Friday, September 04, 2009

Non-traditional Professor

Recently I was asked for my student ID by a young man working at a campus site that provides a computer-related service to students and faculty.

FSP: I don't have a student ID.

Tech guy: Then I can't help you.

FSP: How about if I give you my faculty ID?

Tech guy: Oh.. yeah, OK.

And then we were all set.

Between the ages of late-20's to early 40's, although no longer a student*, I was often mistaken for one** because I looked like I was still young enough to be a student of some sort. In those days, it seemed to me that such things happened more often to me than they did to youthful looking men, but it was difficult to separate the youthful-looking factor from the gender-stereotyping factor.

Now that you can see the wrinkles on my face in Google Earth images, a person asking me for my student ID must be making the assumption that it is more likely that I am a non-traditional student than a professor. That is disheartening because it means that even people in their 20's working on a university campus think it more likely that a woman in her 40's is a student rather than a professor.

I mentioned to the tech guy that if he asked people for their "university ID", it would solve the problem of deciding in advance if an individual is a student or professor. This might not solve the problem, but it would make me happy.

* not counting the fact that I was a student in an undergrad language course for the past 3 years

** even in cases in which there was overwhelming evidence that I was a professor doing professorial things

45 comments:

Anonymous said...

sometime I wonder if you are just a little too sensitive, the guy was just stupid. it the guy was a girl who made the "mistake", then would you have felt differently?

girl to girl vs. guy to woman (professor)

zed said...

How depressing. I'm in my late 30's and am still frequently mistaken for a student. It happens to my husband, too, who looks young, but it doesn't happen as often.

Here's another manifestation. My first name is unusual, but is easy to pronounce and sounds feminine- it ends in 'a' and similar-sounding common names are female. Several times I've had proposal reviewers who obviously don't know me refer to me as 'he' in a written review. It's also happened a few times that someone I've met at a conference was surprised to find I'm a woman. This kind of gender confusion NEVER happens in my non-science life.

FemgineerPhD said...

This is not a bad problem to have in your 40s...

I doubt the person asking for your student ID was really thinking it was more likely that you were a student rather than a professor. More likely he deals primarily with students and it's become 2nd nature to word his question this way. Maybe he doesn't even pay attention to who's standing there anymore. I would try dressing as the campus mascot next time or some such outrageous outfit to see if he deviates from his typical Q.

Anonymous said...

As a young-looking female professional, I get that "Are you a student," line of questioning often. However, is it possible that most of the people the tech helps are students and he automatically said "student ID"? Also, being a distinguished professor as yourself, does it really matter at which occupational level a tech thinks you are?

Kea said...

I know what you mean! The wrinkles on my face have become easy to see in the last few years ... and even though I have only been a postdoc for a short time, I often get asked things like, 'so what courses are you taking?'. But I don't see this an entirely negative thing ... it means that enormous numbers of women of our generation are returning to study ... maybe a sign that things really will change one day.

J_B said...

Maybe he was just trying to compliment you...

momphdstudent said...

:)

Anonymous said...

Maybe he really thought you looked younger? I look much younger than I am -- to the point of being ID'ed when purchasing tickets to rated R movies, and on one occasion, having someone flatly refuse to believe that I was my children's mother rather than their babysitter or young aunt. (Seriously, why would I lie about that?) While looking young is nice, it can (as in the "you cannot be the mother" scenario) get annoying sometimes if people do not take you seriously because of it.

James Annan said...

I'm a little hesitant about posting as I don't wish to diminish the irritation you must surely feel at regularly being treated in this way, but the mathematician in me can't help but wonder if it is not actually the case that there are (many?) more 40s female students than 40s female professors?

Allison said...

It's pretty probable that in his tech-support autopilot, the name of the object he needs is "student ID," and he's not even really looking at you. "University ID" would be a better choice of words, though.

Anonymous said...

A person asking for your "student ID" might also simply be asking for your "university ID" without thinking about the specificity of the word "student." This is especially likely if a large percentage of the people he helps are actually students, or if the none of the other faculty he's helped in the past has mentioned it to him.

Anonymous said...

My guess would be that employees like the tech guy just encounter way more students than faculty and so it was probably the default phrase out of his mouth to whoever approached him.

I'm obvoiusly not strying to say that sterotyping doesn't happen but I think there is often a less malicious reason for encounters like this.

Anonymous said...

