Men and the Normativity of Meaning

Wanna hear some men discuss the normativity of meaning? Well, you could be in luck, as the invited speakers for the Prague International Colloquium on the Normativity of Meaning are all blokes! The Colloquium is organized by the Department of Logic (part of the Institute of Philosophy) in the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic. It takes place 25th-27th May 2011, in Villa Lanna, Prague, Czech Republic. The invited speakers (male) are:

  • Robert Brandom (Pittsburgh)
  • Michael Williams (Baltimore)
  • Christopher Gauker (Cincinnati)
  • James O’Shea (Dublin).

If you don’t understand this post, you might want to check out this page. Thanks to K.

20 thoughts on “Men and the Normativity of Meaning

  1. Not about this particular conference, but a plea for advice on the general theme.

    If I am invited to speak at a conference, being male, and see that all invited speakers are also male, is there a way to draw attention to this that will not alienate the person inviting me? (I’m willing to alienate if necessary, but would rather avoid it. It might be less effective anyway.) Suggestions welcome.

  2. Anon, it’s a great question. I don’t know that we’ve discussed the issue all that much. I think it’s important to raise it; the language we use in the gendered conference campaign letter is our attempt to be as non-confrontational as we can, and you might adapt it.

    One thing you might do is to quote us – that is, you might say that conferences with all male invited speakers are thought by some to create some problems, among them problems for any female participants. You might say you suggest that some measures could help. For example, anyone in charge of calling on the audience for questions could be reminded that women questioners should be recognized; as you might know, it isn’t all that unusual for women to find that only men are called on, or called on first, so one’s hand is up the whole time and one gets the last question as people are preparing to leave.

    Another helpful thing would be child care – we have some posts on that. The one at:
    also has a link to an earlier one.

    I hope others have some suggestions. We should think about this more.

  3. If it’s only men at the Czech conference, that’s PROGRESS!!!

    The last time I attended (and spoke at) a conference in the Czech Republic (mind you, many years ago) on the Normativity of Meaning in fact, the organizers had hired several young high school women to act as “hostesses” for the participants (to take them out to dinner, on walks, …) and the mayor of the town made a big public speech about how he hoped that such events would become yearly events and enlarged to cover “all topics in philosophy except feminism” (I kid you not!)

    I wrote to the organizers after the event. Needless to say, I was never invited again. That was in 1992.

  4. In this case, I think they’ve had conferences in the past with women as invited speakers, for instance with Åsa Wikforss. At least it is not a general policy to have men only. It may sometimes be the case that the women invited (in this case, Åsa Wikforss or Kathrin Glüer would have been natural candidates, given the topic) decline attending… Either way, I agree with anon’s suggestion.

  5. Tough one, Anon. Maybe one strategy is to ask whether a relevant woman has been invited, i.e., saying something like ‘Oh yes, is [insert name] also speaking? I know she does a lot of good work in this area’. Of course, the onus is then on you to try and think of a suitable person working in the field, which you might not feel competent to do. (I know very few people in general, being a sort of hermit, so I wouldn’t feel competent.)

  6. I’ve been trying for several months to stay out of discussions about conferences covering topics I’m unfamiliar with and don’t plan to study.

    But wow. I have to commend Anon. I haven’t seen a male speaker respond like that for the entire year I’ve been following this blog. Equality in education in the broader sense is important to all women. Thank you.

  7. Hi,

    Just a quick query about the gendered conference campaign (and not about this particular conference):

    Suppose I were organizing a conference on some philosophical topic, and I wanted to invite the very best Anglophone thinkers or scholars in that area. Now, given the relative paucity of women in philosophy, the list of people I invite might be more than 50% male — perhaps even heavily male. So let’s say I invite 7 men and 3 women. Suppose that 2 men and all 3 women decline my invitation. So now I am planning a conference with 5 confirmed guests, all of whom are men. Is it now incumbent upon me to invite more female philosophers, perhaps of lesser quality than the “heavyweights” on my list, in order not to perpetuate the perception of philosophy as a male enterprise?

    For the record, I am not trying to ensnare anyone in a reductio — it is not obvious to me that the answer to my question should be “no” (and it is not obvious that it should be “yes,” either). I am genuinely interested in hearing what people have to say.

  8. I think the most important thing is that we be able to construct examples where the absence of women from a list of conference speakers is clearly the fault of the women themselves, who insisted on showing up despite the sterling efforts of the organizers. That way, when we see instance after instance of women-free conference rosters, and indeed attend them ourselves as speakers or audience-members, we can remember the existence of such examples and feel better about going for a walk with the Hostess later in the afternoon.

