Lily Lamboy is a fourth-year Ph.D. in the political science department with a focus on political theory and social inequality. She has been a teaching assistant for POLISCI 136S: Justice for three consecutive years and is also the graduate mentor for the Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies program. A former college debater, she founded the American Parliamentary Debate Association’s Gender Empowerment Initiative in 2011. The Daily spoke with her about her path to gender inequality research as part of our new Glamorous Grad Students feature.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you come to political philosophy?
Lily Lamboy (LL): When I arrived at college, I was really interested in women’s health issues and social justice, but in high school you have so few subjects that are introduced to you. You take history, English and science classes, but I didn’t know any political philosophers. It had never occurred to me that it was something I could study. In college, I started doing debate, and we did a type of debate where the topic changes every round. All the questions were really charged moral and political normative issues – whether you should have to give up your kidneys, how to distribute resources, things you talk about in [POLISCI 136S] Justice. It felt urgent to dig into these things.
TSD: How has your political philosophy journey led to your dissertation?
LL: Also debate. I never knew it would be so important! Debate was incredibly misogynistic. I experienced pretty overt sexual harassment and truly troubling conduct while I was part of that network, but also loved the activity and had amazing friends I cared a lot about. It was the first time in my life I identified myself as facing a serious obstacle as a function of my gender. I remember saying to my mom, “I’m not a feminist – it’s so passé to be a feminist, Mom,” when I was 17 in the year 2005, and my mom being like, “Oh God.” I went to Smith [a women’s undergraduate college], and the contrast between being in a women-only environment and how liberating and delightful that was [between] every weekend entering this environment that was 70 percent male – and of those who succeeded, about five percent female – was truly, staggeringly bad … I saw debate as a site where I could make change, but I was petrified to do it while I was there, because I was so worried about people not liking me and it being held against me, that I wouldn’t call anyone’s misbehavior to their attention. I graduated and formed a nationwide women’s initiative, which is now called the APDA Gender Empowerment Initiative … It’s now the norm to be a feminist, and it’s been really incredible to see the change that’s made.
I got to Stanford and the process started all over again. I thought I would do research related to body integrity and abortion, which is still related to gender issues, but not nearly as explicitly about access and discrimination and bias as [the work I do now]. I ended up writing up about something I care about personally and that, for many years now, I’ve been fighting for. It’s a very clear application of my interests as an activist to my interests as an academic.
TSD: How is discrimination and bias traced in your dissertation?
LL: I’m interested in cases where a standard or norm is applied, and the people who apply it feel that the standard is morally defensible, neutral and/or meritocratic, but the outcome of applying these standards is predictably unequal. An example might be pregnancy discrimination, where someone wants to hire the person who will log the most number of hours, and they see it as a reasonable inference that a new mom is not that person. If you ask them to defend it, they’ll say, “We want to get the most profits or hours out of our workers.” The person doing the hiring feels like that standard is neutral and morally defensible, but applying the principle affects men and women differently. I’m trying to figure out under what circumstances organizations or individuals have an obligation to change the standard that they’re using versus under what circumstances we should focus more on the supply side, as in preparing people better to meet that standard.
TSD: How did such a specific interest stem from debate?
LL: In debate we knew women were doing far less well, but we also knew the standards that were being applied were mostly determined by people who had been successful in the past. Our ideal type was a white Harvard or Yale man – they looked a certain way, talked a certain way. Particular arguments went in and out of vogue, but what was in vogue was typically determined by a small subset of successful debaters. When I was there, the hot topics were economics and constitutional law. If you didn’t master those things, you would never succeed. The norms were set by those who succeeded and most debaters mimicked the successful people. I saw the effect this norm entrepreneurship had all the way down. Each year, the freshman class would start roughly 50-50 percent [men and women], but by the end of the year it was 70-30. It was in part because women wouldn’t typically succeed on the terms that were asked of them – they’d want to talk about or do something else – and it would be immediately slammed.
I saw the same thing happen in grad school. The standards for what constitutes professional excellence are often set by a small subset of people. Many women and minorities come to grad school with strong interests in social justice issues, only to find that those topics are not common in top journals. Writing for popular press is considered by some to be watered-down or not worth your time. Teaching, service work, committees – I do all of these things in abundance, and while lots of people in my community have been great about my interest in doing that, by and large that’s not reflected in the expectations of the discipline. A lot of other women and minorities I know care about these aspects of academic life a lot. The fact that these things aren’t consistently valued leads some people to feel discouraged about their contributions and their place in the Academy.
This broader phenomenon is difficult. I don’t think there are easy answers.
TSD: Do you feel a tension criticizing the field of which you’re a part?
LL: Definitely, but I’m very fortunate to be in a department with graduate students and faculty who are really on this and care a ton. There’s definitely been a big collective action boost. My cohort is majority women … I have great advisers, men and women of all ages who are proactive about these things. That doesn’t mean it’s not tense trying to figure out what that actually means – it’s hard. We’re trying to collect more survey information and make it more systematic. But honestly, my perspective is that I’d rather do work that is really exciting and is trying to answer difficult questions. If that puts me at odds with someone, that’s okay … that’s a good signal that this stuff matters.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited.
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