Sexism’s Dilemmas

Very often abusive conduct leaves one without any good alternatives. A kind of abuse described in an earlier post can at least prompt two responses that may well make things worse.

Two reactions are: getting angry, and dropping out as much as possible.

1. Anger can lead its recipients to reflect on and reassess their actions. But insiders, when faced with an angry outsider, may take her reactions to show they were right and she is an awful person. Her actions may even be cited as part of the department’s recruiting new members of the department into the boys’ club. I think this is one way that disrespect is taught, and neophytes come to believe that yes, some women, people of color, etc., have a great deal of difficulty fitting into the department culture.

2. The second reaction is dropping out, at least to the point of avoiding the insiders as much as possible. This reaction is recommended by a lot of “how to cope with an awful boss” books. This alternative has been chosen by some women faculty; it is recommended as a way of preserving one’s health and sanity. However, dropping out presents the abusers with a great opportunity for gossip and conjecture which may well be promulgated all the way to the upper administration. Think of all those people who think feminists are just trying to get special treatment; they really believe that. A department’s account of an outsider dropping out may get similarly off-base explanations.

I think that it is actually very significant that these two routes are very problematic. Foregoing them both has the victim having to hang around being nice and sweet. That sounds like something an oppressor would like.

So what to do? I think that this is a big question for our community. I do not have any easy answers. Right now I’ve started to look at books on autonomy. I hope that philosophers can find ways for people in oppressive situations to have autonomy and self-respect.

Legal action of one sort or another is possible, but it can also be quite destructive. People can have a lot of trouble quelling their desire to retaliate, and trying to work one’s way through such situations can consume one’s life. (Right now even people who write about the law as it applies to the Ludlow case may receive a threat of legal action from his lawyers.) In addition, I do think that it is difficult to get far without a lawyer, and that easily becomes very expensive.


Though I have spoken about women, anyone who may be in an outsider role can be targeted.

In trying to understand why a group in a department might target someone, I found the following very useful:
Naomi Zack
Pluralism in ‘Academic Politics’: The Collateral Damage of
Cronyism and Legal Aspects of Common Misconduct”

APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy, Spring 2013.

13 thoughts on “Sexism’s Dilemmas

  1. Thank you for this very important piece; thank you for writing it. The two reactions you describe are indeed the most tempting ones, but also, as you say, create new problems of their own. Hanging around a hostile and abusive situation while being “sweet and nice” is a non-solution, as you note. Perhaps another alternative to legal solutions are an institution’s in-house procedures for dealing with such situations. Of course, these might vary widely in effectiveness (I’d be interested in hearing about people’s experiences), but perhaps this is an argument for all of us to advocate for beefing up such procedures and maybe even giving them a little teeth. It has also been recommended to me that one find allies, either within one’s department or outside, who can take action on the abusee’s behalf. I’d also be interested to hear if others have found that strategy effective.

  2. I second the advice to seek allies. I’ve experienced this form of bullying while TT. In a department of ten tenured members, one senior faculty member slowly influenced others until at least three were convinced I had undermined departmental goals and perhaps three other members were unsure of “which side” they wanted to be on. Various complaints against me were fabricated and aired in tenured-member-only meetings, which I could not attend. I was wisely advised by a confidant in another department not to be hostile, as this was exactly what the bully wanted as incontrovertible evidence that I lacked collegiality. Avoiding the bully was psychologically helpful (especially when everything you say and do will be used against you). The best thing I did was to talk humbly, candidly, and pragmatically about the problem with those department members who had nothing against me and whom I felt I could trust. Two had witnessed this particular bully’s conduct in the past and knew exactly what was happening. So, in short, it was good to seek allies. Due to the bully’s close ties with administrators, this didn’t save my job. However, I did end up with important recommendations from departmental allies who knew I had been treated very unjustly. I escaped that awful place and have enjoyed far better positions since then.

  3. Deeply appreciate this and these discussions. Finding allies is very difficult given the fear/threat threshold that often accompanies sexual harassment, assault and/or bullying. In my case, others were too afraid of the various authorities for various reasons. It has since made me extremely sensitive to the nature of negligence and complicity thru silence, and the nature of ‘appropriate.’ Once one finds themselves the victim of inappropriate behavior it is very difficult to enact any response that i) does not exceed what is deemed ‘appropriate’ thereby immediately becoming ‘inappropriate’ in the eyes of others, or b) remains within the domain of ‘appropriate’ but does not make enough ‘noise’ to break thru the silence, or enclosures in which one is often shunted and isolated.

  4. to all commenting so far: I so appreciate your responses, and your sharing what you have learned. I am deeply sorry that you have had such bad experiences. I know too well what it is like to have them, but I still find it difficult to get into my mind how badly philosophers can behave.

    I do think resources within one’s institution can be helpful, but equally they may not be. I’m going to try to pull together some ideas tomorrow.

    Other comments are very welcome.

  5. One problem with endeavoring to find help in on-campus Affirmative Action offices or the like is that at least where I work, they are explicitly designed to protect the institution and not the aggrieved employee, and deep down in the webpage there is a disclaimer that says as such. So even when one has fairly blatant case of awful behavior, there are no consequences for bad behavior because the institution has an interests in protecting itself, and admitting that there is bad behavior does not do so. There are sometimes better results from faculty governance groups, but that only helps if provosts, deans, and departments are willing to recognize the findings as legitimate.

