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.
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.
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.”
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.
This post may need a bit of an explanation. I am supposed to give a brief talk to and about a partcular institution. I think the institution is often shooting itself in the foot. So I would like to talk about an aspect of institutional excellence at least to divert attention from inflicting wounds. The connection I mention below seemed to me to be possibly worth exploring. It occurred to me yesterday, so these are very preliminary reflections. I’m also reacting a bit to an earlier post on the topic of referring to one’s work.
I’ve been thinking off and on about these two themes for some time. It occurred to me last night that in fact they may be very closely connected. A little more cautiously, two institutions that have recently seemed to be very similar even though they are very different in kind might seem so similar because of how these themes might be invoked in describing them. (Just so you know, I’ve been wondering for some time why two places I’ve recently seen a lot of – Somerville College, Oxford, and MD Anderson, Houston, often ranked as the US’s number one cancer treatment and research institution, have seem so similar in some way related to excellence. That is, related in a way that is more than simply both being excellent.)
So let’s consider this conjecture: with some excellent places, the accusatory assumption that someone who mentions her work is being self-promoting is absent, or nearly absent. Further, that absence can nuture excellence while it is itself a more intelligent reaction to excellence.
What could possibly cause any association between excellence and a lack of accusations of self-promotion? Here is one connection: it is pretty unthinking to assume someone mentioning her work is being self-promoting. The assumption is a mark of a failure in excellence. Why? For a lot of reasons:
1. People who think one’s motivation is self-promotion quite probably are not aware of some other very significant motivations. In particular, there can be a genuine joy in creating something and bringing something to a conclusion, whether it is a paper, a painting, a recital, a tennis match, or so on.
2. The hypothesis of self-promotion usually has a large gap; namely, there isn’t an answer given to the question of whom the accused is supposed to be trying to impress. Too often the accuser assumes they are among those whom the accused is trying to impress. Except in some special cases where the accuser has special power or resources, that may well be false.
3. The accusation is a way of dismissing someone’s work without incurring any burden of proof. That is less than honest trickery (At the same time, we might reflect that there are different reasons one might want to dismiss someone’s work. The quality of the work might really threaten one’s own sense of self-worth. Or one might be trying to derail some candidacy, etc. and there are no doubt more reasons.)
I think and hope I’ve said enough to give some sense of a line of thought.
I expect there are objections, and I’d love to hear of any you think of. You can also be positive!
There is a great deal, in fact, that remains to be said. For example, aren’t there some brilliant people who have made huge advances while still being nasty and accusatory about others’ supposed self-promoting narcissism? (talk about projection, one might say.) If you are thinking about this, please notice that the ideas get quite qualified as this post progresses.
So please add or subtract from these reflections.
On a Morning Joe broadcast from 2007, Mika Brzezinski became indignant when her producer tried to have her to lead the news with a story about Paris Hilton getting out of prison, as opposed to talking about the Iraq war, among other things. (There is also something worth saying here about why Paris Hilton is taken to be especially unfit and undeserving of attention in the news, and why an anchorwomen is pissed to be covering such a story.)
You can watch a few clips edited together here of her two co-anchors then telling her to “take control” of her job, to not use her producer’s commands as a cop out, and to make her own lead…and then proceed to ignore her commands, physically control her actions, and make light of her indignation over lax journalistic standards. The editing may be making the interactions look more disrespectful than they actually were, since there is usually is a lot of bantering on the show. But even granting that, grabbing a lighter from someone’s hand belies your insistence that they should take charge. Even if Brzezinski didn’t feel disrespected by her colleagues, their actions have such a weird patronizing undercurrent to them. (I’m sure someone somewhere can describe this with more exact philosophy-speak.)
Here’s an article written shortly after the newscast aired. And here’s a previous Fem Phil post from 2012 about another incidence where Scarborough claims that he respects Brezinski while his actions cast doubt on that point.
Very few careers had been ruined; what had been, or could be, ruined was the atmosphere that had existed before, where all the squirming was done by women, or some other vulnerable minority, and where all the smirking and grinning was done by men.
Monday was a great day for sexual harassers and for bosses who retaliate against workers claiming discrimination. The rest of us did not fare so well in the Supreme Court. While most Court watchers will likely focus on the narrower-than-expected decision in the Fisher affirmative action case, the most lasting impact of today’s decisions likely will be the twin blows struck against women and minorities in the workplace. Taking advantage of employees just became a whole lot easier.
The first case, which we previously labeled the “scariest pending Supreme Court case that you’ve probably never heard of” made it significantly easier for many people’s bosses to racially or sexually harass them and get away with it. Though the law provides fairly robust protection to workers harassed by their supervisor, the Court’s 5-4 decision in Vance v. Ball State University defined the term “supervisor” very narrowly. Under today’s decision, your boss is only your “supervisor” if they have the power to make a “significant change in [your] employment status, such as hiring, firing, failing to promote, reassignment with significantly different responsibilities, or a decision causing a significant change in benefits.”
A recent article entitled, “Donglegate: Why the Tech Community Hates Feminism” referenced Lewis’ Law, which is explained above. What do people think?
Also, I really hope the article linked above is mistaken about the increased popularity of MRAs.
Also also, Lewis’ Law, if sound, definitely applies to the article linked above.