Rice U: Women’s status is everyone’s business

Gwen Bradford writes the following guest-post on efforts at Rice University.

The philosophy department here at Rice hasn’t had the greatest record in terms of the “numbers” – very few women faculty at all for extended periods of time, only two women have held tenure.

So in March, we held a symposium.

The aim was to get a better understanding of the underrepresentation of women in the profession generally, and at Rice specifically.  We didn’t expect the symposium to generate immediate change – the goal was just to get a better understanding of why things are the way they are.  But here’s the nice surprise:  change happened!  Did we immediately hire a phalanx of senior women?  No, but there has been discernible and significant change.  Did we solve the puzzle of why there are fewer women in philosophy?  No, we didn’t, but we did learn a lot and we did discuss a lot, and this was enough for us to open up ways to change.

The first and almost immediate change is a discernible shift in the overall departmental vibe.  To be clear, the general departmental vibe before the symposium was pretty darn great, but when I asked my colleagues what they thought was the most important upshot of the symposium, they all mentioned a change – a sense of increased activity and openness and comfort in discussion.  This includes issues not only those related to the symposium, but also more broadly into other areas.  As one graduate student describes it, there’s an increased level of a sense of “safety” – people feel even more comfortable discussing what might otherwise be hot-button issues.  And this extends to philosophical issues as well.

Two further, and more concrete, changes I’ll mention.  First, we started a weekly department coffee hour – this facilitates social time in a non-bar environment, and fosters good vibes and philosophical discussion in general.  Second, the feminist philosophy class that’s been on the books for ages but never been taught will finally be taught.

Here is what we did in the symposium:

–          Presentation of department history from the chair

–          Two keynote speakers – Carla Fehr and Sally Haslanger – discussed the representation of women and minorities in the field and academia more broadly.

–          Panel discussions: panelists from all levels of the profession and students discussed their experiences and answer questions.

–          Break out discussion groups:  all attendees divided into groups and discussed their thoughts experiences (these generated a lot of ideas for changes moving forward).

–          Involved people from all levels (undergraduate and graduate students and faculty), and from our neighbor University of Houston – in all stages of the event itself, from the planning to execution, and panel presentations.

–          Included plenty of time for chit-chatting between sessions – over lunch, coffee breaks and reception (ditto for generating new ideas).

It was interesting to learn that in our own case, of Rice, the history behind our “numbers” did not seem to be a toxic environment or overt hostility or anything like this.  It was, more or less, just circumstance and luck, no doubt facilitated by the overall low numbers of women in the profession overall.

Something to note is that a large part of the motivating force is to be credited to the men of our department. The workshop was initiated by Casey O’Callaghan, who wrote the grant applications for symposium funding, our chair, Richard Grandy, was a primary motivating force, and several male graduate students played key organizational roles, and one was a panel speaker.  I believe this is a key lesson:  the status of women in philosophy is not a “women’s issue” – it is everybody’s business.

Will these changes last?  It certainly seems that they will, since the symposium is now several months ago, and it is still reverberating through departmental culture.    The point here, I think, is that simply by talking about issues (which is progress itself!) you can generate real positive change.  Even if things seem pretty good, you can make them even better.

Body image and six year old girls

Here’s some interesting research on ‘self-sexualisation’ in six-year old girls. It investigates the extent to which young girls want to be seen as sexy. The answer is mostly ‘yes’, with a high proportion of the girls linking sexiness with popularity. However, the study included one group of girls drawn from a local dance studio, who were much less likely than the others (drawn from schools) to want to look sexy and think sexy meant popular. This is in line with other research that links involvement in sport with higher bodily self-esteem in young women.