Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Mrs Degree

In days of yore, when I was in graduate school, I was asked by a senior professor whether I was in graduate school because I couldn't find anyone to marry me.

According to a recent e-mail message from a reader, some professors are still asking young women questions about their education/career decisions in the context of their marriage plans (or lack thereof): in this case, an undergraduate was asked if she was going to graduate school to find a husband and get the so-called "MRS degree".

Go ahead and say it, commenters who like to give alternative, he's-not-a-sexist interpretations: These guys are joking! Women should lighten up and get a sense of humor about having their career goals viewed as subordinate to finding someone to marry. Men who pursue graduate education in female-dominated fields also have to endure jokes. There is a world economic crisis, so stop whining about sexism, which doesn't really exist anyway, except for when it does, but then it is actually the fault of the woman, who shouldn't complain. So get over it. Etc.

In fact, I disagree that these statements, even if meant as jokes, are harmless when made by a professor to a student.

It can be difficult for a student in that situation to explain why this comment is disrespectful, undermining, and insulting, but I would be interested to hear if anyone has gently or aggressively explained to the person making the "MRS degree" (or similar) comment why such statements are derogatory, or at the very least, not funny. And if anyone has done so, what was the response? An apology? A defensive remark? Another insult?

Let's put our heads together and come up with some suggested counter-remarks, for those who may want to have an arsenal of responses for such circumstances. A suggestion, just to get the ball rolling, in response to a statement along the lines of "can't find a husband?" or "looking for a husband?":
That didn't occur to me, but is that why you went to graduate school?




57 comments:

EngineeringGradStudent said...

This is interesting because I'm male, and a factor in me going to grad school was that I wasn't married. Of course, being in engineering, that's not a particularly good place to look for a wife, numbers-wise.

Clarissa said...

I know several people who went to grad school at our Ivy alma mater with the specific purpose of finding a rich spouse. They were very direct and honest about it to friends. Most of them succeeded and dropped out.

They were both male and female.

Kea said...

Heck, when I was younger I would never have dared bat an eyelid at such sexism. I was too well conditioned into shrugging it off. And my advice now? If you want the career, don't bat an eyelid. One word about sexism to ANY such professor puts the Committee against you. Never forget this. In fact, contrary to my own masochistic behaviour, I recommend being a complete gender traitor and laughing as if it is funny, or whatever.

Anonymous said...

For the unfearful:
'Yeah it's true, I can't find a husband my age. That's why I am now looking for some old guy who will kick the bucket soon anyway. That way I can kill two birds with one stone, my mom will shut up about me getting a husband and if I choose wisely I'll inherit quite some money. Do you have plans this Saturday?'

Anonymous said...

Agree with the suggestion in the post. It seems to me that this is the absolutely best reply to basically all such questions: did you go to university to find a husband, did you move town to follow spouse, did you get an upgrade to business class (I remember one of your posts from long ago on this), etc.

"No. Did you?"

Sonja said...

A male colleague once told me that he had specifically chosen the University he went to because it had better chance of meeting women. So I guess it can go both ways.(This was in England umpteen years ago).

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I came here to get married but then realized that all the men here were like you, so that idea was out.

Anonymous said...

An answer might be:
Well you see for the time being my fiancé's is doing well enough as a male lingerie model to support both of us, but this has only a time, and I'm also afraid he might have an accident due to his main passion he is into extreme martial arts, so I'm looking for something more stable in the long term.
Moreover it's not like he could become jalous of any "local talent" at the university, hemm, why do you ask ?

Anonymous said...

A slap in the face would explain it OK.



(but your attempt is funny, too (; )

Doc said...

I didn't really believe that this happened anymore! I suppose I should've believed it...my graduate experience was rife with old male professors getting away with sexism (in this case they liked the females better...) and racism (hated int'l students from asian countries).

To answer your question, no, I didn't go to any level of school to find a husband.

Gears said...

