Do I Look Young To You?

So much of what we talk about here at Tenure, She Wrote is about straddling the often-conflicting expectations of the academic workplace and cultural pressures outside of work. At work we often equate age and expertise, masculinity with leadership. Outside of work, looking young is usually seen as a good thing.

A few weeks ago, there was a discussion over on twitter – and followed up on by @drugmonkeyblog – on looking young as a scientist*. Or rather, on people commenting on your age and making assumptions about your age, based on how you look. In terms of action, Drug Monkey hits the nail on the head – just don’t do it. Keep your opinion to yourself.

The issue I want to discuss is this: Why is this a problem at all?

According to Western norms, and a helluva lot of advertising, we should be happy to be seen as young. We should be striving to stay or look youthful. I could trot out any number of examples – young models, aging creams, magazine articles listing the top 20 ways to stay young, the failure of many actresses to age at all, and so on – but we are all familiar with this.

So if looking young is so desirable, what is the problem here?

It’s not so much the exclamations of “Oh! but you’re so young!” which happen and are annoying in a generic why-are-you-judging-my-looks-rather-than-my science category, but commonly it’s comments like “So have you decided on your lab rotations yet?” or “Are you doing qualifying exams this year?” or even “You’re a very challenging young lady”**. Fairly commonly it is “Who do you work for?…No, really, whose lab are you in?”. Sometimes it’s from students “Are you a graduate student? Why are you teaching this course?”***

The problem with being told that you look like [status junior to your position] is not really about age at all. The problem is that even if (and that’s sometimes a pretty big if) the intention is a compliment, the result is ….not complimentary.

Questions like “Are you a graduate student?” or the insistence that I *must* be working in someone else’s lab don’t translate only to “You look young!“****. Instead, what I hear is “You are not who I expect to be here” and “I think you don’t belong” and “I don’t believe that you are qualified”. Which are annoying enough, but even worse, these happen to be the kinds of things I, as a junior faculty person, am most concerned about.

Not looking like a graduate student is one of the big reasons that I dress nicely to go to work*****, especially when teaching. I rarely wear jeans, I almost never wear jeans, t-shirt and sneakers. Not because I am trying to look old, but because my life is easier if I don’t need to constantly field questions about my age and position. I know I’m not alone in this – it’s one big reason that there are commonly questions and posts on Dressing for Academia.

One surprising thing here: how many of you are imagining these questions coming from older colleagues, particularly those of with XY chromosomes?
In my experience, these questions are as common from women and men, and more common – and more insistent from peers or younger.
Why? I don’t know. Competitiveness? Curiousity? Ideas?


*    Go read. Check out the comments thread too.

**   Yes. That happened. At a conference poster, by a graduate student.  I was uncharacteristically speechless. Later my friend came up with the perfect retort: “That’s DOCTOR young lady to you
***   or “You’re a graduate student, right? Where is the professor?”
****  Also? Let me tell you a secret – I’m really not that young.

***** Please don’t write in the comments that I shouldn’t wear jeans and sneakers and listen to rap music.

Science Fails Trans Women

On July 11, the journal Science published a special edition on HIV/AIDS that disrespects trans women in a number of ways. The most obvious is the cover photo, which features a number of trans women sex workers in Jakarta and the focus of the image is directly on their crotches. We at Tenure, She Wrote are disappointed in Science for playing into harmful tropes that continue to put women’s lives in danger.

A.V. Flox at Slantist has done an excellent job of breaking down how Science has previously handled photographs of people on its cover. Of the 42 covers featuring people in the past decade, this is the only one that removed the subject’s heads while focusing on their pelvic region and legs.

The article that is related to the photograph (Australia shows its neighbors how to stem an epidemic) has no mention of trans women what-so-ever. In fact, throughout this issue of Science, trans women are mentioned in just two of the eleven Special Issue articles. In the first (“In PNG, the epidemic that wasn’t”), along with using the problematic term “transgenders” instead of “transgender people”, trans women are insinuated as not being women and are placed in a third category alongside “females” and “males.” Science could have clarified this better by using “cisgender women, cisgender men, and transgender women.” The second article (“Malaysia tries to follow Australia’s path”) features the only quote from a trans woman in this issue.

