Earlier today, Channel 4 News tweeted out a wonderful little excerpt of an interview with Dr. Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English. In the interview, Dr. Wilson discusses her surprise in discovering the number of gendered words that weren’t pejorative in the original Greek, but which were translated into English by pejoratives. Watch the excerpt here.
The following is from a column in the NY Times by a 32 year old female lawyer, Jill Filipovic. Her account makes sense to me, in part because I’ve seen a similar account in another context. Bright young female scientists will often, some analyses have said, not realize how gender biased their field is until around the time they go up for tenure. By then the exclusion of women is much more obvious, in part because they are becoming victims.
A number of people are quoted in the article, and it seems to me some wise things are said. The whole thing is very worth reading, but some snippets may give you the sense of a major argument in “Why Sexism at the Office Makes Women Love Hillary Clinton:”
Even for women active in feminist causes in college, as I was a dozen years ago, [some time in employment] can be a rude awakening. As a young lawyer, one of the first things I noticed about department meetings at my law firm was not just the dearth of female partners, but that one of the few female partners always seemed to be in charge of ordering lunch. I listened as some of my male colleagues opined on the need to marry a woman who would stay home with the children — that wasn’t sexist, they insisted, because it wasn’t that they thought only women should stay home; it was just that somebody had to, and the years in which they planned on having children would be crucial ones for their own careers.
I saw that the older white, male partners who mentored the younger white, male associates were able to work long days and excel professionally precisely because their stay-at-home wives took care of everything else; I saw that virtually none of the female partners had a similar setup.
In jobs that followed, managers would remark that they wanted “more women” and proceed to reject qualified candidates. (Similar dynamics took place with minority candidates.) There were always reasons — not the right cultural fit, not the right experience, a phenomenon of unintentional sexism now well documented in controlled studies. I watched as men with little or irrelevant experience were hired and promoted, because they had such great ideas, or they fit in better. “We want a woman,” the conclusion seemed to be, “just not this woman.”
A telling anecdote:
“A lot of the women I was friends with in college would have never called themselves feminists, but now that we’ve been in the workplace for 10 years, a lot has changed and they’re becoming more radical,” said Aminatou Sow, a digital strategist and a founder of a support network for women in technology called Tech LadyMafia. They realize, she said, “that the work world and the world at large remains a place that’s built by men and for men.”
That’s part of what makes Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy so compelling for Ms. Sow. “I pray to God that one day we can field a female Bernie Sanders candidate, some disheveled lady yelling, and the country will seriously consider her,” she said. “But nothing in our culture indicates to me that that’s remotely possible right now.”
“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.
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.
The bad news is that the Washington Post has been up to some sexist shenanigans. The good news is, it’s under fire for doing so. Read about it here.
A reader spotted this sign up at the University of Texas School of Nursing in Austin.
Our reader said the signs popped up this week. “Revealing clothing MUST NOT be worn while in the School of Nursing Building. It distracts from the learning environment.”
“It distracts from the learning environment.” Oh, OK. For a second there I thought we were only teaching young girls in elementary, middle and high school that their bodies are nothing but shameful sin receptacles which must be covered up and hidden at all times from men who absolutely cannot control themselves at the slightest hint of a woman’s skin. Good to see that this outdated sexist bullshit is being instilled in college students in a professional training program, too!
There’s a great article up at The Nation on ‘The Lewinsky Double Standard’. It discusses how differently we view men who have sex with much younger, less powerful women and women who have sex with older, more powerful men. Admitting an affair with an older, powerful man can, for many women, have severe consequences:
Clinton’s reputation has largely recovered from the affair that sparked his impeachment trial; Lewinsky’s never did. She got a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, hoping to do communications for a charity, but has been unable to get a full-time job. “Because of what potential employers so tactfully referred to as my ‘history,’ I was never ‘quite right’ for the position,” she writes, noting that the only offers she’s gotten have been those that would market her notoriety. She’s watched her friends marry and have children, their lives moving forward while hers has not. “With every man I date…I go through some degree of 1998 whiplash,” she writes. Imagine, at 40, being defined by a blowjob you gave at 22. Lewinsky is scarcely exaggerating when she compares herself to Hester Prynne. Her life has been deformed by slut-shaming, a phrase that had not yet been coined when she was catapulted into infamy.
