Friday, July 10, 2009

What Do I Look Like I Do

It shouldn't surprise me anymore, but it does, when I get into a conversation with someone I don't know and they make an assumption about me based mostly on my appearance.

The latest encounter was with someone who started to explain to me in very simple terms about the physical properties of liquid nitrogen. I said, simply, "Yes, I know." The person asked "How do you know? Do you work in the office of a company that supplies liquid nitrogen tanks?"

I am certainly not insulted at being mistaken for an office worker, though I think it is a bizarre first assumption when hearing that someone is familiar with the properties of liquid nitrogen.

What about me signaled "office worker"? I was wearing shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, and casual sandals, so I clearly wasn't dressed for office work of the sort the other person imagined (though I was, in fact, dressed for going to my office).

Why not stop after "How do you know?". Or just ask, "So what do you do?", "What's your job?" etc. if you want to know if the liquid nitrogen familiarity is job-related.

In my daily life, I don't care if random people guess that I am a scientist or not, especially if I'm not wearing my special graph paper socks and shirt, but I wish that the possibility that a woman is a scientist were considered more likely than it is.

This was one minor incident, but it was one minor incident among many, and that's what I want to change.

50 comments:

Anonymous said...

"but I wish that the possibility that a woman is a scientist were considered more likely than it is."

I wish that the possibility that a woman has a career that doesn't revolve around service to a man were considered more likely than it is. What you look like you do has nothing to do with the way you dress your body, it's the boobs that give away not just your gender, but also your 'role' in society, i.e., subservient to a man in power in any career field. jc

Eve said...

I get people simplifying their answers even after I mention I've done a minor in physics. I have to specifically offer up my knowledge of a particularly complicated concept in an off-hand way before they will believe that I know something about science. But I think that's a bias against non-physics plebs rather than a bias against women. The really annoying thing is when people assume I've never taken a calculus course before. But that's understandable, seeing as chicks are like totally bad at math.

Irene said...

Completely agree! I hate when people say all surprised "you don't look like a scientist" when I say what I do. It makes me wonder if they think I am gonna be wearing my lab coat even to go food shopping.

Anonymous said...

Sounds to me like he asked you what your job was: "Do you work in X?" is a typical way of asking "What do you do for a living?" without sounding too nosy. I believe the common response is "Oh no, I work in Y" if you want to keep chatting or just "Oh no" if you don't want to chat anymore. At least, that is what my research into "small talk" has shown.

Also, given the priors, he made the right guess. There are probably around 1Million times as many office workers as scientists, and probably several times more people work producing liquid nitrogen than as scientists.

Running into a scientist is about as likely as running into a professional athelete.

Aurora said...

Happens to me too. Appearances matter, but clothing matters more.

Had you been dressed professional casual this person might have assumed you were the boss at said office ;)

Professor just isn't on the average person's radar unless you have a sizable greying beard.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Even some of us who are not scientists might respond to "how do you know?" with "I took basic chemistry in college." I mean, that person sounds as if he were assuming complete ignorance, not just non-scientist status.

Greg said...

As an MSP I have had people surprised to find out what I do but for very different reasons. Never has someone assumed I was an office worker. I find that quite bizarre, actually. And sad that people still make these assumptions based on gender be it subconscious or not.

This brings up another question which may be better answered in a new post on the subject. What do you answer to people who ask what you do? I still struggle with this. Do I tell them I'm a teacher? Do I tell them I'm a scientist? A professor? A Chair? Many times when I tell people I am a professor they exclaim at how nice it is that I have my summers off. I have to continually further explain about the scientist aspect of my life.

Liz said...

What they make special graph paper socks? I want some (just kidding)

Many years ago (pre-grad school, I went to a conference near my Mother's house. My grandmother lived with her. Mom came up to the conference for dinner one night, my grandmother was confused. "what does Liz do, is she a secretary?" since clearly in her mind that was the only job women were supposed to do. I had hoped things would be different nearly 25y later.

Anonymous said...

In my daily life I know so few scientists that "office worker" is my default assumption for most people I meet, male or female. I do think it's odd, though, that this person concocted such a convoluted story to support that assumption rather than just ask how you knew.

Anonymous said...

Hyphens should not be used when the compound modifier appears after the noun it modifies. Hence, the "familiarity is job-related" should not have a hyphen.

