On being a woman in philosophy and feeling stupid

This post convinced me to say something about my experiences as woman student and philosopher. My story isn’t tragic or unusual. I think it is pretty typical. However, I think my experiences may highlight one reason why women are underrepresented in philosophy. Just one of many reasons, probably.

My high school honors history teacher was the first teacher who really seemed to think I was *smart*. He stayed after class talking to me about the class readings, and called me into his classroom during study hall to talk about assignments. I was an inconsistent high school student, earning high As in history and English, and low Bs in math. But I aspired to be the smart girl. I was an avid reader. I looked forward to college. I already knew I wanted to go to graduate school. So I basked in Mr. K’s attention.

Then I went to the former Soviet Union on a class trip. Mr. K was one of the chaperones. After drinking a bunch of vodka with us, Mr. K pinned me to a wall and starting kissing me. I ran away, and tried to avoid him from then on, even though he still sent me notes at school and tried to keep me after class.

The funny thing was that my main reaction to the whole incident was not fear. It was not anger, or even shame. Instead, I felt stupid. I felt crushed that Mr. K hadn’t thought I was smart after all. I was just some girl he wanted to sleep with. I felt like a fool.

And so it went. In college a professor who selected me to TA his psych statistics class informed me he picked me just because he wanted us to “get to know each other better.” In law school, I was told to wear glasses (with clear lenses as my sight was fine) and my hair up so I might appear intelligent. (Because God knows as is I look like a floozy!)

Then I went to graduate school in philosophy. Because I had gone to law school I had a weaker background in philosophy than many of the other students. When one of my early PhD supervisors seemed very interested in and appreciative of my work, I was relieved. Then he started telling me about the sexual dreams he was having about me, and then followed me to a tube station from a conference dinner, tried to kiss me, and asked me to take me home. Later that week when I told him via email he would no longer be my supervisor, he told me he loved me.

Each time I had this experience, every positive thing my teacher/professor had said about my academic work disappeared in a puff of smoke. The attention I received made me feel stupid, unworthy. And the rumors in grad school that I was indeed sleeping with this or the other professor just fed my fears. Not only did I feel like my intellect wasn’t up to snuff, neither did anyone else in my program (I thought).

My PhD was saved when a senior philosopher agreed to be my new supervisor. He did exactly what a supervisor ought to do: he read my stuff, encouraged me, challenged me, took pride in my accomplishments, and treated me like his intellectual progeny. He talked about his family and interests, but never discussed his personal life in too much detail. He had drinks with students, but never acted inappropriately. He never made me feel uncomfortable or leered at.

Most of all, he made me feel smart, because he wanted to talk about my work, and seemed to appreciate it, but he didn’t want to date me. He gave me the confidence to apply to a prestigious postdoc, which I earned via a phone interview (a fact that seemed important at the time).

Obviously I’m a very stubborn person who continued on in academia despite some bad experiences. But I don’t want women who pursue philosophy, or any other career, to have to be resilient in this way. I don’t want women to have to second guess their intelligence because persons supervising or assessing their work try to sleep with them.

We might avoid this as a profession via a simple rule: If one is assessing or supervising a student’s work, you may not try to have a sexual relationship with them. If someone breaks this rule, there should be serious consequences for the person who breaks it, because there are often serious consequences for the student.

Let’s just all agree to this and move forward.

3 comments

  1. Thank you for writing this. My whole life I’ve only known men to have ill intentions with me and this is the greatest fear that prevents me from making any move in life. I am just curious as to how you are doing? Are you happy with your choices in all honesty and are so still insecure at times? Thank you.

  2. Hi Nico,

    I think insecurity of some sort plagues us all. But there were increased opportunities for feedback as my career progressed, as well as increased numbers of (at least what seemed to be) unbiased reviewers. Blind peer review of my work, and comments on my work that came from persons who had no sexual agenda allowed me to feel more confident. I also became a better judge of my own writing and ideas.

    The trick is to find people you trust and respect to act as your mentors and critics. I hope that in whatever field you work, or in whatever discipline you study, this is possible.

  3. […] “Each time I had this experience, every positive thing my teacher/professor had said about my academic work disappeared in a puff of smoke” — Katrina Sifferd (Elmhurst) on sexual harassment she faced as a philosophy student. […]

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