Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I am not a student (2)

Once I get started with the stories of all the times I've been mistaken for a student, it's hard to stop. Although these incidents are disturbing in terms of their implications for how many people view women, they also entertain me and are a great way to have fun talking to other women science professors. We all have these stories!

There are the times, too numerous to recall, when someone at a meeting has asked me who my advisor is.

There are the times that someone has not realized that those papers published by someone with the exact same last name and initials as I have is actually me. Somehow they had "pictured" X (me) in some other way.

[Side note/tangent: Back when people sent reprint request cards by mail, it was not unusual to get one with the PREPRINTED salutation "Dear Sir". I used to send a note with the reprint asking that they acquire new postcards without the Sir. Some people wrote back apologizing. Some people wrote back a rude note saying that I should just deal with it. Some people of course did not respond. And one person wrote back saying that they had hundreds of these postcards and were not about to spend money getting them reprinted]

On at least 3 occasions that I can remember, an applicant for a faculty position in my department has talked to me at a conference, noticing my department/university affiliation listed on my nametag but not realizing that I was (1) a professor, and (2) on the search committee (in 2 of the cases). These all happened 3 years ago or more, and involved applicants who were in fields far from my own (I sometimes have to be on search committees even though I have no expertise in the field, just for the sake of gender diversity). One such conversation went something like this:

A (Applicant): You're from the University of X! I'm applying for a job there. What's the department like?
Me: (some answer involving basic department info blah blah blah)
A: What are the professors like?
Me, slowly realizing that A may not know I'm a professor, but not quite sure because maybe he meant to ask "What are the OTHER professors like": What do you mean?
A, clarifying: I'm interested in a student's perspective on the faculty.
Me, now sure that A does not know I am a professor and not wanting to freak him out but at the same time wanting to make a point, as kindly as possible: Then you should ask a student.
A: Oh, I'm sorry. Are you a postdoc?

There is no good way to end that type of conversation.

And then there was the time at a conference when I was talking to one of my colleagues from another university, and a man rushed up to my colleague and said "I'm sorry I missed your student's talk!". My colleague said "None of my students are giving talks at this conference." Other man: "But I'm sure I saw in the program that there was a talk by X with your name listed as coauthor." Colleague, laughing hysterically and pointing at me, "This is X!". Other man, noticing me for the first time, "So this is your student!" Colleague, laughing even more, "Yes, it's so great to have a student who writes lots of papers!". At that point I walked away. Why is it that my male colleagues find this situation so funny?

The best solution to all of these problems is to become well known in your field and related fields. I'm working on it! This has its own issues, though, as you end up having conversations with insincere and sometimes desparate people at conferences, just because they know that you are editor of a journal and/or on an NSF panel or in some other position of academic quasi-power. But it's also a relief in some ways, compared to the alternative of being the eternal student, and I guess it's part of being a Role Model.


hypatia said...

So I can to that - I've been mistaken for a high school student volunteering for the summer in my own lab!

Anonymous said...

I am a postdoc. Yet I have twice gotten mistaken for the secretary. :(

~profgrrrrl~ said...

Oh, yes. I get that all the time.

The last time the computer support folks made the rounds (installing new printer drivers), as they left my office they asked me to please tell Prof. Grrrrl that they had done x, y, and z. When I said "I'm Prof Grrrrl, this is my office" the guy replied, "Oh, I just assumed that the woman who was in here 15 minutes ago was and that you're one of the grad students."

Nope. The woman to whom he refers is my grad student. She wasn't any better/more professionally dressed than I was. She's younger than me. But taller, wider, and less girly. Hmm.

Medium Reality said...

You may think that this kind of thing doesn't happen in, say, the arts, but I am here to tell you that it does! Not to nearly as great of an extent, but I think that may be partially because our roles are simply not as codified in a non-university setting. I spent years in a traditionally male role (building scenery and managing those who build scenery) and watched male colleagues be praised for the same behavior for which i was chastised - basically, not being nice enough to the people around me. I was, in fact, told once that I'm not "old enough" to talk to someone the way I did. At the time I was in a job that, for at least ten years previous to me and continuing after I left it until now, I was the most qualified person to ever do.

PG said...

I had a female professor actually spend a minute giving her credentials to convince us that she was experience enough to teach the course. I felt that it was unnecessary and could perpetuate the idea that only old men can be professors.

Anonymous said...

A few words about myself before commenting. I am a european male post-doc. I worked in several countries. I have a wife and kids. Since my parents divorced, I was raised by my father and saw him doing everything at home. My physics PhD advisor was a woman. I still consider her has a very good scientist and mentor and I'm still gratefull for what she did for me. I've been involved in political groups with strong feminist concerns and I try to behave in accordance to my political faiths but I admit that I probably have unconscious (and undesired) macho's behaviors sometimes.
I'm sorry to comment so late your blog but I discovered it a couple of days ago, found it very interesting and decided to go chronologically.

That said, the only point until now I don't understand is when you say "Why is it that my male colleagues find this situation so funny? " Do you mean that you don't understand why your colleague at this conference were responding with sarcasms? But you yourself use a lot sarcastic answers in these situations. Your colleague was laughing because the other guy was ridiculous. You would probably laugh too if someone was calling me Miss because I have an earring. You wouldn't laugh at me but at the stupid person. I would also laugh if someone though that my woman professor was a student because I didn't see her as a student and couldn't understand how it is possible to mess up. That's all.

For the rest i have to admit that I've read on this blog sexist stories that I though were from another century. I admit that I didn't expected that, in the academic universe, it's happening so often. And i totally understand your sensitivity on that matter.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to confess that I have done this to SEVERAL professors to my UTTER embarrassment but I think you'll appreciate that they have ALL been men. It's not that you're a woman--maybe. For me, obviously, it wasn't they they were women! Just that day (days...) my radar or whatever was off and I didn't get a feeling from them that, well, they were OLD enough to BE a professor. If you look like you're 22, I'm not going to guess you're CV is 15 pages long including publications and awards. I accidentally insulted a young research professor this way at a blood drive. His friends at least thought it was funny--I was 18 and was mortified.

Anonymous said...

Male professors are also mistaken for students -- I have made this mistake several times, always to my horror (and once during a job interview!) While I don't doubt that sexism can play a role, I think it is important to acknowledge that many gender-neutral factors are also at play (perceived age, demeanor, dress, etc.) and that many men also wrestle with this problem.

Thanks for the wonderful blogging!

Anonymous said...

I am a new reader and this is a great blog.

Thank you for this preview of what is to come for me. The usual assumption when I meet new people is that I am a high school student. However, I can name three golden moments during my career as a graduate student when someone has assumed that I am in middle school. Their reactions when I calmly told them I am a graduate student (especially a cute little girl! in *gasp* engineering!) were priceless.

Anonymous said...

as a female prof in my mid-40s, i am choosing to forget that i ever read this post and just continue to be increasingly flattered that this still happens to me ...

Anonymous said...

I'm SO glad I'm not the only one! :)Thanks for sharing your stories! I just finished my first semester teaching and have had countless 'So when do you graduate?', 'Is the professor here yet??', 'YOU'RE the professor?' moments. It can be frustrating, but most of the time its fairly entertaining.