Anonymous said...

it happens in other fields "you don't look like a librarian" or "I thought you were one of the student workers" or "what is your husband studying" (um I'm not married) or "what did you move here for if you didn't go to school here?" (to which the answer is "I moved here for this job" which results in silence normally...granted having lived here in the middle of nowhere for a while, I somewhat understand the question more, but they don't ask teaching faculty that question!)

Cloud said...

At my first post-grad school job, I was occasionally mistaken for the administrative assistant. It was a computer/math heavy biotech, and I was one of two female scientists there. The funniest occasion was the day that I was walking through the lobby, and some visiting dignitary stopped me and ask me to make him some coffee. I laughed and told him I made terrible coffee (I do- I'm a tea drinker), but I'd find the admin and ask her to get him some. My (male) boss was standing there, and the look on his face was priceless. His mouth was literally hanging open in surprise.

Now that I'm older and the head of a small computer-related department at a biotech, I still get vendors calling and wanting to be transferred to the guy who makes the purchasing decisions, but I haven't been asked to make coffee in a long time.

another junior FSP said...

The worst example of this I ever encountered was in a physics building. I was visiting a collaborator with one of my (female) students; we were carrying bins filled with some small pieces of equipment we needed for an experiment.

An elderly male walks up to us, and asks "Oh, are you here to bring the coffee?"

I politely indicated that no, we were not, and we were here for science.

"Oh, whose lab are you in?"

Thank you, I'm in my own lab, and this is my student. At which point he was extremely apologetic.

I do like looking young, but I'm really tired of the first assumption always being that I'm someone else's grad student or postdoc. But to be able to miss all of the signs and have the first assumption be that the girls must have the refreshments? Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Oh please, FSP, give us our morning schadenfreude! Did you casually say, "No, I'm a professor of Big Science Field"? And what was the look on his face? :-)

Anonymous said...

I see it as a specific case of a general phenomenon.

I'm not a scientist, but I'm not a drooling idiot, either, and it pisses the holy crap out of me when the doctor (usually when it's a new doctor, but invariably if the new doctor is male) automatically dumbs down very basic explanations for me. I can understand big words, Doctor Man, some with three, even four syllables; even some with sciency applications. And I do understand that they can't afford to assume science literacy in a patient, but it really underscores the point when the Plot Exposition For Dummies is delivered in precisely the tone of voice of exaggerated patience you might use in explaning to a 5 year old (for the tenth time) why he must not flush his toys down the toilet.

cicely

Dr. Wannabeamom said...

I agree with other comments that most people aren't used to scientists. BUT - because he had to ask why you knew seems gender biased to me. Many times I have to back up what I say or know with references or list credentials, and my husband and brothers and other men often do not have to do this. I mean maybe it is odd for an average person to know about a liquid nitrogen (although they discuss it and bring it into high school classes now), but usually if a man says he knows something other men (and women) trust him and don't need to investigate. This even happens with my female PI - she trusts the opinions of the male grad student more than me (even though I'm more senior and more productive.

Schlupp said...

Anons 06:53:00 AM and 08:41:00 AM, yes, office workers are more common than scientists, so the assumption might have been ok given the prior. But he failed to take into account the data: The information that FSP knows about the liquid Nitrogen, changes the odds quite a bit. After all, how many office workers have to do with liquid nitrogen?

Actually, huh, the fact that it was so hard to him to change his default "office worker" assumption in the face of evidence to the contrary (knowledge about liquid nitrogen) is kind of the point of this post, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Whenever I'm out and about with my kids, most people automatically assume I am their babysitter. (I am a young mom, but I'm not THAT young.) Then when I correct them, they usually don't believe me. The few that do, and actually follow up with "What do you do for a living?" then get flustered and find an excuse to walk away when I tell them I'm a computational biologist.Somehow my husband never has this problem....

LMH said...

LN2 is pretty popular on the food network these days. That would have been how I thought you knew about it if I had no idea what you did. It's how my dad and mom know about it.

female Science Professor said...

My daughter knows about liquid nitrogen from science demos in elementary school.

Anonymous said...

I've certainly seen it in other places. I am a team lead, and we often go to the same food place. The elderly guy there picked up the oldest guy in the group, and asked him "are you the boss?" I guess the assumption that the youngest woman in the group could be "the boss" was rather too much. Though I admit I don't behave like "the boss", either.

