Feminist Philosophers

News feminist philosophers can use

“contemptible and inexcusable” October 15, 2015

Geoffrey Marcy is resignng from UC, Berkeley.  (For background, see here.). According to the NY Times:

In a statement announcing Dr. Marcy’s resignation, the university’s chancellor, Nicholas B. Dirks, and the executive vice chancellor and provost, Claude Steele, said they had accepted Dr. Marcy’s resignation and added: “We want to state unequivocally that Professor Marcy’s conduct, as determined by the investigation, was contemptible and inexcusable. We also want to express our sympathy to the women who were victimized, and we deeply regret the pain they have suffered.”



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.


Post from Former Colorado Chair December 21, 2014

Filed under: sexual harassment,women in philosophy,academia,hostile workplace — jennysaul @ 2:14 pm

David Boonin, former Colorado Philosophy chair, writes:

there were indeed a number of complaints about certain members of the Department of the sort their statement identifies, the Department on its own was in fact unable to satisfactorily address them, and while the process by which the Department came to have an external chair and to be on the receiving end of some quite harsh treatment by the administration has most certainly been painful, the Department has just as certainly benefited from some of the strong and decisive actions to which my colleagues refer.

For the full text of his comment, go here.


Complaints Against Queen’s University Philosophy Department November 28, 2014

Adèle Mercier, a professor in the philosophy department, has accused Queen’s of using intimidation tactics to silence her and two other professors after she filed a complaint of gender discrimination against the department.

For the full story, go here. Via DN.


More news from Boulder August 7, 2014

From Daily Camera:

For only the fourth time in University of Colorado history, Boulder campus leaders have begun the process of firing a tenured faculty member after paying a graduate student $825,000 to settle accusations the philosophy professor retaliated against her for reporting a sexual assault by a fellow graduate student.

Chancellor Phil DiStefano recently issued a notice of intent to dismiss associate professor David Barnett, Boulder campus spokesman Ryan Huff confirmed to the Daily Camera.

Barnett, who is not the alleged sexual assailant, is accused of compiling a 38-page report painting the victim as “sexually promiscuous” and alleging she falsified the report of the assault, according to a notice of intent to sue CU filed by the victim last month.

The move to fire Barnett, who has taught in the philosophy department since 2005, comes as CU already was under federal investigation for possible violations of Title IX, the federal gender-equity law. It also comes six months after a scathing report detailed sexual harassment, bullying and other unprofessional conduct within the philosophy department . . .

The victim, who declined to speak with the Camera through her attorney, Debra Katz, filed the complaint because Barnett “smeared her reputation” and she wanted to prevent something similar from happening to future victims who report sexual misconduct, Katz said.

“She felt it was very important to bring that issue to the attention of the appropriate parties within the university and not only protect her own rights, but to ensure that other people who come forward and report serious Title IX violations are not retaliated against,” Katz said.

Katz said that if the university tolerated retaliation, it would have a “chilling effect” on anyone wishing to come forward to report a violation.

She added that while her client did not ask for Barnett to be dismissed, the decision sends a “very strong message” that the university is serious about disciplining people who violate Title IX.

While not speaking about the allegations against Barnett specifically, Huff said it’s important for investigations into possible university policy violations to be conducted by professionals.

“We have established mechanisms with trained professionals who are in charge of conducting investigations,” he said. “Having non-trained, non-professional people conducting unauthorized investigations is not appropriate.”

For those who are unclear on how retaliation in the context of a Title IX complaint is itself a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX, I recommend reading through the SCOTUS decision on Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education as well as the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter from the Office for Civil Rights of April 2013.


Query: Cultivating a good atmosphere in challenging circumstances

Filed under: sexual harassment,academia,hostile workplace,improving the climate — jennysaul @ 10:50 am

As readers know, I spend a lot of time talking to people in departments with climate problems. One issue that arises in many cases is how to deal with the continued presence of people who are known or suspected to be a problem. Sometimes this is someone who has “done their time”– e.g. had a year of unpaid leave; sometimes it’s someone who was cleared of all charges but about whom suspicion still lingers; sometimes it’s someone trailing a history of well-known problems. What often comes up in conversations is the question of how to react to these situations. The situations differ from each other in many, many ways. But what’s common to them is that they create difficulties for the community– how to make the department as safe and welcoming a place as it can be for everyone is chief among them. What I’m asking about is not the formal remedies– in these cases they have already run their course. My concern is with what those concerned about climate can do to cultivate as good an atmosphere as possible in such a challenging situation. These situations are in fact quite widespread, so I’m guessing there is a lot of knowledge out there in our readership. I’d be grateful for your thoughts.


Who’s fed up? Part II June 25, 2014

Below you’ll find Part II of a letter FP was invited to post. There are several elements in this post that are worth explicitly distinguishing:
(1) Sexual harassment, which we can understand to include drawing particularly attention to a women’s gender.
(2) Demeaning one or more female colleagues and creating a hostile environment for her/them.
(3) The author’s tendency to link (1) and (2) to things like bruised masculinity and “personal or professional frustrations.”

I think that (2) and its link to (1) and (3) form a very important topic. As one Affirmative Action officer put it to me, “there’s no law against being a jerk.” That can make it seem as though women, despite their being a protected class, have no legal recourse when they are demeaned and their reputations are assaulted. However, I’ve argued in much earlier posts that we can discern elements of the demeaning which are gendered. I’ll shortly repeat some of those points and open the discussion to our readers. The current post, however, is closed to comments.

I’m repeating the last para of the previous post, since it provides a context for what follows it.