After publication, Science editor Jim Austin recently posted a number of problematic tweets.





In his Twitter remarks, Austin perpetuated disrespect towards trans women during a time when murders of trans women of color is on the rise. In the days following the publication, Marcia McNutt, the Science Editor-in-Chief, apologized for discomfort caused by the cover.


Guest Post: Making “Beyond the Old Boys Club?” Using a zine to tell stories and spark conversations about gender and academic culture

This project began without my knowing it. A year and a half into my master’s/PhD program, a professor gave a brief talk on gender and academic culture. Our department had a reputation of being particularly unfriendly toward women and feminism, it turned out. Grad students responded with a mix of naïve but genuinely concerned questions as well as muttered dismissals. For me, this triggered a slew of memories: alienating or mansplainy remarks in classes, tacitly or explicitly sexist remarks at informal departmental activities, gendered divisions of participation and labor, questions I had received elsewhere as an admitted student about why, as a feminist, I was considering this school.[1]

Having worked for several years in non-academic settings before applying to graduate school, sexism and gender issues in the workplace were nothing new. But reflecting on these memories and discussions made me wonder: what gave my department its current reputation as historically unfriendly towards women and feminism? To what extent and in what ways did this accurately depict people’s experiences? How is it currently resonant, and how could our departmental culture be improved?

I decided to do some research and make a zine about it (What’s a zine? Zines are the sort of punky do-it-yourself cousins of comic books. While many are online – like this one on race in geography –, they started as paper creatures often available at your local radical/indie bookstore.). Continue reading

Guest Post: Women In Science at Evolution 2014

This is the third consecutive year that the Evolution Meeting has had a workshop and networking lunch focused on Women in Science. This year’s focus was on implicit bias in the workplace. The event was organized by Jenny Boughman (Michigan State University) and Michele Dudash (University of Maryland) and led by Joan Herbers (Ohio State University), past president of the Association for Women in Science. During the workshop, which was attended by about 45 women and 1 man, participants were asked to share instances in academic settings in which they felt they had been disadvantaged due to implicit bias. Continue reading

Funks, slumps, and yawns: how undiagnosed anemia affected my productivity

My first year as an assistant professor was hard. This did not come as a surprise to me, because I did not fall off the proverbial turnip truck last week. I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for this job. During graduate school, I attained completely unsustainable-but-glorious levels of productivity, and by the end, I was exhausted. I submitted grant applications during my postdoc that had me burning the candle from both ends, and when I was finished, I knew what it was to feel tired in my very bones. Those feast-and-famine cycles of productivity can wreak havoc in the long-term. I had my 3rd-year PhD slump, and my post-PhD postdoc slump. I’ve recognized that slumps come, and they can be a natural part of the creative process, and I try not to be too hard on myself when I’m in one.

But last spring, I was tired all the time. Continue reading

Getting past a poor third year review

For many academics, the third year review means make-or-break time. You’ve had a few years to settle in, get your own research started, mentor some students, develop and teach new class preps. In my field, funding is definitely expected by this time, and publications from your new line of study should be beginning to roll out.

Ideally, anyway.

For me, many things that could have gone wrong in my first three years, did. My research technician crapped out on me and cost me a good half-year of productivity while I was figuring out how to handle that situation. The research I had started wasn’t really taking off anyway–both the original Plan A as well as my back-up Plan B. I went through a divorce and was learning to handle single mom-hood. My departmental mentor just wasn’t sure what to do with me.

I dug out my own third-year review earlier this semester. Continue reading

Guest Post: Grad school with big kids

Like many of my classmates, I entered graduate school right after I got my undergraduate degree. Unlike many of my classmates, I took 15 years off between high school and college. My graduate experience is not just happening to me. Instead my husband and 3 children are along for the ride. While some of my classmates grapple with whether to have a baby during graduate school, or where to find the best preschool close to campus, I started this graduate school journey with elementary and middle school children in tow. Now, 4 years in, they are in middle and high school. I found little advice or feedback on going to grad school while parenting big kids. Therefore, I am here to dish the dirt. Whether you are a parent contemplating going to graduate school, or are simply curious, I would like to provide you with some insight on advantages and disadvantages of the situation. Continue reading