And don't even get me started about doctors. They ask me what I do, I tell them that I am a scientist, I use all the correct terms, and they still proceed to talk in the simplest possible language, and sound very surprised when I ask for concrete details (and not always willing to give them, either).

Anonymous said...

I get it a lot when I buy computers. Once, I went to the computer store in campus, and my non-scientist, computer illiterate scientist was with me. The clerk kept trying to talk to him, in spite of the fact that I was the one asking questions. When the spiffy computer finally arrived, the IT person in my dept helped setting it up. I was really enthusiastic and into the process, asking for more programs etc. So he guy (late 50ish) looks at me and says, I've never seen a woman so excited about a computer. Sigh.... You'd think he'd seen enough profs...

Anonymous said...

you could have said you use liquid nitrogen to freeze T-1000 series terminators before you drop them into vats of molten steel.

lost academic said...

The world is full of incredibly rude people.

Anonymous said...

Someone else mentioned getting asked "who's lab are you in?" frequently. As a young associate prof, I have yet to show up at another university for an invited talk, to work with a colleague, or whatever without being asked by at least several people the very similar question "who do you work with?". The first time I was asked this question, I was really perplexed since I thought they were asking who I was there to collaborate with but sadly, no, they wanted to know who my advisor was. I guess it's an improvement that they at least assume I am a scientist given the context but geez. Enough already. One senior prof didn't understand when my response was "myself", proceeded to say "no, no, who is your advisor?". I wanted to say look, I already have more publications than you do buster but instead just told him that I was a prof from such and such university. He actually got quite irate. I guess I didn't fit his idea of what a professor was. He later came to my seminar and said that I had accomplished a lot as a graduate student(what!?!). Sigh.

estraven said...

I was asked whether I was a postdoc or a grad student - when I went in to personnel's to bring my papers, as I was starting my job as full professor. In my late thirties.
A German friend of mine had an even worse experience. She was in Vienna for a conference, and the organizers made her reservation as Doktor Surname (they take it very seriously if you have a PhD).
She arrived at the hotel, gave the concierge her passport, and said "There should be a room for me here".
She was told "We're sorry, but the University has only reserved a single room for your husband".
I'm wondering whether some Anonymous will still be convinced that there's no sexism in this case.

yolio said...

It bugs me when they do this even if they technically know better. A few weeks ago I watched a high ranking male prof in my field slowly and deliberately explain weighted averages to another high ranking, but female, professor in my field. My field is highly mathematical. It was sort of outrageous.

John said...

This reminds me of something my 7th grade science teacher asked our class. The class was asked to describe what they thought a scientist looked like, and we went on to describe to the stereotypical glasses/pocket protector/lab coat image.

Mrs. Science Teacher then countered with the rugged, muddy-booted image of a biologist working in the field, or something. And the biologist was a woman.

I don't know. Maybe I'm young and idealistic, or maybe I'm sheltered. Those are possibilities, but whenever I hear about the bias it science, it always takes me by surprise. I've worked with as many female science professors as male ones. I don't respect them any less, I always address them as "Dr." or "Professor", etc etc. I've taken women's history and other gender studies classes though, so I figure the bias is subconscious and will take a real effort to combat.

With regards though, I just generally think of academics as poorly dressed, gender be damned.

amy said...

One thing I've always wondered about is why people have no trouble with the idea of a female grad student or postdoc, but can't seem to grasp the idea of a female professor. What exactly do they think these female students do after they graduate? Magically turn into housewives or secretaries as soon as they've got their doctorate? Maybe it's just an age thing - a woman seems to need gray hair and crow's feet before she stops looking like a co-ed to some people.

zed said...

Ah, the 'who do you work for' line. It happens so often. I always feel really embarrassed for the person asking. It's often young women who ask this, and then they feel bad.

Doctor Pion said...

In addition to the obvious sexism, there is something else at work - a slow and gradual shift in the median. The answer to Amy's rhetorical question at 8:18PM is probably "yes", but it is also likely that they haven't noticed the substantial shift of the grad student population from mostly male to (in some fields) a balance that favors women. As a result, they are used to seeing young women as students rather than faculty and it will be decades (particularly with the "pipeline" problem) before half of the senior faculty are women and all faculty are used to seeing young women as professors as well as students.

