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 male gender?
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.

41 thoughts on “Do I Look Young To You?

  1. As an Asst Prof, a senior faculty member (who knew I was a faculty member) used to call me “Little Girl.” Then, he’d say, “No offense.” in a snarky tone. Am I short, Yes. But this was crazy. The No offense comment made me the most angry, because it showed that he knew what he was doing, but did it anyway. Due to the culture of the department, I didn’t say anything until our department head changed. When I broached it, the interim chair said, “That’s a big accusation. He’s no longer here, and it would take a lot of work to investigate.” That kind of culture is how sexism is perpetuated in academia. It also had secondary effects. I had absolutely NO desire to socialize or interact with him or his cronies in any way.

  2. Reblogged this on travelingeneticist and commented:
    This post by scitrigrrl hit home, bit time. When I interviewed for one of my faculty positions, it was clear things were not going well when the faculty kept telling me, “You’re so young.” There were so many unprofessional things that happened during this interview that hearing this comment from several faculty members seemed quite normal. In retrospect, it was my first interview, so I was not as prepared as I should have been. However, that is no excuse for some of the comments during that trip. It started off during breakfast, where I was regaled with a 90 minute conversation about the faculty member’s divorce, including personal details that should have NEVER been mentioned in a formal interview, and basically ended with the “You’re so young” comments. I know I dodged a bullet there, and am thankful that I had the opportunity to see the crazy before getting more involved in that department. What is your craziest interview story?

  3. When introduced to someone new, I normally break the ice with something like, ‘so what do you do?’ or something equally benign. That way I avoid making any faux pas or assumptions about someone on the basis of their age or anything else! Oh, and I also usually dress up at conferences and when teaching or lecturing. I know I do look young, and I want to stand out from the students. It also makes me feel more confident.

    • I wish I’d read your comment before the conference I just attended. I accidentally asked a professor if he was a graduate student because I couldn’t think of a way to ask him which career stage he was at, so I just started with graduate student. Oi.

  4. I think the praise for looking young combined with a sort of insult about looking young comes from gendered expectations. Women are expected to look young but not have brains and experience. Men are lauded for brains and experience so looking a bit older isn’t a problem. Thus ‘you look young’ becomes a sort-of-compliment because you’re female and for you that’s meant to be desirable but also a sort-of-insult because you’re moving outside of your expected gender role. The expectation seems to be that if women must be intelligent and successful they should at least have the decency to be dried-up old harridans that no-one would find remotely attractive.
    As for my worst interview experience, it’s tricky because I’m posting under my real name. Let’s just say I was the best candidate for the job. At least 2 if not 3 of the panel knew this (and I know this from them). The fourth, most senior of the panel, overruled them and appointed, yes, you’ve guessed it, a man. This now means that they have someone in post who hasn’t bothered to move to the city the job is in, preferring to stay living in a city 180 miles away. In the first 6 months of the appointment he wasn’t seen in the department. And I have a much nicer job in a much nicer part of the world but hey, guess what, the pay is 40% less. Go figure.

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  6. I was the keynote speaker at a conference recently. After my talk the person running the session summed up my presentation by saying “Prof. So-and-so: Come for the beauty, stay for the brain”. How is this possibly appropriate?

    Staff folks seem particularly interested in reminding me that I could be their daughter. I find myself reminding them that I am the exact same age as the multiple other assistant professors they just look older, more male, or have children. Basically, this translates to: you are young and functional, why don’t you do all your own paperwork, etc yourself.

  7. I get this too – it didn’t used to bother me, but it increasingly does. Often from grad students or young investigators (male or female). As a guy, it doesn’t tend to have the gendered/creepy overtones mentioned above, but it still seems odd. It has been happening all my life (I have always been slightly built and baby-faced), but now I am 36, with two children and my own lab it bothers me more. I think this is at least in part due to my own increased awareness of unconscious bias and gender/age/racial prejudice.
    However, in my experience, it ceases to be mentioned once people actually know me or if we have been introduced – the comments above where colleagues make repeated references to the apparent age of female colleagues are pretty shocking. I would hope that these would not be acceptable in my department – I would certainly not let them pass if I overheard them..