Not to detract from your point about gender, which I agree with, but this reminds me of going to a conference as an undergraduate with my (male) advisor, a youthful 33 at the time. At the registration desk he responded to repeated queries about the name of his professor with "My what?" "My who?" "My what?" Then he finally burst out, "ME! It's ME!" The poor young woman behind the desk was mortified.

awelti said...

hmm - I don't think this implies a gender prejudice so much as a statement of what he has encountered. It would be interesting to get 2 stats and compare them. How many female professors are there in their 40's at your university? How many female students are there in their 40's are there in your university? Then comparing those numbers you can see how reasonable it is that he assumed you were a student.
I am female faculty aged 30 and certainly a 30 year old woman is FAR more likely to be a student than a professor.

Anonymous said...

"Oh.. yeah, OK." is just sooo classic.

Anonymous said...

"if the guy was a girl who made the "mistake", then would you have felt differently?"

Sexism/stereotyping is not confined to males. There are many many examples of female students showing disrespect to female faculty.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I would be flattered if a young male thought I am a student :) (I am 36, postdoc for the past 3 years, and mother of a soon-to-be 2 years old!)

John V said...

I disagree with the drift of the posts that either

(1) the guy was wrongly pejoratively relegating FSP to the stature of a student, or

(2) he made the natural assumption that anyone of FSP's profile would be a student, so he's off the hook.

I think the problem here is the same one as in racial profiling. Sometimes assumptions are made on a sound statistical basis that are unfair to individuals. Further, they contribute to an atmosphere with stereotypes hindering the advancement of the profiled class of people.

Here women lack the respect that men might have been given by default.

Frustrating and hard to fix.

Anonymous said...

I get the same thing all the time, too. I've been told that I'll find it irritating right until the time that it stops. Sorry to hear that it may never stop.

I have to disagree with the people who say that it's not gender related - my husband (who is the same age) NEVER gets asked if he's a student. I, on the other hand, get asked if I'm a student routinely, even when I was heavily pregnant (something much more common for professors than students).

amy said...

Sometimes I wish female profs had a "uniform" we could wear when we want to be sure to be taken seriously as profs. Men can grow a beard, don a tweed jacket, etc. to meet the stereotype, if they're worried about being mistaken for students. But female profs. don't seem to have a default "look" they can go for. When I wear jeans (my preference), I'm a student; if I wear business-type clothes, I'm an administrative assistant. Anything but a professor.

I'm a little touchy about this right now, because I've been getting more than the usual number of emails from students addressing me as "Mrs. Last Name." I ain't married, and I introduced myself as "Professor Last Name" on the first day of class. Why is that so hard for them to accept?

mixlamalice said...

As others said, I guess sometimes people are not just paying attention:

- even though I am now 30, almost all the time here people give me the student discount (sometimes I am honest, sometimes I am not). A lot of people told me that I look younger than I am, and even though I didn't really enjoy it when I was a teenager, I am started to take it a little more better as I age.
- Still, when I was 27 and finishing my PhD, and was asking for a transportation discount card in Paris, the woman over the counter asked me if it was "high school discount" or "college discount". I might look younger but I didn't look 17 when I was 27...

I also noticed myself that I had a lot more troubles as I get older to estimate properly the age of teenagers or young adults. Sometimes I think they are 20 and they are 16, sometimes they are 23 and I believe they are 19...

Once again, in that particular case, I am not sure it has anything to do with any kind of gender issue...

Diane said...

We get solicitors at our house all the time - people getting petitions signed, collecting for charity, etc. - and more than once a teenaged or young adult person has greeted me with "Hi, is your mom or dad home?" They grow very flustered when I say "This is my house." I guess I should enjoy it while it lasts now that I'm pushing 40.

sendaianonymous said...

I love how every person who starts their comment with "I don't want to derail etc..." actually does exactly that.

In fact, it's a common derailment strategy.

So much fail, guys!

Alex said...

In one sense, most of the posters are probably right: Asking for student ID is a reflex reaction, since 95% of the time he's probably dealing with students. I'm sure that it happens quite frequently to faculty, male and female, old and young.

However....

While the reflex reaction is probably common with faculty, it probably doesn't happen 100% of the time. So, the question is, do student workers in places like that deviate from reflex more often for male faculty or female faculty? Although there probably isn't much systematic study of that question, all of the anecdotes do tend to point one way, suggesting a very, very plausible hypothesis.

The problem is not any individual event, but the pattern.

Amusing tangent on reflex reactions and student status: I'm spending a few weeks visiting a research institute at my alma mater, and when I had to enter my zip code for a credit card purchase on campus I started punching in the zip code for where I used to live as a student.

new hire said...

John V: "Here women lack the respect that men might have been given by default."

amen to that.

What I find difficult is that I don't particularly know what to do or say in these situations. I am 31 and look like I am between 18 and 22. I dress up, wear blazers or jackets, and try to look like a faculty member, but invariably people think I am an undergrad (or, if I'm lucky a new grad student). I am generally polite and correct them with a smile.

