Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Random People in Context

Yesterday I described a recent encounter with someone I described as a "random person". I gave this vague description on purpose, so that the focus would be on the content of the conversation, one of many such conversations I have had with many different people over many years.

My main point was that this is a common experience for women scientists, and that these conversations can still occur even when the FSP in question is in her 40's (and looks her age).

If I had provided more details about the gender, age, nationality, occupation, health, attire, and height of the random person, I would have gotten the usual comments along the lines of You should excuse his/her behavior because he/she:

- is of a different generation and didn't mean to be offensive, or

- is from a different culture/country/planet and didn't mean to be offensive, or

- was wearing a McCain-Palin T-shirt and meant to be offensive but that's OK because at least he/she didn't call you a terrorist.

Even so, the specific details about the so-called random person are important for understanding who (still) makes these statements and why they make them, and why they are so slow to let go of their inaccurate assumptions even when confronted with data to the contrary.

My response to these conversations is also influenced by my situation/mood at the time. During the conversation transcribed yesterday, I was extremely tired, kind of stressed out, and on my way from one place to another when I encountered the random person, hence my short answers and lack of interest in having a discussion about my job title.

If you read the transcript of the conversation yesterday, perhaps you made assumptions about the random person and perhaps these assumptions influenced your feelings about the conversation. Now consider the following descriptions of hypothetical random people who might have had this conversation with me. Does knowing more information about the random person change your perception of the conversation?

1. The random person is a science professor from a European or Asian country that does not have many women science professors.

2. The random person is a 60 year old non-academic person with only a vague understanding of academic titles. She/he has read news articles about the prevalence of adjuncts at research universities and knows that many of them are women.

3. The random person is a graduate student or postdoc who has encountered very few female science professors in her/his academic career.

4. The random person is an American mid-career male science professor at a research university in the US.

5. The random person is a technician in a lab at a research university and is used to interacting with male science professors.

6. The random person is an undergraduate in a science class for non-majors. The student's other large intro level classes have been taught by instructors/lecturers and adjuncts of various species. The student may never have taken a class taught by a tenured full professor before.

7. The random person is my mother-in-law.

OK, the random person was not my mother-in-law, but my professorialness has been questioned by at least one example of each of the others at some point in time. Does it matter which one it was this time?

19 comments:

The_Myth said...

For me, the annoying part of the conversation was the implication that your repeated reply of "Professor" did not satisfy the dullard because you were either lying or "exaggerating."

That is how I usually interpret such situations. It's fine to want clarification, but if you literally have to keep replying with the same answer and the person doesn't get it, this signifies a greater depth of ignorance than *anyone* should have to deal with.

Drugmonkey said...

no it does not matter.

Say, what gives with the dailykos routine lately?

Dr M said...

None of the options would excuse the fact that the person persistently refused to accept your answer.

However, some of them would explain a susbstantial amount of confusion regarding the professor title (since, unfortunately almost everyone above a postdoc is called a professor in the U.S. -- and increasingly so on my side of the Atlantic as well, unfortunately). It's not that long ago that a professor (meaning a full professor with a chair and all that comes with it) in his/her early 40's would have been a fairly rare occurance in some European countries. Based on age (though the influence of gender sadly cannot be excluded), someone with only a rudimentary knowledge of U.S. academic titles might assume that a 40-something-year-old calling him-/herself a professor would infact just be shortening assistant/associate/whatever professor to just professor.

But that's only to explain the cause of confusion -- and it would have been more understandable ten years ago or more -- and therefore the need to explain things. (And why the question when asked the first time need not be taken as offensive.) It can never excuse the inappropriate behaviour, and it does not change the fact that the behaviour as a whole is offensive.

Anonymous said...

As female scientists we seem to spend a lot of time having to justify ourselves. I find it very wearying.

chall said...

I wouldnt say it doesnt matter since I am curious which of the categories you were exposed to. For example, my response would be slightly different if it was a undergraduate student from a tech uni - since then I would feel the urge to really in depth explain that FSP arent that strange...

But really, I guess youre right, it doesnt really matter since the question is there - what kind of professor are you? And I think it wasnt subject oriented as you recountred it.

Maria said...

Anyone in academia (except the undergrad who I don't expect to have an understanding of the intricacies of professors' titles) I have little to no sympathy for. As a group, no matter their cultural background, if they have a basic understanding of the ranking of professors it is both insulting to start out with the assumption that someone is less than a full professor, and obtuse to refuse to believe it upon correction.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Bottom line: No matter what one's circumstance, there is no justification or excuse for being an ignorant repulsive motherfucker. That is not to say that you might not choose to ignore such behavior--that is, to refrain from upbraiding or otherwise punishing the dumbfuck asshole--if it suits your own goals at the moment.

Anonymous said...

No, 'cause the important point to be made is that we are all influenced by the consistent stereotypes we internalize from our world. Another FSP might make this mistake as well, because they/we live in the same biased world as the rest of the folks.

Kristof had an o-ed in the NYT called "Racism without Racists" that I think could apply here, too. There might be racism/sexism with racists/sexists, but there's also the kind that just reinforces the stereotypes of society.

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/05/opinion/05kristof.html?ei=5070&emc=eta1

People hate it when it's called, 'cause calling people out on it because part of the premise is that even those of us who are "good" (i.e. not sexist/racist) can still behave in a way that reinforces racism or sexism.

yolio said...

I guess I think it matters. For example, items 3--5 are people who know the academic ladder. This means that if they are having this conversation with you, it is only to needle you. Similarly, your mother-in-law is likely only playing dumb to get on your nerves.

Number two may be expressing genuine naivete with intentions to understand better. Number 1 and 6 are simply expressing socially accepted levels of sexism.

