Hacking the Social: Can the Profession’s Misogyny be Shamed and Tamed?

John Protevi, Mark Lance, and Eric Schliesser have created a bit of a stir in the blogosphere with their call to shun sexually harrassing philosophy professors:

We believe there are informal sanctions that could make a difference.  The Feminist Philosophers blog recently suggested not inviting serial harassers to conferences.  One could easily extend this to not inviting them to publish, not conversing with them at conferences, advising students to avoid their graduate program, etc.  We can hope that such informal shunning would have a significant effect. Of course, without a naming and shaming mechanism this approach will be limited to folk somehow in the know.

By and large, however, philosophers have, to date, seemed unwilling to engage in such informal social sanctions.  Of course there are some good reasons for this.  One might not be convinced that the person in question actually did what they are said to have done.  One might be in a vulnerable position and not want to risk reprisal But these explanations for inaction only go so far.  There are many cases in which the behavior is well known to a wide range of people who are tenured and of substantial standing in their own right, and thus immune to immediate job threats.

Off the bat, it’s important to note that their tentative blog post has generated more buzz than an entire blog devoted to sexual harassment in our field, and that few people are linking back to the original anonymous post from which they got their idea. If that’s not an example of different uptake for men than women, I don’t know what is!

My first reaction was concern about a lack of due process and a further departure from blind peer review standards. I do tend to think that philosophy would be better off if it adopted stricter blind review standards, and that women would benefit the most from such standards.

On reflection, however, I’ve decided that we’re just talking about “The No Asshole Rule” (indeed, this is how it was presented in the original Feminist Philosophers post) which I wholeheartedly endorse. Here’s how Bob Sutton puts the justification for such a rule:

There’s lots of evidence that an asshole’s behaviour drives out the best employees and the people who witness it, reduces commitment and productivity and increases absenteeism. Organisations should also calculate the TCA – Total Cost of Asshole. One Silicon Valley company employed a salesman who constantly abused staff. It calculated that he cost the company £80,000 in one year – on new staff and time spent by senior management to rectify the problems he caused.

In short, assholes aren’t worth the damage they cause, famous or not. I’ve certainly seen evidence of misogyny in my profession, as well as practices that were not deliberately misogynistic but still created an environment hostile to female graduate students and faculty. This likely contributes to the low number of women entering the profession, in part because many women from my generation have avoided philosophy in favor of better options outside of the academy. (Go to any of the top law schools and law firms in the country to see where some of them ended up.) Still, if harassers make the profession hostile to women, then this will damage both the women harassed and the profession as a whole. In exchange for one smart asshole, we lose dozens of smarter scholars and colleagues to other fields or to the world outside of the academy. That surely contributes to the increasing irrelevance of our profession.

If you think about it, we all avoid people we don’t like. Coming to understand that someone is a harasser is a good reason not to like them. And here we pit the two kinds of deference that I’ve described in other posts: deference to expertise or fame, and deference to first-person testimony. Really, we ought to reject the first sort and embrace the second. So long as we pretend that philosophy is the work of singular geniuses rather than of research communities, I think we’ll be prone to ignore the obvious sense in the No Asshole Rule. In reality, there’s no one whose insights into Aristotle or Quine are so revolutionary that we couldn’t do just as well without their poisonous presence.

That said, I’m not sure that this can really be blamed on the star system. Since we’ve mostly heard from women philosophers, we’re mostly hearing the stories from graduate school and professional conferences, where the star system tends to play an outsized role. I’ve known and known of some obscure misogynists: tenure and unaccountable power over others seems to do the trick often enough, and it’s easier to get away with harassing undergraduates than graduate students. In general, I believe that misogynistic (and racist, and heteronormative, and ablist, and class-sist) institutions survive precisely because of this unaccountable power. This is also why I believe that the idea of formalizing this shaming is a mistake: this type of shaming works best when it’s a subtle social pressure. Better, instead, to let potential harassers fear that their next rejected paper is due to that drunken pickup attempt at the APA. What’s more, if there were, for instance, a website that listed accused harassers’ names, it would be open to abuse and probably legally actionable. We’re not the UK, but even in the US it’s still possible to lose large amounts of money for character defamation that leads to lost wages.

