Friday, January 26, 2007

Invisible Woman

It's amazing, but I have this supernatural ability to become invisible. It's almost like being a superhero. Almost, but not quite. I read somewhere that, given a choice between having the ability to become invisible and having the ability to fly, women tend to choose invisibility. Men tend to choose the personal flight option. There were some unflattering interpretations of that (women are sneaky, men are daring etc.), but that's another issue.

In any case, I don't see much use in being invisible. I have some experience with it, including this week, and mostly I find it annoying and, on occasion, humiliating. And the strange thing is that this amazing power to become invisible mostly kicks in around Distinguished Male Professors. The one who visited our department this week was a rather classic example of this species.

How I Became Invisible
A male colleague and I walked up to the Distinguished Visitor in the hallway, and the visitor stuck out his hand at my male colleague and gave him a manly handshake; they introduced themselves to each other. For some reason, I assumed it was my turn for a handshake and introduction. Social horror! He ignored me. I dropped my hand, but I introduced myself anyway, saying something like "I'm on your schedule for tomorrow and am looking forward to talking with you." He glanced at me, confused, then turned back to my male colleague, who was by this point very uncomfortable about the situation and extracted himself from the conversation. When we were out of earshot, he said to me "That was strange and creepy." Yes indeed.

I figured that today, in our individual meeting, the visitor and I would get on track and have a nice scientist-to-scientist conversation. With some of these guys, once they are sitting in my office, which is the usual professor-type office filled with books and miscellaneous scientific things, they have no trouble having a normal conversation with me about topics of mutual scientific or professorial interest. In contrast, during the encounter in the hall, he couldn't even see me.

Well, I didn't have a chance to run the office experiment with this particular visitor. I was the second-to-last person on his schedule, and he decided to go to the airport 3 hours early for a domestic flight, and pass up the opportunity to talk to me and a postdoc. He was probably tired after 1.5 days of visiting with people, but it was still rude. It's probably better that I missed this opportunity, though. I was originally on his schedule for yesterday, but one of my junior colleagues had to reschedule, and I offered to trade times with him. If I hadn't, I would have actually had to spend time with this obnoxious person.

11 comments:

anon said...

I'm also bothered by your colleague's behavior. It was a perfect example of passively letting the status quo perpetuate, where he indeed had a wonderful opportunity to help establish you and your gender as an equal. And to think that all he needed to do, was introduce you as his colleague.

Anonymous said...

I have the opposite problem. there were times when I would reach out to shake a woman's hand, and they wouldn't do a thing. I suspect guys shake hands more often and develop a sense of when the handshake is about to happen. I have had similar handshake near-misses with guys too, but they are usually not as common, and have to do with the distance to the person - you shake hands with someone sitting next to you, does it mean you are also obligated to reach out to their neighbours and all other people who may be sitting further behind?

We should go back to the time when men shook other men's hands, but men kissed women's hands instead. Just kidding!

Ancarett said...

I hope that you could get through to whomever schedules these bozos and point out the problem with Distinguished Visitor. However, rudeness to women professors and postdocs is probably something these guys wouldn't perceive as a problem, no?

Reviewer A said...

That visiting prof is an a*** (I think Blogger edited my language here) Not "sounds like" or "seems to be", no qualifiers are needed. Sounds like a supercilious prof I met at Hahvahd once, who was visiting from France.

A form sent by the committee organizing my 20-year HS reumion asked us about our special talents. I wrote "I can make myself invisible". Actually it's odd - people remember me at meetings because I am a rare over-35 female. In other situations (like waiting in lines for service), I am definitely invisible too.

Reviewer A said...

That visiting prof is an a*** (I think Blogger edited my language here) Not "sounds like" or "seems to be", no qualifiers are needed. Sounds like a supercilious prof I met at Hahvahd once, who was visiting from France.

A form sent by the committee organizing my 20-year HS reumion asked us about our special talents. I wrote "I can make myself invisible". Actually it's odd - people remember me at meetings because I am a rare over-35 female. In other situations (like waiting in lines for service), I am definitely invisible too.

Anonymous said...

The day before yesterday, Eminent Professor visited us and I was introduced to him. He did not shake hands with me (I covered my outstretched hand in a movement to lock my office door) and His behaviour was even stranger than usual for my field. Hence, Somewhat Less Eminent Professor who had introduced me was astonished and asked whether we already knew each other. Eminent Professor's reply: 'No, but I've read a paper and I though it was a guy.'

He did not look at me and never addressed a word to me, not then and not later, which canot have been easy, because we sat face to face at lunch.

Anonymous said...

Why didn't you confront him about the issue right away? I would.

I know if you were a man probably this won't happen. I had similar experiences too. However, I found my mother has been treated more respectfully by members of those old-boy's clubs even when she was younger. I don't know exactly how she did that, but she certainly has the flair of making those people feel her demand for respect and making them feel presured to meet the demand.

Therefore, there maybe ways to make us more visible besides working harder and achieve more .

Jane said...

How awful! I agree with anon---why don't our male colleagues step up more often and call these bozos on their behavior?? (Rhetorical question, of course, as Ancarett points out.)

Our last "Distinguished" Visitor spent more time talking to my chest than to me (when he deigned to talk to me at all), and when he was introduced to me he very clearly looked me up and down as he was shaking my hand. My male colleagues, of course, said nothing. Yeah, I was wishing pretty hard for invisibility at that point, too.

Ms.PhD said...

Well, I have a silver lining take on this. Perhaps I'm not visualizing it well enough, but I can tell you two things that have happened to me that *might* redeem Professor Weirdo's behavior.

1- He thought you were a guy and couldn't process the information that you weren't (see other commenter's anecdote about this). And then maybe leaped to some crazy conclusion like assuming you had a sex change, or something.

2- He's partly deaf. I have had serious problems with older men being able to hear me, because my voice is too high or not booming enough. They're actually very shy about admitting their handicap, and I've noticed quite frequently that with scientists, shyness often comes across as outright rudeness.

3- He has taken a religious vow not to touch or speak to women. I know this sounds ridiculous, especially in science, but such things do exist.

If we could rule all those things out, sure I'd agree he's just a jerk. I know I HATE being ignored or treated in a blatantly different way from my male colleagues. But in visitors of increasing age, I tend to write it off as dementia or some form of demented generation gap.

Anonymous said...

I have a tendency to think these things are personal .. "You are not important enough for me to pay attention to" rather than "Women are not important enough for me to pay attention to." Maybe I'm wrong. I wish there were an easier way to tell.

Anonymous said...

Oh, just thought of another horrible female science professor thing I witnessed! I briefly interacted with a husband/wife scientist team. Both of them were telling me about their work. The wife was getting animated about it as the husband wanted to talk. As she began a new sentence, he put his hand on her shoulder and she FELL SILENT and he took over. I think my mouth fell open in horror.
-from the same person who just commented anonymously a moment a go, here.