or adjunct position. I am tenured at a top university in Europe, but I wanted to take a one year leave of absence so that I could move to the area the university is in, in order to be near my mother, who was living in a nursing home nearby, was at the end of her life, and needed me very badly.

It was a desperation move, but I was desperate.

I may add that I have a very solid publication record, and I have been a plenary/keynote speaker at a number of conferences. In fact I have more invitations to lecture at top universities than I can accept.

One of the two colleagues I wrote to told me that there were no openings, but would I be interested in a lucrative position that was advertised in the help wanted section of the New York Review of Books, with the job title “administrative assistant”. The ad appeared in the NYRB for many decades, until recently, and the pay was (suspiciously) 100,000 per year.

You obviously don’t have what it takes

Posted: September 23, 2015 by jennysaul in bullying, insults

I was very interested in enrolling in a particular philosophy course but getting a spot was competitive because the class also fulfilled some requirement for the business majors. The chair of the philosophy department told me that I would be given priority because I was one among only a handful of philosophy majors. I emailed the professor that was teaching the course in advance. He said it would be great to have me and all I had to do was approach him on the first day of class.

First day of class. I introduce myself to him (as instructed) and remind him of the email. He says nothing, emotes nothing, and just takes a long look at me (up and down). His face had absolutely no expression but his voice was loud and cold. He ordered me to follow him outside. I did. (At the time, I remember thinking that he was making a bit of a scene. I was perfectly aware that the class was watching this little drama but I didn’t care. I just thought he was another eccentric professor.)

As soon as we get outside, he tells me that there is no way I can take his course and that it is very clear to him that I don’t have what it takes to do well in philosophy. He believed these things only on the basis of looking at me.

I left his class and never looked back. I told the chair of the philosophy department and she couldn’t believe it. And by that, I mean-she literally did not believe it. She dismissed the incident as my own confused interpretation of his “wonderful personality”.