A lack of respect for women

We just recently published an anonymous letter to the profession (Part I and Part II) about the problem of sexual harassment in philosophy. Why does this problem exist? Why isn’t it going away?

I think the letter gives us some indications about one factor that holds the behavior in place, and indeed may even in effect spread it. A foundational problem, one can see from the letter, is a pervasive lack of respect for women.

This lack of respect shows up in the 34 responses the writer gets when attempting to talk about the problem. No where do we see “O my god, that’s awful. What can we do about it?”

I think the lack of respect can show up even more chillingly in the treatment that women as outsiders can receive. And here I certainly do not mean to suggest that only men can do this. Women can also inflict the damage described in this passage:

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 (my stress).

One particularly awful fact is that once one is positioned as an offending outsider, the complete lack of respect may be communicated to younger scholars. “O, she is just awful,” even if, for example, she has been chosen by peers for leadership positions, is generally described as at or near the top of the profession, and so on. The lesson here is: No matter what sort of reputation she manages to get, she does not deserve the sort of respect we give our male colleagues because she is a feminist, or she behaved in appropriately, etc. Junior scholars may not need to learn this behavior by example; they may be instructed in it. And so it goes on and on.

One problem for women who get this sort of treatment is that Equal Opportunity people may not see that it is gendered and so an offense against Titles VII or IX. “The department has a lot of jerks, but being a jerk is not illegal,” they may say. However, being a sexist jerk who is creating a hostile environment for a woman is. So it is well to go to any meeting to complain with a list of the kind of gendered cliches that show up in denegrations of women. Here’s the start of one and a few references.

So, supposing I’m right about the problem, what do we do? Suggestions, biblios, etc., are very welcome.

41 thoughts on “A lack of respect for women

  1. I’d love to share my views on these issues, but I’m afraid that I’ll be silenced for ‘mansplaining’ were I to inadvertently identify myself and my gender in the process, since that’s how Anne Jacobson reacts when men share their opinions on any issue that she has decided that she alone (on behalf of all feminist philosophers, apparently…) is allowed to voice opinions about.

  2. Anonymous philosopher, your comment breaks our ‘be nice’ rule. I would normally delete a message like yours, but I want to leave it up. It exemplifies just the lack of respect being discussed.

    I have written for this blog for seven years and the number of my posts is over 700. I used “mansplaining” in one post. Let’s suppose it was inappropriate; with 700 posts, there must be some bad mistakes. You conclude that I have decided there are some issues only I can understand and I silence men who try to speak to them.

    You’ve given a great example of harshly blaming the person.

    Btw, I was going to refer readers to the meta site that trashes me as you seem to be trying to do. People who think trashing women is an acceptable move in a professional-philosophy context are contributing to a very serious problem.

  3. Annejjacobson, in your post about Justin Smith, you said, “To put it unsympathetically and actually rudely (sorry!): a man comes along and explains that what we are doing are really only half-measures because we are not working on what he thinks is really important for philosophical adequacy.”

    I want to understand the rules. Does the ‘be nice’ rule apply to yourself? You admit that you are being rude and unsympathetic. Saying “sorry” and then going on do it shows that the “sorry” was insincere. Or does the ‘be nice’ rule only apply to people who disagree with you?

  4. My comment was not rude, surely. There are plenty of times when one will negatively describe oneself in anticipation of a hearer’s discomfort. If I hadn’t been using my ipad and painfully typing with one finger, i would have said ‘foregive if this sounds rude.’

    This post is not about the mansplaining post. It does seem that so far I’ve had two comments refusing to discuss this post’s ideas, thus illustrating what the post describes. Future similar comments will be removed.

  5. One frequent response that I’ve seen to the original response is that people seem to be assuming that the author was proposing that we prohibit all consensual romantic relationships between philosophers, or even stronger, that we express moral condemnation of those philosophers who are currently in a romantic relationship with each other.

    I take it this was not the view, given that the context of the post was how we should respond to claims of sexual harassment. But if the author is listening and would like to clarify whether the above point about prohibiting consensual relationships was in fact what was intended, I think that would be a useful thing to do.

