Three Cheers for the Token Woman

by Harry on September 16, 2013

Anca Gheaus has a really nice paper up on her website (I think you need to join, but it is easy and free) called “Three Cheers for the Token Woman”. She observes that lots of people feel uncomfortable, or think that something is wrong with, being the token woman (at a conference, as a contributor to a volume, etc), whereas many of those same people think that it is important that positive steps be taken to ensure that, for example, conferences and volumes not have exclusively male participants and contributors. Her discussion is not exactly philosophy-specific, but is written in a context of the Gendered Conference Campaign, which, if it works, should result in more women being invited to conferences that they would not have been invited to in the absence of positive self-conscious measures. Here is how she poses the central question:

Now imagine that you, a woman, are invited to speak in a conference whose organisers openly subscribe to the gendered conference campaign. The mere fact that some people decided to do something about women’s inclusion in the profession has of course not changed the profession overnight; you may still be one of the very few women around, whose presence is primarily meant to signal an intention to change things. In less happy cases, the organisers may be motivated by an intention to conform to mounting social expectations of female inclusion; often you cannot be sure whether this is the case. And you may not be taken as seriously as you would should you be a man. In these senses, you are a token woman.

Moreover, you know that in the absence of the GCC you would probably not have been invited. Someone else – most likely a man – would now be speaking in your place. Your sex most likely played a causal role in you being invited and in this sense, too, you are a token woman.

Should you feel embarrassed, humiliated or otherwise unhappy with this situation?

Gheaus’s answer is a straightforward “no”. and she makes lots of interesting points – its really well worth reading, especially if you have ever been or expect to be in the situation she addresses.

A good number of women, usually un-tenured women, have confirmed me that they often suffer from imposter syndrome at conferences (and in general) and that when they are the only woman presenting on a panel, or at a workshop, they often believe, or worry, that they have been asked simply because they were women.[1] One of Gheaus’s aims is to undermine imposter syndrome, partly by observing that the incumbents are frequently there for reasons other than pure intellectual superiority to all other potential participants, and partly by arguing that the gendered conference campaign is likely to lead to (slightly) more meritocratic outcomes.

I’m just going to focus on the first part of that. One of her observations (true in my experience) is feeling like an imposters is often underlain by the assumption (which, if you reflected on it in the light of the evidence you would find ludicrous) that the pre-tokenistic method of selecting participants is purely meritocratic.

Conference organisers are also interested in having a friendly group of speakers, because this can be conductive to good scholarship but also to promote good conversation in general and a good atmosphere. All these goals – diversity and novelty, friendly and relaxed working relationships and good conversation in general – can, under lucky circumstances, serve to advance knowledge. But there is no reason to believe that the group of academics who are capable of advancing these goals in the context of particular conferences and volumes coincide exactly with the group of academics who are the absolute best in that particular subfield, even if it were possible to decide on the identity of the absolute best…. Finally, it is plausible that conference organisers and book editors use, at least occasionally, their decision power in order to invite – and thereby promote – their own academic friends or wouldbefriends, current and former students and other people they wish to please or help for one reason or another.

Most of us, including most men, have lots of reasons to believe that we were not selected for the conference/workshop invitation because we were the best scholar the organizers thought that they could get, and most of us never suffer any angst from this (because most of us never really think much about it). Here’s an offer of a footnote that Gheaus can use as an illustration: I made a list of reasons that I know I have been invited to specific conferences, or to give talks on campuses, in recent years, at some of which conferences I have been the equivalent of a token. In some cases the reasons were either made explicit or were totally obvious, and in other cases it is only on reflection that I can see the reason, but I am pretty confident about it. In most cases, obviously, there were other reasons too — people rarely deliberately invite somebody to participate in a conference or give a talk who they know, upfront, will be incompetent. But that goes for everyone who is a token woman too. Anyway here goes (some reasons have applied multiple times):

