Archive for: April, 2013

Thoughts on the American Philosophical Association Committee on Sexual Harassment.

Pat Campbell asks what I think of the announcement that the American Philosophical Association is putting together a committee on sexual harassment in the discipline.

First, let me point out Rebecca Kukla's excellent interview of the Chair of the APA Committee on Sexual Harassment, Kate Norlock. The interview does a lot to set out what the committee can and can't do, given their charge from the APA.

Second, let me relay an anecdote, in two moments, from the Pacific Division meeting of the APA, which happened in San Francisco last week:

Moment 1, chatting with female philosophers before a session was about to begin.

Me: Well, my harasser is a prominent participant in [session name redacted], so I won't be going to that one.

Female colleague: Huh, my harasser is on the program in [session name redacted]. I'll be skipping it.

* * * * *

Moment 2, chatting with male philosophers before another session was about to begin.

Me: It's a little awkward keeping track of the time and location of a session I'm not planning to go to so I don't run into my harasser.

Male colleagues: Wait, you've been sexually harassed in philosophy? Does that kind of thing actually happen?

The point of the anecdote is that many of us who are women in philosophy have had markedly different experiences of the environment in the discipline -- whether in our workplaces, the departments that trained us, or even professional meetings like those held under the auspices of the APA -- than our male colleagues. Moreover, the differences in what people notice about the professional climate are bound to be amplified by the fact that harassers are often circumspect enough to make sure their harassing activities happen out of sight of others besides those they are harassing.

By the way, What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy has anecdata from many more women in the discipline. Many of them I find painfully unsurprising (given the things I've seen and experienced), but others shock even me.

So, what exactly in the APA Committee on Sexual Harassment going to do about a philosophical community that seems more noticeably sexual harass-y for its female members? From the interview with committee chair Kate Norlock:

Rebecca: Let’s talk about the committee itself. What exactly is its charge? What is it supposed to deliver in the end? 

Kate: Good questions! Let me start by saying what we're not charged with doing: We are not asked to investigate particular allegations of sexual harassment, or resolve pending harassment cases in the profession, or expose scholars whispered to harass. Having said that, our duties DO include developing a protocol to gather anonymous information about sexual harassment in the profession. No one expects us to gather comprehensive data, because this isn't a committee assembled in order to be doing social science either. Instead, we aim to collect accounts of encounters with sexual harassment so that our recommendations are reflective of what actually occurs. It could otherwise be easy to make recommendations from our armchairs about what we imagine to be the case. We aim to avoid that.

The goal of the committee, ultimately, is to formulate a statement of best practices in the philosophy profession in higher education. I joke to people I know that the best practices could be summarized, "Don't do that." More seriously, though, we are also tasked with researching what other fields do to prevent it, to diminish its occurrence, and to make it clearer what options exist for those who experience harassment.  Our official "deliverables" are as follows: "The Committee will produce a report recommending best practices regarding sexual harassment in the discipline be implemented by the APA, philosophy departments in which APA members are employed, and conferences and other professional events hosted by either."

In other words, the committee is going to get information about some of the sexual harassment people have encountered in the discipline and use that as a starting point develop recommendations for how to address sexual harassment as it happen and (as I read it) how to keep sexual harassment from happening in the first place.

The committee is not conducting a full-scale empirical study of the prevalence of sexual harassment in the discipline of philosophy. It will not be delivering results that let us say whether philosophy is better or worse on the harassment front (or by how much) than other academic disciplines or professional communities. It is not finding redress for people who have been harassed, nor imposing punishment or remedial measures on people who have been harassing.

I think it's a good thing for the APA to start trying to get its arms around the problem, to get some sense of its size and shape. I also think that using actual, rather than hypothetical, cases to develop best practices is a really good idea. For whatever reason, philosophy seems to lag other academic disciplines in formulating such best practices. Again, from the interview:

Rebecca: In your view, why it important that we, as a discipline, address sexual harassment?

Kate: I think the effects of harassment piggyback on the effects of a lot of other marginalizations that are evident in philosophy. The experiences of minorities in a field that is predominantly white, predominantly male, and predominantly middle- and upper-class can be discouraging, and perpetuate imbalances in the demographics of our profession. I think harassment amplifies that discouragement.

Other fields make it clearer in policy and organizational statements that harassment of some sorts is a crime - that it's not just not-acceptable but illegal. We're a bit behind in that respect. Some of the APA's more recent documents discourage interviews in private hotel rooms and so forth, with the implication that past practices are regrettable. But this runs the risk of making it seem as though the culture of bad practices is a norm that we disparage, not an unacceptable arrangement.

Rebecca: I agree that we are behind! My sense is that philosophers are especially bad at acknowledging that we need institutional guidelines for both preventing and coping with harassment. Do you think that's partly because philosophers think of themselves as 'above' cut and dried institutional rules? It seems to me that so many philosophers think, hey, we are so cool and enlightened and informal in this field, we can manage to deal with these issues without all that petty bureaucracy.

Kate: I think we often try to reject the errors of the past by just not talking about them much at all. When I was a student we learned to ignore the sexist things that past great figures said because it was not relevant or didn't matter. By the same token, it's attractive to say we're past sexually harassing, so why do we need a statement of best practices? Let's just look away, look away! Unfortunately, that approach does not seem to help those who continue to encounter harassment in the profession.

Philosophers, like lots of other smart people in thinky professions, need to be careful not to assume that their own individual intuitions, or that their own Bayesian prior probabilities (updated to accord with their own individual experiences), capture the entire objective reality of the climate in the discipline. They need to recognize that the individual intentions they have (or think they have), and those that they assume their colleagues to have, are not always enough to prevent harassment, or to produce an adequate response to harassment when it happens.

They need to recognize that what they hope is the case (about their discipline, and their friends and colleagues within it) sometimes departs dramatically from what is actually the case.

And, there may be discipline-specific habits with which philosophers tend to make the situation worse. In the comments on the interview with Kate Norlock, Anon E. Mous notes:

More often than not, when I have raised concerns with colleagues, I'm met with a response of trying to do philosophy on the behavior or incident itself (i.e., trying to formulate plausible explanations of intentions or misunderstanding, etc.) and this is incredibly frustrating. It is not easy to bring concerns to light, and it is made that much less easier by having my ability to understand my own experience questioned. I understand that we'd all like to think the best of others, but this has happened not just with one-off sexist comments, or a particular ambiguous action, but in the face of persistent patterns of behavior that multiple women are concerned by, and even when its known that the person being complained about has a history.

Taking it as an intellectual exercise to spell out (almost always from first principles) what the necessary and sufficient conditions are for "real harassment" (and then, exploring the extent to which it is really culpable or mitigated by factors like implicit biases or ignorance of legal definitions or what have you) does not help -- at least, not if your goal is to recognize actual behaviors that cause real harm to actual members of the philosophical community and to do something about those behaviors to avoid perpetuating these harms.

All of which is to say, I view the formation of the APA Committee on Sexual Harassment as a good first step. But, if the discipline of philosophy is serious about dealing with sexual harassment and improving the climate for women and other underrepresented group, there will be a lot of work to do after this first step.

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