  6. I’ve personally tried to pause before criticizing someone with a stigmatized identity, and ask myself, “Is this criticism truly fair, and is it warranted, given the context, or is it possible that I am being especially harsh here because it could boost my own ‘cred’ as a critical thinker who doesn’t put on kid gloves when assessing other people’s work?”

    I’ve struggled with this especially when it comes to job candidates who give talks at my dept. It always seems…especially disappointing?…when the woman candidate (it’s usually one woman and two men) doesn’t give a brilliant talk, or at least a unanimously-decided very good one.

    If I was bored by a talk, I want to say I was bored. But in many of these situations, I can’t help but wonder if I’m being overly harsh. Or, even if I’m not being overly harsh in the assessment itself, I have the distinct feeling that when someone remarks, “Yes that talk was rather boring, wasn’t it?”, that means something different when the talk was given by a woman than it does if it was given by a man. Maybe I’m just picking up on the underlying stereotype threat in the situation. Because I can’t help but think that when I say, “Yes, her talk was rather boring, wasn’t it?” I am on some level implying this:

    Yes, I think that’s what it is. If a man comes and gives a talk, and I’m bored, well maybe it’s not a topic that interests me or maybe he’s just not a great public speaker. But if a woman comes and gives a talk, and I’m bored, I think I start to feel anxious wondering whether people’s criticisms of her talk will be overly harsh, or if people will see this as another drop in the bucket on the side of “maybe women can’t hack it in philosophy.”

    And this all ties back to respect because, I think, our standards for who deserve respect are higher if we think (on some level) that a person is supposed to be an ambassador for their group AND they seem to be failing. Right, and that seems to be connected to the creepy ‘gentlemen’ code where men say they respect women, but there’s a whole group of people who we would use the feminine pronoun with, but these men wouldn’t count as “women” because they fail to be credits to their gender, and therefore do not deserve respect. It’s the concept of, “I respect women, but not [insert favorite gendered slur].”

    I think we might be doing something on the same spectrum as that when we say something like, “You know, she’s just awful though” or “You know, her talk just wasn’t very good”….at least in some contexts.

  7. I’m really confused. Where are the 34 responses the writer gets? My computer shows comments off, and I was pleased to see comments on, on this post. Sorry if this is a computer-incompetent question.

  8. Stacey, I think you are raising some important questions, though I am not sure they do really directly relate to the post.

    The message of the post is that a possibly prevalent kind of disrespect is very damaging. I don’t think that means we have to overtly express respect. We can be neutral.

    Maybe it would help if I give a real life example: a woman solicits an opinion from a powerful friend about someone who is a favorite of the department for a new job. The opinion is negative, and she conveys that to the department. Consequences: the department maintains she is trying to destroy the department. People turn their backs on her. Someone writes to tell her powerful friend that she was tricking him. A bit later she is told that sometimes she is so immoral one can’t be her friend. Years later new junior people are told that the original favorite candidate didn’t get tenure (6 years later) because of the opinion she conveyed.

    This all actually happened. It may seem extreme but it seems to me on a continuum with the very common claim that someone got her promotion by sleeping with powerful men.

    This positioning of a woman as succeeding because she cheats is actually pretty common, I think. And very corrosive. That’s at least one aspect of what the post is about.

  9. What do we do?

    I think one place to start is to start speaking up right when we see these things happening, and, more importantly, start documenting them with the appropriate offices on campus. Make a paper trail. Stop the culture of silence where we just put up with this crap. Don’t let the behavior continue.

    Anyway, that is what I am doing, somewhat belatedly. And I am finding that the few times I did document bad behavior are helping my case. Wish I had done so more often.

  10. Well done anon0627, one step at a time. My heart goes out to all the horrible experiences by philosopher women in these other departments.

