Monday, January 14, 2013

Re-Posted From the Chronicle

I am re-posting this for the purpose of writing a blog post, since this is subscriber content. (I am not a subscriber, but it was sent to the department mailing list which, for the time being, I am still on. The original article is here.

From the Chronicle for Higher Education:

Women Challenge Male Philosophers to Make Room in Unfriendly Field

By Robin Wilson


America's philosophy professors are having a party, the sort of gathering that has become an institution at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association. In a ballroom on the lowest level of a sprawling downtown hotel here, clumps of men sit talking, laughing, and drinking beer at big, round tables.

The association calls the gathering a reception, but everyone here knows it as the "smoker," even though no one is allowed to smoke anymore. It caps the first day of sessions at the association's Eastern Division meeting and is not only an occasion for old friends and colleagues to catch up but also a time for young job candidates to talk informally with professors at campuses that have faculty openings.

The smoker is also notorious for making women uncomfortable. Tales abound of how, two decades ago, drunken male faculty members at the event chased young female job candidates and, more recently, of female junior professors getting propositioned by their senior colleagues there.

Some female philosophers who attended the association's meeting here late last month did not even give the reception a chance. They skipped it in favor of their own gathering over Domino's pizza and red wine. "We avoid it at all costs," said Shay Welch, an assistant professor of philosophy at Spelman College who held the "woman friendly" party at her home with a couple of dozen people. "It's almost like there is this tiny parallel universe women have created where women in philosophy hibernate."

The two gatherings in Atlanta are emblematic of what's happening in philosophy, where a small group of female professors is trying to shake up the field. The women want to broaden the discipline to embrace feminist ideas, raise the number of women in the faculty ranks, and put an end to sexist remarks and behavior.

Dustin Chambers for The Chronicle

Shay Welch, an assistant professor of philosophy at Spelman College: "It's almost like there is this tiny parallel universe women have created where women in philosophy hibernate."

Shay Welch, an assistant professor of philosophy at Spelman College: "It's almost like there is this tiny parallel universe women have created where women in philosophy hibernate."

But they have found the field more resistant to change than are many others in academe.

Most philosophy departments and conference meetings are still saturated with men. More than 80 percent of full-time faculty members in philosophy are male, compared with just 60 percent for the professoriate as a whole, according to 2003 data compiled by the U.S. Education Department, the latest available.

Women at the conference here didn't miss opportunities to observe how isolated they felt: One who waited in line at the hotel's Starbucks said she had counted 10 men in the line, plus her. The 16.6 percent of all full-time faculty members in philosophy who are female constitutes the lowest proportion of women in any of the humanities and is lower than the proportion of women in traditionally male fields like mathematics and computer science.

At the meeting in Atlanta, the association's Committee on the Status of Women sold black-and-white buttons that said: "Philosophy: Got Women?" A very explicit blog, "What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?," publishes horror stories by women describing sexual harassment and gender bias on their campuses and at scholarly meetings. A new petition, started by men, encourages senior male philosophers to refuse to speak at philosophy conferences that include few, if any, female presenters; it has about 1,000 signatures.

"There is a groundswell of movement right now," said Linda Martín Alcoff, a professor of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York, who is president of the association's Eastern Division.
'Jerks in Philosophy'

Ms. Alcoff and other women say that despite the overwhelmingly male nature of their discipline, faculty members picked her as president in part because those who vote in the association's elections are more likely than others to endorse change, and because the association's nominating committee assembled a diverse slate of presidential candidates, including a black male and two feminist philosophers. "One of my goals is to increase diversity," Amy Ferrer, the association's new executive director, told The Chronicle.

She is hardly the first to try. The Society for Women in Philosophy has been promoting women's work in the field since 1972, and Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy was established in the mid-1980s. In November the philosophy association created a new Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Harassment to study the problem. The action came exactly 20 years after the organization first issued a statement condemning sexual harassment. While complaints of harassment may have dropped to a trickle in most academic fields, in philosophy the issue remains a major problem.

"Where else but in the U.S. military are women the targets of such regular abuse by their own close colleagues?" Ms. Alcoff wrote in a 2011 issue of the association's Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy.

While Ms. Alcoff said she doesn't like the way women have historically been treated at the smoker, she has not endorsed abandoning it, because all association meetings have social gatherings. But the harassment, she said, must stop.

Next fall the association's Committee on the Status of Women will begin visiting campuses to evaluate the treatment of women in philosophy departments and recommend changes.

Some prominent men in the field say sexual harassment is real. "There are some jerks in philosophy," said Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, a professor of philosophy at Duke University who sits on the association's Board of Officers and supports the committee to study sexual harassment. "I have seen people hitting on female philosophers where I thought they shouldn't."

Sally Haslanger, a philosophy professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been at the center of efforts to make the field more comfortable for women. She said harassment is not the only problem. Female philosophers are generally given little respect, she said, which leads many to leave and erodes the confidence of those who stay.

"I've been worried about this for 30 years," she said. "We are all just sick of what's going on."

It's not unusual, she said, for female students to come to her office crying. "These women say they want to quit philosophy because they don't feel they belong," said Ms. Haslanger. "They say, 'I'm not good enough.' Or they say, 'I thought I could do it, but I see now that I can't.'"

That nearly happened to one young woman who recently finished her bachelor's degree in philosophy at a major East Coast research university and is now applying to graduate programs. In a conversation with The Chronicle here, she recalled a couple of times when she was sitting with some male graduate students after talks by visiting male professors who didn't know any of the students. Each time, the visiting professors asked the male students sitting next to her about their interests but ignored her. "I would think: 'I don't exist. Am I underdressed? Am I dressed provocatively? Do I look too young?'" she said.