1. A token left-winger at a conference of free-marketeers
2. Somebody the organizers were getting funding from strongly recommended me
3. Somebody the organizers hoped to get funding from in the future strongly recommended me
4. I’m funny (this is a double-edged sword: I’m pretty sure that when you are junior its not a great idea to make it clear that you don’t take things very seriously)
5. I’m informal, and would start out the conference in the right spirit
6. A token philosopher
7. A token political philosopher
8. A token philosopher who knows about education policy
9. If I was speaking at the conference, it would be more likely that my dad, who is a much harder-to-get, more prestige-conferring, more popular (and better) speaker would accept his invitation [2]
10. A not-quite token atheist at a workshop on religious schooling (there’s usually another around)
11. Some of the organizers wanted to use my presence to integrate themselves into my networks
12. Some of the organizers wanted to use my presence to integrate their graduate students and/or junior colleagues into my networks
13. Getting me to know a junior colleague would make it more likely I would accept request to write tenure letter for said colleague
14. Some of the organizers were friends of mine and like seeing me
15. I’d already been invited by one unit on a campus, and somebody in that unit knew that a second unit would want me to give a talk given that I was already there, although they wouldn’t have bothered inviting me specially (several times)
16. I came to mind because the organizing committee included someone with a PhD from the program I teach or taught in
17. (When I was young) because I was a young, promising(-ish) young person and a conference with the same old eminent people would have looked bad

That’s not all the reasons, but a good sample. [I reserve the right to update the list as more reasons occur to me, and invite other academics, male and female, to add reasons that they know that that have been invited to participate in conferences or give talks on a campus]. It seems to me there is a rough rule that the more prestige-conferring you are as a “name”, the less likely it is that you have been selected because of your quality as academic rather than because your presence will confer prestige. (Of course, it wouldn’t do so if you were not of reasonably high quality, but we are all aware of academics whose status exceeds their purely academic quality (and, actually, although not high on the prestige-conferring continuum, I am pretty confident that I am higher on it than the quality of my academic work merits)). Nobody feels like an imposter because of any of this.

And there is an important way in which all the reasons I have given above for being invited differ from an invite that is caused by the gendered conference campaign. When it succeeds, what the gendered conference campaign does is counteracts, or go some way to counteracting, the implicit biases that prevail within the profession.

Anyway, read the whole thing.

[1] A while ago, I discovered that every female graduate student who enrolled in one particular cohort in my department (the only year I can remember, prior to this year, in which men did not outnumber women) believed that they had been admitted “only” (that’s a quote) because they were women, and that this had been the result of my renowned feminist colleague influencing admissions decisions. They each still believed the first part of this, even when they had compelling evidence that they were all going to be successful in the worst academic job market in living memory, and that they were considerably more successful (in terms of publications, conference presentations, etc) on average than the (excellent) men from their cohort. One of them even argued to me that their relative success might be down to the quality of teaching in the department being better for the women than for the men (but now I think about it, she must have been just giving me a hard time). It probably did not help that some men in the program (not the professors, who, as far as I know, were unaware of this) referred to that cohort as “the year of the sorority”.

[2] I’ve left this one in because it is true, and funny, but I realize someone could argue that in this case the invitation to me was extended as a matter of merit, albeit not mine, but in an attempt to raise the expected probability of having a very high quality conference by snagging my dad.



Mao Cheng Ji 09.16.13 at 2:16 pm

Token left-winger and token philosopher seem like a much more justified kind of tokenism. They introduce different world views.


Tim O'Keefe 09.16.13 at 2:43 pm

I encourage folks who suspect that this sort of ‘tokenism’ is unjustified to take a look at the link Harry gives above to the gendered conference campaign in philosophy. It gives a nice brief justification for the GCC, plus links to further resources.


Christiaan 09.16.13 at 3:19 pm

Or you can make it harder for women to get anywhere, in order to avoid the “stigma” of being viewed as a token. Like Clarence Thomas does for minorities.


Chris Armstrong 09.16.13 at 3:36 pm

For what it’s worth, I doubt it’s true that no-one feels like an impostor for any of these reasons. For example, think of the kind of people who repeatedly get asked to do after-dinner or after-lunch speaking slots because they’re held to be ‘good value’ from the entertainment point of view [your reasons 3 or 4]. Do you think those people never think, at 3 a.m. in the morning, that they’re not taken seriously? That if they weren’t entertaining they’d be ignored? I expect you could say the same about many of the reasons. I’m sure there are people at Harvard who suspect they’re invited to conferences not because of the quality of their work but because of their (presumed) proximity to certain colleagues, and given that many of us are plagued by self-doubt, I don’t envy them either.