  8. I get questions quite often from undergrads or grad students about whose lab I am in or what classes I am taking (and I’m a 34 year old pregnant Assistant Prof). It is not my style to dress nicely (especially with all my male colleagues going around with holes in their shoes and crumbs on their shirts), but now I reluctantly do it anyway in the hopes that it will gain me some respect.

    From older male colleagues, I am happy to say that many of them treat me as an equal. However, there are a few that equate “young female” with “incompetent” or “not ready for this position.” I am sad to say that as a graduate student, I also saw young female assistant professors are more incompetent than young male assistant professors or more senior prof hires (male or female). These younger females, however, acted more overwhelmed and insecure in their positions. I can’t say that 6 months into this Prof gig that I don’t feel the same way.

    It makes me wonder that when we are aware of looking younger, or when we are patronized for looking younger, the frustration that accompanies those incidents might be viewed as being insecure or immature (while a frustrated man probably wouldn’t be viewed that way). Other people often treat us in a manner that reflects the tone we set for ourselves.

  9. Ouch…don’t even get me started on what happens when you start to look old. I used to look very young and get every which sort of insulting questioning of my suitability for a position. But now that I am 50, I have started to see what happens when you might actually be old. For men, implicit bias says you are experienced when you are older. For women, it says you are a granny. I was recently referred to by a colleague as the “Den Mother” instead of the Exec Director which I really am. We have to be aware of our ageism implicit biases in both directions!

    • Good point! I heard one speaker at a conference start with “I am the nice little old lady who teaches first-year students”. Of course, she meant it sarcastically – but everyone in the audience got the reference!!!

  10. Back when I occasionally got this remark, I would sometimes steal Gloria Steinem’s anti-aging line: “This is what xx looks like.” May you fill in xx with your real age, or perhaps job title. I’m waiting for the moment when you get to say, “this is what Department Chair looks like,” preferably to someone who thought he would be interviewing with your boss.

  11. I understand the advice to dress up to look older and be taken more seriously, but my field (fisheries) is very casual (in addition to being male dominated). People will wear shorts or jeans and a t-shirt to a conference or work. I therefore feel that as a youngish (mid-thirties, though told I look younger) female that if I dress up I will stand out even more than I already do. I normally go with nice jeans and a non-t-shirt top to try to hit that balance of blending in with the culture/ not looking too much like a graduate student. Based on comments my success rate is not terribly high.

  12. I was just talking to someone about this the other day. Everywhere I go people always tell me that “I look so young”. When I was in the first semester of graduate school someone even thought I was a college freshman. When I told them I was a graduate student they were shocked.

  13. Despite my name, I’m a a man and my wife, oddly with exactly the same name, rather conventionally, a woman.

    We both look young for our age. From our honeymoon, when everyone thought we had eloped through to our later careers, it bugged us both. We did not let it stop us. I started and run numerous successful companies, still looking like a schoolboy and my wife joined the British police as a grandmother at 45. she made arrests and did much much more.

    Even yesterday, Mrs Pat bitterly complained, at 70, of being expected to do more than her age allowed.

    Trust me, there are as many who will favour you out of prejudice as those who will discriminate. It evens out.

    In my youth “discriminating” was a compliment. And so it should be if used properly. But the English language and its meaning changes, which is how it should be.

    It is the work that really matters and, from what I have seen, you have absolutely no problem. You are winning, , go with the tide, with my good wishes.


    PS granddaughter number 3 or 4, can’t recall which from my regiment of women, got a first in London last week and refused to attend to get her cert and photo in cap and gown. I will get the blame. “Your grandfather put you up to this” I didn’t but hell, am I proud of her.