13 thoughts on “Hacking the Social: Can the Profession’s Misogyny be Shamed and Tamed?”

  1. I saw the piece in the Chronicle, too, and reposted it on Facebook. For what it's worth, it's not entirely clear how big this problem is. The evidence I've seen cited is all anecdote, and even with a very high degree of "deference to first-person testimony" (I read your other post, too!), it's hard to say how big a forest these trees make. Also, I'm inclined to think the "star system" isn't (particularly) to blame here. Rather, it's graduate school in general, which gives faculty a lot of power over graduate students. And power, as the saying goes, corrupts.

  2. Well, I'd just point to the doctrine of disparate impact, here. It's not definitive, but the low numbers of women advancing from undergraduate majors to graduate school, and then the still lower numbers moving from graduate school to faculty is a fact that must be accounted for, somehow. Right now we have data on outcomes and anecdotes. Inference to the best explanation suggests there is a plausible connection. We should also gather more data: I especially have in mind exit interviews from grad students, which is something you could probably advocate for at GMU and at the APA.

    I do think the presence of better-paying and higher status competitors like law and business for female philosophy majors and grad students does figure into the disparity to some extent. To me, that's just a reason to compete harder on workplace conditions and respect.

  3. How big of a problem is harassment? According to the original anonymous post, it is way down the list of reasons given for why women don't attend conferences. The first reason indicated is a lack of funding. I speculate that part of the reason for the difference in uptake has to do with questions of which type of problem (male) philosophers feel more comfortable discussing: economic disparity or harassment.
    Harassment is definitely easier to address from a moral standpoint. No one promotes harassment, but people do think there are good reasons for economic disparity. Of course, strict racial and gender economic disparities don't usually fall into the camp of acceptable disparities.
    There's probably also a sense that since philosophers and philosophy students are disproportionately from upper and middle class backgrounds, it's a little more dangerous to raise the issue of economic disparity in relation to the profession, since this line of critique would probably also recoil upon the critics themselves, whereas the identification and shunning of harassers is a practically safe hobby as long as theoretical speculation on nuanced informal mechanisms of shunning don't pass into action.

  4. First, congrats on your defense! Way to go Dr. Kurdys!

    Now then: I tend to worry more about class issues than gender issues, but I think your evaluation is off. There's much less genderered economic privilege in the sense that you're describing (which is distinct from the gendered wage gap.) Rich people have daughters and sons about equally. Whereas I think it's much more dangerous to male philosophers to consider the fact that our epistemic and social habits may be inhospitable to women, especially because many male philosophers can point to working class (though generally unionized and thus middle-income) parents.

    The problem you're describing is much more likely to figure into the *whiteness* of philosophy than its maleness.

  5. Yo Josh, the no asshole rule is obviously smart, but that's because assholiness is a rather obvious property. Unless you're the one being harassed, harassiness is not. In other words, you can tell pretty easily and swiftly whether someone is an asshole, and therefore whether they ought to be shunned. But harassment is different. I guess like Ted confirms, I've heard quite a few harassment stories, but, except for one case, always as anecdote, and I don't think I'm unique in saying that I'd be uncomfortable shunning someone on second-hand anecdote, even if I were pretty darn sure that it was accurate. Also, I'd bet that even a star would be shunned if evidence of the star's harassment were more than 'i heard from a guy who was on the review board that Dr. X…' (for example, if there wre video or audio; non-anonymous transcript from hearing, etc). Maybe I'm wrong, or maybe you're suggesting that those faculty members in the know, should be the first shunners with the hope instigating a network effect. But then again, I'm not sure that I'd shun someone if my only evidence that Dr. X is shunworthy were the shunnings of other shunners.

    1. I think it's possible to overparse the epistemic issues, here. We dealwith this kind reputation assessment all the time in other arenas.There are some brightline cases and some contested cases. I tend tothink that shame codes work best when they target public andundisputed behavior, in the sense that hypocrisy is the complimentthat vice pays to virtue. Where there's a burden of proof we'realready describing a situation that demands some procedural remedy.

  6. There is a correlation between both race and gender and personal income disparities, however, the differences between men and women is more severe than differences between white, black and Asian according to the following chart ("Over Time – By Race & Sex" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_income_in_t….