I did want to go to grad school to work for a really cool, smart professor until I realized he was a sexist asshat...

Berserk Dad said...

Actually, that is an awfully nasty question/statement to make about a student. I would say it is also quite cruel.

I would go the extra evil route and say, "Sorry, Prof. X, I don't date professors."

Then let him wet himself worrying about you going to the dean with a harassment complaint.

Anonymous said...

"I thought I would improve my chances of finding my intellectual equal."

In all honesty, as much as I detest the MRS degree jokes, I have come across two students where that unfortunately perpetuate those jokes:
One classmate in graduate school got her MS, PhD and a professional 4-year degree because she wasn't married yet by the time each of the prior milestones passed. It was as if she didn't have anything "better" to do so she may as well continue on.
More recently I've had a graduate student whose work ethic took a dramatic turn as soon as her husband finished his professional degree. I have a sneaking suspicion that her graduate career with me was simply a rouse as she waited for her husband to graduate. Now that her husband is moving through his various required internships she appears to be more than happy to play supportive wife and follow him from one assignment to the next rather than finish her degree (which could have been done a year ago).

The sad part is both of these women were incredibly intelligent, the-world-is-your-oyster graduate students. I have nothing against a woman who goes to grad school and then decides to go the family route for a few years when the opportunity arises, but I don't see either of these women every drawing upon their graduate training.

Anonymous said...

Here are my contributions. Note that sexism goes both ways for this kind of remarks, and I think the best answer is to answer a cliche by another cliche, only worse.

1. "Why did you choose to do a PhD in Computer Science anyway? Did you come looking for a boyfriend?"

Not really, but I have always felt more at ease around beardy men who barely wash, their ugly smell and dirty glasses make me feel so superior.

2. "Why did you choose to do a PhD in Psichology anyway? Were you looking for a girl-friend?"

Not really, but I was told the Psichology Faculty was full of crazy womean, I plan to run experiments, draw a calendar of their errants and search for correlations with their menstruation period and the phases of the moon.

Anonymous said...

As a women in science the question I dread is 'are you ever going to get married?' or 'why aren't you married yet?'!

Anonymous said...

A lot depends on the personalities of who are involved, but my inclination would be that someone who makes a sexist remark *should* be made to feel uncomfortable to some degree. The purpose of that feeling of social shame is exactly how humans get people in a group to fall into line. Rejoinders that are too disarming or funny may actually backfire in the long run because the person being sexist feels what they said must have been ok, at least emotionally if not consciously.

Obviously, this is easier said than done.

-cmt

Eilat said...

I dont get it. Being married and having a PhD are not mutually exclusive. Lots of graduate students (male and female) are married or get married while in graduate school. Its kind of that age range where those life events happen. It seems like the person who made the comment is, in addition to being totally sexist, completely out of touch with what happens to people while they are in graduate school.

Anonymous said...

I'm anxious to hear everyone's responses. I've been asked this question myself and I've always been too offended to come up with a witty response.

One of my grad school advisors told me to find an "easy government research job" so I would have time to be a good mother to the "lots of babies" I was going to have. There were so many things wrong with that statement; I didn't know where to begin.

Anonymous said...

"I don't remember seeing that degree in the course catalog. Although, I didn't see your ASS degree in there either, in which you're obviously striving for magna cum laude"

When I was getting my PhD (less than 5 years ago) there were two MS students who would openly admit they were there for their MRS. Both found someone--one dropped out and got married, and the other finished then got married (but stays at home now).

It doesn't help our case when there really are still women who will openly admit that is why they are in grad school.

Anonymous said...

Although I don't like anyone making those comments and would just ignore it, but the fact is that chances of finding someone with equal intellact and also getting to know someone is much higher at the grad school or thereafter and it works both ways not only for females.

Anonymous said...

I did once meet a woman who said she was in graduate school to bide time until she got married. She really wanted to have a lot of kids and be a mother. I suppose I appreciate her candor. Many people did not react positively to her being upfront about this. She was successful in getting married and currently has 3 kids.