  9. Anon Grad– I think the situation you describe probably does sometimes occur– it’s what one would expect given the low numbers of women in the field. That’s one of the reasons we phrase the letter in the way that we do– we want to know about cases where this happens.

    Now, what to do in that situation: one thing to do is to re-think the focus on going just for the most famous names that spring to mind. And there’s a very good reason for this: research on implicit bias shows that atypical members of a field (like women in philosophy) are less likely to spring to mind as top researchers. They’re also less likely to have their work recognised as high quality. (This hasn’t been studied in philosophy, but in other fields the very same paper is assessed as less good with a female name on it.) So just going for the biggest names is likely to mean neglecting some really excellent philosophers.

    It’s important to recognise that conference organisers are helping to *create* the facts about who is well-known. This means that they have a real opportunity to make a difference, and one that’s good both for philosophy and social justice.

  10. Grad Anon,

    There was recently some discussion at the blog Geek Feminism about a similar issue. There are also few women in technology, so tech conferences have similar problems to philosophy conferences. You might find the discussion helpful for your situation. It is in two parts.
    Part 1:
    Part 2:

    There are also a number of posts on this blog that deal with a similar situation to the one you describe. You can find them by clicking the “gendered conference campaign” tab at the top. The posts are linked in the comments.

  11. Looking at the comments here, it’s occurred to me that there’s another way to look at where the philosophical academic community is. At one time, a number of fields – e.g., sports, theater, classical music, literature, cinema – were close to closed to minorities and, correspondingly, judgments about picking the best tended to be thought of in terms of white people. It takes more than one struggle before someone could think of picking a person of color. The next stage is that everyone falls back in wonder at, e.g., a person of color who’s good at golf. (And that person carries an enormous psychological burden.)

    Perhaps we are now at a similar stage; looking back, we can see that those fields might well be called highly racist, because racial minorities had such a tough time getting a foothold. We might see much the same thing going on today in philosophy. I think many people connect “sexist” with conscious choice, and are reluctant to use it of a whole field. But wouldn’t we use “racist” in very similar contexts?

    As we think of women in philosophy, it’s worth noting that people of color seem hardly to get a look in.

  12. Jender and Bakka, thank you for your thoughtful and non-dismissive replies. I am one of the co-organizers of an upcoming conference in my department, and I don’t want to perpetuate the image of philosophy as the domain of white males.

  13. Another thought that’s been suggested here is to consider a slight broadening or shifting of topic for the conference.

  14. Anon Grad Student, another thing that is sometimes said is that there can be more ways to measure who would be really good to highlight at a conference. Asking a young philosopher who is beginning to get a reputation, but isn’t there yet, can have a lot of benefits, including having someone who is a bridge between the grad students in the audience and the older people.

  15. I think jj’s point about inviting people who everyone recognizes are showing real promise is an especially good one. I think there’s a tendency for conference organizers to focus on headliners; and this typically means that, with only occasional exceptions, your picking from a pool of people who have been around for quite a while — long enough to be at the height of their careers. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but given philosophy’s past record with supporting women in the field, it almost guarantees that the field of women who are really on the table as candidates from the beginning is very, very small. And the same thing goes for minorities and others who haven’t been very well supported in the field.

    I confess that I’m occasionally a little disturbed at how much headlining goes on with conferences: I can see the value of a big name or two on the list, but there are so many people doing interesting work in any area of philosophy that’s actually thriving that it’s disappointing that one sometimes sees the same names over and over. And if a field is actually thriving rather than dying, then by expanding the candidates from ‘names everyone thinks of off the top of their heads’ to ‘people who are currently doing interesting things’ should turn up lots of great people who might otherwise not be invited.

  16. Also the fact that many women fall out of academia before they ever become full professors is not helping. The pool of women to choose among becomes very small indeed if one only goes by reputation, rather than content or fittingness to the conference theme.
    My concern is that many philosophers are too much blinded by big names – a myopia similar to the fascination for brand names: big names of philosophers (unfortunately almost universally male), big names of journals (as if only publishing in Mind or Journal of Philosophy means anything)… Choosing a woman as a keynote speaker may actually be a useful shorthand to pick fresh, rather than established and oft-repeated ideas.

  17. Thanks for the discussion, encouragement, and advice. My plan is to say something mild, suggest a couple of names, and link to the campaign page, which lays things out well.

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