Thursday, September 01, 2011

Ms Degree

Something happened this week that hasn't happened to me in a long time:

I was asked if I am a Masters student.

The person who asked is about 10 years older than I am (rough guess), is not an academic, and asked this question in response to my having shown some knowledge of Science.

Was he visually impaired or was it pitch black at the time and he couldn't see that I am Old? No, it was daylight, but I was wearing sunglasses, so perhaps he couldn't see the wrinkles by my eyes, or maybe he thought I was a non-traditional student.

I thought it was strange that his imagination could only take him as far as envisioning me as a Masters student. Couldn't I at least be a PhD student, if not a professional scientist of some sort?

But, in fact, I wasn't annoyed; I saw it as an opportunity to introduce myself as a Science Professor. I like to think that now he will not make the equation woman + science = student, and instead there will be some part of his brain that remembers woman + science = professional.

According to this hypothesis, whatever equation this man might make for a scientifically inclined man, he will now make for women as well. His imagination will not be as limited as it was before he had met a real live FSP.

That is my hope, anyway. This is one (slow) way that stereotypes get busted -- one person at a time -- but there can be some personal satisfaction in it if the interaction ends up being a positive one.

25 comments:

Kea said...

There actually is no reason to be annoyed in this case. R1 STEM FSPs are so incredibly rare that he was probably relying on probabilities. We all do that.

Murr Brewster said...

I have a biology degree and worked in my field for only a couple years before signing on as a letter carrier, back in the '70s. And then, five times a day, for several years, I had to respond to the question, "Hey, we really can't call you the mail-MAN, can we? Haw, haw! Person-person? Haw, haw!" Haw, haw.

Postess. Zip Coed. Postal-packin' mama.

Signed, ecstatically retired

Science Professor Mum said...

An excellent point - whilst we would rather we were immediately recognised as legitimate scientists, let's never waste an opportunity to broaden people's minds because we are too offended to think constructively. Go FSP!

Anonymous said...

What was his response when you told him you are a professor?

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it's a difference in discipline, but in some fields, here's an alternate explanation:

1) Almost nobody is a professor.

2) Ph.D. students are young, since they almost never have non-academic experience.

3) Many advanced professionals seek masters degrees.

Conclusion: a non-young person who is one of these three must be a masters student.

Anonymous said...

A 50-year senior lecturer in my research group recently presented a talk at a conference. He got asked by a woman of a similar age if he was the postdoc of one of his collaborators, also 50 years old. We were all baffled, but the truth is that it made me feel better about all the times I was asked what year of my PhD I was in even though I've been a postdoc for a few years now. That case aside though, I do wonder if men get asked things like that nearly as much as women- I doubt it.

Male said...

Estimate the number of science Masters students this man could encounter on a regular basis. Now estimate the number of science professors. Now do the same for female Master students and professors.

I think you will see that the chances of running into a Masters student are >> running into a professor.

Now think of the number of attractive FSPs he regularly encounters. His attractive female Masters student algorithm only fails on you. :)

Cherish said...

I'm thinking it's probably a good sign that he thought you were an advanced degree student. It would have been worse had he thought you were an undergrad.

Anonymous said...

On the good side, you've been upgraded from secretary, which is what most people with sexist stereotypes tend to assume.


/sarcasm

Anonymous said...

I am afraid that only one episode will not cancel stereotypes in this man. Was he surprised after he discovered that woman can be professors in science??
More than the question, I am annoyed (as a female assistant professor in physics) by what follows: doubt, astonishment.

Female Science Professor said...

Maybe one reason I thought it was a positive interaction is because his response was not doubt and astonishment, but more along the lines of "That's great!" and "That's really interesting", followed by questions about my work.

Anonymous said...

I'm a 31 year old FSP, and have just agreed to work with a 79 year old male master's student. This combination promises to provide many guessing games at conferences and meetings in the future...

Anonymous said...

http://shine.yahoo.com/channel/parenting/epic-t-shirt-fail-quot-im-too-pretty-to-do-my-homework-so-my-brother-has-to-do-it-for-me-quot-2537106

This is not directly linked to your post, but in a way its here or even earlier where all this stereotype starts....

