Who’s fed up? Part II

Below you’ll find Part II of a letter FP was invited to post. There are several elements in this post that are worth explicitly distinguishing:
(1) Sexual harassment, which we can understand to include drawing particularly attention to a women’s gender.
(2) Demeaning one or more female colleagues and creating a hostile environment for her/them.
(3) The author’s tendency to link (1) and (2) to things like bruised masculinity and “personal or professional frustrations.”

I think that (2) and its link to (1) and (3) form a very important topic. As one Affirmative Action officer put it to me, “there’s no law against being a jerk.” That can make it seem as though women, despite their being a protected class, have no legal recourse when they are demeaned and their reputations are assaulted. However, I’ve argued in much earlier posts that we can discern elements of the demeaning which are gendered. I’ll shortly repeat some of those points and open the discussion to our readers. The current post, however, is closed to comments.

I’m repeating the last para of the previous post, since it provides a context for what follows it.

Complaints of harassment are complaints of lack of professionalism in ways that hinder women’s professional advancement in philosophy. They include complaints that men are sexually predatory, aggressive, hostile, that they abuse their position, that they alternately prey on women sexually or spurn them for perceived rejection, that they systematically exclude women from philosophical conversations, downgrade their contributions, ignore them or respond to them with overly hostile reactions. Men in the field often take out their personal and professional frustrations on their female colleagues with sexual aggression. They do so overtly, by making overt sexual advances towards women that bear no relation to meaningful attempts to enter into a mutually respectful and caring relationship, and have everything to do with reasserting their feelings of power and control in personal and professional contexts. Or they might do so less overtly, with ad hominemm attacks on women’s femininity or sexuality and attractiveness, or their quality as a philosopher, made either directly or behind women’s backs to other members of the profession. These are also ways of reasserting their power and bruised masculinity and enlisting other members of the profession in their diminishment of their female colleagues.

Junior and senior philosophers alike are guilty of these behaviors. Offenders are your friends, colleagues, co-authors, co-organizers, esteemed rivals, and mentors. They are also husbands, fathers, and boyfriends. You might even have unwittingly crossed the line on occasion as well.

An exalted atmosphere of collegiality and sociability exacerbates these problems, and provides cover for these attacks on women. The informality and sexual permissiveness that pervades many professional philosophical environments (conferences, graduate departments, and so on) masks aggression and abuse, making them seem like gossip or harmless flirtation. Well-intentioned colleagues can unknowingly contribute to a climate of abuse by participating in and encouraging this fraternal banter, out of a misguided sense of friendship, loyalty in rebuilding bruised egos, or simply attempts to curry favor, gain inclusion, or seek professional advancement by more powerful members of the profession.

Make no mistake about the seriousness of the abuse and the depth of the damage that this kind of behavior wreaks, however. Bias thrives in unstructured environments, where objective excuses for hostility are available, and where stakes tend towards doling out in-group rewards rather than punishing out-group exclusion. When professional rewards are discretionary, distinction between in- and out-group membership is heightened, the perceived flaws or weaknesses of out-group members are exaggerated, members are blamed more harshly, weaknesses are attributed to the person (“she’s not very smart,” “she’s crazy,”…) not the circumstances, excuses are less available, and punishment is swifter and more severe. Withholding professional respect, excluding women from philosophical conversations, refusal to acknowledge their contributions or minimizing their significance in favor of those of male colleagues, are all examples of discretionary rewards that even the best-intentioned philosophers are prone to deny women in informal settings. The presence of a male philosopher displaying overt hostility or aggression towards a female philosopher licenses further in-group hostility towards her, and where an objective rationalization is available for explaining this behavior (he has an objection to her argument, say, or she behaved somewhat inappropriately, etc.), it is often taken to justify this response. Women philosophers thus also suffer judgments that are harsher than their male colleagues’, more hostile, quicker and crueler dismissals of their views, and these judgments are multiply-reinforced by even their well-intentioned peers.

Countering complaints about sexual harassment by pointing to the hazards of dating life and noting women’s consent to affairs ignores the nature of the wrong being committed and diminishes the seriousness of the complaint. Sexual harassment isn’t sexual assault. Consent is irrelevant. The concern lies with a vitriolic professional atmosphere which allows virtually untrammeled sexual access to women, including the diminishment of their professional status, under the guise of “dating,” and in which women bear virtually 100% of the professional costs of relationships gone wrong. Pointing out the adulthood of the complainants and alluding to the fact that some relationships succeed is belittling, beside the point, and, frankly, a bullying tactic aimed at embarrassing women complaining of the over-sexualization of the profession into silence. It is no part of a meaningful conversation about the climate in philosophy.

What’s a well-intentioned single guy to do when he meets a likeminded female philosopher with similar interests and with whom he makes a “connection?” Hold back. This isn’t OKCupid. A thoughtful philosophical conversation is not flirtation, however titillating it might be, and following it up at the bar or wherever the rest of the professionals go after the formal encounter has ended is not an invitation for sex. Imagine this woman was your advisor/letter writer/dean, and then ask whether your interest is strong enough to risk the professional relationship.

I don’t know how to rid philosophy of sexual harassment or what an ideal outcome would look like, but I am certain that no progress can be made without genuine and sincere attempt to come to terms with the full breadth of the problem, and a meaningful way of holding wrongdoers accountable for their actions. Women are failing by virtually every measure of success in philosophy. Responses like those listed are defensive and deflecting, and serve more to silence conversation and stifle understanding, than they are attempts to make meaningful progress on an important and pressing issue.

I am writing anonymously because of the overwhelming risk of professional retaliation. I hate doing this. The indignity of not being able to defend myself in my own name is outweighed only by my frustration with these “conversations” that I have to keep having.

Fed Up