    As a postgrad student of the School of philosophy at my university I don’t pick up on any kind of bias, sexism, or undermining of position of philosophers who happen to be female. To the contrary, it seems the best loved faculty philosopher in the dept by the rest of the staff is a woman. Perhaps that is why I feel the culture is so different? Top down. I have been informed by other students who have attended other universities that this is unique, I have been informed I wouldn’t have the same experience elsewhere. But I think the school of philosophy at my university is pretty special for many reasons, not just for that reason.

    Having said that, I am not trying to play down or deny the experience of women at other universities. No one can tell you you’re wrong when you say “I feel.” What you feel is what you feel and it should be taken seriously and supported in its seriousness until the day comes that you no longer feel this way.

    Like many problems in organisations, solutions require top down approaches and it basically comes down to leadership and therefore poor leadership, lack of it, or basically: bad leaders. I hope the industry realises that it has so many bad leaders if philosophers who happen to be female have these experiences and feelings.

    I wish all parties in the development of better leaders the very best of luck. Like anon0627 I am going to try to show more leadership where I see these issues arising. Thanks you for discussing this topic and I am sorry you are receiving so many personal attacks on your path.

    I support you.

  11. As a guy who has seen real discrimination and harassment towards women in the work place, I understand enough about harassment/discrimination to know I have no idea how it feels. I was raised to respect everyone. However, I have not personally heard anyone I know of disagreeing with any woman based on her just being a woman. I don’t doubt it occurs, but just know the majority of us do not have that opinion. The men I know will give anyone a fair shot. I would even go so far as to say in the US at least, the amount of men that respect women outweighs those that do not. Men are more likely to ignore what a female speaker is saying because he disagrees with what they are saying, not his disrespect for women. There are many reasons people will not like something a speaker says. A speaker or philosopher on the stage is simply meting out their opinions on matters. You can always expect a certain % of a crowd to disagree with what any speaker is saying. I mean look at the Civil War.

  12. To pick up on what Stacey is saying, I think what we should do is defer to the speaker when they tell us that something we did was [racist/sexist/ableist/transphobic/etc]. Don’t argue; don’t defend yourself; just take their assertion and give it a lot of authority. It’s defeasible, of course. Maybe they *did* make a mistake. But approach it from the default position that they’re right and you screwed up. Things go *so* much better when we do that.

  13. I think there are basically three things going on:

    (1) We often overstate the problem and thereby sabotage our own efforts; people do not take us seriously. While there are certainly things that we all need to work on to make philosophy better for women, the situation is not as disastrous as people who spend their lives complaining on the Internet pretend that it is. The idea that conferences are just dens of sleazy pick-up-artists, and that women in philosophy are constantly being propositioned but their male peers, is just not true. This is not to say that there are no problems. But we must be honest about the extent of the problems.

    (2) Whether or not (1) is correct, I think many people, myself included, are turned off–or just totally confused–by the “arguments” often used in support of our ideals. This is, of course, a common criticism of much of feminist thought/philosophy of gender/philosophy of race/Continental philosophy/etc.: these people have nothing to say, so they use insular and obscure language; they rely on emotion rather than logic to meet criticism; and they brook no dissent. (Look at what the author of this post says: “This lack of respect shows up in the 34 responses the writer gets when attempting to talk about the problem. No where do we see “O my god, that’s awful. What can we do about it?” Right, so that’s a good reason to think that the writer was in fact wrong!) This criticism is, to some extent, true.

    (3) I think that there is a growing sense that feminism is not truly interested in justice, but rather to simply grab undeserved advantage for women. I think that this is wrong, but that’s beside the point; the perception can be dangerous and so it is something that we should be attentive to and try to combat.

  14. No Mauvaise Foi, your support is truly appreciated. I was where you were for a long time in that I was in a situation where women were respected, but unlike you, was unable to learn from the negative experiences of others. I commend you for recognizing even that which you don’t personally experience, and being willing to speak up about it.

