Totally Blatant Sexism in Philosophy

A confession: I thought this was rare.  That folks in philosophy at least know not to say things like “That’s a great paper for a girl” or “We’ve already got a woman”.  (I thought they might well *think* these things– but that they at least knew they were socially unacceptable to say.)  But a few weeks ago I heard about the first being said at a graduate conference in the UK, and last week I heard about the second being said by someone on a search committee in the US (in response to the question “Why not consider X [a woman]?”) Both totally without irony, and both very recently.  And I was really shocked.  (Though perhaps you aren’t.)  There are lots of very interesting discussions taking place in recent days about uncovering non-obvious or structural sources of problems for women in philosophy (e.g. here and here and here).  All these are very important, but it’s important to also remember that the totally blatant stuff isn’t yet gone.  Why aren’t there more women in philosophy departments?  One reason is that some departments think one is plenty.

Question: Have you seen much stuff this stupidly obvious lately?

34 thoughts on “Totally Blatant Sexism in Philosophy

  1. It is really shocking that the second person didn’t know you should NOT say such things. One wonders if he knows it is illegal to reject a candidate on the basis of sex.

    It is very discouraging to face the fact that people still think these things, though of course we know they do.

  2. How about this one? Senior male philosophers in one well-respected department refer to their senior female chair as their “girl chair” — not to her directly, but to another male professor they must have thought wouldn’t be shocked.

  3. That the first comment – “We’ve already got a woman” – was made doesn’t surprise me at all. I have been part of several hiring processes during which I heard: “We’ve got to get a woman”. In one case, it was because there was currently no woman; in others, it was because there was only one, and it had been decided that one was not enough. I think that once a state that is judged to be one of ‘having enough women’ has been achieved (it sounds like the person whose comment you are reporting thinks that enough=1), people think that there need be no further attempts to “get” a woman – and that is perhaps only a short step away from “no more need for a woman”.

  4. m – a lot of conservative critics have argued that “political correctness” just makes things worse for women and minorities. (You can see a discussion of one such claim here:

    I have a hard time buying that. In the present case, there’s someone casually willing to acknowledge openly what is in fact an illegal practice that has been the source of tons of lawsuits in the US. I can’t believe that’s because he’s gotten confused and thinks that after you have a required number, you need to stop hiring women. This person is a genuine bigot whose comment, among other things, strongly suggesst gender is the most salient feature of a woman philosopher.

  5. Jonathan– The quick answer is that I wasn’t given names. But there’s a good reason for not giving names, and in fact for not giving any identifying details– which is basically that whistleblowers often face serious repercussions.

  6. Just a quick follow up to my comment in (4): I definitely did *not* mean to suggest that affirmative action policies make things worse for women. (how could things have gotten *worse* than where they stood for women in philosophy prior to such policies!)
    I can well imagine that, without some sort of directive to “get a woman/minority”, a person like the one whose comment you reported would just conduct searches for philosophers (where philosopher=man (like him)).

  7. I was on my first search committee and was surprised to see that about the top 25 candidates were pretty much equally (over) qualified for the job. I asked a senior colleague how he decided on his top picks. He responded that he picked the candidate who best cohered his picture of an excellent philosopher. What is terrifying about this is that it didn’t even occur to him that his process was likely not only sexist but racist too. Unfortunately imagining a philosopher is still pretty much like imagining a Judeo-Christian god — sad white dude with a beard.

  8. Wait a minute, simply from man’s statement that he would pick a candidate who “best cohered his picture of an excellent philosopher” (which is what we should ask of anyone), you inferred that he’s a bigot??

  9. I don’t think that’s what was meant at all. That case is much more one where one can imagine that, despite possibly all the right conscious thoughts and intentions, it’s especially easy for the schemas Valian discusses (see previous posts) to do their work. The interesting thing about Valian’s work is that it shows how people who are NOT bigots can still be affected by unconcscious schemas in ways that have the cumulative effect of seriously disadvantaging women, blacks, etc.

  10. Sorry I’m very unfamiliar with this issue, but how could the presence and operativeness of such unconscious schemas be empirically tested? Any pointers to relevant literature very welcome!

