Monday, December 12, 2011

Hold That Thought

Not long ago, a colleague from another university visited my university, and was accompanied on his visit by his wife, who is also a scientist. This colleague and I have not been working together for very long, and I do not know him well. I had never met his wife before, but I was happy to meet her, and liked her very much. She is doing some very interesting work, and I enjoyed talking with her.

This is where I need to mention that my colleague's wife is 15-20 years younger than he is, as it is relevant to the rest of the anecdote.

Another scientist, who met my colleague and his wife for the first time during this visit, later remarked to me that he'd had a good discussion with the colleague and his "grad student". I corrected him, saying that the woman in question is not a student, she is a research scientist.

He asked if she visited because she is also working with me, and I said no, she came with my colleague on the visit because they're married and were traveling together, to our university and then on a short vacation in the area.

My intention in making the correction wasn't to gossip; in fact, my main interest was to let him know that the young woman is a research scientist, heading up her own research program. I wasn't offended by his assumption, but I wanted him to know that she's not a student. In fact, it occurred to me that she and this scientist might be interested in collaborating on some research, as they have mutual research interests.

Except that this scientist's immediate response on learning that my colleague (who is close to my age) is married to this young woman was: "Allllriiiiiight! I'm impressed! Well, good for him! Wow, that's great."

Can I assume that he is pleased that my colleague is married to a smart woman who is doing interesting research? Please, can I assume that?

27 comments:

Pramod said...

:-(

This just makes me sad.

Alex said...

Just please tell me that when they met she wasn't his grad student or postdoc.

No offense to her, but we've all heard stories of dudes who prefer subordinates. OTOH, if he has your respect, he probably isn't that type.

Anonymous said...

You can't assume that. I would have told him why I was giving him that information. Something like: "She's not a grad student, she has her own lab in case you want to collaborate." or "She's not a grad student, she's a professor in X and X. She does some great work in X and X area." My guess from his comment is that he's impressed because he managed to marry a young, (beautiful?), smart woman. But I don't know this person so this is just a guess.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I would love to have been there to hear his reaction, had the sex/age differential been reversed. Anyone ever seen this happen (among real-life academics, that is)?

Female Science Professor said...

I don't think she was his grad student or postdoc.

Anonymous said...

I met my husband when I went back to school. He was the theorist in our research group; I was a student. However, I'm actually two years old than him (that is, I was a non-traditional student) so it wasn't nearly as weird as it sounds.

I don't think it's necessarily weird that two people who work in close [physical] proximity to each other find out they have a lot in common, enjoy each other's company, decide to date, and/or get married.

If Hubby and I had happened to be accountants rather than scientists, we may have met each other in a cubical farm somewhere. If we were musicians, we may have met at a music festival. As it stands, we are scientists, and so we met in a university laboratory.

And the age thing doesn't matter either. As long as the couple is happy, who cares that 15 years separate them.

Anonymous said...

you can assume that. but you would be wrong. sorry. but I hope you are right!

Anonymous said...

Some men would have been uncomfortable with this conversation, but it seems even stranger that a male colleague would say this to a woman, and a middle-aged woman at that.

Anonymous said...

@Notorious Ph.D.: There's a well-known professor in our university who left her husband and married her undergraduate student (though after he graduated). She's kind of mocked for this, though I don't know if it's because of the genders in the equation, or the fact that the relationship caused a divorce and the younger party was an undergrad.

Phillip Helbig said...

When will successful old men stop looking to marry beautiful young women? Probably not before beautiful young women stop looking to marry successful old men.

Probably your female colleagues are just as impressed by her catch.

makita said...

Yep, I'd assume that. The alternative is too horrifying to consider. I tend to think the best of people. Or at least give them the benefit of the doubt (sticks finger in ears and starts humming.

Anonymous said...

I would give him the benefit of the doubt; perhaps he was seeking a complimentary way out of what he realized (once his assumptions were shown false) was an awkward situation.

Anonymous said...

It seems like the classic mid-life crisis, very common among scientists and possibly the broader population (not sure i know enough non-scientists). I just heard of two well-known profs at my former university who, within a year of each other, had the typical crisis -usually coinciding with the kids' departure for college- and ended up divorcing the wife of xx years and starting anew with much younger, adoring, bright young woman. *sigh*
all stories and all marriages are different, but there's a (disturbing) pattern....

Anonymous said...

@ Notorious PhD: We have a professor in a clinical program that was widowed. Several years later, she married a student from that clinical program. He didn't follow the normal sequence of academic work, and I don't think they started dating until after he graduated. What is amusing is that they had a baby the same year her oldest son from the previous marriage graduated from high school.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but no, you can't assume that. Your colleague was unfortunately not censoring his speech. Let's face it, to an older past-prime guy, the idea of scoring a younger in-prime woman is very alluring. We're humans after all, biologically driven to procreate. Your colleague's *thought* was normal and not out of line. However, his speech was, and he should have been gently chastised for it.

Anonymous said...

I think you can assume that - I would.

BioGirl said...

The season for wishes!

Anonymous said...

Seriously, Philip? Not these days. Not at all.

-- female mathematician

EliRabett said...

No

Female Science Professor said...

Anon 11:16 - I didn't say anything about the age of the scientist who made the comment.

Anonymous said...

This was outside a professional setting, but I had a similar response (I'm female) when someone told me that the young man I was referring to was married to his sister (10+ years senior to the young fella). Was I out of line?

Anonymous said...

This is a big reason I started dating same-age or younger men, as older men I dated even though our work was not related invariably fell into "I-am-your-professor" mode and I am allergic to the daddy syndrome. My husband is two years younger and we are both scientists. I have noticed that people do not see me as a brainless trophy wife when I go with him to a work party the way they would if I were dating an older scientist (another reason I stopped dating older men, hate the arm candy thing).

My advise to young women professionals is: given the academic hierarchy, waaaay less headache and identity mishaps when we go out with younger (or peer) men. I think younger is actually better as we are not in professional competition as well due to the few years offset. I have seen these for myself as well as fellow women in science.

Female mathematician

GMP said...

Anon at 3:52 PM:
... someone told me that the young man I was referring to was married to his sister (10+ years senior to the young fella).

Please tell me the young fella was not married to his own sister, but to the sister of the guy you were talking to. The pronoun pitfalls. ;-)

inBetween said...

had the situation been reversed I would have also said exactly the same thing... what is wrong with commenting on what a good catch someone made? I think I am missing something here.

Anonymous said...

GMP -
Sorry about that. No, the young fella was NOT married to his own sister, but to the sister of the man (a much older man) who informed me of the marital status.

Anonymous said...

I'm in with inBetween. I fail to see the faux pas. FSP can you be more specific about why the comment is inappropriate?

Would it have made a difference if the comment had been made about a successful female scientist who married Brad Pitt? I certainly would have said "wow, I'm impressed!".

L.C. said...

I know scientists who would react that way. But the ones I know are still in the maybe-single-maybe-dating-definitely-options-open phase of life. It comes as no surprise to any woman that usually her worth is measured by her outward beauty. Sometimes it's all anyone else can see.