Massimo Pigliucci asked yesterday, “Does philosophy have a sexual harassment problem?” He asked it in response to Jennifer Saul’s article in Salon, which was titled “Philosophy has a sexual harassment problem.”
Last week Jennifer Saul, a philosopher at the University of Sheffield, published an article in Salon entitled: “Philosophy has a sexual harassment problem.” While there is much substance and nuance in the body of the article, I sincerely hope that Prof. Saul did not actually choose the title herself (editors often do that sort of thing), because the message it sends is anything but nuanced, and if taken at face value also not particularly constructive.
And that’s what he got from that article? That saying philosophy has a sexual harassment problem is overstating the problem? Rather than that, say, the sexual harassment there is in philosophy is a problem? He is, in short, worrying more about the reputation of philosophy than he is about the women being harassed?
After that he pauses to say that sexual harassment is a bad thing and he doesn’t think it’s been addressed yet.
Saul goes on to point out that since she started a blog devoted to women in philosophy she began receiving an alarming number of anonymous testimonials of sexual harassment in the workplace, with heart wrenching stories concerning undergraduate students, graduate students, and young faculty. These stories are aggravated by the fact that often nothing was done about the incidents in question, sometimes discouragingly pointing to a failure of the people involved, as well as of their institutions, in even understanding that there was a problem. It makes for sober reading for anyone who still doesn’t take this issue seriously.
But none of this amounts to the conclusion stated in the title of Saul’s essay: we simply do not know whether philosophy as a field is particularly vexed by sexual harassment, or whether philosophy is simply a microcosm of the still largely misogynistic society in which we live.
But that isn’t the conclusion stated in the title of Saul’s essay. The title of the essay isn’t “Philosophy has an exceptionally bad sexual harassment problem.” The title just says that philosophy has a problem.
Indeed, in the body of the article Saul herself clearly states: “When I talk to people about this, I am invariably asked whether sexual harassment is worse in philosophy than in other fields. The short answer is that we don’t really know: it’s very difficult to get good data on something that is drastically underreported and often kept confidential even once reported.” Good, then I hope that Saul protested vehemently with the Salon editor when she saw the title under which her article appeared, because it literally indicts an entire fields of professionals — most of whom do not engage in sexual harassment — with a broad brush that is as offensive as it is unsubstantiated.
No, it doesn’t. Saying there’s a problem doesn’t indict the whole field, much less all the people (whether professional or amateur) who work in the field. There just isn’t any need to be defensive about it.