I'm back to making trouble in the comments sections again. There appears to be a controversy between the Russian organizers of an upcoming Hume conference in Moscow and some of the prospective Western participants, concerning the under-representation of women among the speakers in the conference. The Russian organising committee, headed up by Elena Vostrikova, sent a letter to the complainants, in which she maintained, among other things, that "we consider your proposal to influence our conference by pressing the invited speakers to cancel their participation in it a manifestation an anachronistic colonial behavior which we also deem inappropriate." To see the entire letter, go here. My comment at the same site is reproduced below.
I agree with Mme. Vostrikova that this is, in a certain respect, colonial behaviour. You cannot operate as philosophers at the international level, organising events that involve cultural exchange, without taking into consideration the differences between the cultures. In this instance, I believe that Western Europeans and Americans tend to see their cultural difference from Russia as less significant than the Russians themselves see their cultural difference from the West. (This is perhaps the only case in the world in which a group others itself even as those from whom it is self-othering in turn refuse to other it.)
Now, for better or worse, an entirely different history of gender politics in Russia has had as a consequence that, today, different cultural attitudes prevail concerning the 'natures' of men and women, and concerning the social roles to which these natures make them suited. Are these attitudes correct? I don't believe so, and I don't believe any of the readers here do either. But having spent a year and a half in Russia, I will confess that I have indeed sat silently through many conversations that reproduced essentializing commonplaces about gender difference: conversations which, had they taken place in the West, would have caused me to intervene in opposition. Why did I not intervene? Because unless something truly criminal is going on I believe in the edifying effect of quiet participant-observation, and because under the circumstances it would have been arrogant to do so, and in any case ineffectual. It would have been a small-scale instance of the sort of geopolitical manoeuvre to which Vostrikova and the others allude (it would say, like Jeffrey Sachs in another sphere of public life, 'We know better').
Now Russia also has an entirely different history of gender in public institutions, including the academy. There are indeed very high percentages of women in most scientific fields, as Vostrikova et al. point out, and this has in large part to do with the legacy of the Soviet commitment to advancing the representation of women in high-status fields (a top-down commitment that never succeeded in transforming popular attitudes about men and women).
Today, however, I fear that the high representation of women in the humanities has to do with the fact that financially the institutions where these are housed have been completely gutted, while simultaneously, in the post-Soviet era, ideas about what constitutes status have been completely reversed: leaving a peculiar situation in which women entered into high-status jobs because of a certain sort of Soviet progressivism, but now hold those same jobs in such large numbers only because Russian society as a whole has lost this progressive momentum: popular attitudes have proved much more enduring than when the Bolsheviks came up with that hapless phrase "The woman is also a person", and now the status of the jobs into which women were promoted has gone from one extreme to the other. They remain there largely because of the low status of these positions.
I'm not necessarily sure cultural exchange is always worth it (I declined an invitation to a conference in Iran a few years ago), but if you're going to go ahead with it then you would do better to not blunder in there with a Besserwisser attitude and start telling your local hosts how to do things, especially if you have no knowledge of or interest in the history that led them to do things this way in the first place. Russia is part of a different cultural-historical sphere than the one familiar to most Hume Society members (it has had, to be sure, a prominent Westernizing elite since Peter the Great, and a proper Enlightenment for the elite under Catherine, which tend to obscure from view this deeper cultural difference at the popular level: during the Enlightenment, the 'people' were serfs). Yes, I know there is feminism in Russia, but I would argue that as in Catherine's era it is salon feminism, and that in everyday use the word has a fundamentally 'importny' (imported) ring to it, like, for that matter, 'jeans' or 'Coke'. Perhaps someday things will be different, but the change is not going to be quickened by a group of Western philosophers chastening their Russian hosts for not adhering to the norms that prevail at APA-sanctioned events. Moscow is out of that jurisdiction.