Sunny climates

Whether or not we think we can adequately measure or report on the climate for women in philosophy departments, I think it’s safe to say that most of us agree that the issue of climate for women is an important one. Indeed, a lot of what we’re up to here at Feminist Philosophers are things we conceive of as efforts to improve – a little bit at a time – the climate for women in philosophy.

Abstracting away from recent controversy, I think the climate for women in philosophy is something that would be good for us to talk about more often and more explicitly. So this post is inviting discussion on two basic points:

(i) What are the hallmarks of a climate that is good for women? – Percentage of faculty or grad students that are female? The way women are treated in professional contexts? The way women are treated in non-professional contexts? The relative success of female grad students compared to their male peers? A non-combative or non-threatening atmosphere? All these factors – and many more – are likely important. But it would be good to get opinions on what matters to you the most, what you prioritize, or what stands out to you when you’re evaluating whether your environment is friendly to women.

(ii) What are some concrete ways to improve a philosophy department’s climate for women? – Let’s face it, even the best departments aren’t perfect. We could all be doing better, and we could all be doing more. So what are some specific things – formal or informal – that we can do to make departments better places for women? (Bonus points for suggestions with practical applicability – our departments would all be better if, e.g., we fired all the sexists, but that’s not going to happen. . .)

To generate some ideas about (ii), I particularly recommend the series of posts over at What We’re Doing about what’s been going on at Rutgers recently.

Please bear in mind that THIS IS NOT A THREAD ABOUT THE PLURALIST GUIDE. Posts that discuss the Guide will be deleted as off-topic. Please note also that this is a thread for positive, constructive discussion. Posts that commend the efforts of particular individuals or departments are welcome. Posts which attack particular individuals or departments – whether by name or by description – will be deleted.

Have at it!

10 thoughts on “Sunny climates

  1. I would like to make one small contribution to this conversation about what sorts of concrete actions departments can take to improve their climate for women, especially women graduate students.

    Do something *visible*.

    It is easy for genuine and effective measures that are taken by a department to improve climate to go unnoticed by graduate students for years, simply because by their nature they will not be seen. For instance, a department might institute reforms of their hiring or admission practices, but these will be implemented in spaces that graduate students do not occupy, like faculty meetings and admissions committee meetings. That is certainly not a reason to avoid making such reforms if they are needed, but what is needed in addition are measures that display the values of the department to all and sundry. A policy or practice that is visible to all has many salutary effects, beyond the immediate results to which it is directed. It sends a signal to women graduate students that they are valued, and that the department is deploying its resources to help eliminate the barriers that keep them from reaching their full potential as students, professionals, philosophers and academics. It also sends a signal to *all* the graduate students (and new faculty) about what the norms of the department are. The more broadly these visible policies are disseminated (websites, proseminars, department recruiting materials, etc.), the more obvious it is that the department is genuinely committed to these measures, and is willing to be held to account for its failures to live up to the values that it is espousing.

  2. Wayne’s point about visibility is excellent. I’d extend it to undergraduate majors and recent alumni as well. I am a recent PhD from a Leiter top-10 department which has indisputably had problem in the last five years. I have been following the blog discussions closely, and it is disheartening to see only one member of the department participating in the conversation (by name). It would be nice to know that the department cares about the climate for women, and is thinking about what they might be able to do to improve.

  3. Three very quick things that I used to judge schools before considering whether or not to pay $50-100 to apply to them for graduate school:

    – Ratio of F:M at all levels: full prof, associate, assistant, graduate students
    – Graduate student attrition/retention rates, especially broken down by gender (unfortunately a lot of schools do not disclose this information, but you can usually make decent guesstimates if you know what their average incoming size is and compare it with their job placement record)
    – “Distribution” (not exactly the word I was looking for, but will do) of women via their interests e.g. is there a female logican, ethicist, metaphysician, epistemologist, etc.?

  4. Here are some things that contributed positively to my experience in graduate school:

    1. Female faculty hosted a women’s dinner once a semester.
    2. Faculty members (male and female) regularly asked me what I was working on and took time to discuss my work with me at departmental events, even when my work was outside their area of research and even when it was explicitly feminist. Faculty always treated that work as worthy of philosophical thought.
    3. A graduate seminar in feminist philosophy was taught and enrolled in by a large number of students both female and male.
    4. The philosopher who taught the seminar was/is a well respected member of the department, i.e. other faculty members treat(ed) her in ways that made evident that they respect(ed) her as a trusted and extremely intelligent/wise colleague.
    5. Courses that were not tagged “feminist” and that were taught by men included works by women and works that were specifically feminist (e.g. writing by medieval mystics in a course on medieval philosophy, writing by feminist political philosophers in political philosophy classes). These parts of the seminars were taken just as seriously as the rest.
    6. Dissertations that treated issues of sex, gender, race, sexuality, and/or disability were written by a number of well respected female graduate students who were ahead of me in the program. These students visibly received support in the program (e.g. the way faculty spoke about them indicated a respect for the work they were doing, that many of them were the best in the program, etc.) and faculty went to bat for these students when they were on the market (most / all? got pretty good jobs, many in PhD granting departments).
    7. The program hosted a SWIP conference that was organized by both faculty and graduate students in the program. It was well attended.
    8. The department hired a number of women and people (men&women) of color–more than one–during my time as a graduate student.