None of this is in the way of important disagreement – excellent post, and I’ll now read the paper too – but the bold claim that these things shouldn’t be expected to leave people feeling like impostors jumped out at me. A lot of people feel a lot like impostors anyway, and it wouldn’t take much to reinforce the feeling.


Cheryl Rofer 09.16.13 at 5:11 pm

I haven’t read the paper, but having long ago come to the same conclusion as Gheaus, thought it was time for a token female to weigh in. (Although I recognize that females are [usually] not taken as token at Crooked Timber.)

Keep in mind that women generally have to be better at what they do in order to get positions equivalent to or less than men.

And, @1, it’s just possible that because of their experience, women may also provide a different world view.


Harry 09.16.13 at 5:24 pm

On Cheryl’s last point: the irony of the lack of diversity (of many kinds) in Philosophy, relative to other disciplines, is that our method relies heavily on the process of reflectively laundering (diverse) intuitive responses to cases. If everyone comes in with the same kind of background, there just isn’t enough material for us to work with. Whereas, one might think, it might not matter so much for getting at the truth if most economists had the same kind of life-experiences and backgrounds, Philosophy needs the wide variety of diverse perspectives that can only come from training people with a wide variety of life-experiences and backgrounds. Of course, you cannot be sure that any particular person will contribute to that diversity (just because they are black, or female, or whatever), but you can easily know that an all-white, all-male, line up (which is, probably, also, all-upper-middle class) is a worse bet than a more diverse line-up. (Of course, I understand the same is in fact true in Economics, but the reasons are not as tightly connected to the very method of the discipline).


clew 09.16.13 at 5:54 pm

6 is interesting (I am not any kind of philosopher, so it’s also novel). Perhaps there’s a strong version of this that assumes that a real philosopher will find The Truth from any starting point? I don’t see that even the strong version could think that a broader base of starting points would reduce the chance of finding The Truth.


Zamfir 09.16.13 at 6:20 pm

Harry, could you expand on why philosophy is especially in need of that wide range of perspectives? It seems to me that economists need that just as much, or really any field that directly studies the human world. If only to determine priorities.


christian_h 09.16.13 at 6:40 pm

Thanks Harry, good post. Several of the reasons you give have certainly been at least in part behind me getting invited for talks (math) as well; equally, when I organize a conference I certainly don’t invite speakers but creating some well-ordered list of colleagues by supposed quality and then going down the list. It would be absurd – a conference is more than a collection of lectures.


Matt Lister 09.16.13 at 7:12 pm

I think the importance of (14) above should not be over-looked. In a significant percentage of cases where I’ve been invited to give a talk or be on a panel, it’s been (at least in part) because I’m friends, or at least friendly, with someone involved in organizing. Now, I don’t think, or at least hope, they would ask me if they didn’t think I’d do a good job. But for nearly all cases, the number of people who would do a good job is much larger than the number of spots. So, “invite some people I like” is a common and not in itself unreasonable strategy. But, especially in a field that has such an uneven gender mix as philosophy does, “invite some people I’m friendly with” is bound to lead to very few women being invited, even if no one is trying to leave out women. This gives us some good reason to try to take specific steps to make sure that women (and others often left out) are included.

(I might hesitate to call this ‘tokenism’, but I’m not sure how much turns on that. It seems to suggest a merely symbolic step, and that doesn’t seem to be the best way to understand the situation, but perhaps others understand it differently.)

Matt Yglesias had a nice post on this sort of dynamic in relation to government appointments a few weeks ago, here:


Mao Cheng Ji 09.16.13 at 7:18 pm

“which is, probably, also, all-upper-middle class”

Not “also”, but that’s, I’d argue, what your life experience is all about; the most, by far, meaningful characteristic.

In any case, I actually do agree with the post: once you’re in, there is no point analyzing why. Do your best, you may succeed on your own.


Cheryl Rofer 09.16.13 at 7:49 pm

@Harry (#6): I agree that philosophy needs more input from a wider variety of viewpoints. I would add that any discipline can benefit from greater inclusion. My own discipline is science, and I have found that I do look at things differently than white men, despite the alleged objectivity of the field. That led to various insights that might not have been made, and some successful projects.