John Vidale said...

This post seems to ask two very different questions:

How to respond to

1. rude remarks such as "In school because you can't find a husband?", and

2. professors asking questions about their education/career decisions in the context of family plans.

The former deserves a kick in the pants, the latter is less clear.

The implications of some of these comments is that any questions about whether students plan to get married and whether they intend to have kids are taboo. Which I find counterproductive in that career choices often STRONGLY depend on whether one is married with kids or footloose, whether a man or woman.

Elizabeth said...

If someone asked me that seriously, I think I'd go with a simple "of course not."

For joking responses, there's always the classic: The odds are good, but the goods are odd.

Anonymous said...

I think the best response is to just get up and walk out of the room. In silence.

Unknown said...

That reminds me of when I was pregnant with my first child, I called my dad to tell him the good news (I was married, 37, and defending at the end of the semester). His response was "well, did you mean to get pregnant?" I took a deep breath and simply said, "Dad, you might think those kind of things, BUT YOU DON"T SAY THEM". I think for a lot of people, saying these types of statements, isn't intended as demeaning or insulting (although it is both)--but does require that someone point out they need to turn their mouth filter up a few notches. As a previous commenter noted, we do need to point out that these types of comments are inappropriate, and they should feel uncomfortable about it--I know my Dad felt very uncomfortable (and sorry) after I pointed it out to him.

Anonymous said...

Aren't there more exciting, and better, places than grad school to look for a spouse?

Anonymous said...

I would respond with, "the odds may be good, but the goods are odd." I'd have better luck over in the school of management if that were my objective.

Lab Rockstar said...

My response would be that Profs should keep comments about students' personal lives squished way down inside; down with the "things you've Googled alone at 3 am" topics.

Or, if you're in biology, you can explain that you entered grad school because you simply enjoy ripping out still-beating hearts. I tried this one once and it just made everyone in the room feel really awkward because at the time I was going through a divorce. Yuk, yuk.

Anonymous said...

There's an autistic guy in my lab who has his mom around all the time as his helper. One day when I was doing work, she asked me: "Is your dad a scientist? Is that why you decided to get a PhD instead of becoming a housewife?" I immediately responded that my dad is terrible at both math and science and left it at that.

I also had an academic advisor once tell me that if I wasn't interested in going to graduate school, I could always get a career as an exotic dancer. When he met my parents at graduation, he told them that he thought I would end up becoming a professor later in life. So he was actually just trying to make a joke that really really wasn't funny.

I guess to a certain extent, your response should be based on how well you know someone. Some people are just incredibly inappropriate and don't mean anything by it; some people are not. So I guess you should let context guide you.

nanoalchemist said...

"It doesn't help our case when there really are still women who will openly admit that is why they are in grad school."

So they should hide that motive? =)

I can envision two non-sexist reasons for asking about wedding plans which fall into two broad categories 1) Genuine curiosity with a bit of insensitivity and 2) bitter experience. In the first case I assume we are talking science types who are generally “geeks.” Geeks tend to be curious about things, and apply the courtesy filter retroactively (meaning that questions are asked in a more “brusque” or “insensitive” manner than most of the population, and comments made to the geek are interpreted with the filter applied). In the second case, one can see how a comment might be something of a fishing expedition. Clearly, there are cases where a student has left a lab in favor of a spouse. To the PI, this may have been unexpected, as it seems to be a consequence of a generally veiled motive, and represents a significant loss in time, training, and talent. The questioner may be trying to (unconsciously or not) determine that students “fitness” for staying in for the long haul, which represents the biggest pay off for the Senior researcher.

As for how to handle it: just say that you’re there for the science, you love learning, and research is fun. Segue to your research. Answers the idle curious, assures those worried that you may not “have your priorities right,” and brings the subject back around to more a objective subject.

NatC said...

