This blog is devoted to short observations (generally fewer than 300 words) sent in by readers, about life as a woman in philosophy. Some of these will undoubtedly be tales of the sexism, conscious and unconscious, that remains. But we hope that others will be tales of ways that improvements have been (or are being) made.
I studied philosophy in undergrad at a state school (with no grad program in philosophy). The school itself was highly diverse, and the department was more diverse than the average philosophy department. About half the faculty were women. Of the three presidents elected by the philosophy club while I was there were, none were men.
I took a required course with an elderly male tenured professor. I hated everything about it, from the structure of the course to the assigned readings to the in-class discussions. Though there were a fair number of women in the class, there were (as there always are) a few male students who dominated the discussion (often without even the courtesy of raising their hand first), ranted at length about their own thoughts and opinions without letting anyone get a word in edgewise, and quickly got the discussion off-track from the topic. The professor did nothing to shut down such deviations or to allow others equal opportunity to participate, so this constituted a large part of the time spent in class.
One class in particular, we were talking about a particular Nietzsche passage. Both the problematic male students and the professor began making some pretty sexist remarks: The one I remember, from the prof himself, is the empirical claim that “women want to feel the pain of childbirth” (IIRC, this was somehow relevant to the passage). I walked out of class without saying anything.
I approached the department chair (a woman of color) about the experience and the discomfort I felt. She was sympathetic and offered to talk to the professor or to mediate a discussion between us. I ended up going to talk to him alone in office hours. I explained why I had found the remark offensive, especially in the context of other problematic aspects of the course. He became defensive and explained that his wife had chosen not to have an epidural during childbirth, and this is why he had made this remark. He was not moved by my response that his wife, one upper-class white woman, was not necessarily representative of all women. I stuck out the class (since it was required) and got an A, but never interacted with that professor again.
Seeing the recent post about “Problems with Confucianism” reminded me of various levels of hypocrisy that I see male colleagues get away with, including a male colleague who claims to be a feminist.
Soon after meeting him, I disagreed with said male colleague on a matter within my AOS and he told me that I just think that because of my educational background.
He said something horrible to a student, and in his defense, to me, of this issue, he mentioned an incident in which he told a woman reading another work he disliked that she was “going through a phase.” He seemed surprised that she had been offended by this patronizing comment.
Same colleague has had several complaints from women in his courses, who do not feel respected, to the point that they seek help from other professors, or drop his class, or try to switch into another section, even well past mid-term or in situations when it could hurt their grade. I am leaving out several incidents that are hard to explain while keeping it anonymous, but I fear he is both classist and an in-denial misogynist.
He goes as far as to make claims about what should be taught in my AOS, which he has no experience in. My chair, who is otherwise great, seems to agree with his claims. What do I know, I am just a woman (a woman with a PhD in that AOS, who apparently knows less about what is important and relevant than a man who works in a completely unrelated area).
Okay, sexism is not new.
But here’s the rub: he discusses inclusivity frequently both publicly and in the department, and takes it upon himself to make others feel that they are not doing enough.
It makes me so angry that, frequently enough, women, people of color and others from underrepresented backgrounds are just expected to promote diversity and inclusion, without praise. But a man is praised for his awesome behaviour when he even claims to be for X, Y, or Z. Words seem to speak louder than actions and it makes me ill.
He is actively making me feel unwelcome, and undervalued, and yet he is viewed as a “good person.”
I am untenured and have no voice. He might just get his way and push me out, perhaps he can get another white male “feminist” from a privileged background to enter the department in my stead and further his “cause.”
I lose sleep over his behaviour and what it does for women at my university, what it says about philosophy, about my department. He gets kudos. I feel defeated.
I feel stuck and saddened, and yes, grateful to have a position at all, and an ability to try to counteract the damage that he inflicts. Nonetheless, the hypocrisy has wounded me deeply. My sense of powerlessness, while familiar, is even harder to express since he is viewed as “one of the good guys.”
I have kept this incident to myself for more than 10++ years. Only now dare I speak, as I no longer think the incident will be salient to those who otherwise could easily identify me.
