I was participating in an intensive research seminar and had a brief opportunity to meet with its accomplished, distinguished director. I was excited and nervous to discuss my project-in-progress. One of the first bits of feedback he gave me was that I would “make a good mother.” Although a significant compliment, on its face, it seemed a deeply problematic way of communicating that I shouldn’t continue on in philosophy, and it made me consider the professional costs of things I especially value about myself: empathy, kindness, intellectual humility. I said, “Thank you. I think so, too,” although I’d known for a long time that motherhood was not in my future.

Not a good feeling

Posted: May 14, 2015 by jennysaul in Maleness of philosophy

I’m a graduate student in a very supportive department for women. We have an above average number of female faculty and about average number of female graduate students. We have an active climate committee and some women-only events in the department.
I was recently at a department talk. The talk was in the subfield I’m most interested in, which has somewhat lower rates of women than the discipline generally. There were about 25 people at the talk, and about 7 of whom were women (I hope I’m not the only one who always counts when I’m in a room with philosophers). But by the middle of the Q&A, I was the only woman in the room, with at least 10 men left.
I do feel lucky, because this isn’t something that happens to me every day. But when I realized that I was the only woman, my stomach just dropped. It’s hard for me to place exactly why I felt so acutely uncomfortable in that moment. I was suddenly so aware of my femaleness in a way that I rarely am. I hope I don’t often experience that same situation and accompanying feeling, but I can be quite sure it will happen again at some point.

Today I was in my office catching up on some grading. My door was open and a faculty member at another campus location whom I have never met came by to talk about an undergraduate symposium I was organizing. He stuck his head in, saw me at my computer, surrounded by papers and said “I don’t suppose Professor xxxxxxx (me) is in, is he?” I looked at him and said,”yes, I am. Can I help you?” He had the nerve to act surprised, but not embarrassed at his mistake.

I am a white male doctoral student in a philosophy program in North America. Once I was at a conference in my field of research in North America. I had an experience there that opened my eyes. Generally, I’m a pretty na├»ve person. I’ve always sympathized with the efforts in academic philosophy to broaden what is studied and considered philosophy and create a more diverse learning and research environment, but before this experience I never really understood that these efforts are responding to deep and systemic problems in the academy itself as an institution, which has been designed for particular members of a particular class, racial group, sexual orientation and gender. (Names, places, etc. have been changed).

The conference was a mix of faculty and graduate students. Most of the people were upstanding, though the conference was entirely male. One of the panels had a young professor, “Ted,” from a school in North America that caters to students from France. During the Q and A a priest in attendance, who is West African, asked a question to another member of the panel. The priest was smart and really knew his stuff. Ted wouldn’t look at him and would roll his eyes when he spoke. He didn’t do that to the white members of the audience.

I happened to sit with Ted and a few other people at dinner that night. Ted mentioned that he taught at a French school. Trying to make conversation, I said that there is a group of French students in my program. He knew one of them and asked if I knew her. I said yes and he replied, “Yeah, cute little thing.” It felt like one of those male-bonding rituals that establish the “code,” ensure solidarity, and make us “safe.” I said, “She’s a very smart student.” He looked me, “Yeah, cute little thing.” I said it again. He looked at me disdainfully and let it drop. He then proceeded to tell us how he drinks heavily, got made fun of and never had any friends in high school, and made a possibly sexual comment about children, all unsolicited.

Ted can be in academia and was able to get a number of degrees in philosophy, because there is a system that was created for him, has protected him, and continues to protect him. I never understood that before.

I do, now.

“Advising” at the bar

Posted: April 18, 2015 by jennysaul in Uncategorized

I attended the University of X. I was male but noticed a type of personal harassment from the advisor that started immediately upon enrolling. For me it came about because I had previously attended a different institution and was ABD before I left. His form of harassment came about in “oh we are tough and we will straighten you out”. His “advising” meeting consisted of his inviting students to a local bar. There was nothing academic going on at those events. One time he had his arm around a female graduate students neck and was asking her “which graduate students are dating each other”. Another time he was joking with another female graduate student about sexual intercourse. I decided to leave the program after a few months of that nonsense and never looked back.

I’m a PhD student in a related field. Some time ago, I fell in love with a technical, highly male dominated subfield of philosophy. I was confident that I would make the transition into philosophy…and then I started hearing about philosophy’s “woman problem.” Then I started to experience it myself. Though I have training in certain formal methods, it was infuriating to discover that philosophers were inclined not to believe that I do in fact have this training or who just assumed that the male students were “smarter” than me, despite no evidence that this was the case. I’m sick and tired of philosophers automatically taking me less seriously than they do their male students.

My university’s philosophy department is known for having a good climate (!!), and yet it’s so much worse than my current (not philosophy) department. Meanwhile, the phil departments I’ve looked into transferring into are known for having even worse climates!

I don’t think I’ll change fields after all.

Effects of jokes

Posted: April 12, 2015 by jennysaul in failure to perceive problem

I was at a professional conference concerning a specific area of philosophy when the following story took place.

At one of the sessions, two male philosophers, whom I know to be fairly respected in this area of philosophy, were about to present a paper. Just before the two started one of the speakers — the more senior — attempted a joke poking fun at his co-author. The joke said something about how we shouldn’t trust his colleague owing to his colleague’s ethnicity (he is Italian). It was clear that this was intended to be funny. Perhaps because anti-Italian racism is (supposedly) no longer a wide-spread attitude among Americans today?

I did not think this remark was funny. It conveyed to me a level of disregard for how racism operates. It also revealed to me how little weight this person must place on creating a healthy, positive climate where graduate students of all stripes are made to feel comfortable engaging in philosophy. I stated something to this effect so that my neighbors at the conference could hear. (Several of whom spoke to me afterwards expressing their agreement.)

I’m angry that this remark was made and that it was passed off by some as a humorous joke. I’m angry that at that moment, I lost all interest in reading the works authored by this person. I’m angry that all I can think about in relation to this person is this remark. Luckily this person’s work has not intersected with my interests, but who knows what sort of enrichment I am missing out on by keeping a wide berth from this person? I may one day need to take this person’s work seriously. But I simply don’t want to. And I’m not even sure I can get passed my disdain long enough to appreciate his arguments.

I am sharing this story because I think some philosophers do not fully appreciate how their behavior can negatively impact diversity in the profession. Students who are socially aware and sensitive to systems of injustice are likely to be “turned off” from working with a professional who is insensitive to how oppression functions and how their behavior perpetuates injustice.