Reader query on avoiding all-male colloquia

A reader writes:

I’m a Ph.D student in a philosophy department and was recently tasked with organizing a graduate student colloquium series for the upcoming semester. I sent out an email calling for volunteers, got quick responses, and typed up the list (the speakers and dates are now finalized). Then it struck me all too late that the list was completely male.

It should be noted that none of the women in the department volunteered to present–but I think it would be premature for me to write this off as their own fault for not volunteering. It’s too late for me to change the list now, but I am wondering if you can suggest any ways to avoid this in the future. Merely telling the women in the program that they should volunteer because we need to diversify the list seems heavy-handed to me.

Any thoughts on what the organiser should do? My thought would be to make individual suggestions to women of the form “Hey, you gave a great paper on X to our work in progress seminar. Maybe you could do that at the colloquium?”.

23 thoughts on “Reader query on avoiding all-male colloquia

  1. Another suggestion is to ask individual women what their reasons are for not presenting. Obviously, you don’t want to sound like you’re interrogating them or shaming them. But you could ask people something like, “Hey, thinking ahead for the future, I’m trying to find out what the largest factors are that make people unable to present work at this series, or make them uninterested in doing so. Do you have any thoughts on this, in regards to yourself or others in the dept?”

    I wouldn’t send that as a mass email to everyone, b/c my experience has been that you’re more likely to get feedback by asking people individually. And asking face-to-face is probably better than sending an email.

    But some of the factors in play could be: the colloquium doesn’t fit with their schedules, they keep forgetting about the deadline to submit; people feel intimidated or worry that their work isn’t ready or good enough quality to present; it feels too formal; it feels too informal, etc. Then you could address the specific issues that come up in your dept.

  2. I’m in science, not philosophy, and we handle this sort of thing very, very proactively – but then, we have the privilege of high representation by women at post-grad level (our problems kick in later in career, at senior post-doc and PI level!) We state explicitly at time of call for submissions that equal representation is a requirement. Generally we get around this by asking heads of research groups to nominate speakers, and state their lists of nominees must be balanced. (I have seen an email sent from a symposium organiser, a post-grad, to a very, very big wig indeed which consisted of ‘sorry, Professor, I cannot accept your nominations due to equity considerations’ – they may have been quaking in his shoes as they sent it, but they knew they had institutional support).

    I can identify key differences to your situation here. The most important is that here in Australia at least, the loss of women from the higher ranks of science has been identified as a problem that requires active intervention. Universities and research institutes have gender equity committees, recruitment and retention policies, and at least where I am, any symposium with an all-male speakers list would draw extreme ire from the Director, and probably early intervention.

    As far as practical suggestions go, it has been suggested that a reason for underrepresentation by women is a result of reluctance to put themselves forward, so maybe move away from a self-nomination model? Either by asking supervisors or PIs to nominate worthy students, or by asking students to nominate each other? I am unsure how this would work in a philosophy department (I am guessing there is greater autonomy, less close knit team work) but could be worth a try. Depending on culture, it might even be possible to mention a desire to achieve a more balanced representation, reflective of the composition of the student body, along gender lines?

    Awareness is half the issue, of course, and support from your school and acknowledgement that losing women does not only disadvantage those women, but also robs the profession of talented, diverse and worthwhile thinkers. Moving from a grudging acceptance of women in your particular field to a desire to retain valued researchers with all their potential contributions is key, but culture change is hard. Achievable, though.

  3. I agree with the comments above, but the “factors in play” don’t explain the gender disparity. How about addressing it head-on with: “Hey, girls, all these guys here volunteered. What’s the matter that none of you have?”

  4. The factors that can be addressed by someone running a colloquium might not be the factors that explain the gender disparity. And I don’t think you’re necessarily likely to figure out what those factors are by asking the women experiencing them.

    For instance, a large factor that might explain the gender disparity could be that women in the dept, experiencing a bunch of implicit bias, belonging uncertainty, etc. (that they themselves might not be aware of), have more stress to deal with, or less coping resources for dealing with that stress. So, if the colloquium is something that is a bit intimidating to all students, the stress caused by thinking about presenting at the colloquium could be enough to deter more women from presenting than it does for men.

    But for our colloquium organizer, getting at the root of the problem–the implicit bias–is probably not something they can do. (If they can, and do, please tell us what you did!) More feasibly what they can do is, basically, damage control. They can try to make this particular colloquium a less intimidating experience all around, which would lower the chances that people in general (but women to a higher percentage) choose not to participate.

    That is just one guess. It could be something very different (maybe the women in the dept just don’t have the time, since in my experience, women graduate students seem to take on more volunteer stuff that eats up our time.) Or, it could be different factors for different people.

