Does Sexual Harassment Matter in Philosophy?

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Professor Jennifer Saul of Sheffield University

Professor Jennifer Saul of Sheffield University


Words by Justine Chamberlain.

As a subject, philosophy conjures up the image of dusty, old, and wealthy white men, writing great tomes for great men to study. This season’s free public lectures at Manchester Metropolitan University challenge this archetype. 


The Humanities in Public lecture series, designed to stop the humanities from being ‘locked up in the university’ continued this week with Women in Philosophy. Dr. Anna Bergqvist of MMU presented the lecture Sexual Harassment and WIP Policy: On The Relevance of Moral Particularism for Feminist Thought on behalf of its author, Professor Jennifer Saul of Sheffield University. 

Like other academic subjects and indeed, like other workplace environments, it seems philosophy has a problem with sexual harassment. This lecture looked specifically at the problem philosophy departments have, and how it is being dealt with.

The lecture explored the problem of expending too much effort over defining the term ‘sexual harassment’. A necessary definition needs to be made, Dr. Bergqvist stated, but also moved on from to explore other issues. Another significant problem is seeded from the question of whether charges of sexual harassment are possible or appropriate. If the question of sexual harassment is defined by whether to take formal action, then the initial problem is led by the punishment, prior to a principled judgement taking place. The lecture argued that these key problems are extremely damaging.


The lecture then turned to the perpetrators of sexual harassment and an understanding of the reasons behind it. It explored whether the perpetrator could be genuinely seeking love rather than exploiting their position of power, or whether the person might be socially unskilled (not knowing the effect their behaviour might have). Dr. Bergqvist did not touch on aggressive physical sexual harassment, perhaps because of the ease of defining such behaviour.


Professor Saul’s website contains so many examples of real-life sexual harassment in academic positions, that it could rival The Everyday Sexism Project, set up to catalogue instances of sexism experienced by women on a day-to-day basis in any walk of life. It was surprising even to Dr. Bergqvist, a true ‘Woman in Philosophy’, that there were so many disturbing experiences listed on Professor Saul’s website. 


The lecture explored whether there is a possibility that sexual harassment, and the normalisation of it, has continued to keep women underrepresented in philosophy. The British Philosophical Association’s website states that: “women make up nearly 50% of all philosophy undergraduates but less than 25% of permanent philosophy staff,” a surprising statistic, perhaps especially at the level at which philosophy is taught. The Society for Women in Philosophy UK commissioned a report on the lack of women in philosophy, on which Professor Saul was co-author. It has been published online and is free to view. 


Sexual harassment may not be the only or even the main problem with underrepresentation of women in philosophy. During the Q&A session, a member of the public stated she dropped the subject at undergraduate level because she was “fed up about reading what men thought about other men”. Perhaps this is as big a cause of underrepresentation of women in philosophy as any other, with the idea that without being able to relate to the philosopher on a gender basis, can women, generally, sustain interest in the subject? This question will be familiar to women in many subjects, not just philosophy, and one of many questions the lecture raised.

Members of the public outside of academic philosophy may have found the tight subject matter of women in academic philosophy jobs off-putting, but others felt invited to draw analogies between these investigations and their own workplace, such as in science labs and HR departments. The Q&A session, which also featured Professor Joanna Hodge of MMU, allowed the audience the freedom to explore the issues. The lecture theatre was full and notably, there were men and women of varying ages and races listening a subject that traditionally might only attract women. Perhaps there is hope then, that sexual harassment is dying and the work of the BPA and SWIPUK will draw women into philosophy in greater numbers in the next few decades.


The Women in Philosophy strand of Humanities in Public continues with Reworking Jacques Ranciere on Monday 24th February, further details of which can be found here.

Justine Chamberlain is a Masters student in the MMU Writing School, specialising in poetry. Her blog can be found here and you can follow her on Twitter @justineswriting.

About the author / 


aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.


  1. Dr Anna Bergqvist 28th February 2014 at 12:41 pm -  Reply

    Wonderful summary of the many pertinent issues that were discussed on 17 February!

    Just one clarificatory correction: Professor Saul is the author of the important paper “Stop Thinking (so much) about Sexual Harrassment” that is freely available via the British Phhilosophical Association website.

    The author of the related paper that were presented at the abve public lecture, “Sexual Harassment at WiP Policy: On the Relevence of Moral Partocularism for Feminist Thought” is me, Dr Anna Bergqvist (Lecturer in Philosophy at MMU).

  2. Vesta Duvall 28th February 2014 at 7:31 pm -  Reply

    This is very interesting, Justine. It is nice to see how different Universities in UK are also tackling the issues of Sexual Harassment in the academe. Truly even the hallowed halls of the academe is no safe-zone for a woman as sexism is really rampant. Talks such as these raise the concerns of such issues into public so that universities are able to look into the matter deeper.
    Vesta Duvall

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