Ms.PhD said...

what amy said- why I have had such an incredibly hard time getting a job.

I also get this All. The Time. It really does get old really fast. But I also think it says more about the speaker than about how you look.

Lately I am also getting the reverse, which is the overly polite tentative thing that goes like this:

You probably already know about this? Because you're a super-smart scientist? But I'm telling you anyway?

And that's also really annoying because

a) yes, I do already know

b) you're just wasting my time and you obviously know that

c) I may not be super-smart, but your saying that just makes you sound super-dumb.

Ergo, again, tells you more about the speaker than about whether I look super-smart or not.

Anonymous said...

Being the only person in my family with a college degree, they never mistake me for an office worker. My clothes aren't nice enough to work in an office.

My parents visited my lab when I was a grad student and met my advisor and he was also wearing ratty t-shirts and jeans. My parents realized at that point I'd never wear dresses to work.

They now equate poorly dressed people on a college campus as scientists.

Riley said...

I'm a first year physics grad student, so my current social circle is mostly grad students in the sciences at this big research university. So at parties when you meet new people, you tell them what you study: chemistry, neuroscience, etc. Yet when I say physics, some guys react like it's the punchline to a joke, "Ha ha what do you really do? Oh."
Even more irritating was one guy who said he had met me before, because he had met a female grad student in physics at another party, and assumed there couldn't be more than one.

Anonymous said...

OK, I just read 34 responses, looking for the perfect pithy-and-yet-gracious response to "you don't look like a scientist" remark. My most recent exposure to the response was a few months ago as I was in the dentist's chair. Every 6 months for my checkup, my dentist looks at me quizzically and asks "what do you do?", which is fine... he shouldn't be expected to remember what every one of his patients does for a living. He usually takes the news that I am a scientist without comment, but this time exclaimed "You don't look like a scientist!". I said "yes, I forgot my Einstein wig today"... but I wasn't quite satisfied with my retort. I expect to see this guy every 6 months until one of us retires, so there's no sense in me being rude. What can I possibly say that conveys that he is being a dork, but that I am still admire his dentistry skills and am looking forward to seeing him again in 6 months?

Springerrr said...

Guys, it is what it is. We ALL make assumptions based on traits, be they sex, race, clothing/accessories, accent, age, the book (or absence of which) the person is holding, and on and on. Some of us have been trained to keep those assumptions close to our chests, others have not. Some of us have had some of our assumptions expunged by experience; others have not. You need to quit worrying about ignorance. Ranting is not the solution. Work is. Keep to your tasks; the knowledge you produce will speak volumes more than your whining. As a society we have made stunning progress in the arena of gender in a stunningly short period of time. Be patient. The job will soon be done.

Anonymous said...

springerrr says "Guys, it is what it is."
HAHAHAH! thanks for lumping the men and women into the "Guys" greeting.

Dude, check your male privilege. Telling "guys" to focus on the work and not whine is a sign your head is lodged firmly up your ass.

Springerrr said...

OK, 'whine' may not have been the best term.
The reason sexism is a ghost of what it once was is not because we have been TOLD to change our attitudes. It is because we have been SHOWN that women are the equals of men. Residual ignorance will linger for a while. To expect otherwise is silly.

yolio said...

@ springerrr

Ah yeah, the silly girls are doing the feminism "wrong"---again! If only we listened to you! Dude, your comments are the essence of male privilege, check yourself. Also, ranting is absolutely part of the solution.

Springerrr said...

Ranting. Thanks dude, that's better than whining. And yes I am privileged, as are you, I expect. Perhaps that's why it took experience rather than slogans to dissolve my sexism.
I'd be curious to hear of an example when ranting produced true, non-superficial change in social consciousness.

Anonymous said...

@ Anon : "Every 6 months for my checkup, my dentist looks at me quizzically and asks "what do you do?", which is fine... he shouldn't be expected to remember what every one of his patients does for a living. He usually takes the news that I am a scientist without comment, but this time exclaimed "You don't look like a scientist!".

You should have similarly exclaimed back at him "you don't look like a dentist!"

Anonymous said...

springerrr, men sacking the hell up and not whining or protesting in the face of abuse from other men leads to the gaining of an all-important manly perception. There are other men higher on the totem pole, and the men with lesser status affirm the status quo and the positions of the higher men in power by not whining. Men are rewarded for not whining, because the status quo and patriarchy benefits all men by keeping some men in power.

