Feminist Philosophers

News feminist philosophers can use

Are boys sexist? November 9, 2015

Filed under: bias,gender,human rights — annejjacobson @ 7:11 pm

[ I’m more short on time than I had realized; readers are invited to give a more nuanced account.  Tim King in particular seems to open the way for more layered views]

The New York Times has a discussion on whether boys are today raised with sexist attitudes.. It is unfortunately largely conducted in terms as general as the title of this quote.

Leonard Sax and Christine Hoff Summers show up as gender essentialists, to put it perhaps unkindly, and in general the discussion of all five participants seems bereft of positive examples of parents or schools getting it right.

Two other essayists tend to converge on the following

Girls knocking against traditional male doors are aspirational, while boys gravitating toward anything traditionally feminine are devalued. And suspect. True gender equality can’t exist until both boys and girls can embrace the full range of their humanity.

It isn’t clear that we have solved the problem of raising at least most girls to insist on equal treatment. Nor is it clear that it is in their interests always to do so. No one seems to consider that various senses of privilege are adding to the problems.


The Politics of Sympathy October 12, 2015

“Of course, this is hardest for Geoff in this moment. For those who are willing and able, he certainly can use any understanding or support they can offer (this wouldn’t include endorsement of the mistakes he acknowledges in an open letter on his website). I ask that those who have the room for it (now or later), hear him out and judge whether there is room for redemption in all that will transpire.”

That quote is from an email sent out by Geoff Marcy’s department head, in the wake of it being made public that he has been found responsible for sexual misconduct, and that Berkeley decided in lieu of sanctions, to sign an agreement with him about what would happen if he was found responsible again.

Sympathy is complicated. I’m not a moral psychologist, so I won’t pretend to be one — but I am a philosopher who thinks about the way social and political structures can influence our beliefs. And in view of tense and complicated conversations following several cases of issues of discrimination and violence related to members of our professional communities, I haven’t been able to help but think for awhile now about how, like credibility, distributions of sympathy are political.

This seems perfectly predictable, in a certain sense. We’re ready to lend a sympathetic shoulder to our friends. We tend to consider the interests of those in our own social circles more readily than those of others at a distance. Nonetheless, the experience of it can be unexpected. The first time I was ever told that a friend had been sexually assaulted by someone I knew, my reaction was — to me — utterly surprising. Though I knew the wrong-doer, he wasn’t a friend. He wasn’t someone I cared for. The only time I ever spent around him was not of my own choosing, but rather the begrudging result of our having multiple mutual friends. Yet, when I found out that he had assaulted my friend, I found myself absolutely weeping. First, for her – that wasn’t the surprising bit – but then, for him too.

I felt more deeply for him, suddenly, and unexpectedly, than I ever had before I knew what kind of wrong-doing he was capable of. That feeling, I think, was borne out (in part) of the recognition that even in the best of possible futures, there would be no undoing what he had done. If things went as well as they could, given what had already happened, he would recognize the wrongness of his actions, and seek to make what recompense there might be. And how painful would it be to live with that knowledge? How would you cope with knowing that you have irrevocably changed someone’s life by harming them so severely? I also think this was, in part, simply because I knew him.

To be clear, I blamed him. I was angry. I wanted him to be held responsible. At the same time, I felt deep lament and sympathy. My heart ached. I wished that it weren’t true. It didn’t take much reflection to understand a little better why we can be so recalcitrant and resistant in the face of claims to harm against our friends. If I could feel so much sympathy for someone who I didn’t even like, how would I feel had he been a friend? Family?  What would I think, if I didn’t also know the victim, or the extent of the evidence? What if I were his department chair, and he were one of my department’s star researchers? 

All of this is to say, I get it. I can understand how the pull of sympathy might disrupt our priorities in a harmful way. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay.

Of course it’s fine — perhaps good hearted, even — to feel sympathetic to those among us who have acted wrongly. Sympathy for those who have acted wrongly need not necessarily conflict with an appropriate sense of justice (indeed, I think it can enrich it). But we do need to be careful about what follows. When we’re not so careful, victims can be harmed by the politics of sympathy in many ways. It isn’t news that those who attempt to come forward with allegations against the powerful, well-connected, or socially-established, often find that with friends so well-placed to offer protection and so ready to offer understanding to the perpetrator, evidence simply isn’t enough. Perpetrators may be easy to sympathize with for other reasons (like their gender, being central to a department’s research profile, their interests being closer to our own, their being well-meaning, or sincere). Victims are unjustly harmed when this translates into a resistance to the belief that a perpetrator could be guilty, or results in, once again, concern for victims’  well-being having been sacrificed for the sake of the one who harmed them as we consider the (real or imagined) difficulties that they face while setting the victims’ to the side.

