Recently, we—Elisa Freschi and Malcolm Keating—set about organizing a panel for the upcoming ATINER panel. We aimed for a panel which would include significant numbers of women, using suggestions from the Gendered Conference Campaign (GCC) published on the Feminist Philosophers website to achieve this goal. Not only is the result an exciting combination of global philosophical interests which can push back against stereotypes of philosophy as a Western activity, its gender ratio can push back against stereotypes of philosophy as a male activity. Our hope is that the more panels and conferences which work to include women, the more women’s names will come to mind as experts in these topics. Further, hopefully younger generations of women will find it easier to find a path in academic philosophy. And finally, including more women who might otherwise be ignored due to implicit bias means better philosophy will be done.
Below are reflections from both of us about the reasoning for this decision, the process of organizing, and the results.
For years, I have never thought about issues such as the ones raised by the GCC, and have always looked at myself as a human being among whose characteristics the fact of being a woman is neither the more important, nor the more significant when it comes to my philosophical work. However, I started changing my mind when confronted with the fact that many men did not share the same view and were keen to impose on me all sorts of judgements I tend to understand as prejudices (e.g., thinking that I am a student (or even a secretary!) and not the organiser of a given conference, thinking that I must have reached my position because of being someone else’s wife or pupil, etc. etc.). This made me alert of issues such as the implicit bias, and I started suggesting to my colleagues to think at least also of inviting women at each chance. This alertness, I thought, at least compensates for the implicit bias which makes us think immediately at brilliant men and only as an afterthought at women (perhaps also because they have been socialised in a way which makes “brilliance” less desirable, e.g., by highlighting the need of being gregarious and not aggressive).
Thus, I have been pleasantly surprised by Malcolm’s suggestion to try to invite at first only women. Since the panel deals with an issue I have been working on for years, it did not take me too long to write down a list of women I would have wanted to attend —and they were all outstanding scholars. Accordingly, I wrote repeatedly to fifteen women colleagues before deciding to advertise the panel on my blog. The first move was meant to ensure a strong participation by women, while the second was dictated to me by the idea that conferences should be at least theoretically open to all interested people.
Interestingly, the final result is a panel with six women and four men, including the organisers. I hope that explaining why this happened will be of some value for future enterprises of this sort:
- Many women I contacted where thrilled by the topic of the panel, but could not participate due to several other commitments. Please note that some of them mentioned among the commitments family ones (having to take care of children or relatives) and academic ones (being among the few women in their department, they had to serve in many committees).
- Since the time they confirmed their participation, two women and no man had to withdraw it (because of academic commitments of the sort discussed at point 1). This might be entirely coincidental (but, similarly, two women and no men had to withdraw their participation from the panel I organised for the World Sanskrit Conference ), but it might also be the result of the many pressures women are exposed to?
- Only men contacted me or Malcolm after having seen the Call for Papers. This might be due to various reasons, but perhaps also to the fact that women tend as a rule to be less ready to propose themselves? If so, this would be a further reasons for actively inviting them.
- Long story short, if you think it advisable to have inclusive conferences, plan well ahead and personally contact women scholars.
Malcolm Keating: Inspired by the Gendered Conference Campaign published on the Feminist Philosophers blog, in initial emails with Elisa I suggested that we aim for a parity of men and women on the panel, if not more women than men. The reasoning for this decision is put succinctly at the GCC page I’ve linked to:
All-male events and volumes help to perpetuate the stereotyping of philosophy as male. This in turn to contributes to implicit bias against women in philosophy, which very likely leads even those genuinely committed to gender equality to evaluate women’s contributions as less good than men’s.
The goal is not to give women a disproportionate number of opportunities, but to compensate for the implicit biases and other factors which limit their opportunities, and have done so for centuries. This has resulted in undervaluing women as intellectuals and means that it is much more likely that men will come to mind when considering philosophers to invite to conferences. A simple thought experiment is enough to see that the first names that come to one’s mind are indeed, of men. Even more surprisingly, once one starts thinking also of women, one notices that they are by no means less good than the men one initially thought of—the men’s names are just more quickly accessible.
So you’d like to avoid an all-male conference. How might you do this? What follows are some suggestions:
1. Realise that the first names you think of are overwhelmingly likely to be male. This is exactly what work on implicit bias would predict. So if you want some female names, you’ll need to work a little harder.
In early emails making this suggestion, I worried that, as a more junior philosopher than Elisa, I had fewer connections to the women working in Indian (and non-Western) philosophy. So, for our first round of invitations, Elisa took the lead in contacting women philosophers. She got in touch with people whose work she knew was excellent and whose philosophical demeanor would contribute to our panel conversation. We invited only women at this point and cast the net widely. We wanted a compelling panel that would do excellent philosophical work, not necessarily just “big names.” This goes to the second point in the advice at the FP blog:
2. Studies have shown that women often need to have done a lot more to be considered successful than men do. There’s a good chance that you’re only thinking of super-famous women, while considering much less famous men.
Why invite only women? Well, since, for any conference panel invitation, one is not going to get 100% responses from invitees, we knew it was likely we would send out a second round of invitations. Men would get their chance–and given implicit biases, we men are already getting more than our fair share of chances as it is. Thus, points three and four:
3. Don’t wait till the last minute to invite women.
4. If there really are not that many women in your field, perhaps consult with them first about dates. You have to ask someone first, so why not them?
Even though we were organizing a panel for an established conference, and thus consulting with women about setting dates wasn’t at issue, we did invite women first, giving them an opportunity to consider their availability with more advance time (for women who have families, they frequently bear a significant aspect of child-care).
Questions to the reader:
Can you suggest feasible ways to overcome these problems? For one, a child care provided during the conference might help with (part of) No. 1, as well as perhaps an increased travel allowance for scholars with babies?