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Where are the women?

Rochelle H DuFord interviewed by Richard Marshall.

There’s an issue the top philosophers have noticed, and that’s about the place of women and minorities in academic philosophy. 3ammagazine decided to interview a philosophy student to find out what it looks like from someone studying in this territory. Rochelle H DuFord is a student voice helping to set the agenda for women in philosophy, thinking hard about what its like to be a woman in philosophy, on why MAP is important and what it is, on the nature of the problems for minorities, on solutions, on the negative experiences and the climate, on feminist philosophers, on why anonymous peer review and refereeing are necessary, on the Gendered Conference Campaign, on harms other than sexual harassment, on the underrepresentation of women of colour and on the need for feminism to move away from a white women perspective. This issue just keeps on burning…

3:AM: What is the appeal of philosophy for you?

Rochelle DuFord: Perhaps quite uninterestingly, I think the world, human relationships, actions, and social structures are much more confusing and complicated than we generally realize. It’s quite fascinating to try to understand and make sense of the world in which we live, the political structures we live within, and the social relationships we develop. I really like puzzles, thinking, and reading—I initially became a philosophy major because I enjoyed being challenged. I’ve stayed in philosophy because it rarely assumes that anything is obvious, and puts nearly everything up for debate. This provides a lot of scholastic latitude but combines it with rigorous thought, argumentation, and writing.

3:AM: Has the poor record on minorities and women in philosophy affected your views about being a philosopher or studying it?

RD: The situation for women and other underrepresented groups in philosophy creates a kind of dissonance for me. On the one hand, I’m glad to be a part of the discipline and plan to stay as long as it will have me. I love to teach, attend conferences and talks, and I’m excited about my dissertation research. On the other hand, it can be difficult to be a member of an underrepresented group in philosophy. (One need look no further than What Is It Like To Be A Woman in Philosophy, to see many manifestations of ways that it is sometimes difficult, to a shocking degree, for some women in philosophy.)

That said, I think this sort of relationship to philosophy is why programs like MAP are so important. The discipline needs women and members of other underrepresented groups, and members of underrepresented groups need structured ways to interact with each other, build solidarity, and develop professional connections. Making philosophy a better place for women and other members of underrepresented groups to work can make our philosophy better, more sensitive to problems with theories, and inclusive of new and different kinds of philosophical concerns and methodologies.

Constructing visible peer networks (creating in-built mechanisms where students see that they have support and mentoring available), developing reading groups, and hosting speakers, to study the multi-faceted nature of problems faced by members of underrepresented groups isn’t necessarily enough to create a discipline with parity of representation and manifest equality. But it provides a way for people to connect with others, share frustrations, get advice, learn about the hurdles facing members of underrepresented groups, and continue to build a more egalitarian discipline. I’m optimistic that philosophy, as a discipline, will continue to make progress. I can only hope that the progress will be swift, so that in a generation, this would seem like an arcane question to ask.

3:AM: As a student have you experienced or had people telling you about their negative experiences?

RD: At this point in time, I think it’s hard to find a member of an underrepresented group who hasn’t had some kind of negative experience or at least heard about someone else’s negative experiences.

Yet, there are serious concerns leading to secrecy and fear amongst members of underrepresented groups. Graduate students and junior faculty are afraid to break anonymity or provide identifying details about their negative experiences. Graduate students, especially, are in terribly vulnerable and precarious positions—we’re at the mercy of the profession’s opinion of us in order to compete for scarce jobs.

This is one barrier to addressing climate issues, the sense that people can’t speak out; that you have to maintain anonymity due to a real or perceived threat of revictimization, disbelief, or other means of retaliation. I’m not certain how common these things actually are in philosophy. I am certain that people are afraid they’re common–given the way graduate students and untenured faculty often only describe negative experiences under appropriate conditions of anonymity.
This can create some isolation for members of underrepresented groups. You have this whole host of experiences you aren’t certain how to explain, if you should report, or who is a ‘safe’ person to tell about them. Other students and faculty, people you can trust, prove an invaluable resource for solidarity, support, and advice. Even though they perhaps cannot fix the source of your struggles, they can at least validate them and help to provide barriers against isolating experiences that are kept, formally, in the shadows.