The female student, who asked not to be named because she feared her observations might influence her acceptance by graduate programs, also recalled one male graduate student's advising her that philosophy wasn't for everyone and urging her to consider graduate work in psychology or sociology instead. At times, she acknowledged, she thought about quitting.

And yet, some of her male professors encouraged her, she said. "One said, 'Come up to the board. It's OK to speak up. It's OK to be wrong.' Before that, I had kind of shut down," she said. "He brought me back into the field."

Part of the problem, women say, is that philosophy is a verbally aggressive field, and some women may be more uncomfortable than men are with the kind of sparring and jousting typical of philosophical debates.

"You have to have the self-confidence to withstand critiques against your work without taking it personally," said Ms. Welch, the Spelman professor. "It's a very critical, crushing profession."

Other philosophers here agreed. "At many fine institutions, philosophy is so hyperanalytical and combative that young women may be put off," said Dianna Tietjens Meyers, who is retiring this year from her post as a philosophy professor at Loyola University Chicago. At the meeting here, the Society for Women in Philosophy held a session honoring Ms. Meyers's work.

But in her own remarks, she was not shy about publicizing the discipline's failures. She called philosophy "the least women-friendly field in the humanities" with a "terrible reputation for welcoming women."

After the session, over a Champagne-and-cheese reception for Ms. Meyers, a female graduate student told a Chronicle reporter how her male faculty adviser had come to talk to her after some students in a class she taught gave the course low marks. When she noted that at least one student in the class must have enjoyed it because he had signed up for another of her courses, the adviser told her that was probably because the male student found her attractive.

"I have yet to hear from any of my male colleagues that their advisers had explicitly talked about how they looked versus their performance," said the female student, who asked not to be named because she will soon be on the job market. "When my male colleagues get feedback, it's always about their performance and the quality of their work, not their appearance."
'Men's Kingdom'

The problems for women in philosophy stem from the historically male-oriented nature of the field and, in particular, the lack of respect many in the discipline have for feminist philosophy, say female scholars.

"Rationality is thought of as men's kingdom," said Ms. Welch. "And there is an argument through time about how philosophy belongs to men."

While the profession's dominant analytic approach stresses objectivity, abstract reasoning, and theoretical thinking, much of feminist philosophy challenges those values. Many argue that there is a decidedly female perspective, that people's bodies play a role in their understanding of the world, and that objectivity is impossible.

Peggy DesAutels is chair of the philosophy association's Committee on the Status of Women and a professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton. She began her career in ethical theory and moral psychology but turned, as well, to feminist philosophy because "that's where women were," she said. "It's a space where you are not the only woman trying to prove women are good at this."

But it hasn't been easy. "I'll submit to the Society for Philosophy and Psychology conference a feminist piece, and they'll say: 'This is not the kind of piece we do.'"

But Mr. Sinnott-Armstrong, the Duke professor, said feminist philosophers whose work is rejected may mistakenly chalk it up to sexism. "Most of the journals accept less than 5 percent of submissions," he said. "A lot of feminist papers are rejected, but so are a lot of papers. There is good feminist philosophy, and there is bad feminist philosophy, just like there is good ethics and bad ethics, and good epistemology and bad epistemology."

Brian Leiter, a professor and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago Law School, said he isn't sympathetic to arguments that the content of philosophy courses, and the style in which the discipline is taught, should be changed to make it more attractive to women. Some women, he pointed out, "dislike the suggestion that the field's too combative for delicate women," and he agrees with them.

"Some people want to make philosophy more like the English department, with more focus on gender and race, and they want it to be more touchy-feely, good-natured, friendly, and mutually supportive," said Mr. Leiter, who publishes the Philosophical Gourmet Report, an online ranking of top philosophy departments. "The discipline has been argumentative for a long time. Socrates' interlocutors frequently threaten to punch him in the face, they are so annoyed."

Women at the meeting here said there are some bright spots in the discipline. At a table in a room displaying philosophy books for sale, three undergraduate women sat with copies of the undergraduate philosophy journal Stance. Undergraduates at Ball State University produce it, and all of its authors are students.

The journal was started by a female student in 2006, and its current editor is female, as are the authors of about half of the papers in its latest issue.

David W. Concepcion, chairman of Ball State's department of philosophy and religious studies, is the journal's managing editor. He cajoled Kiley Neal, a soft-spoken senior majoring in creative writing with a minor in philosophy, to be this year's editor in chief.

"Being editor of a journal is a big step for me," said Ms. Neal. "But if Dave thinks I can do it, I can do it."

Some women here acknowledged that they had experienced gender discrimination but said conditions in the field may have improved.

The University of Georgia hired Victoria M. Davion in 1990 along with another young female philosopher. At the time, they were the only women in a department of about a dozen men. During her first pretenure review, Ms. Davion recalled, male professors suggested she not publish as heavily in Hypatia. But Ms. Davion, who studies feminist ethics, told them it was the most-prestigious journal in her field. They backed off.

In addition, one of her older male colleagues had been skeptical of Ms. Davion's courses on feminist philosophy, which include work by women. "His attitude was, 'We're going out the window with this,'" Ms. Davion said. But she invited him to look at her syllabus and talk to some of her students, and now, she said, he's not only very supportive but also one of her closest colleagues.

Ms. Davion is now head of the philosophy department at Georgia, where 43 percent of the faculty members are female—the largest proportion of women in any of the top 51 Ph.D.-granting philosophy departments in the country, according to Mr. Leiter's report.

"Obviously nothing is perfect, but the situation for women here has improved," said Ms. Davion. "At Georgia women are hired and are successful at promotion and tenure. That shows there is hope for improvement in the field."