  6. Anger is a survival mechanism. It’s what catalyzes us to self-protect, it happens when we are harmed and it persists as long as we are being harmed and it will not go away until we are no longer being harmed. Anger is a delivery mechanism for resisting being harmed. It’s where fighting back starts.

    Needless to say, oppressors have a vested interest in shutting that shit down as totally as possible.

  7. Let me pick up some of the points raised; in doing so, I am not necessarily referring to my own experience. In fact, at least as far as my own situation goes, I’ve found the legal side of my university exemplary in its action. So though I’d worry about where the sympathies and actions of such people may reside, they needn’t be willing to sacrifice you for the school’s reputation. In addition, the federal government is going to enact some very tough measures about sexual assault, and that may lead to more sympathy for victims of the sort of gendered bullying that is not fairly clearly sexual. If a university doesn’t get that a lack of respect is underlying much of what happens to women, they are going to have problems.

    I have also suggested elsewhere an argument that the bullying one experiences is gendered, and so illegal, even when it is not explicitly about sex or gender.

    Part of what one should do depends on what is at stake. In the face of an unjust tenure decision, one may have nothing to lose. That seems to be a case where one would pull out all the stops, though I think someone doing this needs a good lawyer. I got a great referral through the university’s law school; I think that’s the sort of source one should use. We aren’t necessarily ourselves the best judges of our lawyers, and a referral from a friend may not be best. One’s whole approach might be different if the worst experience one has is being excluded from, for example, a discussion group. (Of course, what else is going on might still make such exclusion intolerable, the last straw.) In my own case, when one department member formed a history of modern philosophy discussion group with another member of the department and someone from a nearby university, I decided just to let that go, despite the fact that I’ve been the president of a historical society, given keynote talks at history conferences, published quite a bit in the area, etc, etc. Given what else was going on, that did not seem worth one’s time and energy.

    Allies can be great, and a huge source of support and comfort, but some people are decidedly two-faced.

    It might help to become involved in university politics, such as the faculty senate. That’s probably a good source of allies, and if you become visible, then you may have some protection. It may also be a way to work on some topics that actually affect what your department is doing.

    It might help to get a therapist. A woman might have much more understanding. It is important that learning about ways in which women are still the second sex is a large task, and most men I know haven’t much of a clue. Even one I’ve been tutoring for over 40 years, kind and caring though he is, can show a surprising failure to see things that would be totally clear to any feminist.

  8. AJJ, thank you again, that is extremely helpful. For one, knowing that I am not crazy for trying to pursue my university’s methods first (that there is a chance that they might try to do the right thing and not just try to hush me up). For two, the suggestion of where to get a referral for a lawyer, should the internal approach fail for me. For three, I agree that the action you decide to take should very much depend on what you have to lose and whether you think you can continue with things as they are. For four, I agree (sadly, as I found out) that the people you think are allies might turn out not to be when the rubber hits the road. And five, interesting suggestion about getting involved in university politics; I should think about that. And six, a therapist was suggested for me, but I’ve been avoiding taking up that suggestion. I’m never sure if more talking actually helps me or just makes me angry all over again.

    As I guess is obvious from what I have written here, I am going through this right now (thus the anonymity) and so very much appreciate this unfortunately all-too-timely discussion.

  9. anon0802, thank you for another generous response. I was thinking I really didn’t have much to say.

    I meant to add that joint action by women philosophers may be our best bet. I’m optimistic about the overall outcome of the APA program for climate visits.

    I’m so sorry to hear about what you are going through!

  10. anon0802: I agree with much of Anne Jacobson’s advice. But, fwiw, if what you’re facing is a potential legal issue, I strongly urge you not to use the law school at your uni as a source of lawyers. When I was in what, from your general description, was a roughly parallel situation, I was (rightly) urged not to do so, and furthermore, to find an attorney out of town (this would not be the case if one were in, say, NYC), because the local attorneys and especially those in the law school were all far too closely affiliated with the uni and relevantly associated administrators. Alternatives: the local AAUP (if you are in the U.S., the quality of local AAUP committees vary substantially, but they can be, when they are good, great resources both for internal information, help with internal processes, and information for contacting relevant attorneys), the national AAUP, the AAUW, and if your situation involves intersectional issues, there are other similar such national organizations that represent folks in groups that are often targets of discrimination.
    I have to be anonymous here for a variety of reasons, but fwiw, I won.

  11. AJJ, I agree that the APA Site Visit Committee is a very promising approach for dealing with departments with problems who have some inclination to do something about those problems. Unfortunately I don’t think my particular department fits that description, but many do, and I am glad that the site visits are happening.

    anonymousacademicnotarealemail, thank you, that is helpful advice.

  12. Anon0802: i’m hoping that the site visit program will help to change the whole climate of the profession, but much more is needed. One problem is that a lot of the profession is living in the past, and they don’t go to conferences, etc.

    I realize that my comments about how to find a lawyer probably was ok for my university, but clearly not a lot of others

Comments are closed.