    RSatt3, I think every person in my department would write exactly what you wrote. I think they all genuinely and sincerely think they treat women well. They don’t consciously say “I’m going to disagree with someone because she is a woman or ignore someone because she is a woman.” Rather, it’s that they’ve taken on the unconscious biases that our society teaches about women, and don’t treat the same comments coming from a woman as they would if they came from a man, without realizing they are doing it. Both men and women do this, unfortunately. Realizing that many of us do this is the first step. Maybe just sit back and observe the dynamics of a department meeting or a Q and A session. I think eventually you will see what I mean.

  15. I think Rachel M has her finger on just the right point. It’s about appropriately identifying epistemic privilege, and this is perhaps both points to a solution as well as to the frustration of some.

    It’s seem pretty clear that members of injured groups will be the most sensitive to / aware of bad behavior of a certain sort. Refusing to recognize this makes it much less likely for us to see examples of our own bad behavior, and thus to take the needed correctives.

    On the other hand, the kind of deference suggested by RM and Stacey G could lead to “evaluation paralysis”, where taking the cautious approach to, “Is my critique harsher because the speaker is a woman (etc.)?”, is to not raise the critique. So we get people asking whether any critique is appropriate, what the ground rule are, and so on.

    It’s perhaps unfair that “abuses” of claims of epistemic privilege will gets lots of attention. “You see! She’s just seeking to immunize her claim from criticism”, and the like. It’s also perhaps the case that the goods of such deference are simply worth the risk – the risk being changing what philosophy has seemingly always been: the struggling, grappling with and challenging of ideas, for which no one has epistemic authority.

    I confess to struggling myself with the spillover from the epistemic privilege associated with identifying racism, sexism, etc., to that used in defense of philosophical ideas themselves.

  16. @Happy Philosopher

    (1) I think the problems related to gender discrimination are still more often understated than overstated. For instance, I’ve found it’s much more common for someone–even the more ‘hardcore’ feminists–to make a claim like that they felt uncomfortable at a conference but couldn’t quite put their finger on why, than it id for someone to make a claim like “conferences on the whole are just dens of sleazy pick-up artists.” I actually can’t think of a single instance where someone has sincerely argued something like that. People have claimed that they have felt unsafe at conferences, because of the specific behavior of other people there or because they had a bad experience in the past and so when going to new conference they don’t know much about that, they might feel unsafe by default.

    I mean, rape is the more obvious issue to point out here. Even when we’re screaming from the rooftops about 1 in 5 women being raped in their lives, and that there’s a rape epidemic in universities….that is *still* probably understating the problem, because we have strong reasons to believe that rape is significantly under-reported.

    But to your specific point, can you point to places where people have argued that they are “constantly being propositioned by their male peers”? Because that sounds like an exaggeration of what people are saying.

    (2) Not quite sure what your criticism is here, but it looks like you may be taking issue with the use of “no where”? The 34 responses are, I take it, supposed to be representative of common responses the author gets or the ones that stick out to her the most, so the implied argument that annejjacobson is picking up on is that, it should catch our attention that no where in that list is something like “Oh God that’s awful,” implying that the author *never* hears it or *almost never* hears it.

    (3) I don’t think that’s a growing sense. I think that’s always been a sense among some people. I think, if anything, feminism is more accepted among many maninstream outlets now than it was ten years ago. I’m pretty sure it’s more accepted in philosophy. But honestly, I think it’s really hard to maintain the suspicion you describe if one grants feminists even a minimal amount of intellectual charity. So I don’t think what you describe is a problem for feminists. I think it’s a problem for the people who are horribly uncharitable for sexist reasons.

    Throughout your comment, I see that as the running theme. You want feminists to prove that that they are absolutely justified and correct even to an audience that is hostile and refuses to give them an inch of charity. I don’t think that’s a good goal post to set for feminist projects. We aren’t going to win those people over by having more precise, more measured conversation, because they don’t seem willing to want to have a productive conversation with us. So we’re going to win them other either by (1) having people they respect (probably men) convince them to enter into more productive conversations on feminist issues or (2) they die out or get ignored by the increasing number of people who are willing to have productive, good-faith conversations.

    And this all gets back to respect. When someone does not offer someone else an equal level of respect that they probably would to others, we don’t need to demand that the disrespected person prove that she is, in fact, worthy of respect. We can, alternatively, point to community standards for what default and minimum level of respect we think people should be extending to each other in that context.