  14. Yes. This. It happens to me at least weekly, even though I’ve been a faculty member in the department for a decade and am 37. Recently, when someone (high) in the administration was introduced to me with my title, he responded “but you’re so young to be a full professor”. I responded snarkily “Why yes, I am”. I’m so sick of being asked “so, who do you work with? No really, whose lab are you in?” that I’m afraid my responses have gotten a bit rude. I’m still trying to figure out an answer that would teach them why their original question was.

  15. Agreed. It happened to me twice today! One, a young woman I was mentoring in a youth outreach program. In that case, she was shocked I had kids – not that I was a scientist and professor. In her local culture, women have kids at 19, though, so not sure how old she thought I was. Another was an older male who said that he got several comments about my picture on the front cover of our recent department newsletter. The comments were all, “She could be a teenager!” Although I wrote the article all about gender issues in the department and it clearly said “Associate Professor with Tenure, WomanOfScience” in the article. I looked at him and said, “The problem with that is that they are saying I don’t look qualified for my job, which I am.” We were in an elevator, and he nodded and dashed out.

    Also, I wear Converse All-Stars with sparkles or bright colors on them, jeans or shorts, and t-shirts. I also wear bright colors – a lot – and sometimes sequin shirts. I walk around listening to rap (recently a lot of Iggy Azalea for my girl power trip) and dancing with a giant back pack. Yes, I look like a student. But, I say, “screw them.” It’s summer and it can be hot, and I crawl under lab benches and work at my standing desk all day, so I should get to wear what I want. I do dress it up in the semester when I teach (dark jeans and sweaters) and when I present (I have been known to don a pants suit). I cannot help that I have no gray hair and only a very few laugh lines.

    More discussions of what to wear and what not to wear can be found at

  16. This happens to me all the time. The day after I got my first choice TT job and was still in elated mode, the administrative person in my postdoc department said to me “How do you think teaching is going to go because you look SO YOUNG? Like really…SO young. Do you think the students will take you seriously?” I was so irritated at the time, but it did make me think harder about how I can combat that impression from the start in my new job.

    If you, like I, are trying to get to the point appearance-wise where people don’t make these annoying comments, there are a few things I’ve tried that have worked. I found this blog post that helped a lot: Wearing more makeup helps too…I got some that makes me look more polished but still like myself. I’m getting nicer clothes that have more structure and more presence. Also, once I realized that I was carrying the same bag as nearly every undergrad on campus, I switched it for one that’s nicer.

    Thanks for this post–I didn’t realize that this happened to anyone else!

    • As a graduate student many years ago, I was teaching freshman comp (not as a TA, as the sole instructor) with students just a few years younger (and in some cases, older) than I was at the time; I was 22 (and then 23 and 24) and looked young for my age. I did the same things you’re describing with respect to the ‘uniform’ for the job. Because my syllabus used current media (song lyrics, movies) to teach the concepts of critical analysis and writing, the students were engaged, but many began the class with a bias towards not taking me or the work seriously.

      I established authority to good effect by memorizing their names quite quickly–during the first session, they wrote an essay so I could determine whether they were ready for the course, and figure out strengths and weaknesses. I had the desks arranged in a circle, and marked names on a diagram of that circle when I took attendance. While they were writing, I spent the hour connecting names with individuals, so that as each person turned his or her paper in, I said “Thank you, [name].” It showed them that I was paying attention and knew who they were–and made it easier for the rest of the course.

      During the second class session, I went over the syllabus and expectations, which included coming to class prepared with the textbook in hand and the reading or homework for that session completed, and the college’s unexcused absence policy (more than two unexcused absences could affect a student’s grade in the class). There was a reading assignment for the third class and the syllabus indicated we would be using the textbook in class during that session. Any students who showed up without the book were asked to leave the class and told that the session would count as an unexcused absence, but that I was open to discussing mitigating factors, including not being able to afford the book, during my office hours. This made a powerful impression that though the class would be fun and engaging (I did South Park impressions while teaching, threw mini chocolates at students who volunteered to answer questions during grammar sessions, and strongly encouraged them to write about topics of genuine interest and passion), they would have to take me seriously as the sole instructor of the class. Invariably a few would show up without the textbook, and often they would appear outside the classroom after class, book in hand, to apologize, or they’d show up at my office and let me know what had kept them (lack of money or organizational skills, and in one case, housing). I kept a few used copies of the text to loan out for the term for those with genuine hardship.

