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.

7 thoughts on “Rice U: Women’s status is everyone’s business

  1. It is SO great to hear this wonderful news. It encourages me that sometimes workshops of this kind make a difference (since I’m invested in doing them!). Congratulations to the whole department.

  2. The news may even be better. As a senior philosopher at the (WONDERFUL) conference, I was contacted about helping to vet a forthcoming course at Rice on feminist philosophy. Timely, concrete actions can help this new beginning develop.

  3. Would someone at Rice care to add who suggested the symposium, or really, how to get such a suggestion off the ground? I’d love to do something like this at my institution but I can’t imagine how your conversation began…

  4. Peggy Desautels, Carla Fehr and Sally Haslanger have applied for funding for department visits and assessments. It does cost the department some amount – I have no idea what. It’s hard to think of money better spent.

  5. With the Philosophy Department’s support, we responded to a call for funding proposals from ADVANCE at Rice (this call was the initial impetus for the idea to host the symposium), and we applied for funding from the Humanities Research Center at Rice. The Philosophy Department contributed additional funding. The symposium was organized by an ad hoc committee of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students, along with a great deal of assistance and support from the Rice HRC staff. Relevant links: http://advance.rice.edu/http://hrc.rice.edu/http://philwomen.rice.edu/

  6. I had already formed a favorable impression of Rice’s department, probably because of Donald Morrison in Ancient Philosophy, and now my opinion is even higher.

  7. Jenny Saul and others are arguing, persuasively that the profession should look at issues of gender bias empirically, looking at the relevant research in psychology. This is surely a healthy move. I wonder if it would be worthwhile to examine more closely at exactly what point sexism occurs occurs in philosophy. Someone might profitable examine tenure rates for men and women to see if they differ. There seem to be fewer women than men being hired and tenured. Why is this? We should not just intuit! And that goes for all views. One could take those who went through the tenure process and rate their publication record, perhaps using the top 20 list of journals that appeared on the Leiter site, perhaps giving a 20 for a Philosophical Review paper, and then less for other on that list. Then one could consider the total publications score of a candidate at the tenure stage and whether they got through tenure, and see if gender is making a difference. One advantage of this is that there is minority of men who complain, rarely in public, that women are advantaged not disadvantaged in academic decisions. They claim that being a women makes it more likely that a person will be tenured than a man, other things being equal. This again is hearsay. An empirical approach could see off this complaint, as well as help the cause of women in philosophy by seeing wherether there is sexism in the tenure granting process. Or perhaps it occurs elsewhere. Better empirical than intuitive!

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