That said, my husband who is 33, looks similarly young, and is also a new faculty member has the same problem. I guess I really hadn't considered the gender issue because he gets carded and confused for an undergrad at approximately the same frequency as me.

When we are in our 40s, if I'm still confused as an undergrad/grad student and he's off the hook, that's when it is going to start to get really annoying.

Amy said...

I have to agree with you, this is TERRIBLY frustrating to me on a regular basis. I suspect this tech guy really did just ask his standard question without taking the time to notice if it applied to FSP or not, but John V's comments sum it up perfectly - it is the combination of millions of tiny slights like this that make women feel just a bit "unnatural" in roles where men have dominated (and the reverse is true as well, I'd imagine).

Not long ago, I moved my labs from a basic science department to a medical science department at another university. A student from my gigaclass at university #1 wrote asking for a letter of recommendation and I suggested that she contact the other instructor of the course since he had the course records and I had moved on to university #2. I immediately got a very friendly email back congratulating me on my admission to pharmacy school and telling me that I'd make a great pharmacist. It was as though my new address in a college of pharmacy confirmed her suspicions that I wasn't a "real" professor, but just a temporary minion of the other instructor. I couldn't resist writing back and (hopefully politely) setting her straight.

I try (as others have suggested) to be a bit flattered that I look "young enough" to be a student, but it really does get to me sometimes.

Anonymous said...

He could also have been a transfer from a community college. I spent years at one, and I tend to guess everyone is a student unless I have specific information that that person is not (i.e. have taken a class from them).

Comrade PhysioProf said...

(1) What did the fuckwad goofaloon say when you suggested that he might just ask everyone for their university ID?

(2) A long time ago, someone explained to me that in any professional environment, it is impossible to insult someone by assuming that they are higher up in the hierarchy than they actually are.

(3) When I first transitioned from post-doc to faculty, I used to get this a lot at conferences: "Whose lab are you in?" My answer was always, "MINE!".

Anonymous said...

John V: You are my new hero. What an absolutely perfect clarity of thought and appropriate words to match.

FSP: you are not being too sensitive. I have received similar responses when I've told similar stories (i.e., dude, just chill out!) and I actually find this more frustrating than the original offense. I could go on, but things will only degrade into stomping of feet and gnashing of teeth...

John V said...

An odd dynamic sometimes seems at work in these situations. Several times people around campus have asked me what courses I'm taking - strange tact as I'm 50 and dressed as a semi-formal prof, and unlike a student.

I think they were aiming to share their experiences in suffering through classes and life as a student, and if I didn't have that point of view, they didn't really want to chat.

If I were younger, and a woman, I could interpret it differently along the lines of these comments - although I am sure the stereotyping effect FSP and the comments describe does exist.

Kevin said...

Since at 54 I *am* younger than two of the students in my department, I don't find it at all unreasonable for someone to assume that everyone they meet on campus is a student.

Dressing formally will get you labeled as an administrative assistant or a religious proselyte, but there is no uniform locally that will get you labelled as a professor. Even dressing 20 years out of fashion (a traditional mark of a professor) doesn't work well locally, as "retro" fashion is popular among a subset of the students.

John V said...

Kevin

As CPP points out, the tactful approach is to guess high on rank (low on age, etc).

And on many fronts, I've noticed the majority of students are reluctant to chat with science profs. If I mention that I work on earthquakes and volcanoes, they usually become much chattier.

But you could be right, they might assume profs don't ride the bus, which is where some of these conversations take place.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I'm mistaken for a student ALL. THE. TIME. I know this is because I'm young-looking, so I try to embrace it rather than get annoyed. Lately, however, people (not just students) have seen me in my office and have assumed I'm a secretary.

The fact that they think I'm not a professor isn't even the most annoying part. I'm so tired of being asked where Dr. so-and-so is or if my (very teeny-tiny) office is the departmental office!

Anonymous said...

I'm a postdoc, but am similarly sensitive to the gender differences. I have two children, and I am ALWAYS referred to as Mrs. Children rather than Doctor Children at their schools. Despite the fact that they know I have a PhD. This does not happen to the male PhD parents I know. I'd rather they call me by my first name than Mrs. I worked Dang Hard for that PhD!

Anonymous said...

When I am team teaching and my male colleague is addressed as "Dr" and I am addressed as "Mrs" in the same sentence (by a male student) it is the worst kind of irritation ever! Sigh.

Anonymous said...

"That is disheartening because it means that even people in their 20's working on a university campus think it more likely that a woman in her 40's is a student rather than a professor."

