Seeking Solidarity

I am a graduate student in a department with serious diversity issues including problems with sexual harassment. Another female graduate student and I work endlessly for climate change to little avail. One major roadblock I’ve noticed is the lack of support from other women–both students and faculty–in the department. Some female students have admitted that they only work for change when the risks of doing so are minimized, some claim that there is no problem, some have said that women who work for climate improvement are alienating (in virtue of our efforts), and others have newly begun to work with faculty who are well known for creating a hostile climate for women in the department. Some female faculty have actually thanked me for not asking them to *do* anything about climate problems, and some promise concrete support and fail to follow through.

I suspect that if my colleague and I had support from other women in the department we might be more effective in our efforts to improve things. If major improvement is too lofty a goal, I suspect that a strong female support system would do wonders for our desire (and ability) to pursue degrees in the department.

I recognize that each department is unique and that each individual woman will have different reasons for inaction. Still, I doubt that this departmental dynamic is an anomaly, and so I think this question is worth asking: What are good strategies for gathering female support for issues pertaining to women in philosophy?


I’m so sorry to hear about situation in your department.  Sadly, this dynamic is not all that uncommon in academia. It can be very hard to rock the boat you are sitting in.  This can be especially true when you know you will likely be sitting in the same boat for decades.  I have three suggestions.

  • First is to stop seeing a climate issue as a woman’s-only issue. It isn’t.  A poisonous climate, even if only targeting a specific group, hurts everyone.  Can you enlist any of your male colleagues (either graduate students or faculty) to help address the problems in your department?  Just as women are sometimes very poor allies, men are sometimes very good allies.

  • Second is to broaden beyond your department.  You are exactly right that it can help tremendously to have a strong women’s network, but there is no reason to confine that network to philosophy.  Gather friends and colleagues from around your institution to build a network for change.

  • Third is to talk to leaders in your institution about what you are trying to do and why: your Title IX Coordinator, the Ombuds Office, etc. (These offices have different names in different institutions, so you will have to do some legwork.)  It will be important to determine first which offices will protect your confidentiality and, ideally, work in a constructive manner with the department so that departmental backlash is minimized.  The most effective and enduring change comes when it is pushed top-down as well as bottom-up.  In addition, those in leadership positions might know of resources or other programs that you could tap into.



Allies are important, and it can help the cause to recognize that allies can come in many forms.  So it’s worth trying a  variety of recruitment strategies, including oblique ones.  Two strategies that come to mind are:
STRATEGY ONE: promoting a sense of community among women at your institution, a sense of community that’s grounded simply in their shared experiences as women at your institution. You might try organizing a weekly or monthly coffee, or a weekend afternoon gathering at someone’s house WITH NO OVERT AGENDA. You might even try having someone organize such events who is  less closely associated with the sort of activism you’re seeking to inspire than you are.  It could be that the shared experience of reflecting on the department in a low-commitment setting will include the experience of witnessing first-hand testimony about the damaging effects of the climate, and the experience of understanding just how widespread concern about the climate is.  This could help galvanize students and colleagues who might otherwise be reluctant to take on, and act, on a commitment to improve the department.
STRATEGY TWO: increasing recognition that climate problems are problems for everyone, and seeking allies among men in your department.  Here again there are a variety of tactics for drawing concerned parties into the conversation, ranging from informal small scale ones to department-wide efforts like a climate study, a “town-hall” meeting, or a CSW site visit.  Having a speaker give a department colloquium on a topic like (to pick just one) implicit biases is often a good way to get the conversation going.
You’re in a better position than I to judge which tactics are best suited to your department.  I’d encourage you to be open to the possibility of tactics that your department leadership — chair, DGS, Events coordinator — would support.

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