Sunday, October 22, 2006

Follow The Leader

This week, I was going through security in an airport, and was too short to reach over and get a gray bin from the stack behind the counter where we were all removing our laptops, shoes, and clear ziploc bags with < 3 oz. containers of liquids and gels. A tall man behind me reached over and shoved the stack closer, where we could all reach them easily, and I thanked him. He ignored me, but smirked at his friend next to him and said "Lead, follow, or get the hell out of my way.", which I believe is a slight reinterpretation of a quotation by Thomas Paine, and perhaps more recently a self-help book title. Somehow, I don't think this inspirational leadership mantra was intended as a means for tall men to insult short women.

On the plane, I sat next to a very polite and pleasant man who, when he saw me working on some papers, asked me what I do. I told him that I am a science professor (specifying my field of science). His first guess was that I teach at a community college. Nope. His next guess was that I teach at a local small college. Nope. His next guess was that I teach at a small church-affiliated university in the region. Nope. Finally I said that I am a professor at the Big University of X. He was surprised because he has a neighbor who was a professor there, and this neighbor was a very distinguished man who wrote a famous book. And his point was.. what?

The amazing thing is that I know his distinguished neighbor (long-retired), and I teach a class that he used to teach. By any measure (# of papers, grants, books, citation indices, honors etc.), I am more successful than the distinguishd professor ever was in his long career, but I will never be distinguished. I will never look it and I will never act it.

I once went on a lecture tour as a Distinguished Lecturer for a professional society. At one airport, I waited and waited for someone to meet me, and after a long wait, I was paged. It turns out that the student sent to pick me up had been waiting in the same place I was, and had seen me, but it hadn't occurred to him that I could be the distinguished professor he was supposed to meet.


Anonymous said...

This sort of thing happens to me all the time... Now it's a game for me to fly undercover, if I'm mistaken for a student, I sometimes go with it to see where it will end :) At the end of the day, yes it will always be a steep wall of prejudice to scale - but I figure the most effective weapon is ability. It's not like I can (or more importantly, would want to!) change my appearance!

Anonymous said...

I enjoy your blog. This recent post contrasted with the sad tale of Eric Poehlman's scientific misconduct in this week's NY Times.
The article suggests Poehlman was addicted to the prestige of being a distinguished academic scientist, so he fabricated data to stay in the game. Ack...minor sports analogy!
As a female scientist, I feel the prestige factor will always be out of reach, which stinks. On the other hand, this means I will never have the motivation to screw up in the spectacular way this guy did. If the science ever stops being fun, time to do something else.

Anonymous said...

I do actually know one female professor who is, definitively, distinguished. She's about 6 feet tall, has long grey hair which she always wears up in a bun, and has a stare which could bore through steel. But I bet she had trouble before she went grey: in fact, she tells a lot of horror stories from when she was younger (advisor wanted to sleep with her, grants rejected because she might reproduce, etc.).

Anonymous said...

If you dress too nicely, you're taken for a secretary, but if you dress more casually, you're taken for a can't win! As I age I find that I am mistaken for a secretary more often than a student. Too bad, because students aren't usually asked to sign for packages, deliver mail, or fix the copier.....

Anonymous said...

I was at a conference once, waiting in the lobby of the hotel to meet my sister [temp nanny]. I could see the men scanning the lobby for colleages that they knew, but their eyes glazed over when the glimpsed me -- I was just the 'spouse-mom' with a toddler in tow. I'll never forget how professionally invisible I was that day.

Ms.PhD said...

You're a very distinguished blogger. Isn't that enough? ;-)

Seriously though, this stuff sucks. But it just goes to show you, anniversaries of NOW and AWIS and 'how far we've come' aside, we still have a long way to go!

I've always taken a proactive approach to this stuff, to avoid the heartache of wondering why people can't be more open minded: I already know they're not.

I consider myself an ambassador for women in science. As such, I tell people up front that I do research at U of X and have a PhD. Sometimes they're surprised. Mostly they congratulate me on doing something important for society, and then proceed to ask me about the diseases common in their family.

When I go to meet someone who hasn't met me before, I make sure to tell them what I'll be wearing (orange shirt) or something obvious I'll have with me (pink backpack). This eliminates the need for them to make assumptions about how tall/old/male I am.