  17. Stacey, let me apologize for my remark on your first comment. It is relevant and well taken. As is your second.

    I think it is very tempting to think the complainers need to provide solid proof, but in fact we have lots of studies that show that women in academia are generally less valued, markedly so in the male dominated fields.

  18. Like Becko Copenhaver above I’d be interested to know about the “34 responses” mentioned in the post. The only responses I’ve seen were at the “Daily Nous” blog, and nearly all seemed respectful in any normal sense of that term. I don’t make any attempt to follow all or most philosophy blogs, and don’t have facebook, so maybe there’s something I’m missing, but it would be useful to have more information here.

  19. For anyone who thinks that feminists rely on emotion rather than logic or reasoning, I highly recommend taking a look at a new study that just came out in The Journal of Neuroscience, “The Good, The Bad, And The Just: Justice Sensitivity Predicts Neural Response During Moral Evaluation Of Actions Performed By Others”

  20. Matt and Becko, they are in Part I, a link to which is at the beginning of this post.

    Philodaria, do you think it’s being suggested that we’re just being emotional?

  21. To respond to Anon0627: I wholeheartedly agree that leaving a paper trail and contacting the appropriate offices on campus is important. At the same time, it is important to remember that (at least sometimes) those who experience the disrespect and other types of actionable behaviors we are worried about are in particularly vulnerable positions (ie don’t have tenure). What do you (and others) suggest if this is the case? My hope would be that those who are not in similarly vulnerable positions, but know of the offenses, would take it upon themselves to do the reporting, etc. But it doesn’t usually happen that way. Thoughts?

  22. Hmmm. There must be something about the blog I’m not understanding. In Part I, the comments section says Comments Off. This seems different from, for example, when there are visible comments but the moderator has decided to have comments closed. Perhaps its a matter of pressing some button to bring those 34 comments back online?

  23. Becko
    the 34 responses are listed by the author in Part 1 — they weren’t comments.

  24. Jessica Gordon-Roth,

    Good question. I’d be interesting in hearing what others think, but here is my take. First, yes, we should all try to be more aware of these offenses (even “little” things like a fellow faculty member being treated disrespectfully in a department meeting), and if you are in a more senior position, then speak up informally, and if that doesn’t curb the behavior, more formally. Second, if a junior faculty member has found an ally who she can trust, she might talk to the person about the problematic behavior and ask if they would feel comfortable helping out. Third, in the absence of 1 and 2, it still might be best if the junior faculty member reports the problematic behavior, because it might be a symptom of a problem that will manifest itself when she goes up for tenure. Better to have that paper trail to document that there was a problem all along rather than have to make the case that the tenure decision was based on bias without any additional evidence to back that claim up.

    I take it that you’re worried about retaliation for having filed the complaints. I agree that that could be a concern, although of course that’s itself a problematic, reportable behavior. In any case, one would hope that the university would not only accept the report, but also take action to help the department genuinely understand why these behaviors are problematic and how it can behave in alternative ways.

  25. Okay- thanks Jackie and Anne- I see what you meant now. (I’d even read that a few days ago, but just didn’t remember the form, and so didn’t realize what was being referred to.)

  26. Thanks, Jessica. With respect to junior or otherwise more vulnerable faculty (men and women), I have offered to act on behalf of someone or tried to persuade the more vulnerable to empower themselves. I do not feel too vulnerable these days, but I am sorry to report that at a conference recently — one that spanned three days, with only three women speakers — on the final evening while having drinks after dinner, someone was circulating to the men only a pornographic cartoon of me. I happened to see it — wasn’t supposed to, even though I realize it was meant to show that even if I’m a good philosopher, I’m still … what? I’ve decided I’m going to blog and speak out about this.

  27. Jackie, that is so awful. It is a quite awful thing to endure. We’d be happy to provide a forum for you.

  28. That’s terrible. Glad to hear that you’re going to speak out about it, though. Know that there will be those of us out here who will support you.