  11. There are empirical studies that show that men tend to cite male authors more than female authors.

    On another tack, I sometimes think that women don’t find philosophy congenial because philosophers on the whole tend to be boors. That is, they not only as a group are often amazingly socially inept but they almost seem to pride themselves on it. This can include adherence to what Janice Moulton described early on as “the adversary method” to the point of downright rudeness in social contexts, but it goes beyond this. How many times as a female professor have I gone out to dinner parties with visiting speakers where there were several philosopher’s wives present (my other colleagues mostly being males), where the entire dinner table conversation was devoted to philosophical issues that excluded them? As a woman, I or perhaps simply as someone socialized to be more polite and empathetic, I face the choice then: should I try to join in with “the guys” and prove my mettle, thus ignoring half the people present at the table, or should I attempt to be more congenial and polite and talk to the women? I have just in the last year been to another dinner where one rather successful male philosopher dominated the conversation with the visiting speaker to the point that no one else could literally get a word in. I personally felt a lot of interest in talking to this speaker but I could not get a chance to say anything. Nor did anyone else at the table. And this is a mid-career fellow who is regarded as having the paradigmatic qualities of “philosophical ability”. His behavior would have been completely unacceptable, I venture to suggest, in a group of scholars from other disciplines. I teach in an interdisciplinary program with colleagues from History, Political Science, and English, and they would NEVER behave in these rude ways in company, and they ALL have more women students and faculty members than we do. Or to give another example, a while back I had a book published and it was celebrated with book signings at two local bookstores. I gave out invitations to all of my colleagues and friends. None of the philosophers came or even mentioned it. But a lot of my colleagues from other disciplines came, several bought the book and asked for my autograph even though they did not come, and several others gave polite regrets about why they could not come. The level of total insensitivity and just “Jerky” behavior among male philosophers never ceases to amaze me.
    I could go on and on. I have persisted and I do love the subject matter and teaching it, but sometimes I just think the behavior of people in my field is so incredibly impolite and insensitive that I wonder why I put up with it. And of course ever since Socrates got away with dressing badly and offending people and not following social conventions, we have been taught to think that these are all good things and marks of being a unique and creative, original, deep thinker. Social misfits are really rife in philosophy. Think of the one famous philosopher who is well-known for his complete inability to do the normal things in life, for the lengths of snot coming out his nose and his dirty fingernails, and you will get another idea of what I mean.

  12. There is, unfortunately, tons of evidence that knowing the sex of a candidate can skew a decision which is supposedly about “excellence” against women. One of the most striking was a study of science grant awards in Scandinavia; women applicants had to have 2.5 times the qualifications of a man to get a comparable award. Another, I think common, experiment involves asking for assessments of a cv or professional profile while changing the overt gender of the name. Women are generally (maybe always?) graded lower than men. One I remember asked whether the candidate should be an assistant or an associate prof. The assignments broke along gendered lines, with whomen given the lower rating.

    Lots of women can report experiences that reflect this sort of judgment, sometimes in outrageous ways. A personal example: I had held a special office for the statutory year. I was, we could say, the current “Special Officer.” Shortly after my term was over, I inquired about why I wasn’t invited to partake in a certain action, since all the recent (and male) past Special Officers were. I was told firmly, with a straight face, “But it is just for past Special Officers.” The person who told me was next in line for the office. Though anecdotes are not generally very good evidence for a theory, the idea that I didn’t fit his schema, despite his year of experience to the contrary, helps explain his judgment.

  13. Just to pick up on Calypso’s example. Some of my dearest friends are in a field widely regarded as full of completely inept men. (Think computer science, engineering, physics, etc.) We were talking one day and one of them said, “You know, we XX’s are thought to be complete failures socially, but then I went over to your department and I thought, hey, we could be worse, we’re not so bad.”

  14. To Calypso: I absolutely agree with your descriptions of the social/interpersonal ‘quirks’ possessed by many, many philosophers – an unfortunate blend of rudeness and awkward cluelessness. And it’s what you touch on near the end of your comment that really bothers me: by going against the grain on this, one risks being categorized as a soft thinker, not serious, not sufficiently focused on the philosophy…. maddening.

  15. I can hardly condone people intentionally causing offense or developing exclusionary structures – but it would still be a pity if being a leader in a field was even more of a test of how well you can pass arbitrary social tests (and develop exclusionary groups) than it already is.

    I suppose I tend to look at things differently, as you might have noticed, apologies if it becomes annoying.

  16. m, weird how flouting social conventions should pass as a badge of honor in philosophical circles. Is deliberately going against the grain any different from following sheepishly? I mean in both cases that behavior is determined by social mores. If these are to be held worthless, defying them should not bring any brownie points. It is indeed easy to take blatant — i.e. adolescent — disregard for enlightenment, but it should not be enough. What does one have to say? An insightful yet articulate socialite would be infuriating, but much better in my view than an obsfucating outsider. I’m not disagreeing with you, much less dissing you, just sharing the befuddled thoughts somehow spurred by you comment.