I’ve moved over a bit into international strategy and am finding that there is a big difference there. We’re seeing it in the response to the actions relative to Syria over the past week. The criticism of Obama for not taking a “decisive” or “clear” stand and (horrors!) changing direction seems awfully male-oriented to me. Women and minorities learn that they will be humiliated, but they can also learn to use that as an opportunity. White men, not so much.


Kate Norlock 09.16.13 at 8:05 pm

Harry, this is great. I wish to add your “list of reasons” to our FAQ at Feminist Philosophers; I shall of course link to this entire post.

When we first put together the FAQ, it was clear to us that critics of the GCC regularly equated the merit of invited presenters with “the first people I think of when I think of topic X,” so I’m very happy that the meritocracy-bubble gets burst in Anca Gheus’ paper and here. But I underestimated how often we’d hear, after posting the FAQ, that a Gendered Conference Campaign would result in dreaded tokenism. Glad to see this getting a good debunking.


Eszter Hargittai 09.16.13 at 8:24 pm

Great points, Harry, thanks for posting.

I knew that Philosophy had gender issues, serious ones, but I had no idea there would be so many conferences with not one woman. That is really shocking. I have seen similar initiatives in tech circles. Even in my field of social science studies of tech, men outnumber women at most conferences (this despite the fact that in at least some of the related/relevant fields women now outnumber men in the student body).

One of the issues not touched upon here about why it may be hard to get women to participate concerns the disproportionate asks that some women get when they are just a handful of women who are on organizers’ radars. There are only so many conferences a person can attend and while those events can be beneficial in lots of ways, they also take time away from others ways of being productive that then helps you solidify your reputation and improve the quality of your work. (Yes, presenting can help with that, too, but it usually requires sitting down and writing things up to get publications out there, which is still an important component of prestige.) Add to this that when women are outnumbered so vastly in a field, they will also be more called upon locally on their campuses and in their departments for service. For example, I learned quickly that if I commented on us having all-male committees, the response would be that I can join the committee, but who wants that? And how is it fair for me to have to be on more committees than my male colleagues just because there are fewer women? It’s a bit of a vicious circle. More committee meetings means yet again less time for research and conferences , etc.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that there shouldn’t be initiatives of this sort. This is very important and indeed it should be embarrassing to all involved to have all-male conferences (or even panels). But when such organizers hear a “no” in response to their invitation to women, their response shouldn’t be “well, they aren’t interested”, rather, they need to recognize that those women likely have more than their fair share of obligations as is so it’s harder to squeeze in yet one more meeting. This means that the organizers just need to keep at it and find other women. (One way to do this, by the way, is to ask for recommendations from the person who said no. Of course, this doesn’t always work, but it’s an option.)

By the way, we don’t have to go on anecdotal evidence to see whether diversity of viewpoints helps, there is research on this. Here’s just one on the importance of studying abroad (and thus having different peers and circumstances in case anyone needs that spelled out:):
I know I’ve seen other related research as well.


geo 09.16.13 at 9:05 pm

I think we should all wait to hear from Stanley Fish before taking a position on this.


Eszter Hargittai 09.16.13 at 9:08 pm

As for adding to your list, here are some:

* This is related to your #15, but somewhat different: Being conveniently located in proximity to the conference venue (e.g., a Chicago-area meeting in my case) that helps with keeping travel costs down.

* Related to your #2 & #3, but different: The organizers want to get funding from someone you have already gotten funding from.

* Related to your #12: The organizers want you to serve on their student’s committee.

I’m not sure the second and third have ever happened to me for a conference or other talk invitation per se, but people have certainly had related motivations when asking me some things that certainly weren’t directly about the ultimate goal.


shah8 09.16.13 at 11:20 pm

I question the idea that “people rarely deliberately invite somebody to participate in a conference or give a talk who they know, upfront, will be incompetent.”

When it comes to black people, most actual tokens are either blatantly incompetent or left to make do with little resources/active resistance. Think Herman Cain, and, perhaps, Josh Freeman as examples.

I think it’s different for white women because more of them have real support networks that they can rely on. I think that in general, most women and minorities that get their faces in the mix have stronger networks than others, generally based on their own natural talents.