I am now a full professor in the U.S. at a fairly top institution (if there is any meaningful way of measuring that). The event I want to tell you about took place when I was just out of graduate school and had just started a tenure-track job.
It happened at one of the not-so-dreadful APA meetings back then. I was chatting with another junior professor from another university; male junior professor. It quickly dawned on us that we had overlapping AOSs, and the rest of the evening we talked shop. I told the male junior about a new idea which I had already fleshed out in a still-unpublished paper.
Looking back at our chat, I can now see that things were a bit off. I can now see how weirdly excited the bloke was about my idea. It’s hard to describe. There was nothing erotic about it (for once). Yet his keen interest was too keen, too intense, too in-my-face.
A couple of hours later I had promised to send him a copy of my paper.
And so I did. And I quickly forgot all about the meeting and our chat. I received comments on the paper from generous colleagues, and it was accepted for publication in a fairly top journal (if there is any meaningful way of measuring that).
One year later the male junior professor published a paper. I am still in shock. The paper he published was virtually a paraphrase of my article from the year before.
But that wasn’t it. Mistakes happen, right? They sure do. In his paper the male junior professor cited my already-published article as forthcoming, in spite of the fact that it had been out for more than a year at the time. In later work he perpetuated the mistake by citing my article as having appeared in print two years after it actually did —thus making him look like the voice of the idea.
Back then—and then, even more so than now—if a philosopher was bothered citing a contemporary’s paper, the author would usually be a man—and this was so, regardless of how many women had already said the same thing before them.
And so it happened. The male junior person—who soon moved up through the ranks—was publicly credited with my idea. Eventually heaps of people cited his paper. I occasionally get cited for the same idea but with the same typo in the year of publication, which makes my paper look like a footnote to his.
I am sure what I just told you still happens a lot, and it saddens me, not least because there is an easily discoverable fact of the matter in these kinds of cases. Yet what can one do? What could I have done?
What made me think of this incident tonight was that I just spent all evening reading an entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on this very topic. I was taken aback when I realized that the male professor from back then was credited with my idea in the encyclopedia entry. My paper wasn’t even cited, let alone discussed.
I could have come forward then. I could still come forward, I could stop hiding. But then what? What would happen?
I am saddened by this too: But honestly I don’t think philosophy is ready for its own hashtag feminist or anti-elite movement. Philosophers are all talk and no show, myself included. We talk and talk and talk about all the injustices we face and then we continue doing as we have always done. Isn’t it incredible that women in Hollywood were able to “pull off” what many of us female philosophers have dreamed of “pulling off” for years?
That is what saddens me most: I don’t think philosophy is ready to break with the male culture of buddy shoulder-padding, buddy-invites and buddy-hires. Philosophers, regardless of gender, aren’t willing to admit that there is a select inner circle who are particularly privileged and who got to where they are because of said privilege, not because of their acumen or intellect, not because they intellectually surpass the rest. One factor that increases the likelihood of being privileged is the Y-factor. It’s not everything. But it gives the guy the head start and protection needed to get away with cheating and riskier “idea heists.”
As I am coming to a close, let me emphasize that privilege and cheating go hand in hand, and that it still is the privileged philosophers and the cheaters who wind up with the golden tickets, the golden eggs, the Everlasting Gobstoppers and a whole lot of Oompa-Loompas.
I had the opportunity to publish an article in a journal that is well established in country XX. I sended the finished article to the journals chief lector. In my draft, I was using gender-inclusive language which was completely removed in the edited version of my article. I was kind of shocked about that and so I went to my (female) head and told her about it. She laughed and said “Well, he is like a typical old man!‘‘ and kept on laughing. Subsequently she changed the subject of our conversation. I felt lost after this conversation as there is enough evidence of the importance and relevance of gender-inclusive language and furthermore I really thought that it‘s basically the norm in scientific publications these days. Not least I was pretty sure that my head will support me in this matter.
So in the end I returned the article and complemented gender-inclusive language. The chief lector never came back to me. Until now, I don’t know if the article will or won‘t be published with gender-inclusive language.