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.