3:AM: How did you become involved in MAP?

RD: I became involved in MAP after seeing it highlighted on the ‘Feminist Philosophers Blog’. I brought the program to our philosophy graduate student organization at Binghamton, and the students were excited by the prospect of doing activities, having talks, and building reading groups surrounding the fact that philosophy, unlike many other humanities disciplines, hasn’t made huge strides toward inclusivity. We developed a working group of graduate students who were interested in running some of the programs, and took off from there. This is our first year running the program, so we decided to start small and take steps that we knew we could accomplish.

3:AM: So what is MAP? How and when did it start and who is running it?

RD: MAP is an organization, Minorities and Philosophy, chapters of which are predominantly run by graduate students in philosophy departments across North America. Each chapter functions differently, addressing concerns that they have at their home institutions and doing what they can to improve representation and climates for members of underrepresented groups.

It started at Yale in 2010, as a working group initially called, I believe, Women in Philosophy. Since then, it has developed to create connections between different philosophy departments that work on a host of issues related to philosophy’s “demographic problem,” as Linda Martín Alcoff has called it. It doesn’t have a central individual in charge, really. Rather, it diffuses the authority to run the organization to individual chapters while connecting the departments together for organizational purposes and reports on the status of activities throughout the year.

I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with Yena Lee, the East Coast Contact for the organization, and she’s provided me with a lot of resources and advice—but always highlighted that each chapter should do what is best for them, their particular institution, and their own goals.

3:AM: Is there evidence that philosophy is getting better in terms of its treatment of women?

RD: I think there is strong evidence to that case. A number of prominent departments have developed committees to address climate issues, diversity, and inclusiveness. The APA Committee on the Status of Women has launched a number of new programs, including a site visit program, where you can have your department climate assessed by an outside-observer. There are a number of new initiatives toward the inclusiveness of the discipline as a whole, MAP being one of them, which make me optimistic for the future.

That said, the numbers are moving slowly—estimates of the percentage of full time women in philosophy departments range from about 15% to 30%, and have been pretty stable. Contemporary research has converged on the claim that representation of women working full time is roughly 21%. Additionally, the underrepresentation of women of color, especially black women (who make up less than 1% of academic philosophers, by most estimates), remains even worse than the underrepresentation of white women. So, philosophy is getting better, but still has a lot of strides to make, particularly with regard to the representation of women of color.

3:AM: What are the strategies you recommend or you think philosophers are beginning to converge on to make things better?

RD: I think this may be quite long-winded, but there are a number of tactics and initiatives that people are taking up that I think worth discussing:

First, I think it’s uncontroversial at this juncture that anonymous peer review and refereeing is necessary for professional journals. Along with this, I know anonymous marking and grading of undergraduate papers is starting to gain some steam. The idea is that implicit bias cannot affect the schema by which you grade a paper if you do not have access to the identity of the author. Given that, you’re forced to grade only on the merit of the work. This could potentially aid in recruiting and retaining more students who are members of underrepresented groups. In “Quantifying the Gender Gap: An Empirical Study of the Underrepresentation of Women in Philosophy” . Paxton et al. found that the leakiest portion of the pipeline for women in philosophy is between undergraduate women who take introductory philosophy courses and undergraduate women who become philosophy majors (They also found that this drop is mitigated by the presence of women faculty.). So, it makes sense to focus some of our efforts on undergraduate students and undergraduate teaching. This goes hand in hand with a number of campaigns for more diverse and representative introductory syllabi as well.

There’s a current trend to make public notification of professional events with poor representation. The Gendered Conference Campaign, for example, merely points out when conferences or workshops have an all-male (or predominantly male) line up of speakers. This has prompted a number of departments and professional organizations that have organized highly gendered events to reflect, apologize, and implement concrete changes or develop institutional mechanisms to ensure events that are closer to parity.

Along these lines, I think people are beginning to take up the strategy of having some committee in a department explicitly concerning climate issues. This can be a really great thing, the presence of a committee at least signals that the department is not hostile to change, and at best is actively working to change the climate in the department and the profession to be more inclusive.