    Also, I have not done the study, in part because such statistics are not kept by philosophy departments and graduate programs, but I doubt that the preponderance of American philosophers come from the ranks of middle income households. Look at your parents and look at your colleagues' parents. How many philosophers really come from households making between $40k and $50k per year? (This chart goes back to 1967, so it should cover a significant chunk of the profession: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_real_median_

    My guess is that the job prospects in philosophy lead many people from households earning less than that amount, which is about half of all Americans, to avoid the profession. If the median personal income of women is about half what it is for men (according to the chart referenced before), then it's reasonable to conclude that women are disproportionately avoiding the profession for economic reasons.

    Finally, there is no question that gender and sexual difference is distinct from economic disparities. My only objection was that so much emphasis was being placed on the question of harassment instead of the question of economic disparity, which again is not my thesis about why women avoid conferences but the number one reason reported by women: "The most popular reason for women to turn down conference invitations is a lack of funding to attend. If it’s true that women turn down conference invitations more often than men do (we still don’t know this), a key reason may be that they are less likely to have good travel funds available. Why think this? Well, we already know that women are disproportionately to be found at less wealthy, less prestigious institutions, and more likely to work part-time" (http://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/results-what-if-anything-prevents-women-from-accepting-conference-invitations/).

    1. I still think you're conflating wealth and socio-economic status with income in a problematic way. Grad students going to conferences are all starting on a level playing field, except for family wealth that would be roughly the same for men and women, since rich families have daughters and sons about equally.

      Certainly for faculty we should worry about this, as the original blog post mentions, but I'd guess you're not suggesting that part-time faculty should be paid the same as full-time faculty. I think what we want to say is that women should have the same access to wealthy institutions as men. I agree: insofar as they don't, one explanation is misogyny in the profession.

      1. I'm not sure what the problem with that conflation is, could you expand? Also, I'm not sure what point the fact that wealthy families produce male and female offspring at the same rate is meant to rebut.

        As for the link between grad programs and income inequality, my simplistic equation is easy to follow: lower household median income contributes to studying at less prestigious institutions which contributes to fewer funding options.

        I still think that the students at the less prestigious institutions are from economically privileged backgrounds in general, but at that level, you are probably getting closer to the median income range. Since students at these institutions don't generally get jobs or at least tenure track jobs, the result is that the faculty population is almost exclusively drawn from the upper crust.

  7. In a lot of single parent homes, there is only one income, so personal income is effectively household income. Most of these households are headed by women. Also, given the personal income gap between genders, many women are dissuaded from grad school in the humanities because of the low placement and income prospects. Obviously, this is less of a factor for women from wealthy families, as many individuals in this category receive financial support from their parents throughout grad school despite the deceptive equity of stipends. Of course, across all industries most pay disparity involving gender involves a lack of transparency. Our stipends at Penn State are not published, to my knowledge, so whose to say that there aren't patterns of disparity that students are unaware of?

    To be clear, I am not arguing that gender disparity reduces to income or class disparity. My only claim would be that they are often related in less than obvious ways. The fact that the original complaint raised by Jender on the Feminist Philosophers blog placed an economic issue before the issue of harassment and yet the harassment question received significant uptake at the expense of the economic question is worthy of philosophical consideration in itself.

    1. Right, but single parent homes also have both daughters and sons, so even low socioeconomic status will not create the gender disparity that you're describing, except insofar as there are some women who won't go to graduate school because they are, themselves, single parents.

      Insofar as the gendered income gap applies to women in the academy (which there is good reason to believe it will) it will also apply to them outside of the academy, where it is still greater. In that sense, the gendered personal income gap seems to be encouraging women *into* the academy, where they are able to achieve an upper-middle class existence among people who at least acknowledge that misogyny is a problem and at least pretend to be working to alleviate it. Or at least, that's how the comparative incentives would seem to align, were it not that women are discouraged in some other, non-economic ways.

      As for the claim that stipends may vary, this is certainly possible, but it doesn't seem to be as important as the fact that few people can really afford to live on the stipend alone without family support and a relative ease with regard to the poor job prospects available to both men and women. As I understand it, that's the core of your complaint, and it's a good one. It just doesn't explain gender disparities in the way you seem to think.

Second Opinions