In any event, I think , from reading Anca Gheaus’ paper, is that while everything there is logical, but she has no genuine handle about this topic, and the GCC she proffers sounds a bit tinny. What does striving involve, anyways? A strict quota system, what? As a practical matter, incompetent/unprepared or competent, tokenism doesn’t do its damage by making someone the face of the gender/race. It does its damage before anyone *gets* to be a token, from the mindset of the search committee. It continues to do its damage by giving a very cheap dollop of complacency to how committees might resolve perceived problems. Thus, the same woman/minority gets passed around as a “safe” candidate. Anyone who’s a little too there loses the chance to have a real audience. Quotas are a nice safety net, but they really should be a safety net after improved methods for finding good work/people are in place.


beta 09.16.13 at 11:58 pm

How is Shah8 avoiding violating the comment policy against blatant racism with the sentence, “When it comes to black people, most actual tokens are either blatantly incompetent or left to make do with little resources/active resistance”?


Harry 09.17.13 at 1:44 am

I assumed that shah8 was assuming that the only *actual* tokens were people put up by racist right wingers as a kind of con, and that when they put such people up naturally they would select incompetence. But maybe I am being unduly charitable.


Harry 09.17.13 at 1:58 am

Eszter — thanks. Philosophy has a big problem, yes. I think it is considerably worse than, say, Economics. It is embarrassing.

Your comment makes me think there is another footnote to be added. I know that many people are socialized to be reluctant to say no, and that socialization is, itself, gendered, so its worth adding, as you say, that the burden here is on the organizers, not on whoever gets asked by them. If you suspect you are being asked as “token” (or most other reasons) it is entirely up to you whether to accept — if you say no, and the organizers cannot find a woman, that is not your responsibility. (Any more than it is mine, if I say no and they can’t find someone left-wing). Most conferences and volumes in themselves just aren’t important enough for any one invitee to take on the burden of making sure they go right.

Kate — thanks, please do add the list! Its surprising that anyone knowing the discipline would press the meritocracy objection after actually seeing the list of conferences (it is very stark).

Zamfir — yes, you’re right of course about the value of diversity in agenda-setting. All disciplines suffer when diversity is lacking. I guess my point is just that in philosophy there is no gathering of perspective-independent data. We are exploring the space of reasons, and different perspectives give us access to different reasons; so if some perspectives are absent from the discussion any reasons that can only be seen from that perspective and many that are just much easier to see from that perspective than from others will be lost from our analysis. And those distortions that accompany our common background will be much harder to pierce.


Olivier Massin 09.17.13 at 1:08 pm

“Nobody feels like an imposter because of any of this.” sounds plainly false to me.


bad Jim 09.18.13 at 3:53 am

I always felt like an impostor until I found out I was old. (I’d rather go back.)

I’m a staunch advocate of tokenism and affirmative action. If you want to create a particular ecosystem you usually have to do a little planting. It wastes time (and in this case lives) to let nature run its course, particularly when the environmental influences that produced the monoculture you want to change are still effective.


Mao Cheng Ji 09.18.13 at 4:30 am

“It wastes time (and in this case lives) to let nature run its course, particularly when the environmental influences that produced the monoculture you want to change are still effective”

Sounds very progressive. Like Mongolia jumping to communism from feudalism, without capitalism in between.


Meredith 09.18.13 at 4:34 am

Quickly, great post, and what bad Jim just said.


Anca Gheaus 09.18.13 at 7:11 am

I find the comments @4 and @21 very interesting, because they suggest that people do feel like impostors as a result of thinking they’ve been invited for *various* reasons – not only gender or race. Which means it may be a good idea to ask how reasonable this emotional response is. One of the things I want to say in that paper is that it is reasonable to feel like an impostor only when one falls below a certain threshold of competence. The reason for being invited shouldn’t play any role, since almost always we need reasons unrelated to competence in order to make a selection. Which, again, suggests it’s worth reflecting on the quality of these reasons, and distinguish between the good (that someone’s presence may lower the stereotype threat felt by members of a certain group), the legitimate (perhaps being a good entertainer) and the bad (not too difficult to illustrate.)