      This let me keep tabs immediately on the students most likely to need extra attention, and it showed the group that I was to be taken seriously. My authority on the subject matter was readily apparent; my authority as a young woman had to be established. By the end of the term, students would say the class was “hard but worth it,” and I did very well on evaluations, and had an absolute blast.

      Teaching was a calling for me, as was my research, but I determined after completing the MA and a year of my PhD that I’d be spending four years writing a dissertation that 40 people would read and half would disagree with, working 80 hour weeks regularly, and then competing 600:1 for a modestly paying tenure-track job (still 80 hours a week, likely a 5:4 teaching load to start with on a semester system) with no say about where in the country I lived, and would be so stressed by the competing demands of teaching, publishing, presenting, and administration/collegial relationships that I would be unlikely to have what I considered an acceptable quality of life. Still, whenever I’m academe-adjacent, hearing from people who’ve successfully made a go of it as professors, I’m sad for the path I abandoned. But 15 years later as a market researcher with a thriving full-time (40 hours a week) freelance career, a happy marriage, and enough flexibility to put my gifted-and-special-needs 7 year old first, I know the right things happened. I’d definitely recommend the above tactics,though, to anyone young-looking who needs to establish positive authority with students.🙂

  17. … and Scitrigrrl you forgot to mention the dichotomy of how society “oohs and aahs” with amazement and pride when we hear of some other person “who became a millionaire before age 25” or “who graduated from XXX at age 16 and became a full professor at 22” (these are totally fictitious, but you can probably fill in names). Hold on a minute … all the names i can fill in here, that are famous, happen to be men.

    • I originally had a boy genius reference, but took it out in the edits. I am MORE than glad you brought it up here.

  18. Urgh. This frustrates me beyond words. I’m a very young-looking 27, and the other day I was asked if I was starting my undergrad degree. No. I have a full undergraduate with honours, a Masters degree, several years of consulting experience and am now part-way through a PhD. I constantly have problems with being taken seriously, and in my field I’ve often found that this seems to relate more to my apparent age/inexperience, rather than my gender. However, I recently made a conscious choice to challenge this (even just in my own head). I’ve started to refer to myself as a ‘woman’ (my default has always been ‘girl’), and I’m starting to speak up more about my own research and understanding of the issues in my field. I’m not sure that it has helped with people’s perceptions of me (I still get a lot of surprised looks when I show that I can contribute to an academic conversation), but it has certainly helped me feel more confident and worthy of contributing my opinions!

  19. I was just at a conference and someone actually came by a friends poster and said her data was “so cute”. We’re both petite grad students, but we were well dressed an discussing serious research problems. I’m not really sure what qualified the data as “cute” but that really stuck with me as one of the most condescending comments I’ve heard.

    • um, wow. That is incredibly condescending.
      Out of curiousity, what demographic did the person fit in? M/F? older/younger/similar career stage?

      • I’ve gotten the comment about data being “cute” or “shiny” numerous times mostly from men (of all ages). My male collaborators never get these comments, even when taking a shift at the same poster. Sigh.

  20. I got my PhD at 24, I’m 26 now and I lecture, so I obviously get this kind of nonsense a lot. I actually do look very young, but I really wish people wouldn’t comment about it. It is not polite to point out when people look old, it should be the same way with looking young I think…but I know it is meant as a compliment. I’ve started to get indignant when people say I look young and now I can see people wince and wonder who pissed in my cereal because they are just trying to be nice. I have had so many embarrassments, but I guess one of the worst is when the president of a major NYC institution called me a ‘youngster’ on a NYC area TV interview I was doing with her. It was a bad moment.

