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APA forms committee to tackle sexual harassment in philosophy departments

Handling the Harassers
March 29, 2013

With men still outnumbering women in philosophy departments and reports of sexual harassment blemishing the field, the American Philosophical Association has announced it will assemble a committee to explore how to tackle and prevent gender discrimination in the workplace.

The committee will spend six months researching and debating how to address the issue, culminating in a report due out in November that will lay out a set of best practices.

“[U]nfortunately, sexual harassment continues to be a problem in the profession, and we feel it is our responsibility to take action to address it,” Amy Ferrer, executive director of the APA, said in an email. “Without knowing what kinds of best practices the committee will recommend, I can't say specifically how we will implement them. That said, we are committed to putting the work of the committee on sexual harassment into practice to improve the climate for women and other underrepresented groups in philosophy.”

Ferrer has championed diversity in philosophy since becoming executive director in August 2012.

Philosophers have previously attempted to raise awareness about the gender gap in their field by boycotting conferences with all-male speakers, rooting out accepted practices female philosophers have found uncomfortable and examining hiring and tenure processes.

The history of male dominance in the philosophy discipline is well-documented, and even today, the APA estimates male faculty members in philosophy outnumber women four to one -- an unusually high ratio in the humanities. Some professionals in the field have pointed to the misogyny rampant in the subject matter to explain the gender gap -- for example, Aristotle stating in his Poetics that “Even a woman may be good, and also a slave; though the woman may be said to be an inferior being, and the slave quite worthless.”

But refining the canon and its tendency to rely on the musings of “great white dead men” is not the committee’s job -- a process already at work in classrooms around the world, said Scott A. Anderson, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia who will serve on the committee.

According to Anderson, the committee will work to move the conversation about sexual harassment beyond the wealth of anecdotal evidence that exists about the issue.

“I wouldn’t deny it, but I would hate to say we know as much about the situation that we’d like to at the time,” Anderson said. “The anecdotes ... are, I think, representative, but it is hard to say whether everyone who is a woman in philosophy has those experiences, or most, or some.”

Other committee members are researching how associations in other disciplines have tackled sexual harassment. Laurie Shrage, professor of philosophy at Florida International University, said in an e-mail that she has so far identified policies adopted by the American Academy of Religion and the Southern Historical Association.

Female philosophers have recently found outlets through blogs like “Feminist Philosophers” and “What Is It Like to Be a Woman in Philosophy?" the latter of which lists sexual harassment as its most popular category.

"[Y]ou just see account after account," said Peggy DesAutels, who leads the APA Committee on the Status of Women and helped pick the members of the sexual harassment committee. "It’s much more pervasive than even I would have thought.”

In addition to the committee, the APA will be conducting about five site visits per year to institutions where faculty members have reported poor work climates. The reports from these visits will be shared with administrators, but they will not be made public.

Five institutions voiced their interest before the program had even been announced, DesAutels, professor of philosophy at the University of Dayton, said. She noted there are “pockets” where male instructors tend to behave inappropriately, but added, “I do want to emphasize that there are many, many departments that do not have a problem."

Recently, the conversation has moved past documenting sexual harassment to discussing responses. A spin-off blog, "What We're Doing About What It's Like," features stories about instructors who have confronted sexual harassment and departments seeking to diversify their faculty bodies.

"I have urged my colleagues that due to stereotype threat and implicit bias they are not reaching women students in the way they might," an anonymous entry reads. "I may sound naive, or excessively optimistic, but one colleague, J, expressed to me that he appreciated the prompt to make his educational practice consistent with his political (and philosophical) commitments."

Members of the committee said the online conversation about the problems women face in the discipline has helped spur the APA into action.

“I think that it is part of a many-part movement that is at work in philosophy to look at ourselves critically and try to figure out why things have not progressed as far as they have in other disciplines,” Anderson said. “There are now more channels for people to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo,” which he said “are allowing people to make it clear that we have a problem and that we are not yet where we ought to be in terms of absolute equality."

 

 

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