(Preliminary note: when I was involved in faculty governance, I used to joke that women thought that if someone didn’t have relevant personal experience of a problem, they didn’t think he/she was competent to make judgments about it, while men, on the other hand, think that if you have personal experience of a problem, then your judgment is invalid.
I deeply do believe that if particularly we older women cannot appeal to our experience of issues, we impoverish the discourse. That said, I do realize that for some people that could invalidate a discussion. So please notice that what follows isn’t really an argument from a single case: it uses a single case to raise a question about a possibility that highlights, among other things, how we need to work on networking for women.)
Let me be more modest than the title suggests. I’ll move beyond the sense of discovery and ask more modestly: is this sort of gatekeeping (see below) one reason why women are not faring well in philosophy? And could it connect with the fact that women tend to be small minorities at conferences, or absent entirely?
Unfortunately, the source of insight came at my own expense. I submitted a paper to a society and it was rejected. The referee’s comments really blew the paper off. Well, no surprise there, but there’s more to the story. And I hope no one thinks they have to assume the paper was really good. The ideas about exclusion should be independent of the quality of one paper, but obviously I wouldn’t have even started to look for the explanation I found unless I had had it accepted somewhere very good.
First of all, the central ideas of my paper have been accepted without comments or revisions by a very prestiguous publications. Secondly, the referee’s comments had three features that set me thinking:
1. There was no indication that he (as I assume) saw any of my arguments. I had a very formal and explicit argument, in the form of a classic dilemma, against the central thesis of a text. The referee’s comment? “This won’t bother the author.” Then he remarks that I decided against a promising strategy, not registering, it seems, that I argued the strategy was not promising.
2. He spent quite a bit of time outlining what I should have done to construct a rival to the text’s theory. I was in fact not interested in doing that, so he didn’t seem to notice what I did do. (I think there are deeply serious problems with assumptions behind all the theories, which was what I was discussing.) He in fact seemed to think the points he recognized were all right, but since, again, he didn’t think they’d bother the author, he didn’t think that they were worth making even though they put paid to two prominant approaches.
3. Quite possibly as requested, he closed by saying why he was competent to judge and basically it’s because he works in the area.
So here’s my hypothesis: The area is one in which a lot of youngish guys are communicating with one another and are engaged in the quest for arguing for or against roughly 3 competing theories in the area. And I think I see a kind of gatekeeping. Since “the text” in question has just come out and it does have a very new thesis, there isn’t an established literature in this area. That’s just starting to form. But there are groups of guys outlining what they think are the important issues, on blogs and at conferences. And if you are not part of that, you may not be passed in any refereeing process, I now suspect. Not because you aren’t known, precisely, but because it doesn’t count as what they think is the right kind of move.
And I’m inclined to think that the fact that the arguments were disregarded shows how central the familiarity of the discussion is. It it’s too different, you can just toss it.
So how does this speak to women’s situation in philosophy? Quite simply, if we’re not networking and getting our ideas out there in an informal way, we’re very seriously handicapped, I am hypothesizing. But doing that supposes that informal groups are as open and congenial for us as they are for the guys. And they are not, for many of us. And if conferences stay very male oriented, they won’t be.
I think we can hope: a lot of younger women seem to have some access to some of the clusters of discussions. Of course, that’s what makes a recent account of a woman getting cut out because she turned down sexual advances so very serious.
And then there’s the chicken-and-egg problem: why aren’t we networking? Is there an even more foundational problem there? Well, let’s all discuss this.