Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

I have had a number of posts about proper attire for certain parts of this job – for instance conferences and what not to wear. But, no matter how I dress there is one thing I cannot change – I look young. Lately, for some reason, I have been getting this a lot. Further, WomenOfScience friends of mine have also relayed several similar stories recently – there is a rash of these comments in my life.

To help you understand what is happening, I have illustrated some of my favorite recent stories…WomanIfScience1

Silly: Sometimes it is just annoying when I get mistaken for a student. Mostly, these are when I am mistaken for a student by an actual student, and it is a bit awkward. Several times, I have been walking down the concourse in the student center. The student activities and groups line the concourse like a gauntlet, and you have to walk past to go get lunch at the canteen. More than once, I have been asked if I need a summer job. My responses vary from, “No, thanks. I’m good,” to “Do you want a summer job? I’m a professor hiring summer researchers, and you seem like a go-getter.”

Recently, I was handed a flier from a doofy kid who said, “Cool party downtown on Saturday.” I responded, “Actually, I’m a professor, so that would be pretty weird.”

One time I was actually asked out on a date. It was embarrassing to tell the student that I am actually a professor. He was also embarrassed.

Awkward: Sometimes I am mistaken for someone who is too young to be a professor or a mother or a professional at all. Once I was returning from giving a talk somewhere, and I was sitting next to an older woman. She said she was excited about going to visit her grandchildren. I said that my mother is also excited when she comes to visit my child. The woman then had a horrified look on her face. I told her my true age, and she looked relieved and said, “You don’t look old enough to have children.” She told me that I look ten years younger than I actually am.

Recently, I had an embarrassing exchange. I had just returned from teaching. After entering my office, I kicked off my shoes, took off my blazer and my sweater. Teaching is hot, tiring work, and I thought I would have a few minute to check email. My student knocks on the door and says, “Professor, I would like you to meet my parents.” I was in no state to meet parents. In addition to looking young, I was without shoes and wearing a tank top that was under my sweater. I hurriedly put on my sweater and begun talking to my student’s mom and dad, shaking hands, etc. My student described his work to his mom and dad, doing an excellent job. I continued to talk about relatable ramifications of our research that non-scientists can understand. As I am talking, the dad’s facial expression changes from polite, placating smile to dawning realization that I am clearly competent and accomplished. I have seen this transformation before when people realize that I know what I am talking about. The next words out of his mouth were, “Wow, you look so young.” I expect this reaction. I just get it so often. I have decided to stop being upset by it.

Stupid: One time I needed something modified in my lab, and the dude from facilities or whatever wouldn’t approve it until I asked my boss. I informed him that I was the boss, and I approve, so please go do it.

What about you? Any stories about annoying, stupid, or silly mistakes being made because you are young-looking? This can happen easily to men, too, but I think women have a double whammy. Women are not expected to be professors, but if a woman is a professor, she needs to look old, at least. Post or comment your stories here. To get an email whenever I post, click the +Follow button.

Comments on: "You Don’t Look Like a Professor" (4)

  1. MaybeIshoulddressmorelikeEllenDegeneres said:

    While I’m getting a little bit less of this now with all of my grays (hahah), I still sometimes get this when I’m out in the community, working as a advisor/consultant. It’s that, “you don’t look like you’ve had enough experience to be working as a consultant, what you mean is you’re a graduate research assistant, right?” look, or comment. When I (or collaborators) rattle off things that I’ve done that would make me qualified to speak on some issue, people usually back off, and say “Oh, you look so young.” As a person of color, I usually make some joke about black not cracking to explain why I look so young, but I still find it makes me doubt myself. And, recently, I’ve found myself wearing higher heeled shoes, blazers, or some other marker of “adultness” (I keep trying to carry a purse instead of a backpack, but those things are annoying!) to informal meetings, just to make myself feel better. But, as a community-based researcher, who works in partnership with community members from all kinds of backgrounds, I know that being “too fancy” can be a turn off, and I’d rather put them at ease than prove myself to some other researcher, so I usually end up more often than not “dressing down” in clothes that probably make me look like a grad student.

  2. […] young.  I have had other posts about looking young (post). In the past, it was annoying, because I didn’t like being mistaken for a student. Now, I […]

  3. […] are an under-represented person who people automatically think is less competent or perhaps “doesn’t look like a professor,” I totally understand wanted to hold on to, hold up, and brag about your […]

  4. […] confusing for young men, as well. I have had a number of prior posts about clothes (here, here, here, here, here, here – OMG, that is so many!), but I really love this one!  Thank you for […]

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