I would laugh and ask if that's why they became a prof.
(Like Anonymous at 3:06am response "No. Did you?")

John Vidale said...

It seems to me that this post soliciting insults solely of men as individuals and as a group is counterproductive.

In particular

I came here to get married but then realized that all the men here were like you, so that idea was out.

it's not like he could become jealous of any "local talent" at the university

I have always felt more at ease around beardy men who barely wash, their ugly smell and dirty glasses make me feel so superior.


merit the same round condemnation already being given the offensive "jokes" posed by FSP. They don't criticize the person, they criticize an entire population. Or are we only sensitive to rudeness in one direction here?

Anonymous said...

I know we are supposed to be supportive of everyone's life choices, second wave feminism and all that, but for every woman who says she's just biding time till she gets married -- apparently everyone remembers those women, as this thread shows -- 10 serious female researchers will a priori be dismissed as not serious because they are women.

If one only wants to bide time waiting to meet a dude who will ultimately propose and impregnate you, I would think there are easier things to do in the meantime than go to grad school -- say, work with a BS degree. Or if you hate it, work as as a waitress or become a hairstylist or something. You could actually contribute towards retirement and make more money than a grad student.

I am sorry, but having as the personal ultimate goal to create new people, through whose achievements I suppose you get to live vicariously, is not something I have ever able to understand. It's quite a middle-class, 1st world privilege to count on not having to work and just being a mother. Nowhere in the developing world is this nonsense even possible.

Anonymous said...

If it's a *rich* spouse you're looking for, why on earth would you go to grad school? Low job prospects and often lots of debt.

It also may not necessarily be the best place if you're looking for someone smart....

PQA said...

No, we have the internet now.

Kea said...

As for how to handle it: just say that you’re there for the science, you love learning, and research is fun.

Nah, bad idea. You won't be assisted up the ladder if they don't think you have proper family values. They need to know there will be a Man keeping you in line. This might be an exaggeration in fields where women have reached the critical mass, but in fields where there are essentially no women this is the culture at present. I have seen it again and again. Being 'unwomanly' counts against you.

Anonymous said...

For all sexist, inappropriate, or overly personal questions I have developed the following response:

Why do you ask?

This often is enough to point out the fact that the question is inappropriate.

Anonymous said...

LOL, as Masters degree in engineering graduate in a latin country I heard that question once, long time ago; he looked at me and asked that so I just smiled and looked back and said with an innocent look, "well I tougth that, at the engineering school will be a better chance to find an intelligent one, but soon I realized that was a lost battle so decided to enjoy the school and, in the mean while, the students fixed my car, made the calculus homework, so I had time to look at the bussines school, at least they smell good and are well dressed there", another little smile and did "the walk" never looking back.

Anonymous said...

My usual reaction is to play dumb, because I'm wondering if he is trying to upset me or is just socially inept. So I'm sure my immediate answer would be:

"Oh, I'd never date anybody in my own field. The last thing I want is to run into my ex at conferences for the rest of my life."

If he kept pressing the point, I'd rely on trusty old condescension.

"Wow, I haven't heard the term MRS Degree since my mom told me it was common back in the 60s when she was in college. Do you realize that most younger students probably don't even know what it means?"

Anonymous said...

"1. "Why did you choose to do a PhD in Computer Science anyway? Did you come looking for a boyfriend?""

Here's an answer: I came here to do a PhD in Computer Science so my husband/boyfriend doesn't have to worry about me eyeing good looking guys.

Anonymous said...

Along similar lines (inappropriate comments), I (a younger female grad student) was once helpfully advised by an older male grad student, when I asked how his child was doing, that I should have children soon before I got too old. Do people need to have it explained to them that this is a less-than-tactful thing to say?

Anonymous said...

To John Vidale at 2:46...

I think people are taking the tack of Anonymous 8:47, purposely answering offensive jokes that criticize an entire population with offensive jokes that criticize an entire population in the "other direction." If you read the post about "beardy men who barely wash," Anonymous said:

Note that sexism goes both ways for this kind of remarks, and I think the best answer is to answer a cliche by another cliche, only worse.