  17. Calypso: I totally agree. I have been embarrassed many times when in a mixed group of my philo colleagues and academics from other disciplines. Frequently one of the philosophers will dominate, talk endlessly about his own work, and display no interest in others’ work. In non-mixed groups I frequently hear philosophers express extreme disparagement of the work done in other disciplines. So many philosophers seem to think only philosophy is truly rigorous and deep; scientists are mere fact-gatherers, social scientists are fuzzy-headed fact-gatherers, and the rest of the humanities is simply beyond the pale.

    The question is why such behavior would be more likely to turn women than men off? It can’t only be that male philosophers tend to be rude and lacking in social skills. Women don’t seem to have any trouble taking jobs that require dealing with large numbers of children, who have yet to learn the social graces. I suspect the rudeness of male philosophers is not mere lack of social skill or unconventionality. Rather, it is frequently a passive-aggressive expression of hostility, combativeness, or machismo. There may be many men (especially nerdy types who were frequently teased in school), who would postively relish the chance to be rewarded for acting that way. Women may be less likely to want to act that way themselves or to be around other people who do act that way.

  18. A pretty common observation of male social ineptitude in some fields, such as maths, physics, computer science and some engineering, is that they provide a work arena in which one can do great research without much social interacting. Monasteries are also said to attract the socially inept. One would expect philosophy to have some of the same characteristics.

    In fact, as the prevalence of multi-authored papers makes evident, a lot of science is done in groups, and a lot of scientists I know strike me as distinctly more social than philosophers.

  19. Oddly enough, I just got the following in the Chron of Higher Ed Digest:

    DOCTORAL EDUCATION: The Carnegie Foundation for the
    Advancement of Teaching will publish a book next month that
    examines how doctoral training can be improved<and why
    creating intellectual community is crucial for top-quality
    graduate education. Here is an excerpt from the book.

  20. here’s another (very recent) example: two weeks ago i went for drinks with several members of a reasonably well-regarded british philosophy department. a permanent member of the staff–voicing, coincidentally, his belief that philosophers needed to be *more* like monks!–referred to “academics and lady academics, too”. i don’t know which is worse: that he felt it alright to refer to women in philosophy as “lady academics”, or that he seemed to think it obvious to any english speaker that the word “academics” refers *only to men*.

  21. There is more social pressure on women to act according to standard social conventions. I expect a woman would get a tougher social sanction (and be more conspicuous) for any of these breaches of social convention than a man.

    that might not apply in a philosophy dinner (well, ideally it wouldn’t) but since it would apply everywhere else one cannot exactly divorce your behavior there from your behavior in all other situations.

  22. lp- Mightn’t the professor you mentioned have distinguished “lady” academics, not because academics are presumed to be male, but because monks are? That’s what immediately occurred to me when reading your post, anyway.

  23. My favorite over-the-top comment was shared with me recently by a woman in a US department who said that a colleage once offered this bit of wisdom:
    “Ethics is the pretty girl standing beside the hot rod of philosophy.”

  24. Sally– I’d love to see that as a tagline on the journal _Ethics_. lp: I just can’t get over the phrase ‘lady academics’. Must find ways to slip it into conversation.

  25. It is really shocking that the second person didn’t know you should NOT say such things. One wonders if he knows it is illegal to reject a candidate on the basis of sex.

    It is very discouraging to face the fact that people still think these things, though of course we know they do.

  26. I know I will be ostracized and cast out as a misogynist for this opinion, but I feel this needs to be said – you’re looking at this whole issue under a sexist (anti-male) paradigm. Yes, I will cede that women have been subject to blatant misogyny in the past, but sexism – from both perspectives – has never been fully seen nor understood, and at this point it never will. The whole lot of it has just turned into some posthumous series of oneupmanship that, I’m pretty sure, will never end.

    Two offer my two pence on this whole thread, I think it’s fucking immature. You’re posting stories about “sexism” to kindle the ongoing fight between the genders, and you frame it as some sort of self-righteous campaign so you can feel like you’ve aided in the fight against sexism. And I think I might try my hand at some critical theory here – using sexism and misogyny interchangeably is actually sexist itself – you’re working off an assumption that all sexism is female directed (note: this claim is supported by the fact that, not once, has the author of this thread included instances misandry), and what’s the huge deal about assumptions? They promote debilitating stereotypes which further entrenches society into deeper realms of misandry and misogyny. Thanks?

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