In response to a letter from a young female doctor who is having trouble being respected by the older women staff members in the medical office in which she works, Slate advice columnist "Dear Prudence" ends her advice with this statement:
"And remember, while sexism may never be completely eradicated, despite your profession's best efforts, the generation that can't believe a woman is a doctor will eventually die out."
Shouldn't they be gone by now? That was my grandparents' generation, and my last beloved grandmother (who did in fact have strong opinions about what careers were and were not suitable for women) died a few years ago when she was in her 90's. My parents were young adults in the 1960's and 70's, so even that generation should be well acquainted with the fact of women doctors. Even my conservative aunts don't have a problem with women doctors; some of them have daughters who are doctors. And, since the female staff members who are giving the young doctor such a hard time are pre-retirement age, they are even younger than my parents' generation.
Perhaps there is a lag time, and with each generation there will be fewer and fewer people who can't believe that young women are doctors and eventually it won't be an issue, but I think there is more to it than that.
In my own interactions with staff members (male and female) in academic departments, I have had mixed reactions, ranging from extremely positive (perhaps because I am polite and respectful to hard-working staff members and I do more of my own administrative work than some of my senior male colleagues) to extremely negative (because, I am convinced, of the discomfort of some staff members with doing work 'for' a younger woman). In the latter case, the disrespectful, undermining staff have no trouble believing I am a professor, but they nevertheless have a negative reaction to working with me.
I don't even know what word to use to describe how these disrespectful staff members feel about working with female professors, or how to explain why it matters to them whether they are providing a memo to a male professor or a female professor. Do they feel demeaned? Does it make them feel uncomfortable about their own jobs? Will these negative interactions really go away eventually, maybe when today's 20 year olds are middle aged?
I would like to think that, but I have seen too much recent sexist behavior from young people to believe that the problem will be solved by generational attrition.
7 months ago