the responsibility of being a woman in philosophy

As i’ve posted before, the website inviting people to report what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy is a huge gift.  In many places, apparently, it sucks. I gather especially in those “Leiterrific” departments that see themselves as doing hard core philosophy.   Hmmmm.

I know it can be awful, intimidating, and all that.  But I dare say than anyone complaining on the “what it’s like” blog also needs to be complaining to your university ombudsman and the local police.  If you are too afraid to rock the boat for your own career, then you are, I fear, part of the problem.

[This post has been slightly edited in light of anon grad student’s comment below.]

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. I’m not sure that’s fair (I’m also not sure that using “my dear” this way doesn’t come across as a little bit sexist…). Many of the postings are from students, about professors– and it doesn’t strike me as unreasonable, given the power differential, and patterns of bad behavior being overlooked, ignored, or otherwise rationalized by institutional structures that employ said professors, that students might think there is quite simply very little upshot to reporting such incidences beyond fulfilling a moral duty, and quite a bit of potential backlash. They might think they would be doing more good by becoming professors themselves who don’t behave such ways. That’s not to say that these things shouldn’t be reported, but just that these situations are extremely complex, and while I think the feeling of intimidation is real, the hesitency to report does not end there.

  2. anon grad student — thank you for pointing out how “my dear” sounded in the last sentence of my post. If not sexist, it was certainly condescending. So I switched that to “I fear.”

    In terms of the content of your reply, well, I want to push back a bit. I think back to 20 years ago in grad school when a woman who was sexually harassed by a professor in our department switched to a different field because of it. I met her after this had happened. I wonder now whether we could have and should have done something. The university had an ombudsman. It also had an equal opportunity office. There were also senior women philosophers who would have kept our confidence and probably intervened. We underestimated our own power.

    In any case, I find it very distressing to read post after post of horrible situations on the “what is it like blog” and not see anything there about lodging a complaint. Social change doesn’t happen because those who abuse power become more enlightened but because others make it treacherous for them to abuse their power. So how do we do that? (For that, I appreciate the “what we are doing about it” blog.)

    Toward that end, I hereby promise to come to the aid, confidentially, of anyone dealing with bad behavior.

  3. Hmm, I think there’s quite a bit to be said here. I very much agree with what you write about how social change happens– and yet, I’m still not quite ready to endorse the claim that women who don’t report are part of the problem (or, at least, in a blame-worthy way).

    I suspect that in a number of cases of harassment and discrimination, the victim is just unaware of who their allies are. It can be difficult to know who takes these issues seriously (or maybe even for those who you think would take it seriously, what their relationship is like with the offender– you might think e.g., a department chair is less likely to believe you, or to rationalize what’s happened if they’re friends with the offender). And without having someone like this who you could talk a situation over with first, you might be very disinclined to go to a university official.

    I think that harassment and discrimination can be almost epistemically debilitating– and while it might be easy to see from the outside looking in that some behavior is totally unjustified, from the inside looking out, one might worry if they will be seen as over sensitive (or maybe worry if one is in fact being over sensitive). Or you might question if you somehow deserved it. Or if someone’s discriminatory comments about your capabilities are just an insensitive declaration of the way things really are.

    Another issue is that some things may seem problematic, but not so serious that it deserves the attention of an ombudsperson, etc., unless you know it’s a pattern rather than an isolated incident. Without all this sort of information, I think there are very real worries about what will happen if you report. And if it turns out you don’t have allies, or aren’t taken seriously, the wound is that much worse. Particularly given how important intellectual performance is in the field, and how much these sorts of incidences can inhibit one’s ability to perform at their best–one might worry that the process that would follow reporting could be so distracting and demoralizing that it would only make things worse.

    Of course, I do suspect that in most cases there is something that can be done. But from the inside looking out, it’s difficult to know if you’re in such a case. It would, I think, be helpful if departments had sort of their own ombudsperson so that victims could report without all of the scary officialness of going to a university office. Or if there were sort of a mentor program, with people just like yourself who volunteer to confidentially assist those who find themselves unsure of who they can speak with. Or if allies within departments make themselves known to the department at large if anything should happen.

  4. anon grad student — fair enough so I will backtrack a bit. Instead of suggesting that anyone who doesn’t report is blameworthy, let me suggest that those who are subjected to discrimination at least try to ascertain whether there is a way to safely report or try to stop the behavior. And I think it would be good for PhD programs to have mentoring set up to help grad students and junior faculty along. We do that here — and as far as I know, mentors are matched by gender. I will double check. Thanks for the interchange!

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