The Gendered Conference Campaign seeks to encourage gender-neutrality in the selection of invited speakers to philosophical conferences and workshops, or perhaps even to foster a little affirmative action in the selection of speakers. The Campaign is worthy and well motivated. Gender-neutral consideration of academic work should be a very high priority, and the Campaign promotes this goal in many ways. It encourages conference organizers to look beyond a small circle of friends and acquaintances; it helps break down barriers to the appreciation of worthy work by women; it aids the careers of women undervalued by the gender discount.
In their recent post, “A Modest Proposal,” Mark Lance and Eric Schliesser urge keynote speakers to support the Campaign by declining invitations to male-only events. It is hard not to appreciate their fine motives. (And it goes without saying that it is entirely up to them what invitations they decline, and why.) But it’s also possible to support the Campaign while maintaining that such a policy goes too far.
Let me say that I do NOT support their call. I will NOT decline invitations on this basis.
Here, very briefly, are two reasons why I oppose Lance and Schliesser on this issue.
But it is dangerous, and I believe it is wrong, to ask individual researchers to police each other in contexts where they have no fiduciary responsibility to do so.
Second, it is disrespectful of invitees to instruct organizers how to run their events.
Suppose X writes to me asking whether I will give a talk at his (or her) workshop about S on such and such a date. X has done me an honour. Maybe X is thoughtless about gender issues, but is it up to me to quiz him (or her)? Should I say: "Thanks, but who else is coming?"
Should I also ask X what criteria were used in selecting speakers? Say topic S is quite narrow, and it so happens that mostly men have written about it. Should I demand of X what measures have been taken to discover women who have or are writing about S? Should I suggest, as a condition of my participation, that female graduate student Y, working (without publishing) on S at the ABC State University be invited?
What other issues enter into my domain? Suppose Z, whose work on S is scandalously bad, has been invited. Should I tell X that this is a disservice to the profession? Should I volunteer my view that the programme is unbalanced? Should I urge blind refereeing of submitted speakers?
In my view, all of the above are beyond my domain of action. I can decline respectfully and politely if I feel uncomfortable about the line-up or the program or the venue (Arizona? . . . Just joking), but that, I maintain, is the extent of my options. I don’t have a right to quiz others or tell them what to do. (Yes, there are exceptions: I have a right to interfere with them if they are torturing kittens.)
My view is this. Do what you think is right. But restrict your actions to what is in your domain. Don’t interfere with or trespass on the autonomy of others. Even (within bounds: No kitten torture, please!) where you think that autonomy is being improperly exercised.