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Bad behavior overshadows more subtle systemic exclusions in academia

By Katrina Hutchison and Fiona Jenkins

Much has been made in the media of Professor Colin McGinn’s resignation amid claims that he sexually harassed a female graduate student. The story has headline-grabbing ingredients:

  1. Sex (that is, sexual harassment)
  2. A famous person (well, McGinn is relatively famous within the field of philosophy)
  3. Power relationships (the white, middle-aged, male teacher, and the young, female research assistant)
  4. Tragic consequences (career-ending consequences for him and untold consequences for her)

It is not surprising, then, that the case has resulted in a rare public airing for issues that have been an ongoing concern for women in philosophy. But to what extent does this sort of publicity further the cause of women in philosophy — a field in which women are very poorly represented compared with other disciplines in the humanities? Is overt bad behaviour the main issue facing women, or might more subtle forms of exclusion also need to be addressed?

In contrast with the McGinn case, consider this: “When I was a graduate student one of my fellow students commented that I could not understand the hardships of the academic lifestyle because I was married with a child.”

This story is not a headline-grabber. What’s more, it is not comparable to the McGinn story. It does not belong in the same conversation. A comparison between the two risks trivializing sexual harassment.

Yet the stereotypes at play are harmful. The comment implies that the woman’s peers do not expect her to enter the academic job market with its associated uncertainties, or to disrupt her marriage and family by moving across the country or across the world for an academic job.


There are many other subtle forms of exclusion within philosophy that do not seem to belong in the same conversation as sexual harassment. Jennifer Saul draws our attention to the role of implicit bias in excluding women from philosophy. Citing recent work in social psychology, she points out that the same CV will be judged more positively when it is believed to belong to a man, and the same applies to the review of non-blinded journal submissions.

Samantha Brennan explores exclusions that are even harder to measure than this in her discussion of micro-inequities — unjust inequities that are so small on their own that any mention of them sounds like paranoia. They can include the length of time that someone holds eye contact with you, or how much they say in response to your question. Studies have shown correlations between such small acts and gender. Brennan argues that the cumulative impact of these micro-inequities is likely to be contributing to the underrepresentation of women in philosophy.
Fiona Jenkins has pointed out that mechanisms such as peer review and journal metrics can also be sites of subtle exclusion, in spite of the liberal feminist emphasis on the role of such “fair” meritocratic measures in combating the sexism of the old fashioned “jobs for the boys” alternatives. The conservatism of these meritocratic measures often goes unrecognized, situated as they are within current disciplinary and institutional norms, and upheld by “peers” whose academic reputations are invested in the immediate past of the discipline. Why should we think that they will fairly judge the contributions of the emerging generation — those who will be their disciples or their critics? Track record is another conservative measure of excellence, increasing the likelihood that those who were successful by previous standards will continue to be successful.

These three forms of subtle exclusion — implicit bias, micro-inequities, and unwarranted faith in meritocratic measures — are not practiced by unusual or bad individuals. They are widespread; they are practiced by women as well as men. The “perpetrators” are typically not aware that they are engaging in exclusionary behavior. Combating these forms of exclusion, then, relies heavily on raising awareness, and convincing individuals who believe themselves to be just and fair to change their behavior.

The case of Colin McGinn involves easily recognized bad behavior. It is something we take very seriously, especially given the prevalence indicated in blogs such as What Is it Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy? But there is a risk that when we connect the discourse about the low representation of women in philosophy to overt harassment, another important message about a wide range of subtle exclusions will be lost. We would appear to trivialize sexual harassment by comparing it with micro-inequities such as unequal eye contact during philosophy tutorials. But these can both have highly damaging consequences. Subtle, systemic forms of exclusion of women from professional philosophy deserve urgent attention and redress, alongside the overtly harmful and exploitative behavior of certain individuals.

Katrina Hutchison and Fiona Jenkins are co-editors of Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change? Katrina Hutchison is a postdoctoral researcher at Macquarie University and is currently working on research projects on the ethics and epistemology of surgery. She also has research interests in feminist philosophy and in the role and value of philosophy beyond the academy. Fiona Jenkins teaches and researches in the School of Philosophy, Research School of Social Sciences, at the Australian National University. She is also the Convenor of the ANU Gender Institute. Her present research includes a project on Judith Butler’s political philosophy, and one looking at how disciplines in the Social Sciences have integrated feminist scholarship.

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Image credit: Philosophy, by Robert Lewis Reid, 1896. Photographed by Carol Highsmith. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Gerry Dorrian

    Perhaps the European and American Enlightenments might have been less agressively optimistic about humanity’s abilities to perfect itself had women’s experiences of the oppression described above been included in philosophers’ calculations? Then again, had that happened, maybe the wheels might have started coming off that laudable project called the US sooner than the last 5 years…who knows?

  2. […] Jenkins. The collection is Women in Philosophy: What Needs to Change? (OUP 2013). The editors also blog about the book, and you can find a review […]

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