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?
2 years ago