Monday, July 10, 2006

I am not a student!

I have written before about how some people have trouble believing I am a professor, either because I don't look "old" enough, male enough, or well dressed enough. Although this happens less and less as I get older (no gray hair yet, no glasses, but a few wrinkles near my eyes!), I was thinking about it today because I just saw that a certain person was recently elected president of one of the major professional societies in my field.

About 4 years, ago, this person came to my department to interview for a senior hire (full professor position). At a meeting attended ONLY by faculty, he presented his vision (or lack thereof) for the position, answered questions, and so on. At the end, he looked at me and said "Good luck with your thesis!". My male colleagues laughed, and I wasn't sure exactly what to say. I didn't want to humiliate him, but I didn't want to thank him either, so I just said "Actually, it's done" (not mentioning that it was done more than a decade ago). One of my male colleagues said "Yes, and we are so proud of her!", and everyone laughed some more. This was too much for my senior female colleague and she said, in a very indignant voice "PROFESSOR X (me) is an ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR with TENURE." I will be forever grateful to her for that comment! It was a small thing, but one example of why it is important to have female colleagues. The clueless old guy just mumbled something, and that was that.

Even though my male colleagues thought the whole thing was hilarious, and their main reaction was how "lucky" I am that I don't look my age, the incident did influence their opinions about the candidate, and he was not offered the position. His belief that I must be a student, even though I was in my late 30's at the time, was evidence that he was out of touch, and possibly sexist in that subtle way of not really thinking women are *equal* to men in research abilities or accomplishments.

But now he is president of the professional society, though fortunately it's typically a short term position. It is an elected position, though, so it means that quite a few people voted for him. I voted for the losing candidate, a man I don't know much about, so it was more of a 'vote against' than a 'vote for' anyone.

This professional society has been trying to pay attention to women and other underrepresented groups in the field, but I think most of their attempts have been misguided to date. I will write about that more later, but let's just say that it's very unlikely that I will be submitting an abstract to one of their special sessions focusing on "Women, Minorities, and the Disabled". I consider myself very liberal politically and socially, but things like that make me feel very 'politically incorrect'.


SciMom said...

I am so happy to have come across your blog. I am also a senior faculty but in the biological sciences and have begun blogging on issues related to women and science. I have had similar experiences as you describe here. My favorite ones are when I'm asked "And whose lab to you work in?". I have always thought that the best thing women could do for each other as faculty is be great supporters and mentors for each other, something I think we don't do enough.

DrOtter said...

I'm a postdoc and constantly mistaken for an undergrad student (even at conferences) so am slightly distressed to realise that its going to continue for a while! I had hoped that by the time you got tenure you magically transformed into someone that could not be mistaken for anyone other than a professor!
It is considered polite to underestimate a women’s age, but not a mans. So I guess it is a polite compliment, of sorts.
Great blog by the way.

Anonymous said...

This and your other posts make me feel better...I am 27 and buying some wine with my boyfriend, who is also 27, the other day...the cashier asked who was paying...and then said "she looks really young" addressed to my bf.
JEEZ. Even if I was younger, I was still don't talk about someone as if they aren't there! How rude.

And yeah. A guy can look younger and not suffer the same consequences in terms of getting taken seriously...i work with a guy who is quite boyish-faced, I had assumed he was maybe late 20s, early 30s...turns out he is early 40s but I would never have said I thought he was younger. It would've seemed kind of, insulting.

It really bugs me when people say "it's a compliment!" when they/someone mistakenly thought I was a lot younger than I am, er NO, it ISN'T.

Same reasons why my mother spends fortunes on "anti-ageing" crap. Youth - inexperience, naivety, being told what to do, fresh face...attractive qualities in women. Not so in men. Age - experience, wisdom, street smarts, authority - attractive qualities in men. Not so in women.

GRRRRRRR. Thanks, patriarchy.