Chris Armstrong 09.18.13 at 8:01 am

Thanks, Anca. I guess I just operate on the assumption that quite a large number of people are fairly insecure about their status a lot of the time, even when it really doesn’t look like it from the outside. In any case, reading memoirs of people who have had quite enviable careers tends to reinforce my view that ‘people who look like insiders from the outside usually feel like outsiders on the inside.’ Partly that’s because as people advance in their careers the pool of people they compare themselves with narrows too, so that there are always still a bunch of people who look more ‘insider’ than them (didn’t Nozick say somewhere that gaining admission to a top university counts as a tremendous boost to your self-esteem *until you get there*, at which point it doesn’t mark you out as exceptional any longer?).

None of this detracts from the debate going on here. You’re right to question the background assumption of meritocracy that makes gender quotas look like a special case of interference with impartial procedures. As you point out, if you look at how roles get filled all the time you can see that ‘interference’ with meritocracy is not that special at all. I was just unpersuaded by Harry’s assertion that filling roles because of his 17 reasons can’t also be expected to chip away at self-esteem. I can imagine that for people already not entirely secure in their self-esteem (most people?) it might. If so, to claim that only women suffer from imposter syndrome seems to me to be wrong. There might be various reasons why it’s more *regrettable* in the case of gender inequalities, but I don’t think it’s unique.


Anca Gheaus 09.18.13 at 8:20 am

Hi Chris, I agree. I wonder if it’s worth emphasising that women can suffer from the imposter syndrome also for reasons unrelated to gender – actually, from all the reasons that men have; plus gender.


Eszter Hargittai 09.18.13 at 9:16 am

Chris @26 – Good points, but Anca @27 is right that there is an added gender component, a component I’d like to unpack a bit.

First though I’ll note that in my experience, most people do indeed suffer from imposter syndrome at least in some instances regardless of their gender. I’ve seen this from people who are extremely well established for completely justifiable reasons and really have no reason to, but Chris makes a good point about relative standing. In fact, I tend to find that the least likely to exhibit imposter syndrome are those who probably should (or they’re better at hiding it).

Here’s the added baggage for women in such instances. I suspect that women who are actually confident in their abilities at least in some cases receive negative reactions for this, because social expectations dictate that it’s much less okay for women to be confident in themselves. Women are often expected to be more reserved, more agreeable, etc. A woman who exerts confidence and takes on others without apologizing for it will often be perceived as arrogant or bitchy far quicker than a male counterpart. So it’s a bit of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Perhaps I’ve taken the discussion a bit off course here, but it’s an important point that I like to remind people of, because it really is extra baggage for women in all sorts of contexts (including graduate advising, mind you).


Z 09.18.13 at 9:54 am

I think Eszter’s last point is actually very important. In my corner of the academic world, taking a forceful position (whether at a research seminar, at a faculty meeting or in a recruiting committee) will usually mark you as an insider, someone one has to listen to or at least consult etc. But it seems to me that Eszter’s view that the reaction of others to someone’s taking a forceful position is heavily influenced by gender is entirely correct, with men attracting favorable comments about their strength of characters and women much more frequently accused of being sectarian or rigid or impossible to work with.

As I personally have been laboring under a serious case of impostor syndrome for the last 10 years or so, I would add that I’m glad that people are trying to create an academic culture more friendly in that respect.


John Quiggin 09.18.13 at 10:05 am

I estimate the gender ratio at econ conferences is about 4:1. (Quick reality check: I count 52 male co-authors and 13 female, which fits that). At that level, a panel that is representative of the profession will typically have one woman, and that’s probably the modal number. That’s slightly different from having a token woman, more a matter of avoiding some of the biases noted above.

Still, I think econ would be a different and better profession if there were more woman, with causality running in both directions.


Kate Norlock 09.19.13 at 3:34 am

It’s worth consider what it means to say imposter syndrome is reasonable or unreasonable, given that there are contexts in which individual philosophers have actually been told, “You are only here because you are a token.” I’d suggest one would have to possess an unreasonable amount of confidence to hear that and be absolutely immune to its force.

Imposter syndrome seems affectively related to survivor’s guilt, which may also be minimally warranted when one advances in an overcrowded field like Philosophy (so many are called, and so few are chosen). Where there’s no simply meritocracy, there’s no clear deservingness. I realize the point of Ance Gheaus’ article is that this can be a comfort, but it can also be interpreted as evidence warranting one’s self-doubt.

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