  5. I still feel asking is the best route, because even with implicit bias, the women in your department probably have a better idea than you do. But there’s climate issues. In some department, concepts of oppression are usually not taught nor shared, and voicing them about your own experience is potentially damaging. This is nothing that cannot be addressed, but it still calls for a bit more work.

  6. As a female grad student who’s thought about submitting my own work to a grad student colloquium series and decided against it, I can tell you that my own reluctance to volunteer stems from a number of reasons (including some implicit bias/stereotype threat issues, I’m sure). First, my work has been dismissed pretty quickly by some fellow students in classes. Second, I tend to do more service than the average graduate student (and get asked to do more service than the average grad student, in part because I’m one of the few people such service seems to affect – for instance, working with faculty on a climate committee). Third, my personal (non-philosophical) interactions with fellow grad students have sometimes been extremely uncomfortable for me due to sexism/sexual harassment and surrounding issues. For these reasons, I’ve sought out my own group of people to read and comment on my work – people outside the philosophy department, as well as some in the philosophy department who I trust individually. Because of all this, I don’t see the point in taking more time to subject myself to a colloquium that might be really unhelpful and really hostile. I experience those interactions enough without volunteering for more of them. I think I could be persuaded that grad student colloquium series would be something worth the stress of participating if I saw that there were guidelines in place to stop it from becoming a hostile experience. Alternately, if I saw more grad students making an effort to make the entire department a less hostile experience, it would probably be less of an anxiety-ridden decision to make.

  7. I think it’s sufficient to state, as part of the request for volunteers, that it’s something you expect every student will take part in at some point. Because this is true, yes? Every student eventually should present a paper to their grad student colloquium. This approach has a number of benefits, chiefly that it doesn’t target any particular identity or content as insufficiently represented in a given semester (how many are white? how many are lower-income? how many work with a popular adviser in the department?), and it doesn’t place the burden of solution or explanation on the women who chose not to participate. The lineup could be sheer coincidence. If not, it could reflect some deeper concern that is primarily the responsibility of faculty to solve, as opposed to the students who for whatever reason don’t feel like engaging in this normal, professionally beneficial activity. Faculty should be alerted if the group of presenters is consistently unbalanced, as that might be a sign of a problem. Otherwise, I don’t see it as the responsibility of students to encourage other students to present simply because of some aspect of their personal identity, nor would this even be desirable. I never want to be invited to present a paper because I am female, as opposed to because my work is excellent and for no other reason.

    Tangentially, whether or not some deeper reason is motivating a particular group of students not to participate, I find it likely that the students who most need the experience of presenting a talk – the quiet, or shy, or self-doubting, or unpolished – are probably least likely to volunteer if the slots are always filled by an open call that can easily be avoided. Conveying the general expectation that at least one such presentation is normal and even obligatory could be quite beneficial for those students, and would have the added benefit of reducing worries that one group or another is not being appropriately represented.

  8. I think Susan’s suggestion of conveying that it’s normal for everyone to present at least once is a really good idea, especially if it’s combined with an emphasis that you can present works in progress, and that the *point* of the colloquium is to offer feedback that is helpful (not to just show off something you’ve completed.)

    I’m less sure about the suggestion to make such participation obligatory. That could backfire and add more stress, depending on the department’s culture. Given the experiences of people like anon female grad student (#7), I don’t think these colloquiums are necessarily good for everyone, in their current forms. They potentially are, and they should be, but if the feedback you get is overwhelmingly nasty and unhelpful, it might be smart to avoid them and seek feedback from other groups.

  9. I agree with Stacy that Susan’s suggestion is a really good idea, but I also think it’s important to acknowledge that the grad student colloquium may be one more experience that female grad students (and other minority grad students) might want to join in, but don’t feel welcome to do so. I certainly came to grad school expecting to participate in these types of experiences. I was really excited to see that our department even had a grad student colloquium chair in our grad student organization! However, by the time I felt I had something that I would like to share (about a semester), I had already learned that women in my program routinely get talked over, insulted, and generally not taken very seriously. I think it’s important to acknowledge that presenting (or feeling obligated to present) one’s work in a grad student colloquium can be a much heavier burden on the women and minorities in the department before we start requiring people to participate. The women and minorities I’ve seen have learned to carve out their own spaces for presenting and reflecting on their work. Conveying that there is a general expectation for me to participate without explicitly addressing the reasons why I might not want to would not make me any less anxious about having to participate.

    So tl;dr: encourage or require participation *after* encouraging reflection and discussion of how a grad student colloquium series should work and how to be respectful of each other’s work.