And, perhaps discouragingly, this is sometimes an area in which feminists have contributed to the harm:
During the scandal, the primary feminist argument was about sexual harassment, about whether or not the affair was consensual. In their zeal to argue that the dalliance wasn’t exploitative—and thus that Clinton hadn’t committed a public transgression—some feminists went so far as to argue that Clinton was Lewinsky’s victim. “Here’s a cute, sexy, young president, he’s known to have had a lot of sexual affairs,” said Erica Jong during an all-female discussion of the scandal that The New York Observer convened at Le Bernardin. “He might stimulate the fantasies of all the young women who work in the office. And particularly the ones who are a bit father-obsessed and obsessed with older men and feel neglected. So, it’s possible that Clinton has had many more such attacks than we even think.” Attacks! As if the poor president only capitulated under the intern’s siege. There was little room, back then, to see Lewinsky as both an active agent in the affair and a person whose dignity and privacy deserved protection.
This story from Brown University will give you some idea. I encourage anyone who is confused about why victims may not come forward especially to read it. But of course, this isn’t just about Brown.
Students were outraged in 2013, when Yale University disclosed in a semi-annual report that only one of six people found responsible for sexual assault had been suspended, and the rest were punished with reprimands, training or probation. A subsequent report showed one student was found guilty of sexual assault and was given a two- term suspension, and the rest of the assault cases hadn’t concluded or did not lead to a formal investigation.
From the 2008-09 academic year to 2012-13 at Harvard College, five students were required by the Administrative Board to withdraw from the undergraduate school due to “social behavior – sexual.” Two students were punished with probation for “social behavior – harassment/sexual” and the college took no action against six students for “social behavior – sexual.” Harvard College was hit with a federal complaint last month for, among other grievances, forcing sexual assault victims to live in the same residence halls as their attackers.
Documents provided by Dartmouth College show that from 2010 to 2013, sexual violence cases resulted in two students being “separated or resigned” from the college, two students suspended, two placed on probation and four found “not responsible.”Dartmouth may implement a policy that would make expulsion the preferred sanction for students guilty of sexual misconduct.
Colleges are not required to disclose how many students are investigated or punished for sexual misconduct. Columbia University, for instance, has so far declined to release such statistics.
Three women accused the same male student at Columbia of sexual assault. Still, two of the reported victims told HuffPost that the male student was found not responsible and was allowed to stay on campus.
@anyatopolski alerted me to the Sassy platform (Sharing Academic Sexism Stories with You), which was launched on International Women’s Day last month. The site, in four languages, was founded by an independent group of volunteers from Belgian academic institutions and NGOs who wanted to provide an online space for stories that are otherwise only shared in private conversations.
Yesterday at the first official meeting of SWIP.NL (in Dutch), which was attended by both Dutch and Belgian members, the question was raised whether sexism was worse in the Netherlands or in Belgium. The proportion of female professors is appalling in both countries, and appears to be even worse for philosophy than for other subjects.
It would be nice if all the SWIPs in the world would team up together and get some funding to get it properly researched!
This SASSY project, however, is yet another good initiative to show that there really is a problem with sexism in academia.
Government scraps Labour’s planned rules on equal pay
“The Government has scrapped plans to force big businesses to disclose the difference in pay for men and women they employ, on the day it emerged that little progress had been made in bringing women into the boardroom.”
A strange way to promote equal pay
Gender pay disclosure plans eased by coalition
Women still struggle to get top FTSE 100 jobs – report
“The number of female executives in top jobs at the UK’s leading 100 firms is almost unchanged for a third year running, a report says.”
UK Office for National Statistics
“…But men and women still follow very different career paths. Men are ten times more likely than women to be employed in skilled trades (19 per cent compared with 2 per cent) and are also more likely to be managers and senior officials. A fifth of women in employment do administrative or secretarial work compared with 4 per cent of men. Women are also more likely than men to be employed in the personal services and in sales and customer services. Similar proportions of men and women work in professional, associate professional and elementary occupations, such as labourers and catering assistants.”…
Britain embraces ‘positive action’ to abolish workplace discrimination