It's not that she doesn't realize she's criticizing an entire population. In fact, that's the whole point! It's an attempt to point out how the original questioner made her feel by returning the favor.

Anonymous said...

It's quite a middle-class, 1st world privilege to count on not having to work and just being a mother. Nowhere in the developing world is this nonsense even possible.

How much do you know about the developing world? Most middle-class women in almost all developing countries are housewives and mothers.

Anonymous said...

How much do you know about the developing world? Most middle-class women in almost all developing countries are housewives and mothers.

How much do you know about it? I am from the developing world. It's impossible to live on one salary in my home country. Everybody works works (or wants to work) -- -- men and women. If your wife doesn't work, everyone feels sorry for you, because they think she either can't get a job or she's lazy, both of which deserve pity.

Becca said...

I like "nope, marriage is a tool of the patriarchy"
or
"in a hetronormative society, marriage is an implicit endorsement of discrimination until my LGBT friends can also marry"

Anonymous said...

Just stare at him and answer slowly and watch his expression: "What do you think?" Then give him that seductive look to make it memorable.

John Vidale said...

anon@2:46

Yes, the smelly-bearded joke and its ilk are self-conscious, but fall into the same category of "it's just a joke to make a point, and I'm not a cretin for saying it", which I reject.

Trading an insult for an insult is a poor way to move forward. Many of the other posts are equally effective ways to move toward the right path without re-animating stigmatizing caricatures.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it funny that the same people who make the M.R.S. Degree joke are the same ones who snicker when a highly-educated woman takes off any amount of time from work/research for family-related reasons?

I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone say that an education is "wasted" on a woman who takes off months or years to raise a family.

CSgrad said...

I'm a little concerned by the people who think that such a question from a prof might be semi-valid because they've been "burned" in the past by women leaving the lab for a spouse.

Nope. Still wildly inappropriate. You don't get to assess individuals' fitness for the lab based on actual or desired marital status.

"The implications of some of these comments is that any questions about whether students plan to get married and whether they intend to have kids are taboo."

Yes, well, IMO, they SHOULD be taboo.

Kea said...

@anon11.50, yes, and no doubt these are the same people that block progress for the childless women on the grounds that 'there is something wrong with them' (translation: 'if they really want to work full-time, they may actually - shock-horror - demonstrate the capabilities of a man!').

Anonymous said...

Anecdatally, I did know a man who once said he'd considered grad school because he figured that once he graduated college he would stop crossing paths with women.

Then again, I don't trust him at all, so that anecdatum may well be false.

lauren said...

What's with the plethora of comments along the lines of, "Well, I knew a woman once who openly said she was looking for a husband..."

So what?

1. One nutty young woman does not speak for the gender.

2. Maybe that was just her shtick. I remember when intelligent, ambitious young women were still new to campuses: if they were unapologetic about their intellect, they faced open hostility from students and faculty, even violence. Putting on a "I'm-just-here-for-the-boys" routine might have been a survival tactic.

But to answer your question: I respond to weird, rude questions depending on the scenario. I think you can always tell when someone is having a go at you/bullying you, as opposed to "just" being a clueless boob.

If someone's trying to bully me with rude questions, I always stop talking and give the questioner a long, blank stare, finally saying, "Sorry, what?" I've *never* had that fail. Either the questioner just falls silent too and looks flustered, or he scrambles to fill the silence with back-pedaling.

If someone is "just" not thinking, I'll just laugh and say something like, "You do realize you said that out loud?" or "How about we both pretend you didn't say that?"

Anonymous said...

Oh my how many stories I have about the Mrs. degree and variations on that insult!

