Reader query: improving the climate

A reader writes:

Some grad students recently came to me complaining about the gender climate among the grad students. It is the usual sort of thing – the men talk over the women, patronize them, make sexualized jokes, ogle them, etc. I find it totally credible, though I have not witnessed much of it – the grad students do a lot of things independently (reading groups and so on ) and also, I think they are on their best behavior when faculty are around. The department in general is probably average on gender climate. Things are better than they used to be. (It is certainly not the case that the grad students are just modelling what they observe in the faculty). We have tried hard to raise awareness, with fairly regular workshops/sessions on implicit bias, and other issues facing women in philosophy. It is, of course, quite likely that the worst offenders  simply don’t show up to these things. Another problem is that turnover for grad students is of course, faster than for faculty – this year’s first years many not have been to any talks on gender, though the events feel fairly regular to me. One thing I think I need to do is make sure that I do something targeted at new students at the start of the academic year.

I’m looking for advice about what to do – both with new students and also about how to intervene with the current cohort. It is very hard to make anything compulsory, though not out of the question. But I am also aware of the need to tread carefully, not to trigger the backlash. Any suggestions welcome!

Put your suggestions in comments!

8 thoughts on “Reader query: improving the climate

  1. Given that many of the problems that you cite are conversational – philosophy is, after all, a conversation – then it has seemed to me that getting your students to engage with work in conversational analysis might be useful. [e.g., ‘Making Gender Relevant: Conversation Analysis and Gender Categories in Interaction, ELIZABETH H. STOKOE] I studied this stuff a bit during its early days in the 1980s, so I don’t know whether the field has burgeoned or died. But 1st year grad students might embrace a kind of academic engagement with the issue of gender power in conversation, which can then be brought down to more personal or particular issues.

  2. Does your department have a grad student orientation? If so, a perfect opportunity to present some data and stories on gender oppression, including microaggressions. If there is no orientation meeting, then you can start one.

  3. The norms of the profession are changing. Civilized behavior around women is one important thing; sexist behavior at a conference can look really Bad. Citation practice are being scrutinied, the error in using one’s past work without cknowledgemnt, care with language and Disability, etc, etc. so perhaps required pro-seminars. Maybe just one a semester. And a booklet on sexist behavior. Perhaps stressing that the issues are not superficial, and can be vastly important in public settings.

  4. A few things I would say as a grad student in philosophy who also happens to be a woman:

    The problem seems to lie on a cultural level, and I think that major cultural changes related to the way men treat women in general would be necessary to solve the various issues faced by women in philosophy. I feel invisible and do not feel like I am recognized for my value as a scholar; sometimes it is made very salient to me that the only good reason for them to be interested in my research is if they think they will be able to have sex with me at an ulterior point. Indeed, the men who act as if they were interested in my work quickly stop interacting with me altogether once they learn that I already have a partner. So here are a few things I could recommend related to these issues:
    – Mandatory workshop on sexual assault/rape culture in our departments. These should also talk about the small gestures and actions that maintain toxic dynamics. Most men start from the idea that they, personally, are the “good ones” and that the problematic people are “the other guys”. So any good workshop should start with convincing them to start from “I am part of the problem, as we all are in our own way, and I am personally responsible to make things better”.
    – I would like it if faculty could showcase/advertise the work and achievement of students from underrepresented groups; this can be a great help in balancing out the effects of being ignored and belittled by grad student colleagues, and in my experience, some colleagues who never took what I did seriously started to respect me more once a renowned professor in the department where I was an undergrad took me under his wing and praised my work… Male recognition of the work of women works extremely well in my experience, even though it is depressing that this is the case.
    – When it comes to showcasing the work of philosophers from underrepresented groups, it would be useful to not present it only as “good female philosophers” or “good Black philosophers”, as an example. The idea is to insist that philosophers from underrepresented groups are good philosophers period, not just “good for a woman”, as I have been told personally at some points in my undergrad years…
    – When giving a class or taking questions for a talk (during Q&A), try being mindful of the diversity while taking questions. Some professors very clearly favor men (I once had my hand up the whole time while the same male student was chosen 3 times!), or faculty over graduate/undergraduate students.

  5. Organise a monthly wine and cheese night or something to induce social intermingling. Or introduce an assessment component which is a collaborative research paper… small groups, working with students from different disciplines, and then mix the genders up.

    Male philosophy grad students are highly unlikely to have any traditionally masculine/hyper masculine types among them, and very likely to have a number of difficult moody non conformist types, so there’s not much point gathering them together for a workshop.

    You probably won’t convince them that they all share in some essential masculinity that needs to be risk managed. However, you will increase the moral disgust response within the female cohort, which will result in avoidance, dehumanizing and othering of the males, and desire for harsher punishment for transgressive behaviour. It will also lead to increase in anxiety and lower self-efficacy.

    It’s a delicate system, and studies from engineering show female students (and employers) really appreciate the inclusion of a collaborative element, so try that first.

  6. One of the biggest factors affecting the ‘ciimate’ in philosophy departments, I think, is the fact that so much philosophical discussion takes place in informal environments. The fact that so many career-building discussions and opportunities for networking happen in casual environments—restaurants, bars, dinner parties—contributes to an eroding of personal/professional boundaries between students and faculty, affords greater risk of decidedly ‘unprofessional’ attitudes creeping into these interactions, and for inappropriate behaviour to take place. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s experienced the uncomfortable moral and cognitive dissonance of an intoxicated male colleague running his mouth about recent sexual conquests at a party and then being expected to listen and engage respectfully with him at the lecture he’s giving the next day.

    This is an issue that bears heavily on the careers of women philosophers. For example, there are perfectly legitimate reasons why a young female grad student might not jump at the chance to accompany her colleagues to a bar across town to ‘unwind’ from a talk with a bunch of drunk male faculty twenty years her senior. These rituals and outings are notionally optional, but by not participating in them, students are missing valuable opportunities to network and discuss their work among their peers. That these rituals are so ubiquitous and comprise a large part of department life all too often puts female students in the position of having to choose between maintaining their personal safety and missing out on valuable chances to connect with their colleagues and mentors. Needless to say, this isn’t a conflict many male students face.

    One way we could improve this is by organizing more department social events that actually take place within the department itself. Even if these events are framed as ‘casual’, the environment and social setting contributes a great deal to implicit norms governing appropriate conversation and behaviour, which, I think, would work to the benefit and comfort of female students.

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