Making philosophy departments and professional events more family friendly can help as well. Scheduling activities at times when women with children are more likely free, the availability of child-care at conferences, of appropriate spaces to breast-feed, and taking into account that not everyone can leave their children at home with their partner are all steps that conference organizers are taking that could help women, especially those with young children and infants, stay active in professional activities.

Lastly, I think mentoring is important for members of underrepresented groups. However, along with this comes another problem—there have been a number of studies on the way in which women faculty and people of color on faculty often take on far more administrative, committee, teaching and mentoring work than their white male colleagues. So, increasing that burden even more, to include specific mentoring to members of underrepresented groups, in some sense pushes problems of gender- and racial-inequalities further upstream. It’s important for philosophy that white men in the discipline are allies, are aware, and contribute to the correction of climate and inclusion issues. In other words, philosophy’s demographic issues aren’t ‘minority’ issues, they’re issues for all of us.

3:AM: There has been a recent high profile case concerning a woman student and a male professor of philosophy. Has this case had any bearing on your own perceptions of what can go wrong in academic philosophy – and academia more broadly – or is it not considered particularly significant?

RD: I’m going to assume I know what much discussed case you’re asking about. The situation with him strikes me as particularly significant in two ways. The first is that the male professor of philosophy was subject to university sanction (although he did resign, rather than be dismissed). The second is the outpouring of support for the woman involved. While the response hasn’t been completely supportive, there has been a huge amount of support for her and praise for her courage to come forward about what she experienced. It has also sparked a lot of popular interest in professional philosophy, prompting a number of popular news media outlets to carry on the conversation about women in philosophy. I consider these facts to be evidence of progress.
But, I worry that along with this case comes the tendency to say, ‘look, we’re doing something about this’ and it’s true that something was done and there was visible support for the anonymous student involved. At the same time, sexual harassment, while part of a climate problem for members of underrepresented groups, does not represent the whole of the problem. My greatest concern is that cases like this display some of the most grievous harms, but there are a number of other harms to which members of underrepresented groups are subject that may not be considered sexual harassment.

Some of the more everyday kinds of harm include: women’s ideas being dismissed until voiced by a man (or praised, but misattributed to a man), underrepresentation at conferences, treating women as if they are only qualified to discuss “women’s issues,” tokenism, members of underrepresented groups being interrupted more frequently, the marginalization of feminist philosophy and its complement assumption that if a woman is a philosopher her area of specialization is feminism and gender, etc.

I don’t want to give the impression that sexual harassment is not serious, it is extremely serious, and ought to be dealt with as a serious problem with institutional consequences for its perpetrators. But at the same time, we need to make space to discuss other harms that contribute to the way that women and members of other underrepresented groups are perceived and perceive themselves, their work, and their place in the academy. These harms ultimately prove to be a difficult social barrier to success and are more difficult to institutionally remedy.

3:AM: From your own admittedly limited experience, would you still recommend philosophy as a women friendly, minorities friendly subject in the Academy?

RD: I would recommend philosophy. I thoroughly enjoy my work, my studies have allowed me to develop skills and study problems, which I would not have otherwise been able to develop or study. But, I would be remiss to recommend philosophy because it is a good place for women and members of other underrepresented groups. At this point, it seems fairly uncontroversial to recognize that philosophy has a gender parity problem to such a degree that isn’t found in most disciplines except some of the sciences, such as physics. Some philosophers claim, for example Sally Haslanger in the New York Times, that philosophy’s underrepresentation of people of color is plausibly worse than in any other academic discipline.

I have had very good experiences, though. At my graduate department there is a lot of support for women and members of other underrepresented groups. The department works toward pluralism, and has a number of philosophers on faculty who work explicitly on feminist philosophy. We also have faculty who work on non-western philosophy, philosophy of race, and who have supported philosophical work on disability. Our colloquium series often features a diverse range of speakers, discussing a variety of topics. I’ve attended conferences that were overwhelmingly collaborative and welcoming, while still maintaining professional rigor.