Just a few months ago I was listed on the conference website for the major conference in my field as "Mrs. XXXX" even though it's been Dr. XXXX for some time. I used all of the restraint I could muster and wrote the organizers and explained that my marital status was really quite irrelevant to the conference and while generally I wouldn't mind being listed just as FirstName Lastname, listing me as Mrs. XXXX instead of Dr. XXXX when other people (men) with my rank and title were listed as Dr. XXXX was really rather offensive in my culture and if they would please fix it I would try not to be too insulted.

Another time one of my friends was talking to a prof about a post doc job and another prof came up and interrupted and said, oh, you don't want to hire her - she's just going to get married and leave the field anyways! My friend stared blankly, so eventually he said, "See? She's not replying. I must be right!" My friend just said, "No, I was just wondering if you would ever say that to a male graduate student."

There is no formulaic good way to respond to these things. If you're still fairly junior, it might be better not to reply, no matter how inappropriate it is, to avoid retribution or more nasty talk about how you are "difficult to work with." I have been called "culturally insensitive" for complaining about insults like this - see, because there's cultural differences in how much sexism is accepted and it's my job as a woman to adapt to how much BS people are giving me, not other people's job to adapt to actually show respect to young women. I am apparently incredibly "difficult to work with." Really how to respond depends a lot on the situation and whether the person generally means well but just stuck his/her foot in his/her mouth or whether he is a committed sexist unlikely to be redeemed. It also depends on whether or not this person can hurt you. Your goal is to minimize the damage done to you and perhaps to try to teach the community how to behave appropriately - not to be a career martyr. It makes no sense to waste time & energy on an irredeemable sexist pig - however, if you're in front of a lot of people, maybe you can try to make it clear that this is not acceptable behavior so other people learn how to behave. If you can make a joke, great - it's harder to color you as an ugly, bitter woman if you make a joke. But we can't all always think on our feet like that. And if someone just inadvertently stuck his foot in his mouth, embarrasing him may not be the best way to encourage good behavior. A simple, true comment that makes everyone uncomfortable can do the trick - "Wow. That was really insulting and inappropriate." And then stare at him mutely until someone speaks up. If you're junior, that may trigger a more senior bystander to speak up without really risking anything yourself. Of course if this person is in a place of power, there may be official channels to complain through - but in my experience, most official channels fail to do anything effective about sexism. Still, leaving a written record of bad behavior probably won't help you but if this person is a serial bad actor it will help someone do something eventually and make it harder for him to run from his record.

Anonymous said...

I kept my maiden name, therefore professionally I've always been Dr. [my maiden name] ever since the start of my career. Most of my colleagues don't know what my married name is because I never use it and thus have no occasion to mention it. Or maybe they just assume that my name is my married name, except that my husband and I are of different races and ethnicities and my maiden name is very obviously associated with my race/ethnicity (well, duh) so I think this would rule out such an assumption. Yet I still get mail sent to my workplace, addressed to: Mrs. [my maiden name]. when this happens I have a vague feeling of being offended yet I can't clearly explain why. Maybe it's because on top of the fact that being a "Dr" has been replaced by being a "Mrs", do they automatically assume that I must be married and therefore my husband must be of the same race/ethnicity as me to explain the name I have? is this both sexism AND racism rolled into one?

Anonymous said...

I didn't go to grad school for an MRS, but in retrospect, that probably would have been the best time for me to meet intelligent single men. It's all been downhill from there.

Also, it's been my experience that having a PhD works against me in the dating field if anything.

Anonymous said...

This leaves me speechless. I studied because I was interested in my field and I also wanted to get a nice job. I've got a Master's degree and my spouse has a lower degree and he is totally fine with it. Just today he said that I am really intelligent.

None of my professors asked whether or not I was going to marry or have a family. Working and being a woman is normal in Finland. In fact, if you are a woman and stay home, people start to ask you what's wrong with you.

Anonymous said...

I agree that such questions are insulting. However, I'd suggest that students who have to field these questions probably have a problem presenting themselves as a serious student. A highly motivated, smart and serious student, male or female, will not have to answer this question.