Complaints of harassment are complaints of lack of professionalism in ways that hinder women’s professional advancement in philosophy. They include complaints that men are sexually predatory, aggressive, hostile, that they abuse their position, that they alternately prey on women sexually or spurn them for perceived rejection, that they systematically exclude women from philosophical conversations, downgrade their contributions, ignore them or respond to them with overly hostile reactions. Men in the field often take out their personal and professional frustrations on their female colleagues with sexual aggression. They do so overtly, by making overt sexual advances towards women that bear no relation to meaningful attempts to enter into a mutually respectful and caring relationship, and have everything to do with reasserting their feelings of power and control in personal and professional contexts. Or they might do so less overtly, with ad hominemm attacks on women’s femininity or sexuality and attractiveness, or their quality as a philosopher, made either directly or behind women’s backs to other members of the profession. These are also ways of reasserting their power and bruised masculinity and enlisting other members of the profession in their diminishment of their female colleagues.

Junior and senior philosophers alike are guilty of these behaviors. Offenders are your friends, colleagues, co-authors, co-organizers, esteemed rivals, and mentors. They are also husbands, fathers, and boyfriends. You might even have unwittingly crossed the line on occasion as well.

An exalted atmosphere of collegiality and sociability exacerbates these problems, and provides cover for these attacks on women. The informality and sexual permissiveness that pervades many professional philosophical environments (conferences, graduate departments, and so on) masks aggression and abuse, making them seem like gossip or harmless flirtation. Well-intentioned colleagues can unknowingly contribute to a climate of abuse by participating in and encouraging this fraternal banter, out of a misguided sense of friendship, loyalty in rebuilding bruised egos, or simply attempts to curry favor, gain inclusion, or seek professional advancement by more powerful members of the profession.

Make no mistake about the seriousness of the abuse and the depth of the damage that this kind of behavior wreaks, however. 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.

Countering complaints about sexual harassment by pointing to the hazards of dating life and noting women’s consent to affairs ignores the nature of the wrong being committed and diminishes the seriousness of the complaint. Sexual harassment isn’t sexual assault. Consent is irrelevant. The concern lies with a vitriolic professional atmosphere which allows virtually untrammeled sexual access to women, including the diminishment of their professional status, under the guise of “dating,” and in which women bear virtually 100% of the professional costs of relationships gone wrong. Pointing out the adulthood of the complainants and alluding to the fact that some relationships succeed is belittling, beside the point, and, frankly, a bullying tactic aimed at embarrassing women complaining of the over-sexualization of the profession into silence. It is no part of a meaningful conversation about the climate in philosophy.

What’s a well-intentioned single guy to do when he meets a likeminded female philosopher with similar interests and with whom he makes a “connection?” Hold back. This isn’t OKCupid. A thoughtful philosophical conversation is not flirtation, however titillating it might be, and following it up at the bar or wherever the rest of the professionals go after the formal encounter has ended is not an invitation for sex. Imagine this woman was your advisor/letter writer/dean, and then ask whether your interest is strong enough to risk the professional relationship.

I don’t know how to rid philosophy of sexual harassment or what an ideal outcome would look like, but I am certain that no progress can be made without genuine and sincere attempt to come to terms with the full breadth of the problem, and a meaningful way of holding wrongdoers accountable for their actions. Women are failing by virtually every measure of success in philosophy. Responses like those listed are defensive and deflecting, and serve more to silence conversation and stifle understanding, than they are attempts to make meaningful progress on an important and pressing issue.

I am writing anonymously because of the overwhelming risk of professional retaliation. I hate doing this. The indignity of not being able to defend myself in my own name is outweighed only by my frustration with these “conversations” that I have to keep having.

Fed Up


Harvard Professor suing over denied tenure May 1, 2014

Dr. Kimberly Theidon, an anthropology professor, is suing Harvard University, alleging discrimination and retaliation after she spoke out on behalf of victims of sexual assault and criticized the university’s handling of their cases.

“I’m not going to be silent, I was not going to be a dutiful daughter so they denied me tenure and effectively fired me,” said Theidon.

Now she’s blowing the whistle on the university by filing a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination alleging she was discriminated and retaliated against for criticizing the university’s handling of sexual assault cases.

“This case is about the importance of women who are sexually assaulted on campus having someone to go to as the first responder who will not be afraid to help them,” said her attorney Elizabeth Rogers.

“We want Harvard to change their policies,” said attorney Phil Gordon.

A spokesman for the University declined Team 5 Investigates request for an interview, citing the pending litigation.

However, in a written statement, the university told Team 5 it “would never deny tenure due to a faculty member’s advocacy for students who have experienced sexual assault.” Instead, tenure decisions are “based on the quality of a faculty member’s research, teaching and university citizenship.”

“I think in principal that is probably true, but in practice, they violate it often and in my case they violated it,” said Theidon. However she said she doesn’t have any regrets,” I would do it all over again, only I would be louder.”

Read more here. 



NFL Player fired for speaking up in favor of equality? January 2, 2014

A pretty stunning account from former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. 


Women MPs should ‘toughen up’. November 29, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized,politics,hostile workplace — axiothea @ 7:42 am

Melissa Kite, in yesterday’s Guardian describes women who leave UK politics as a result of bullying by their male colleagues as ‘shrinking violets’.

There is some victim blaming in the article:

The problem is not that male politicians can be childish and offensive, but that today’s female politicians don’t seem to know how to handle them.

And a suggestion that women who can’t handle bullying in parliament are lacking not just in insensitivity, but in political conviction:

Ultimately, politics requires women with hides like rhinos, women who are sufficiently on fire with conviction to stand up and fight.

The reference to Mo Mowlam’s staying tough when she was called fat during her cancer treatment is particularly distasteful, suggesting, as it does, that if Mo had backed down then, she wouldn’t have been tough enough and worthy of being an MP.



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