Not prepared for what happened

A major problem with Massimo’s post, as commenters reminded me, is that it’s no good just looking around and saying X doesn’t have a particularly bad sexual harassment problem when we know that most sexual harassment is hidden. It’s a secret. It’s done when no one else is watching.

That’s not a reason to go all Recovered Memory, devil-worship in the day care center, arrest all the people. But it is a reason not to take a look at the surface of things and decide that everything’s pretty much ok.

Jennifer Saul made a point of saying that she was surprised by the stories of harassment that poured in when she started the What is it like to be a woman in philosophy blog.

Back in 2010, I set out to gain a better understanding of why this is.  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.

I was shocked by these stories, and struggled to schedule them to appear, four a day, two weeks in advance.  It kept up this way for months.  There is still a steady stream of stories of this sort.

She didn’t know it was that bad until people started telling her. Massimo shouldn’t be assuming he knows how bad it is.



  1. ludicrous says

    Oh my Massimo takes it so very seriously; ” Can we proceed now? Thanks.” yuck.

    What jumps out at me is he is willing to criticize the article and defend his field and that’s it. Seems to me he verbally leans back in his chair puts his feet up and moves on. No indication that I read that he intends to find out what is actually happening in the department that he runs. Not really his problem, I guess.

  2. says

    Hmm. Catholic Church. TAM. CFI. It seems whenever someone says “there may be a problem, but don’t exaggerate by gum” about sexual harassment and abuse, it always turns out that it was even worse than what initial reports had indicated. It’s dismissive and denigrating to the victims to brush their experience away with either “it’s not uniquely bad” or “don’t pay attention to this, there are even worse issues suffered by other people elsewhere”. (Not to mention that I’m getting a distinct “your oppression is my thought experiment/abstract debate about semantics” vibe with this one. It’s disgusting.)

  3. Martha says

    Yes, I agree. Several years ago, the now-defunct women’s office at my university completed a report about the ways in which women were treated in the department (mostly students and staff, but faculty, too). When the women faculty got together to discuss it, we realized that even though each of us knew about an incident or two, they were largely non-overlapping incidents. Thus, when we shared our stories, a pattern emerged. And none of us could believe how little we’d known before. Definitely a tip of the iceberg situation.

    (FWIW, I’m not a philosopher!)

  4. says

    May I remind Massimo that the “we’re no worse than the general population” argument was one of the major excuses offered by the Catholic church re pedophile preists. And may I suggest that such a low bar is not acceptable.

  5. says

    Everyone agrees there is “a” problem, and nobody is claiming that philosophy’s problem is the worst of all academic fields. So what’s left is whether philosophy has a *bad* problem.

    Massimo points out that there is no evidence that philosophy has a particularly bad problem, and leaves it at that. And it’s also true that the existence of male majorities can be the result of societal pressures (i.e. sexist attitudes in the world at large) rather than sexist hiring practice, which Massimo also leaves there.

    What we’ve got here is a lecture about the nature of evidence. Thanks very much. The implication, of course, is that since there is no evidence that philosophy has a particularly bad problem, then nothing special need be done about it except deal with individual cases if they come up and wait umpteen generations for the old men of the academy to die off and be replaced by a few more women.

    But Massimo is overlooking something crucial. Saul has been surprised by the feedback she’s got on this. Surprise indicates that the problem is worse than suspected. It means that it’s a hidden, invisible problem. There’s more of it than expected. Where before you might have encountered the odd case over decades, sometimes well handled, sometimes badly, now you have lots of cases coming to light – some of which have never been dealt with.

    That ought to be pause for thought. It ought to make some in a position of power think, “hmm, I didn’t expect to see all of this, this needs a bit more attention”.

    Confronted with a new set of surprising information, it is not enough to resort to the “no evidence of a particular problem” line. The correct response is “ooh, this is evidence of a surprisingly widespread and hitherto invisible problem, this needs investigating”. In other words, there is enough there that if you don’t have any data then you ought to be getting some data rather than merely pointing out that the data doesn’t exist.

    If you’re out having a picnic and someone says “there’s a wasp! I don’t want to sit here!”, then you can say, “I’ll deal with the wasp, but it’s just one wasp, we don’t need to move.” If someone shouts “argh there’s a veritable cloud of wasps come out of nowhere! we’ve got to move!”, then rather than saying, “there is no evidence that there are more wasps here than anywhere else”, you should be checking whether you’re sitting on a wasp’s nest. Alternatively, insert a better analogy here.


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