I rank the level of threat and aggressivenss of these conversations in this order: 5, 4, 3, 1, 6, 2 with the ranking of 7 depending on your relationship.

In all cases, it sucks. But some of these cases are more serious than others. When a person who could potentially be on your tenure committee someday is intentionally using sexism to undermine you, this is worse than some batty old lady trying to make heads or tails of you.

Alex said...

#2 (non-academic who recently learned that a lot of the people in academia are adjuncts) and #6 (undergrad who has not yet encountered a real tenure-track faculty member in the sciences) deserve a bit of slack. Their most recent information is that tenure-track faculty are a rare species that they are unlikely to encounter. Moreover, as they are learning the academic hierarchy and labels, they might think that "professor" is a generic term while "Full Professor", "Assistant Professor", "Associate Professor", etc. are specific terms, so when you say "My title is Professor" they want clarification. (Yes, I'm aware that most universities just use "Professor" for the rank above "Associate Professor" rather than "Full Professor" but "Full Professor" comes up in conversation, further confusing the outsider.)

I used to be an "Adjunct Professor." Was I a Professor with a capital P? No. Was I a professor of some sort? Well, that word was in the title given to me by the university, even though the work I did would earn a title like "Lecturer" at other schools. So sorting out "Professor" vs. "professor" in verbal conversation can be a bit tricky.

Now, I don't know the context. Maybe these people were laboring under sexist assumptions. But given the limited information available to them, I'd cut them some benefit of the doubt, until they remove the doubt.

The other people on that list? No slack for them.

Alex said...

Two more thoughts:

1) It gets even more confusing when you look at other titles:

Research Assistant Professors: A job that is often in a gray area between postdoc and tenure track, meaning different things at different schools.

Visiting Assistant Professors: In a gray area between Assistant Professors and full-time Lecturers

Lecturers with [insert term for something equivalent to tenure]: Some schools have these. I took a class from one in grad school, and another one of them conducted TA training.

Senior Lecturer: Barack Obama held this title, leading to a brief internet controversy over whether he was "really" a professor.

Clinical professors: In the health professions, these can be anything from full-time people supervising a team of students in the university hospital to outside practicioners who occasionally supervise a student or resident doing a rotation in their clinic or office.

And no doubt other titles that I'm forgetting.

Faced with all that, I cut the freshmen and non-academics some slack when they get confused by the simple title of "Professor." They're expecting "Full Professor with Tenure" or something, to distinguish it from all the other types of professors that they've heard of.

2) You mentioned having military relatives in another post. Not being from a military family, my ROTC roommate in college had a difficult time explaining to me that non-commissioned officers are not officers, even though they can give people orders and have the word "officer" in their title. And then he started talking about specialists and warrant officers, and I was completely confused. No doubt many military people would be upset if I referred to a Chief Petty Officer as an officer.

In light of that, I can't really fault somebody who fails to understand the titles and ranks in the hierarchy that I work in.

But, by the same token, just as a military person knows exactly what an officer is, the academics who pretended not to understand your title have zero excuse.

Anonymous said...

I am a F postdoc, soon to be young FSP, just accepted a faculty position (in the physical sciences) at a highly ranked, well-known university. I have had several versions of this conversation, like the following one recently while taking with a young, male colleague who is at the same career stage as me:

Me: I am moving to "X" state because I accepted a position at X university.

M colleague: great, so what will you be doing there?

Me: (I proceed to fill him in on my expected distribution of research, teaching, service, etc)

M colleague: oh, so you got a faculty position?

Me: yess.... (Thinking to myself what is more likely given that I am currently a postdoc..?)

M colleague: oh, a tenure track assistant prof position?

Me: yess....

M colleague: wow, I guess I'll have to be nicer to you from now on..

Yes, he actually said that! I like this guy, and I don't think he is intentionally biased, sexist, etc. Which in my mind, is evidence that these biases about the drive, motivation, interests, etc of female scientists do exist, and need to be acknowledged and dealt with.

landsnark said...

FSP, thanks so much for these two posts. I'm a 37yo FSP in a nontraditional academic career track--like another commenter, what I do might be classified as "lecturer" in other places, but I'm full time and have an Assoc Prof rank (though no tenure track). And I've *always* had people telling me I'm too young to be a professor, every since I started 10 years ago. Like anonymous #1, I find it wearying.

Anonymous #2 talking about socially-approved biases reminds me of a continuous fight I've been having for years: trying to get people to stop using the word "man" to mean "staff" or "attend"--"man the table at the career fair," etc. This bothers me even more given the fact that whenever it's a menial task (like career fair, orientation, etc) the women in the department tend to be the first ones asked to "man" the station.

Whether or not the user *thinks* the term is gender-neutral, my point is this: What picture comes into your head when you hear of a "manned spacecraft"?

Pagan Topologist said...

Based upon the phrasing, I would only believe #2 in your list. All the others would have said things differently.

Female Science Professor said...

I have had the same conversation with all in the list with the exception of my mother-in-law, who is not as polite.

Anonymous said...

I would have raged hard at this.

I have to admit though, that I too have had my own missconceptions of women in science. I was quite (pleasantly) surprised to find that the demographics of my physics course was not heavily male dominated, as I had expected.

Also, I resent the implication that european countries are more backwards when it comes to gender equality than the US.

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous F postdoc soon to be an FSP a few posts above, I don't see any sexism in the dialogue, I can see myself having the same dialogue with a young looking (I assume you are) M postdoc.

--M grad student

Katie said...

Nope, doesn't matter.

Though, I'm amazed at your self restraint. I wouldn't have been nearly as nice.

Janka said...

Interestingly enough, I found the other cases neutral and mostly in the "meh, silly person" category than outrageous, but the case where it would be a grad student or a post-doc with no experience of female professors, I found *funny*.

The joke's on him, of course.