Once I get started with the stories of all the times I've been mistaken for a student, it's hard to stop. Although these incidents are disturbing in terms of their implications for how many people view women, they also entertain me and are a great way to have fun talking to other women science professors. We all have these stories!
There are the times, too numerous to recall, when someone at a meeting has asked me who my advisor is.
There are the times that someone has not realized that those papers published by someone with the exact same last name and initials as I have is actually me. Somehow they had "pictured" X (me) in some other way.
[Side note/tangent: Back when people sent reprint request cards by mail, it was not unusual to get one with the PREPRINTED salutation "Dear Sir". I used to send a note with the reprint asking that they acquire new postcards without the Sir. Some people wrote back apologizing. Some people wrote back a rude note saying that I should just deal with it. Some people of course did not respond. And one person wrote back saying that they had hundreds of these postcards and were not about to spend money getting them reprinted]
On at least 3 occasions that I can remember, an applicant for a faculty position in my department has talked to me at a conference, noticing my department/university affiliation listed on my nametag but not realizing that I was (1) a professor, and (2) on the search committee (in 2 of the cases). These all happened 3 years ago or more, and involved applicants who were in fields far from my own (I sometimes have to be on search committees even though I have no expertise in the field, just for the sake of gender diversity). One such conversation went something like this:
A (Applicant): You're from the University of X! I'm applying for a job there. What's the department like?
Me: (some answer involving basic department info blah blah blah)
A: What are the professors like?
Me, slowly realizing that A may not know I'm a professor, but not quite sure because maybe he meant to ask "What are the OTHER professors like": What do you mean?
A, clarifying: I'm interested in a student's perspective on the faculty.
Me, now sure that A does not know I am a professor and not wanting to freak him out but at the same time wanting to make a point, as kindly as possible: Then you should ask a student.
A: Oh, I'm sorry. Are you a postdoc?
There is no good way to end that type of conversation.
And then there was the time at a conference when I was talking to one of my colleagues from another university, and a man rushed up to my colleague and said "I'm sorry I missed your student's talk!". My colleague said "None of my students are giving talks at this conference." Other man: "But I'm sure I saw in the program that there was a talk by X with your name listed as coauthor." Colleague, laughing hysterically and pointing at me, "This is X!". Other man, noticing me for the first time, "So this is your student!" Colleague, laughing even more, "Yes, it's so great to have a student who writes lots of papers!". At that point I walked away. Why is it that my male colleagues find this situation so funny?
The best solution to all of these problems is to become well known in your field and related fields. I'm working on it! This has its own issues, though, as you end up having conversations with insincere and sometimes desparate people at conferences, just because they know that you are editor of a journal and/or on an NSF panel or in some other position of academic quasi-power. But it's also a relief in some ways, compared to the alternative of being the eternal student, and I guess it's part of being a Role Model.
6 years ago