It’s time for another of our series of “How to be an ally” posts, in which we talk about the complicated issues that face the well-intentioned feminist man doing his best to try to navigate between being totally oblivious and being an overbearing, partronizing ass. (Not that those options are mutually exclusive. But anyway.)
A male colleague of mine recently raised the following issue:
I’ve often heard female philosophers complain that they almost never get asked about their work in informal social situations, whereas their male peers get asked about their work in such situations all the time. I realize that this is a really bad thing, but I’ve never been sure what to do about it, at least as far as my own behavior goes. It’s not that I don’t want to ask my female philosophy friends about their work – I do! But I think there’s too much pressure in philosophy to be seen as constantly wanting to talk about philosophy. And I think that’s bad, because it gives an advantage to people who have a certain kind of single-track mind, who are really quick on their feet, or who just don’t get tired like the rest of us. I also think that these norms put women in a particularly awkward position, simply because they’re more professionally vulnerable. I’ve often heard male peers reply to a question about their work by saying “Actually, I really don’t feel like talking about philosophy right now” or “That’s an interesting question, but can we talk about it later? I’m tired!” For them, saying things like this just isn’t a big deal. So I’m comfortable asking my male friends a philosophy question at the bar after a long day of conferencing, because I’m pretty confident that if they don’t want to talk about it they’ll tell me to shut up. But I worry that it isn’t the same for women. I imagine it’s a much riskier thing for a woman to say “Actually, I’d rather not talk about philosophy right now.” She risks being perceived as less ‘committed’, or less ‘quick’, or whatever else. People will remember stuff like that from women that they’ll just excuse and forget from men. But the net effect, for me, is that I find myself a lot more reluctant to ask my female friends a philosophy question after a talk or a day or conferencing. If I dive in with questions, I worry that I’m being a jerk who can’t talk about anything but philosophy, or who’s harassing someone that’s tired. But I don’t want to start by saying “Hey, can I ask you about philosophy or are your too tired/bored/would rather talk about something else?” In part, that makes me feel like I’m putting her on the spot (especially if a bunch of other people are around), and she may not feel comfortable answering honestly the way my male friends can. But it also feels like the kind of thing that might come across as condescending. So I don’t know what to do! How does one make sure to talk to women about their work while still being sensitive to the social pressure women are under?
This strikes me as a really interesting (and really tricky) question, precisely because it’s one of the places in which two competing aims – parity of treatment for men and women, sensitivity to the differences in the social pressure and social vulnerability faced by women compared to that faced by men – are seemingly at odds. Comments are open in hopes that our lovely and thoughtful readers will – as they so often do – have some insight.
Personally, I reckon there’s got to be a decent way of saying something to the effect of “Hey, are you up for talking about philosophy just now?” that avoids being condescending or on-the-spot-putting. Maybe one way doing it would be to offer alternatives, so the choice isn’t just philosophy or nothing – something like “Hey, are you up for talking about your paper on x right now, or should we talk about how bad the drinks here are/what the hell Prof. McX is wearing/this salacious piece of professional gossip I just heard?”
Ps – I tend to write these ‘ally’ posts at random, as and when male philosophy friends email me agony aunt style. So if you’ve got a great idea for a post along these lines, but you don’t know me (or don’t know you know me) just contact us and suggest it.