    My students call me cute ALL of the time. I was handing out midterms last semester and two of my students were talking to each other going “Isn’t she just THE CUTEST?” within earshot of me, but of course I didn’t say anything because I didn’t know what to say to them! I struggle to be taken seriously by students, and one of my bosses says I am “too pretty and young” to get my students to respect me (female boss). This sounds like one big humblebrag to most people, but at some point I’m wondering if this will hinder my ability to get a job and be taken seriously at an interview.

  21. Of course, if we made a concerted attempt, we could turn around the terms ‘cute’ and ‘little’ and ‘young-looking’ into a fierce assertion of competence….just like the word ‘gay’ has transformed its meaning, we could transform the meaning of ‘cute’ … if we all worked at it together (solidarity and all that…). So if someone says the data is ‘cute’, we could say YES, in a loud voice, isn’t it just wonderful how we managed to correlate X and Y so cutely and beautifully? Or something like that.

    • …and… we could make a concerted effort to label men’s papers as ‘cute’. I would love someone to take a photo of their face, the first time someone said it. We could even ask some friendly male colleagues to call men’s papers ‘cute’. If they were game. That might be risky.

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  23. I attended a graduation ceremony yesterday. While standing with some of the other professors, a person organising the PhD graduands for the academic profession asked if I was being awarded my PhD. The other professors I was with (mostly grey-headed men) and I had a little chuckle – I was actually the guest speaker giving the occasional address.

    I must look young for my age, so I am used to comments such as “You look young”. They are only a little bit annoying and little bit flattering. And they are also becoming less frequent as I start gathering grey hairs on my temples! But as others have indicated, gendered overtones make these sort of comments more significant for women.

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  25. I was about 37 when I first began as an assistant professor, although I looked younger. During my first week on the job I attended a meeting at which the teaching staff for a large course selected their teaching section assignments. An older graying man that I did not recognize told me that he was going to ‘pull rank’ and grab the section that I had claimed, and that he was entitled to do so by his seniority. He was pretty rude. I figured he was a full professor so I just rolled over and let him do it. Some time later I learned that he was actually a senior, overripe graduate student. Evidently he had assumed that I was an incoming grad student and therefore his underling.

    So the misinterpretation of age goes both ways, and yes it does happen to men.

  26. I had an older male colleague who constantly referred to me as a coed. “Oh I didn’t see you there. I thought you were a coed.” It was infuriating, and I felt totally powerless since he had a vote on my tenure in our department wide personnel committee. Not just a student, but a “coed”. Like I didn’t even have full rights to be there as a student!

    The staff members were actually the worst though. One day when I went to turn in my student worker time cards, the person in charge of student payroll snapped at me (for the umpteenth time) that I would need my supervisor to turn in my time card. I was almost 9 months pregnant at the time and had had a terrible day both mentally and physically, and I snapped back that I was tired of her always thinking I was a student. She was always much nicer to me after that and never again mistook me for a student. I think people honestly don’t know that it’s a hurtful thing to say.

  27. This is such an important topic. I know of another woman who was turned down for a position that she was qualified for because she didn’t “look old enough to be respected by students,” and that has me very concerned about my own chances.

    Unrelated, “particularly those of with XY chromosomes” when talking about men is casually cissexist.

  28. I look about 15 years too young to be 30 so I’ve taken to bleaching grey into my hair. I’m an ecologist that works in the mining industry. I’ve been asked if I’m there for take your daughter to work day and on a business trip last year I was asked if I was flying alone or with a guardian (I told them no, my boss was sitting 3 rows back). Since my male coworkers can grow beards or go bald and grey at 30, I looked even younger. So far my grey hair hasn’t fooled anyone, it does look neat though. On a recent month trip to remote part of Alaska, my silver streaks weathered to bright brassy blond and I then looked 13. Coincidentally, our male helicopter pilot commiserated about being mistaken for being 14 all the time.

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