Salon, very sensibly, decided to ask Jennifer Saul to explain about sexual harassment in philosophy. Saul is the philosopher who set up the blog “What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?”.
Inspired by discussions with other women philosophers who were worried about the gender gap in our discipline, I set up a blog where philosophers (of any gender) could share anonymous stories — positive or negative — about what it is like to be a woman in philosophy. I was not prepared for what happened.
Almost instantly, I was deluged with stories of sexual harassment. There was the job candidate who said she was sexually assaulted at the annual APA meeting where job interviews take place. The undergraduate whose professor joked publicly about dripping hot wax on her nipples. The persistent failure to understand that a woman of color might actually be a philosophy professor. The lesbian who found herself suddenly invited, after she came out, to join in the sexualizing of her female colleagues. Most of all, the repeated failure to actually respond to and deal with harassment: the serial harassers who suffer no loss to their career, despite widespread knowledge of their behavior and even of their sometimes vicious retaliation against complainants. The complicity of their institutions and their colleagues, who in many cases join in the retaliation as they close ranks.
Does that sound familiar? Yes it does. It sounds familiar in every way – in being surprised by the deluge of stories of sexual harassment, in the repeated failure to actually respond to and deal with harassment, in the fact that the serial harassers suffer no loss to their career, despite widespread knowledge of their behavior, in the complicity of their institutions and their colleagues, who in many cases join in the retaliation as they close ranks.
Many, many stories came in of women who had left philosophy due to harassment.
This matters. As Saul says at the beginning, after citing the Colin McGinn story:
Philosophy, the oldest of the humanities, is also the malest (and the whitest). While other areas of the humanities are at or near gender parity, philosophy is actually more overwhelmingly male than even mathematics. In the US, only 17 percent of philosophers employed full-time are women.
And many, many stories came in of women who had left philosophy due to harassment. That matters. Philosophy is the malest of the humanities at least partly because many male philosophers have driven women out, almost as overtly as if they had beaten them up and told them to get out if they didn’t want more of the same.
But now my role has shifted somewhat. As my real name came out (I run the blog under a poorly thought-out pseudonym), I was increasingly contacted by women who were afraid to post their stories online. These stories were worse than the ones I was posting. The men involved were often famous, the harassment even more severe, the retaliation more vicious and persistent. Because so many people hesitate (rightly, I suspect) to tell their stories even in personal emails, I found that some weeks I was spending more than half my nights having Skype conversations with victims of sexual harassment.
Familiar, again? Women who are afraid to report; famous men; vicious retaliation.
Of course, the next question is how to get rid of it. Obviously, one key part of the picture will be good formal procedures for preventing and punishing sexual harassment that are applied fairly and taken seriously (all too often, this doesn’t happen). But I’ve become increasingly convinced that this isn’t all. To see this, think some more about the male philosopher joking about dripping hot wax on his undergraduate student’s nipples. This was actually in front of a table full of faculty members. What did they do? They laughed. This may well have been nervous laughter, but it made the student feel that the joke was acceptable and that she was oversensitive — and contributed strongly to her feelings of discomfort in the department.
What should they have done instead?Although formal remedies would surely be possible, it would probably have been very effective to apply the informal social remedies at which humans are so talented — even just to look disapproving, or to not laugh. When we leave everything up to formal remedies, we neglect our responsibilities as bystanders. Being a bystander to someone else’s bad behavior is admittedly a very uncomfortable position to be in — but it comes with great power, and I am convinced we need to learn to use that power properly (along with, not instead of, formal measures). As Lt. Gen. David Morrison put it so well, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”