Monday, January 14, 2013

On Being a Woman in Philosophy--From a Woman That is Leaving the Profession

I re-posted an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education on the condition of women in philosophy for the purpose of responding to it. As a woman that has decided to leave a philosophy graduate program, I thought this would be a good time to address some of these issues.

First, I want to start off by saying that I, too, believe sexism can be a problem in philosophy. Sexism, though, is not the same thing as feminist philosophy, nor is it sexist to have an atmosphere where argumentation and competition is the norm. Sexism includes the obvious instances mentioned in the article of propositioning subordinates and dismissing women's contributions as well as the subtle gender bias that women are going to be more nurturing than men in teaching positions or that just because you're a woman, you must want to do feminist philosophy.

Oh yeah, the last one. That's something that gets perpetuated by men and women alike: that being inclusive means being welcome to feminist philosophy. There are a number of problems with this. The first problem is that it's horribly self-referential. While I realize that there are women that are persuaded by feminist philosophy and quite passionate about it, and while I recognize it as one area of philosophy that ought to be available to anyone who wants to study it, I object to the notion that while men can have an incredible breadth of potential research interests, that as a woman, I am and ought to be mainly concerned with issues related to my gender. The second problem with this is that it ostensibly ghetto-izes women in the profession. When you only have a dozen women in a program, and most of them are doing feminist philosophy, that basically isolates women in one AOS, making it so that women still do very little to influence other fields, such as the history of philosophy, philosophy of science, metaphysics and so forth. The third problem is that such a ghettoization isolates women that don't have an interest in feminist philosophy, since the few women that are in the program are doing it. Even worse is if you perhaps agree with some of feminist philosophy's claims but openly challenge or reject others. Finally, conflating the two ostensibly detracts from any real discussion about what's happening in philosophy, since departments that have strengths in feminist philosophy think they're "dealing with the issue" and ones that don't will dismiss it as not logical enough, lumping it in with continental philosophy. Either way, it's become an academic issue, not a social one.

The problem, I think, is that both men and women are a bit sexist in a way. Women that fit into gender norms often assume that this is how women are...always. Men that are more socially awkward and/or unsure how to act around women (arguably,a group that is overrepresented in academia, and not just in philosophy departments) are going to look for the one "right" way to interact with women. Neither side is actually seeing women as individuals at this point though. Once you start saying "women are offended by this" or "women don't do that" you're essentially prescribing thoughts, feelings, attitudes, behavior and even intellectual orientation based solely on the person's gender. This robs women of autonomy and discounts what may actually be a matter of personality differences. I personally think that feminist philosophy attributes to women what is actually the feeling preference on the Myers-Briggs and attributes to men what is actually the thinking preference. Granted, 75% of women prefer feeling, but if we incorporate personality type, that will show us that 1 out of every 4 women will find themselves not represented by the feeling focus of feminist philosophy. For this reason, inclusiveness would mean not conflating the study of feminist philosophy with the treatment of women in philosophy.

More than anything, I think there needs to simply be the recognition that you're dealing with, well, people. I ultimately decided that philosophy wasn't the discipline for me, for a number of reasons. Before I did, I met men that were much more sensitive to negative feedback than I was and I occasionally met women that were much thicker skinned than I was. Go ahead and do philosophy, decide what strengths you want to have as a department and don't place any expectations on who would or should focus on any given area of research. Go ahead and give critical feedback, but give actionable feedback. Let students argue, but don't assume the quiet student is less capable or less engaged, just assume that they have a quieter nature.* Don't admonish female graduate students for not being more nurturing and accepting when they start teaching only to turn around and tell male graduate students to not let teaching interfere with their research.** In short, strive for consistency while at the same time recognizing that personality differences do exist, and that the differences in personality will always be greater than the differences in gender. You can't be everything for everyone (nor should you try)but a consistent, learning-focused, improvement-focused, bias-free atmosphere will do more than any superficial revamping ever could.

*Obviously, if there's a participation component of the grade, assign according to whatever rubric you have set up. Just don't let it influence your assessment in other areas.

**Actually happened once. I don't believe that faculty member is still in "our" department anymore, though.