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Boycott for Speaker Diversity

July 27, 2012

If an academic conference’s organizers give the major speaking slots only to men, are those who attend the conference complicit in denying opportunities to women?

That’s the question two male philosophers have posed in declaring that they will not accept invitations to such conferences, and inviting other philosophers to similarly pledge to boycott "male-only events."

The boycott call has set off a debate in which some philosophers (male and female) applaud the public stand, and others say that it is unworkable or unfair. And while other disciplines have debated how much to make sure that the panels at scholarly meetings reflect the diversity of their members, the philosophy debate may be more intense.

For years, many philosophers have been frustrated by the status of women in the discipline, which remains male-dominated in many ways, even as other humanities fields have seen more women advance into  leadership positions. Various efforts have focused on issues that range from sexual harassment to questioning traditions that make many women uncomfortable.

The blog Feminist Philosophers regularly highlights conferences where all the keynoters or all the major speakers are male. The blog's Gendered Conference Campaign draws attention to conferences where all key talks are given by men.

But this week two philosophers – Mark Lance of Georgetown University and Eric Schliesser of Ghent University – took to their blog New APPS: Art, Politics, Philosophy Science to call for a boycott of such events. (The blog has been the site for much discussion and some earlier campaigns on women in philosophy.)

“One non-trivial way in which the status quo replicates and reinforces itself is through conferences and edited volumes that have only male, invited keynote-speakers,” they wrote.

Lance and Schliesser continue: “One way in which we can change the way we operate in our profession is if the insiders that benefit most from their ongoing privileges change our norms. Such a change of norms is never easy; if there are real privileges at stake, this can be a bruising experience…. The time has come to change the cost-benefit analysis of the main parties involved. We propose a campaign in which we publicly identify keynote presenters at conferences with all or almost all male invitees who through their inaction, complacency, and indifference contribute to the sexist status quo. This involves few epistemic risks (there is no need to rely on hearsay, testimony, etc); it is also likely to be an effective way of promoting change. We hereby commit ourselves not to accept invitations to male-only events. We call on others to join us."

Many on the blog have praised the proposal, with some arguing that such action is long overdue and that their blog post’s headline “a Modest Proposal on how to change the Status Quo,” was flawed in the implication of satire or of a modest nature to the problem or solution. (The authors confirm that while they used "modest proposal" in the headline, their proposal is serious, not satire.)

In fact, some proposed that the boycott be expanded to include conferences with all-white line-ups or with lack of diversity in sexual orientation or nationality.

One philosopher wrote to suggest that her colleagues also create positive incentives, such as discounting speaker fees at events that do feature gender diversity. The only downside, this philosopher wrote, was potentially losing good speakers. (Others noted that most philosophers don't get speakers' fees.)

“I so applaud your statement and am floored by your sacrifice. I would love to see gender-balanced conferences, but I do not want to lose as keynote speakers the males who support gender diversity,” she wrote.

Others wrote to say that, in some subfields, there are limited numbers of prominent women, and those women are likely forced to turn down invitations since they can’t be everywhere at once. The scholars who proposed the boycott responded that they were focused on “outcomes,” not just effort. And others responded that there are in fact plenty of women in philosophy (even if some haven’t achieved widespread fame) and that conference organizers who try can find diverse speakers.

Not all philosophers are endorsing the boycott and a few were quite critical.

A philosopher with the screen name “critical radicalist” responded: “Once one realizes how many ‘excluded of other kinds’ are there and, consequently, how many patterns of exclusion virtually any conference line-up is bound to instantiate (based on sexual and gender identity, geographical and ethnic origin, age-group, etc.), it becomes apparent how the proposal of implementing social justice and equal outcomes by proscription and intimidation is potentially dangerous and can easily degenerate. Poor old Kant, for one, would have seen it straight away.”

The critique continued by saying: “We may agree with chairman Mao that a revolution is not a dinner party, but this does not imply one should firmly believe that only violent means will do the job. In my humble opinion, focusing on equal rights and opportunities, rather than equal outcomes, is a fairer approach.”

 

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