  29. Jackie, this is horrible. Are you sure that you were not meant to see it? Sounds like they wanted to undermine your intellectual authority–i.e. you were a threat. Please tell me that this was not a Hume conference.

  30. Jackie: this is unbelievable. I do wonder (like Steff Rocknak) whether you weren’t meant to see it. I look forward to your post and will forward it along to others.

    Also, thanks anon0627!

  31. I have heard back from the artist who says it was a sketch of an 18th century prostitute (which he had used in his presentation). He drew it and showed it immediately after sketching a similar cartoon of my male co-presenter, so it is easy to see how a misunderstanding could arise. If this is true, then what to think about sharing pornographic cartoons with the men (who outnumber the women 3 to 1) during the socializing of a conference? I know I found it immature and unpleasant.

  32. I guess I’m not understanding at all why he was passing it around. Not because she resembled you, one hopes.

  33. I don’t get this. Why would he draw a cartoon of just your male co-presenter, and not a cartoon of the *both* of you? Did he skip right over you in his mind and go straight to the prostitute, and then pass it around to get some giggles? Any way you look at it, this is unpleasant.

  34. Wait, what? Someone (i) used a sketch of a prostitute in a conference presentation, (ii) drew a pornographic cartoon of you, which he then passed around behind your back to at least one other conference participant, (iii) made a similar drawing of yet another conference participant, and then (iv) expected (i) and (iii) to serve as an excuse for (ii)?

    What’s wrong with, “I’m sorry Jackie, I was being a complete immature tool- I’m really ashamed of myself, and feel terrible about embarrassing you in front of your colleagues when you’re just trying to do your job,” or something to that effect?

    Also, what purpose did that sketch serve in the presentation? The answer to that question might explain why an apology like the one I suggested might be so hard for this guy.

    In any case, that totally sucks and is beyond lame, and also extremely uncool. I’m sorry that happened to you.

  35. Yes, it is lame, and I told him so via email in more polite terms. I believe the point has been made and I’m very glad I made it.

  36. I think Rachel at #12 and the response at #15 are on point here. If a member of group X says that something you’ve said is an -ist associated with X, you should give that remark quite a bit of authority. That said, there are two important addenda that, through lots of conversations about this, have seen the need to add:

    – First, the authority one gives to the person doing the calling out should be much greater when the -ist is associated with the group they’re a part of, than when that association isn’t present. For example, men should defer a lot of authority when a woman calls something sexist. White people should defer a lot of authority when a non-white person calls something racist. But I think the story is a lot different when a white person tells another white person that something he/she does is racist or when a man tells another man that something he has done is sexist. I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning white people and men really blow it, while demanding the same sort of deference we should rightly assign in those first sorts of cases. But in those latter cases, the deference shouldn’t be as great.

    – Second, even well meaning, very knowledgeable people still routinely confuse calling out an *action* as racist/sexist/homophobic/transmisoygnist/ableist/etc. with calling out a *person* as racist/sexist/homophobic/transmisogynist/ableist/etc. If you’re doing the latter, you shouldn’t expect much deference.

  37. @37: Respectfully, could you give arguments in support of your first addendum? All that’s there are fairly strong claims about what you think.

  38. Sure. As I understand it, the core idea behind giving deference to someone’s claim that an action is sexist, et al. is that a person oppressed by some social force is in a better position to identify when that force has been activated. So, for example, a woman is in a better position to identify an action as sexist and a trans person is in a better position to identify some action as transmisogynist. By contrast, a white person can certainly identify actions as racist, but that person has no better position than anyone else to do so, and shouldn’t be afforded the same level of deference. That’s not to say that the white person’s charge shouldn’t be taken seriously. But I wouldn’t necessarily go in with the presumption that they’re correct.

    More anecdotally, I’ll say that I’ve witnessed far more cases of a white person saying some action is racist…and it turning out that they were wrong, than I have of cases where a non-white person did the same.

    But it could be that I’ve misunderstood the reason behind giving deference in the first place.

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