John Vidale said...

It may sound stupid, but it pays to figure out the secret code for who wears what to mark their position. Some clothing is ambiguous, but some is not.

My interactions with others on campus markedly improved once I adopted the clothing of self-important senior profs. Some accessories, although I'm sure these are obvious - an expensive fountain pen in shirt pocket, expensive shoes, dark clothes, button down shirt, briefcase rather than backpack.

No one has mistaken me for a student of any sort since I ditched the backpack, shorts, and sneakers.

I can recognize the code on women, although not describe it.

Walking Barefoot said...

Funny, from the post's title, following on yesterday's post about the Mrs. Degree, I thought you would be writing about women who pursued advanced degrees so that they could avoid getting married.

Anonymous said...

This is a little off-topic, but FSP's post reminded me of an experience I had as an undergrad:

I was at Starbucks, doing my physics homework (Advanced Mechanics, in case you care). An older man--in his 50's or so--commented, "I bet that's hard."

"Yeah, it's pretty tough stuff," I said without giving my statement much thought.

"It's even harder for you 'cause you're a girl."

(I wanted to kick him in the groin.)

Anonymous said...

Re: The I'm-too-pretty T-shirt.

A couple weeks ago, I was in the student union bookstore on campus. For sale were these mugs that said, "I'm too pretty to do math."

I did a double-take.

This is a top R1 university and such items are available for sale on campus by the university itself??? Really?

kamikaze said...

I don't know if this makes things any better, but I have actually seen the same thing happen to our new, male professor -- one of the group's PhD students shook his hand and asked if he was there for an internship. It was quite hilarious :-)

nanoalchemist said...

@anon 12:11

I really hate that sh*t. The deliberate ignorance and trained incompetence irks me no end. I was TAing a freshman chemistry lab, and I noticed one group of girls (and they deserved that moniker) didn’t have their Bunsen burner lit. I walked over to ask if there was a problem. Gas on? Burner broken? No flint in striker? No. Why isn’t it lit yet then? Didn’t you learn how to do that in high school?

Her answer was “We know how. I always just had a boy do it for me.”

Anonymous said...

and old folks dying off is another slow but sure way for things to change:)

Anonymous said...

At the R1 university where I did my PhD (in physics), the masters students were almost invariably ~40-70 years old. They tended to be engineers or retirees who were interested in learning a little more physics.

But I only saw 1 PhD student over 40 (out of ~150 students), and they flunked out.

So yes, this guy should have considered the possibility you were a professor. But it's pretty obvious why "masters student" makes more sense than "PhD student".

lauren said...

"It may sound stupid, but it pays to figure out the secret code for who wears what to mark their position."

It also "pays" (and is less stupid) to just assume that someone has the higher rank when in doubt. If I meet someone from the biology department, for instance, I'll just assume the person's a professor and speak with them accordingly. (Unless they look 18 or something.) Let them correct me and say "Oh, I'm still studying..." if it comes up. What's the harm? The worst that can happen is that you've done a bit of networking and talked about biology for a while *with an undergrad*! Shock horror!

John Vidale said...

It also "pays" (and is less stupid) to just assume that someone has the higher rank when in doubt.

Sorry to be a didact, but a careful reading of my words would reveal that decoding the dress code is intended to give ME the correct plumage so that OTHERS make the intended assumption. Just as FSP wished her misinterpreter has been more accurate.

I've found that I don't need to spot a Mont Blanc pen to ID the senior prof with European pretensions.

RVP said...

@lauren: Why not assume they are the dean? Or better still, if you're in the UK why not assume they are knighted? Everyone chooses the title they think is reasonable.

@FSP: As others have pointed out, it has less to do with gender and more with probability. You're searching for things that aren't there - but I'm happy you had a good conversation all the same.

Lindsey Kuper said...

I think the "not an academic" is a giveaway as to why the guy thought you were a master's student as opposed to a Ph.D. student. I've noticed that some non-academics use "master's student" as a synonym for "grad student". They don't really care what degree you're there to get.