But, this is not a universal experience—philosophy is certainly not a monolith (although from within, it can sometimes feel that way). There are both welcoming and unwelcoming pockets, just like anywhere else. You have to make your own way, deciding along the way what will work best for you and your individual needs, preferences, and desires. No one should have to subject themselves to harmful treatment based on morally arbitrary characteristics, and as a discipline, philosophy is working toward eliminating those kinds of behavior. I do, though, recommend philosophy as a community of scholars who are (for the most part) recognizing when their behaviors have unacceptable, even if unintentional, consequences then working toward change.

3:AM: How much of your concerns in MAP being developed in your own philosophical studies?

RD: My own philosophical work doesn’t generally focus on feminist philosophy, philosophy of race, or explicitly feminist concerns. My research focus is political philosophy and ethics, with explicit attention paid to cosmopolitanism, international institutions, and the organization of global political structures. I focus on issues such as the legitimacy of political institutions and liberal political duties in international contexts.

The way that I’ve really taken to incorporating the goals of MAP in my philosophical work is via teaching. I’m committed to constructing diverse syllabi at all levels (especially the introductory level) in order to combat the gendered assumptions of students concerning ‘what philosophy is about’ and ‘who philosophers are.’ I think having students interact with diverse viewpoints on philosophical problems is essential. It can enable students to see that there is no one monolithic concern in philosophy, and no one kind of person who is best suited to be a philosopher—people like them can be, and are, philosophers. I think that this encourages students to participate in philosophical thinking and debate. I also work toward pointing out the problematic implicit assumptions of some philosophical work by putting it into conversation with explicitly feminist or critical race critiques.

3:AM: More broadly, is the problem with academic philosophy and minorities highlighting an issue about the contemporary state of feminism itself? Do you think somehow there’s a need to rethink feminism to address the contemporary scene? Who are the writers and thinkers you think are already doing this, if you do?

RD: I’m not certain whether philosophy’s demographic problem highlights a problem with contemporary feminisms. There are a number of ways that feminism has trouble making in-roads into philosophy; for starters, it’s sometimes marginalized as a ‘soft’ subject or is thought to be ‘not philosophical enough.’ So, from the start, feminism doesn’t have the easiest relationship to philosophy.

As to the contemporary state of feminism, there are definitely strides to be made. I do think we need to rethink feminism away from the dominant white, upper-class women’s feminism at least with regard to the problem of philosophy (and probably a number of others) because while white women have been making headway in the discipline, the statistics for women of color are dismal.
There is a lot of work being done about women of color, philosophy, and feminism—trying to develop an intersectional feminist philosophy. I’d recommend work by Naomi Zack and Linda Martín Alcoff, who explicitly take on the whiteness of feminist philosophy, and are continuing to develop an intersectional feminist philosophy. More historically, bell hooks and Audre Lorde (while not discussing philosophy as a discipline in particular) have been thinking feminism away from white women’s feminism for quite some time now.

3:AM: And for those at 3:AM who want to study further, are there five books you could recommend to take us further into this area?

RD: This is a really hard question, contemporarily, a lot of conversations amongst philosophers about the position and underrepresentation of women, people of color, LGBTQ persons, and persons with disabilities are occurring on blogs—and that’s where I’d recommend starting.

Reading through the blogs, like feministphilosophers, beingawomaninphilosophy, newapps, disabledphilosophers and for some hope about the future whatweredoingaboutwhatitslike.

As to Texts:
Singing into the Fire: Stories of Women in Philosophy, edited by Linda Martín Alcoff
African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations, edited by George Yancy, or more contemporarily, Reframing the Practice of Philosophy: Bodies of Color, Bodies of Knowledge.
The Center Must Not Hold: White Women Philosophers on the Whiteness of Philosophy, edited by George Yancy
Women of Color and Philosophy, edited by Naomi Zack.

And a Paper:
Jennifer Saul, “Implicit Bias, Stereotype Threat and Women in Philosophy,” which can be found here, along with a number of other papers and articles concerning women in philosophy.


ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 13th, 2013.