Prolegomena to Any Future Parity in Philosophy
When you work in a teensy little profession, accounting for just about .003% (more or less) of the U.S. population, you do not really expect the problems of your profession to be aired for public consumption. It’s shocking and personal and embarrassing, sort of like seeing your drunken, screaming cousin being arrested on television.
Philosophy finally pulled ahead of math in PhDs awarded to women in 2010! And how could we not be proud of that? (Chemistry, watch your back. Sure, you’re ahead now, but don’t rest on your laurels: we’re coming for you.) I mean, women make up 16.6% of full-time philosophy instructors. 1.2% are black. The times, they really are a-changin’, no? I mean, back in the 20th century, philosophy used to be an all-white, all-male enclave. Now it’s…a nearly all-white, very largely male enclave. Progress!
Now of course, philosophy may be a teensy little profession, but damn it, it’s my teensy little profession. And I am, in fact, a woman. So I care about this gender disparity. I didn’t really expect anyone else to care about it.
It’s bad. Sometimes almost funny bad, like the fact that an event still unofficially called “The Smoker” can make or break your job chances. Or that at conferences, you have to fend off flirtations like Bruce Lee dispatching one bad guy at a time (a friend in neuroscience tells me the same thing happens there). Or the time when a senior guy in my department told me it was good I was “getting my figure back” after having a baby. Or the time when a senior woman in my department looked at me critically and said that maybe it was good I had my children in grad school after all, because departments wouldn’t be afraid to hire me. The implication, of course, is that I wouldn’t go getting pregnant on their dime.
Sometimes it’s less funny bad.
But apparently, we are so mind-boggingly sexist a profession that, despite our teensiness, we are national newsworthy. Twice this year. First it was Colin McGinn, a philosopher who was “famous” (that is, among the .003 percent of the population who are philosophers). The reasons for this fame, I admit, are as opaque to me as a physical explanation of conscious experience is to him. He was knocked off his minuscule pedestal, while creating the single most mesmerizing self-immolation-by-technology this side of Anthony Weiner. And it made national news! Katie Roiphe gave it her best, mounting a startlingly ineffective defense of McGinn. She forgot to mention the perhaps-relevant detail that there is a problem facing female graduate students who are hit on by their mentors. Even if you report the transgression and even if everyone takes it seriously, you lose your mentor. Which, depending the nature of your work and the prominence of your mentor, might well mean you lose your ability to stay in the field. (However, Roiphe did include such worthy insights into the sexual harassment problem in philosophy as: “I have by this point in my reporting absorbed that many people think powerful, arrogant men should be punished, though I myself like a powerful, arrogant man.” McGinn has still not been invited back into the academic fold.)
And now we’re back in national news for being sexist jerks! The philosophy department at the University of Colorado at Boulder was found to have such a pervasive problem of sexual harassment and bullying that they will not be accepting new graduate students until they get their act together. The chair was replaced; alcohol is forbidden. Dissolution of the department was hinted at.
The full report (scroll to bottom) made by the American Philosophical Association (APA) Committee on the Status of Women Site Visit Program is, shall we say, vivid. 15 separate complaints to the university of sexual harassment. Faculty members working from home rather than having to deal with their colleagues. One does wonder what on God’s green earth happened at last year’s departmental retreat to the mountains (from the report: “To be perfectly honest, we are floored that members of this department would believe that having another mountain event would be a good idea, given the unprofessional behavior that transpired at the last one.”)
The line I wish I’d written about the affair comes from Rebecca Schuman at Slate: “The report, commissioned, it seems, under the misguided assumption that its findings would remain private, details a female-unfriendly environment of sexual harassment that could be fodder for a sequel to The Wolf of Wall Street, if only philosophers made any money.”
Some people have suggested that the recommendations at Boulder were draconian: they included no alcohol at events and no going to bars. Those of course were not general recommendations – they were there to fix a problem. People were drinking too much, and there was an expectation that people should show up. (Philosophers pride themselves on talking shop over beers.) But I will say while I’ve gone out with plenty of faculty for beers, and think it’s a good bonding experience and fun and all that, it’s hardly necessary. I have gone out to dinner exactly once with my mentor in the years we worked together and neither of us drank. And we have an excellent working relationship.
Here’s the thing. A light needs to be shined on this crap if the field is actually going to change. It will take repeated acts of public shaming before these guys get how bad it is. Or I don’t think they’ll get it, really. But they’ll understand it’ll have to stop because the whining feminists who are demanding puritanical behavior make them look bad. But. There are some problems with being exposed. While on the whole there’s no question sunlight is an excellent disinfectant, it doesn’t come without costs.
Schuman alludes to a major problem: none of us are supposed to be wondering about that mountain retreat. Our drunken, screaming cousin should have been arrested in private. APA site visit reports were supposed to remain confidential. The idea behind site visits was that universities would reach out to the committee for help, not for public shaming. It was a good thing, after all, that Boulder reached out. Apparently, the report was released not by the APA committee, but by UC Boulder’s administration. Now what department will be willing to subject itself to that exposure?
Another not-so-good thing is that the press will scare off women considering philosophy. Mind you, this doesn’t mean I think the press should change; rather the behavior. But still: how are we going to change if we build it, and they don’t come? Despite some jerks, I’m happy I’m in the profession, and hope I can stay in it.
One last thing: with all these reports, one might forget the fact that a significant majority of men in the field, even at endowed chair full professor level, are not drunken ogling jerks who put Roger Sterling to shame. I’m afraid they may get tarred with a broad brush. A special shout-out to my mentor, who remains (even after my degree!) helpful, encouraging, challenging, driven, professional. He does everything he can to advance me, never speculated that I couldn’t do work because I had children, and never said anything even slightly creepy. Some men are schmucks. Outdated schmucks. Some are wonderful people with whom it’s a privilege to work.