Women, on the other hand, are never rewarded for taking abuse from men. There will always be another man in line to abuse her because women are kept off the precious totem pole. Women being silent is an affirmation of a patriarchal system of abuse which affects everything from salaries, hiring, promotions, departmental climate, collaborations, and administrative practices. Discrimination and gender equity is no big deal to you because you are benefiting from the current system. Privilege 101. The minute the tables are momentarily turned, white dudes yell "reverse discrimination!" because DEAR GOD, WHAT ABOUT THE MEN? The men wouldn't know what to do with themselves if they couldn't abuse other men and women to get more power to add to their "manliness"!

You want an example of ranting leading to change. You really are a dim bulb aren't you? Iran. Blacks in the South. Women whining about the right to vote and attend school. It all starts because a non-privileged person dares to speak up against the abuse from those in a place of privilege. jc

Springerrr said...

JC,
You're reply is a little incoherent, but I take your point about women's suffrage. And I think I stand corrected to some extent. While suffrage did not, in and of itself, alter social consciousness, it did put woman in the position in which their actions could do so. Maybe sometimes, our hand needs to be forced to some degree, until we realize that in its new position, it is not going to be burned.

Anonymous said...

Oy vey. I hate pulling out the gender card all the time, but until things change... I don't have the data to back this up, but I suspect that I [female humanities professor] am assumed to be a graduate student many more times than my fellow junior colleagues. I was just at a wedding and met someone [male] who is also at my institution. He asked me, "oh, you're in Department X. Are you a graduate student?" No, faculty -- with eight years' experience, thankyouverymuch.

migratingfishswim said...

it sucks.

but let's try not to internalise the frustration and stress - or is that just me?

Springerrr said...

Oy vey, you look like you're in your mid-twenties? Goodness that must really suck.

pLang said...

that actually happens to men, too. I look and dress like an average guy that doesn't work in a lab or at a uni, and when people ask me what I do, one of two things happens - a) I instinctively try to give a succinct description of what I do, which earns me awkward pauses, or b) I say "I'm a research geneticist" which earns me responses such as "no, really" or "huh". I don't mean to detract from the message that as a woman you are judged a certain way based on what they think you should be, but there is a societal expectation of what "scientists" should look like. We are dorky without social graces, we wear pocket protectors or dress poorly, or the opposite, that we dress up and always wear slacks and lab coats. The only thing more annoying than that is when people expect you to sound like you starred on Hee Haw, simply because you're from the South ......

Anonymous said...

I'm a first year grad student (going for a Ph.D. in something of the immunology persuasion) at a research university attached to a couple hospitals and *everyone* I've talked to assumes I'm a nursing student/nurse. ("Where do you work?" "(Blah) University." "Are you a nurse?")

I don't think I have to mention my gender. :p

Re: "You're [sic] reply is a little incoherent" ... and that's bingo!

Anonymous said...

i am a postdoc at a very large institution and my boss recently told me in a very patronizing way that since i am an attractive young girl, no one will take me seriously as a scientist. at the time i was so flabbergasted at his blatantly sexist and belittling remark all i could do was stare blankly. later, i felt so insulted and enraged as i have never (to my knowledge, at least..) had this be an issue as a scientist at the graduate level. reading these comments is disheartening and makes me think there was some unfortunate truth to his words.

Springerrr said...

Of course there is some truth to his words-- SOME truth. Madam, there are always going to be foolish people…even in the highest echelons of society. Galileo put up with it. You put up with it. Our grandchildren will put up with it. We are human, not machine and it is our nature to be subject to irrational beliefs. And you are as bad as he is in your irrationality. He believes that ALL hot women will have a tough time in science (wrong...some do). You believe that ALL scientists are above sexism (wrong...some are). Each of you is surprised when your experience challenges your belief. Your surprise has its foundation in anger, perhaps his is in wonder. Each will do your best to reject what you see with your own eyes…instead of adapting your beliefs (and actions) to your experience.

You and all your ranting colleagues are allowing anger to cloud your thoughts. Ask yourself this: If you could choose between enlightening or punishing your ‘oppressors’, which would you pick? Does your concept of compassion apply only to those less well off than you?