All of this, of course, can be exacerbated by the fact that it’s just easier to look the other way in the first place. As Judith Herman writes, “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”

Sympathy can be valuable, but when readiness to feel it is tied up in our social relationships, it will also, inevitably, have a political element — and that’s something we need to be especially careful with in view of the possibility of mistaking our fellow-feeling for evidence of innocence, or when it signals that we prioritize justice and care for the perpetrator over justice and care for their victims. 

It is precisely that prioritizing that is so offensive in the email quoted above. These women who came forward risked their reputations, professional prospects, being subject to public scrutiny, to seek redress for harms they never wanted to be subject to in the first place. The university responded, having found their allegations justified, by doing (roughly speaking) nothing. I am sure Geoff Marcy is having a difficult time right now, and it’s fine to recognize that. But let’s not add insult to injury for his victims.


Yup, definitely being taken over by women August 16, 2015

Over the last year, we have heard a lot about the feminist/women’s (there are different versions) takeover of philosophy. That line of thought is nicely put in perspective by the various other similar claims discussed here.

The idea of a gender perception gap is borne out by studies in other areas. In one study on gender parity in the workforce, sent my way by colleague Flavia Dzodan, it was found that men “consistently perceive more gender parity” in their workplaces than women do. For example, when asked whether their workplaces recruited the same number of men and women, 72 percent of male managers answered “yes.” Only 42 percent of female managers agreed. And, while there’s a persistent stereotype that women are the more talkative gender, women actually tend to talk less than men in classroom discussions, professional contexts and even romantic relationships; one study found that a mixed-gender group needed to be between 60 and 80 percent female before women and men occupied equal time in the conversation. However, the stereotype would seem to have its roots in that same perception gap: “[In] seminars and debates, when women and men are deliberately given an equal amount of the highly valued talking time, there is often a perception that [women] are getting more than their fair share.”

How do you give men the impression of a female majority? Show them a female minority, and let that minority do some talking. This is how 15 minutes of Fey and Poehler becomes three hours of non-stop “estrogen,” how a Congress that’s less than 19 percent female becomes a “feminized” and male-intolerant political environment, and how one viable female Presidential candidate becomes an unstoppable, man-squashing Godzilla. Men tend to perceive equality when women are vastly outnumbered and underrepresented; it follows that, as we approach actual parity, men (and Elisabeth Hasselbeck, for some reason) will increasingly believe that we are entering an era of female domination.

(Thanks, L!)


clinton, Mind-reading and attributions of racism July 25, 2015

Filed under: bias,gender,politics,race — annejjacobson @ 8:30 pm

There’s a kind of mind-reading that seems to me to be very prevalent in the US.  It often goes so far as to assume that someone other than X is better able to tell what X thinks than X is.  This not a harmless assumption, and it is built on a false assumption about our access to other minds.  In fact, our mind-reading is prone to a lot of mistakes once we get beyond the very simple tests used on 4 year olds in psychology.

Most recently Hilary Clinton is being victimized by mind-reading.  She said:

Race remains a deep fault line in America. Millions of people of color still experience racism in their everyday lives.

Here are some facts.

Let’s be honest: For a lot of well-meaning, open-minded white people, the sight of a young Black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear. And news reports about poverty and crime and discrimination evoke sympathy, even empathy, but too rarely do they spur us to action or prompt us to question our own assumptions and privilege.


Apparently, a lot of people looked at this and said she wouldn’t have said this unless she felt that fear. So she is a racist.

But in fact the comment about fear was one of a long list of bad facts about racism in the States. And she said we must admit these features exist and get rid of them.

So the racism is most certainly not in her words. It is an injustice to report that it is in her head.

Many thanks to Rachek McKinnon for bringing this up on facebook. Of course, as Rachel said, on the left this might all just be misogyny. If so, hang on because it’s probably going to be a horrible election season.