  10. Stacy and #10 – I agree, this is an important point. I don’t think people should be required to participate, as they might have good reasons to decline. A loose expectation that everyone presents could help to broaden participation, but if some people consistently decline and faculty know about it, hopefully they’ll look into it further. If my advisees didn’t want to present papers even though it was considered a normal activity, I would want to find out why. Hopefully that would be one way of getting at climate problems affecting students like the ones who commented above in this thread. Some faculty may be unaware of what students in the program are experiencing.

  11. Thank you everyone for your suggestions–and for caring about this issue! (I am the one who submitted the initial question.) Making this a program requirement is, I don’t think, feasible or fair; some people just don’t have anything to present at times, or are busy, and there’s a limited number of spots each semester.

    One thing I am very serious about is addressing this problem privately, because unfortunately, there are a few male students in the program who are in radical denial of the problems faced by women in philosophy, and they can be very loud about it on the graduate-student listserv. On that note, inviting people in person–and perhaps asking them what, if anything, makes them hesitant to present–sounds like the best option.

  12. Maybe one way to go forward is to get faculty involvement in talking about what it means to be a good colleague viz. attending and participating in colloquia (as an audience member), and what it means to give constructive feedback, ask good (non-combative) questions, and so on.

    If there’s a practice of men grad students being really aggressive and engaging in bloodsport philosophy in the grad colloquia, particularly combined with that sort of behavior in seminar (combined with implicit biases and perhaps their treating the women’s contributions disproportionately worse than men’s), I can certainly understand why women in the program wouldn’t feel like volunteering to receive more of that abuse. I certainly wouldn’t, and I have pretty thick skin when it comes to this kind of behavior.

  13. Hi Kevin,
    From your name I’m assuming you’re male (sorry if I’m wrong). If that’s the case, I think you should be careful how you approach this. As the male grad students at my institution have become more aware of the problems of women in philosophy, they’ve started to notice when women don’t participate in stuff (which is great!). But if they start asking me or other women about why we don’t do more, it can feel very hectoring. That’s not a reason not to say anything at all–just a suggestion to start slowly, maybe enlisting the help of women you know won’t feel offended or pressured to help draw some of the other women out.

  14. As far as I’ve seen, the link between combative questions and lack of engagement among female philosophers or would-be philosophers is totally unestablished by any data. It seems to emanate from stereotypes about women, not careful research. On the contrary, many female students have reported to me that they don’t like it when others ‘go easy’ on them because of their sex or gender.

  15. I was quite struck by your situation. In my graduate program, we never had to resort to anything heavy-handed to get female grad students to give papers. They just volunteered. So what might be going wrong in your department? I’d start with the grad student listserv. Consider dropping it. We spend much of our lives on our computers, which means that what gets said on a grad listserv is apt to contribute significantly to the climate for grad students of the department. And let us just say that those who tend to post the most on listservs tend to be, well, those people who like to post a lot on listservs. And maybe stop calling it a “colloquium”, as though this is on a par with the kind of thing you’re flying Korsgaard or Williamson in for. It’s not. Call it a “speakers series” or a “work in progress series” or something like that. And try to ensure a diversity of topics. Guarantee a couple of slots for metaphysics/epitemology/language/mind, a couple for ethics/social/political, one for ancient, one for Continental, one for non-Western, etc. Domineering assholes draw strength from their sense that they do THE kind of philosophy that matters, that they’re in the unique philosophical in-crowd. De-centering, pluralism, the elimination or proliferation of in-crowds — this is like kryptonite to them.

  16. @14: Thank you. Yes, that is something I have considered quite heavily as I’ve read these suggestions.

  17. Agreed 15. I suppose it *might* be something in play *if* a woman feels already out of place and/or there’s some general hostility. But I’m kind of uncomfortable with that claim too.

  18. I think that #15 has missed the mark. This worry raised isn’t about combativeness (which I agree, there’s not much evidence supporting that it turns off women’s participation). It’s about something else. The worry is that women’s contributions are being disproportionately treated with hostility (whether intentional or not) in both seminar and colloquia. Hostility is very different from mere combatitiveness. We certainly have lots of data that supports the observations that women’s contributions are often treated differently in many such contexts. And that worry is separate from the issue of combative questions (which need not be hostile).

  19. That’s a good point, Rachel McKinnon. Although I’ve come across discussions of this issue which don’t make the helpful distinction you make here between combativeness and hostility. See, e.g., Beebee’s paper here. What she says seems much more similar to the claim that 15 and myself find problematic.

  20. I definitely agree that that distinction is too infrequently made. What I took to be under discussion in some of the comments and stories here (especially comment #7) is hostility, not mere combatitiveness. And I was referring to the former, not the latter, in my comment(s).

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