Hardly disheartening. The student population will always be greater than the professor population at a university. So in terms of just probability, assuming a person is a student would be a safe bet (if you could only ask for a student or faculty ID that is).

Rather than disheartening I find it quite the opposite that an elderly woman on a university campus would be mistaken for a student. I expect a female professor to be in her 40s, but it makes me happy when elderly people venture back to take classes or get a degree. I imagine it isn't easy for someone in their 40s to go back to school especially when the majority of people there are in their early 20s. How wonderful that they would choose to do something productive with their time. There should be more elderly people willing to do this. Thus, I find the prospect of elderly students to be quite the opposite of disheartening. Very much so.

Anonymous said...

Are you stuck on the fact that you look very young? I don't see the point of this post otherwise

The History Enthusiast said...

The Anonymous at 9:51 (two posts above my comment) is odd: I would in no way consider you "elderly," though of course I've never met you and you may only be posing as a 40-something professor. Strange.

Anyway, to the point. I am in full agreement with your description of micro-inequities, and I may borrow this term since many of my male friends here in my program don't really understand how those subtle slights can be so terribly frustrating. Thanks for providing your perspective on this!

John V said...

I'm surprised there is even minority dissent on FSP's original point - gender stereotypes pervasively impede women, particularly in physical sciences.

It's depressing that people's vanity would consider mistaken assumptions of youth as significantly offsetting the repression of stereotypes. It's fine that older students return to school, but that is a third-order problem compared to assuring equal opportunities across gender.

Anonymous said...

I have recently had a similar incident. I am a female faculty member in an engineering school. I recently attended a department sponsored event where I was asked to join a student organization. I repeatedly hinted that I wasn't really interested. Finally they got to the point in their pitch where they told me about all the great scholarship opportunities that came with very few strings attached. I laughed and politely told them that I thought it would look bad for a professor to apply for scholarship money.

And all of this interaction happened even though I had decided to label myself as Dr. X on my name tag.

Anonymous said...

To the History Enthusiast, I am the Anonymous you were referring to and I was confused as to why exactly you found my comment odd. Perhaps you could elaborate?

Regardless of gender, I can understand why a professor being mistaken for a student would feel slighted.

But I felt that FSP's comment on it being "disheartening" was a "subtle slight" or a "micro inequality" against older students. There is nothing wrong with older students because this implies they are somehow lesser than professors who are of similar ages. And didn't FSP have a post about how having the Ph.D. degree is not something than equates "better than you" status? (I apologize if that wasn't the exact meaning of the most but it was my superficial impression of the post and was unable to find it in the archives.)

The History Enthusiast said...

Anonymous:

"Rather than disheartening I find it quite the opposite that an elderly woman on a university campus would be mistaken for a student."

I interpreted this to mean that you considered FSP "an elderly woman," and since I consider elderly to be someone in their 70s or 80s, I didn't think this term applied to FSP. That is why I was confused.

Eve said...

I came back here after reading the micro-inequities post and while I do normally agree with you on the stories you tell (having many similar experiences myself), I would have to agree that the person helping you probably was just thinking of the card as a student ID without truly processing the meaning of the word "student". I've asked someone to pass me the spatula or something equally ridiculous when I meant to ask for a USB key, and I'm sure I've repeatedly asked my adviser what his "student number" was when filling out grant applications. It just happens. Brains are weird and magical and they make us do strange things.

Anonymous said...

"I would have to agree that the person helping you probably was just thinking of the card as a student ID without truly processing the meaning of the word "student". I've asked someone to pass me the spatula or something equally ridiculous when I meant to ask for a USB key, and I'm sure I've repeatedly asked my adviser what his "student number" was when filling out grant applications. It just happens. Brains are weird and magical and they make us do strange things."

So in conclusion, the tech guy was not sexist at all, not even 1% sexist? Blame the male brain.....

Anonymous said...

we occasionally have probably a very unique problem at the college I work at. As a Christian college, that was originally aimed at older students - we have a LOT of theology majors who are men in their 40s and 50s, who often are wearing ties and carrying briefcases. When we get new adjuncts (we're small enough we generally do know all the full time faculty) they're often mistaken for students here in the library, because the vast majority of people who look like them ARE students. In all reality, a female adjunct would probably have less problems, because most all of our female students (of any age) don't follow the staff/faculty dress code. So if we saw a woman of 30 or older in dressier clothing - we'd probably rightfully assume she was a professor. (I get mistaken for a student all the time though even now as a 27 year old librarian despite adhering to the dress code... that or they assume I'm a student wife or that I'm alumni- it blows their mind that anyone would move here to work as a librarian...)