Gendered Conference Campaign Success Story

We get a lot of grief for our Gendered Conference Campaign, both online and off– enough that sometimes I honestly just can’t face doing a post and waiting for the shit to hit the fan again. We do spend time wondering if it’s worth it, and if it’s a good way to accomplish our goals or if it’s just making people angry and being counterproductive. So it was lovely to get this email over the weekend, which I thought I’d share with you:

Our chapter of Phi Sigma Tau held our conference yesterday which turned out to be a great example of gender representation in philosophy. When the president of PST began planning the conference, I talked to him about the importance of gender representation and directed him to this website. He was hesitant at first, but after about half an hour he began to see the bigger picture. I explained how important it is for philosophy students to see female names on conference schedules and hear women’s voices if for no other reason than it breaks the stereotype that philosophers must be male. This hadn’t ever occurred to the president of PST before, but he said he would think about it. Over the next month he sought me out a few more times to ask my opinions about when gender should be relevant and when it shouldn’t, so he was clearly making an effort.

The conference yesterday was a great success. Although the genders were nowhere near equally represented, women were represented in a way that may not have happened unless I spoke up. There are so few female grad students in our department that it is clear the president called every single woman asking her to take part.

Out of ten speakers, only one was a woman.
Out of ten commenters, two were women.
Out of ten moderators, four were women. (this was a new position that I suspect was created solely to include more women in the conference.)

That might not seem like very many women, but I heard multiple people from other programs comment on how many women there are in our department. Again, there are actually very few women in our department, but the president made sure they were all seen on stage. It changed the face of the conference in a way that gives me hope for the future of philosophy. Although the men who planned the conference were hesitant about my views at first, after reflection they realized I was right and acted on those new beliefs. I could tell they were proud of the non-gendered conference they put together, and I’m sure they will make the same effort in ever conference they put together throughout their careers. They stopped seeing my request as affirmative action, and started seeing it as a way to improve the field they love so much.

Thanks, ES– you’ve made my week!

12 thoughts on “Gendered Conference Campaign Success Story

  1. That is great! It is wonderful to hear that the campaign is having these positive effects. It is great that ES was able to point out the importance of being inclusive, and that ES could use this site as support for that view. Kudos to the organizers for being able to see the importance of the issue.

  2. While I am happy to see a significant female presence at this conference, I am also concerned about the selection process used for the paper presentations. I would hate for the lone female presenter to feel as if her presence was a function of something other than her philosophical prowess. I can only hope that the blind review process was followed appropriately in selection of presentations, and that further blog posts are careful not to brag about the presence female presenters in a way that might belittle the honor that a blindly selected female presenter has no doubt earned.

  3. Phisigma– I think that’s a really important worry to raise about this sort of campaign, and a tricky one. Thoughts on how to balance all this are very welcome.

  4. Phisigmatau and Jender, I agree that the worry is important and balance is needed, but something here is troubling me that I can’t quite get into focus. I don’t mean to question the importance of not contributing to the devaluing of women, but there’s something here that strikes me as not quite right.

    I think one thing is that we’ve actually worked pretty hard to make sure that our announced concern is not simply gender imbalance; rather, it’s about a failure to recognize equal and, all too often, very high merit. E.g., if you look at the most recent discussion – about Routledge’s intro to ethics – many of the posters stress that there are so many really excellent women philosophers.

    But I think another thing might be that it’s OK if gender is sometimes the sole criterion on which a woman is chosen. After all, for many of us, we’ve been chosen against on that sole criterion. Sometimes, if we’re old enough, chosen against in completely open ways – e.g., we were refused access to all sorts of educational/employment opportunities on the basis of our gender.

    I can certainly attest to living for sometime with restrictions which, though not so dire as those suffered by victims of racism, had an implacable daily presence. E.g., not being able to eat with the other professors because I was a woman.

    At times I think we should consider having the attitude of some blacks who are simply amused by the suggestion that they should worry that their position/accomplishments are seen as the result of reverse racism. Perhaps their sense is that there has very often been a mismatch between what they deserved and what they got; these sorts of concerns about being picked on merit really come from a story that white people are very fond of telling themselves and that connects with what is going on very, very imperfectly. Or perhaps they might say that.

    (I think my source for the attitude of “some blacks” has been search committees and merit/award committees, where we’d go away and complain about how our white male colleagues seemed without any sense of a life lived under prejudice. E.g., a distinguished playwright who warned me that many people thought the only important black theater was that recognized by white critics.)

  5. JJ-
    Your opinion that “it’s OK if gender is sometimes the sole criterion on which a woman is chosen” seems to absolutely undermine the feminist project if the goal is to demonstrate that women are just as capable of good philosophy as men. If it is the case that any women have been granted philosophical honors SOLELY based upon their gender, what reaction do you expect from the recipients of these honors? I can’t imagine that one would feel very ’empowered’ if, in the back of their mind, they thought they might not deserve the honors they have been bestowed.

  6. I have to agree with phisigmatau-er that this idea is troubling. It isn’t clear to me why JJ’s statement (“But I think another thing might be that it’s OK if gender is sometimes the sole criterion on which a woman is chosen. After all, for many of us, we’ve been chosen against on that sole criterion.”) doesn’t essentially amount to a “two wrongs make a right” sort of claim.

  7. Forgive me if I’m wrong about this, JJ, but I suspect you didn’t actually mean to say that it would be OK for gender to be the sole criterion on which a woman is chosen. You wouldn’t, for instance, think that it’s OK to just grab the nearest woman off the sidewalk and ask her for a paper. I’m guessing you meant that, when deciding between a bunch of excellent philosophers in the right area, it would be OK to choose a woman (from that bunch) for her gender.

  8. Jender, yes, you are right, I think. I thought I had put in something more about standards being met.

    I think we might be careful about the goal of demonstrating that women are as capable as men. What if that’s not possible as long as there implicit biases, and if the biases will hold as long as women are in the drastic minority? This is actually a realistic supposition.

    I think this discussion is related to the one about Kagan and her hiring record. In fact, 538 may be right about how women and other minorities actually do get hired. We might want to say that the idea that they have to sacrifice quality to hire women is to let the wrong people decide on quality, but lots of luck getting “the deciders” to agree.

    Furthermore, it may not always be possible for us to hold out against the strength of majority opinion. There is very worrying evidence that being in the minority on something can change one’s judgment. We are very social creatures and we heavily influence one another.

    The flip side of this is sometimes like the following: sometimes I’ve been involved with hiring by a particular group; one person is very admired by most members of the group, but in fact I do think his judgment is pretty bad. There is almost no possibility that others will agree with me on this since the fact that he picked a certain person is for them extremely strong evidence that the person is the best one.

    It may be that in real life there are too many factors holding past practices in place.

  9. I hope some of that makes sense; I should be trying to get back to sleep and not think at all.

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