Inside Higher Ed has an article today about some conversations on Philosophy blogs about philosophers’ frustrations with institutional and professional redress for sexual harassment and their open call to shun well-known harassers: don’t invite them to give talks, don’t put them on conference panels or programs, and when approached by them individually, walk away and refuse to speak to them.
Sexism and sexual harassment can be found in any academic discipline, of course. But philosophy is notable for lagging other humanities disciplines in reaching anything resembling gender parity in most departments. In 2007, the discipline debated its treatment of women after an analysis found that, in top-20 departments, women held only 18.7 percent of tenure-track positions, with two departments under 10 percent. For the past two years, the blog Feminist Philosophers has been drawing attention to conferences in the field at which all speakers are male.
Peggy DesAutels, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton and chair of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Women, said that the recent public discussion of sexual harassment is long overdue. She said that the stories being posted on blogs are consistent with situations she has witnessed over the years or that she has heard directly from women who have sought her out because of her role in the APA.
This seems like a pretty modest and reasonable remedy to me. Of course, the first comment by one of the knuckle-draggers who troll IHE‘s comments sections warns darkly about “medieval witch hunting” and claims that “[t]his could be a very risky practice and may result in lawsuits. It inflicts extra-legal punishments in cases where there may not have been any civil or criminal finding, only the subjective opinion of an individual or small cell. . . . Anyone who takes part in it becomes a witness to its effects on the subject, his partner and family and could be liable for damages.”
This, of course, is completely laughable. Since when are organizers of conferences or symposia under legal obligation to include particular scholars in their proceedings? Since when is a department legally obligated to offer someone a job? I’ve been on the program committee of a major conference and have worked to put together smaller conferences, and we on the program committees did whatever the heck we wanted. We excluded some people who had followed directions and submitted proposals according to the process we outlined, but we also invited people who hadn’t applied to be on the conference program to give papers because we thought their fields of expertise were underrepresented given the kinds of scholarly conversations we wanted to have. Guess what? We volunteered to do the work, so it only seems fair that we would get to make some decisions.
Because the kind of people who get away with serial sexual harassment without confrontation or correction are usually people whose eminence or accomplishments in their fields is what makes their continued bad behavior possible, they can organize their own damn conferences if they begin to feel excluded. (And that’s a big if.) Professional shunning seems like a remarkably gentle and even collegial remedy for the kind of havoc that sexual harassment wreaks on other people’s lives and careers.
Tips for toads: If you don’t want to get a reputation as a serial sexual harasser or all-around jerk, don’t sexually harass anyone and don’t be a jerk. That usually works for most people.