  5. anonymous#2:
    It’s important to know not only percentage of tenured female faculty, but the numbers of those who were tenured up from lower ranks. Hiring in full profs can be a way of trying to paper over a practice of not tenuring-up women, or not being able to keep women hired at the junior level. Some of the senior women may even be participants in such bad histories. Women are no less likely than men to be susceptible to petty jealousies, competitiveness, territorial behaviour and all the usual sorts of academic ugliness. And just like some senior men, some senior women prefer their junior women to play dumb, act helpless and voice no disagreement. That’s not an atmosphere that’s hospitable to women. But here stats on junior/senior/hiring alone are just the start–they won’t tell you if you’re looking at a department like that.

  6. In addition to all the wise points already made, I believe a crucial data point is what kind of jobs women get after finishing their PhD compared to what kind of jobs men get after finishing their PhD. A department in which women go on to have tenure track jobs and permanent positions in as good as places as men do, suggests that there are faculty members in the department that support and mentor both their female and male students and sing the praises of both their female and male students in letters of recommendation.

  7. On comment #7–I do think this is crucial. Not only was the support there at the program I attended, but seeing the women ahead of me–those who worked in feminist philosophy and those who did not work in feminist philosophy at all–get good jobs really made a real difference. As a first & second year student I watched many women defend their dissertations and then get good jobs. Seeing that made me feel even more strongly that I could do it, too.

    I would like to add that just as senior women (and even senior women who work in feminist philosophy) can engage in all sorts of ugliness, so can men and women who treat women working in traditional areas with respect, turn around and treat those who venture into feminist philosophy poorly. As an undergrad, I was one of the only women who worked with a particular professor, who treated me with a great deal of respect and groomed me for graduate school–in fact grad school wasn’t even on my radar until he encouraged me to consider it. But when I started to gain interest in feminist philosophy, he told other (male) students that this interest of mine was “such a waste of a good mind” (back handed and _almost_ effective way to turn me off of FP) and he effectively started acting like another (feminist) philosopher in the dept was my advisor, even though he was my official advisor. All this to say, I do think it is important for faculty & departments to support and take seriously the philosophical treatment of issues such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. And also, everyone who falls on the marginalized side of one of these social categories need not take up these issues at all, ever, in their work (that’s another potential hazzard, “oh, you’re X, you must do philosophy of X and only philosophy of X!” I’ve seen that happen–not cool). And lastly, as already said, doing philosophy of x, does not mean you are good to people who are x, even when you yourself are x. Some of my number one supporters were white guys who studied dead white guys–but they took my work and me seriously AND at least one sought to include dead white gals in his syllabi.

  8. A sunny climate, period, and a sunny climate for women can be very much the same. This issue is, how good a place is this to work?

    Here are a few ideas, in addition to what has already been said, about what might indicate a sunny climate. The list can be much much longer.

    1) there is no difference in time in rank between people who are members of different groups
    2) candidate pools are representative of the demographics of recent graduates
    3) women, as well as men, accept your job offers
    4) transparency in: policies and practices regarding tenure and promotion, the distribution of teaching loads and service work,…
    5) when a bad event happens (ex harassment) faculty members refuse complicit silence
    6) senior men and women faculty members are active in equity debates in the wider university community and in the profession
    7) gender, area of expertise,… are not variables relevant to inclusion in departmental communities
    8) there is a focus on improving the department as opposed to fixing the women
    9) the department has public space for informal social interactions and people actually use that space
    10) faculty members are encouraged to use parental leave and other flexible career policies
    11) the department is set up so that using those policies does not place an undue burden on colleagues
    12) meetings are run in a way that fosters collegiality and inclusiveness
    13) a strong mentoring program, that supports faculty through promotion to full
    14) department events take place during business hours, to ensure that those with family obligations have the same access to department resources and perks as those who do not have those obligations.

  9. #9: That’s a great list. But with regard to (6) active in equity debates. NB: and not actively opposed to equity. You’d think it’d go without saying. Except it doesn’t.

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