No, bias against women in science not disproven July 17, 2015

Filed under: academia,bias,science — jennysaul @ 5:39 pm

Another great article about that Williams and Ceci article Michael Brownstein had a great post on.

The 2015 study, performed by Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci, isn’t rigorous. It’s plagued by five serious methodological flaws.

To read about them, go here.


“I’m Sorry!” July 7, 2015

Filed under: bias,gender,politics — annejjacobson @ 3:00 pm

The research reported in a post below concludes that women are disproportionately made to feel guilty for any lapses in caring behavior.  If that’s true, one might expect to see (some/many) women as very prone to apologize a great deal, even for things only vaguely connected to them, to feel bad when they are especially assertive, and even to offer care-taking when it is hardly appropriately.

The skit by the comedian Amy Schumer linked to below captures such behavior.  Can you relate?




“Queering Philosophy” June 11, 2015

Filed under: academia,bias,glbt — Stacey Goguen @ 5:29 pm


Post by Annika Thiem at The Philosopher’s Eye

“as Linda Alcoff argued in her Presidential Address to the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in 2012, […] the problem of demography is not coincidental to the issue of bodies of knowledge, canonical archives and questions, and preferred methods of inquiry.”

“Marginalized minority voices tend to have to render proof of their academic competence and must first refute the suspicion of being “purely personally politically motivated” rather than writing “proper research.” The standard of “proper” academic writing turns out not to be as neutral and universal, as we often like to assume, but rather a male, white, European, and heteronormative “voice” of knowledge and competence.

“This is the case even though the actual bodies inhabiting that academic voice can look preciously little like a straight white European man. The point is that queerness and queer method are irreducible to individual bodies and desires. Queerness and queer method pertain just as much, if not even more, to structures, practices, and institutions.


Combating bias May 9, 2015

Filed under: bias — annejjacobson @ 10:29 pm

Harvard Business Review
for May 2015 has several very useful articles on making better decisions. Some of the material explicitly addresses biases that are concerned with gender, race, class, etc, but other very useful discussions address heuristics affecting our decision-making.

There is a general strategy that I’ve seen show up recently in books on practical decision making. It draws on Khanemen’s work on system one (intuitive) and system two (logical)thinking. Overcoming bias can involve getting system two to evaluate system one’s products. This strategy doesn’t solve all the problems, but it can help a great deal in lots of situations. I strongly recommend getting access to the HBR issue from your library, or even buying a copy.

Some tidbits

1. Use joint, rather than separate, evaluations. Evaluating decision alternatives simultaneously, rather than sequentially, reduces bias. For instance, a manager who is evaluating job candidates can avoid making biased assessments of their likely future performance by comparing them against one another rather than evaluating them separately. That’s because joint evaluation nudges employers to focus more on employees’ past performance and less on gender and implicit stereotypes, … Managers often use joint evaluations in initial hiring decisions, especially at lower levels, but they rarely take advantage of this approach when considering employees for job assignments and promotions.

2. Holding individuals accountable for their judgments and actions increases the likelihood that they will be vigilant about eliminating bias from their decision making. For example, a study of federal government data on 708 private-sector companies by Alexandra Kalev and colleagues found that efforts to reduce bias through diversity training and evaluations were the least effective ways to increase the proportion of women in management. Establishing clear responsibility for diversity (by creating diversity committees and staff positions, for example) was more effective and led to increases in the number of women in management positions.


More discussion of Willams and Ceci April 22, 2015

Filed under: bias,science — jennysaul @ 11:16 am

Here and here.


Michael Brownstein on Williams and Ceci April 15, 2015

Filed under: bias,science — jennysaul @ 7:40 pm

A guest-post:

Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci have just published an article in PNAS titled “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track” (here). The article is striking, and seems to show a great deal of progress in gender equity in hiring (notwithstanding worries that some have expressed that this study demonstrates “reverse discrimination”). There has been interesting discussion of the article on Facebook (FB), the Daily Nous, and New APPS, and most of what I say here is a reworking of points that others have already made. First I’ll make a couple positive points about the article; then raise a worry about the authors’ interpretation of their data; and then raise a few questions about the data.

On the positive side, W&C’s data tells us more than we knew before about how gender attitudes and gender discrimination work. As Edouard Machery said on FB, we need to know the facts in order to create effective interventions. This seems right. The question, I think, is what exactly the study shows, and whether it shows what the authors think it shows.




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