I recently got into an argument with a friend and former colleague about ageism in academia. I insisted that young women professors experience regular, persistent, and pervasive ageism in the workplace. I couched this claim in my usual “the personal is political” mode and emphasized my own recent experiences with what I would call ageism. My friend shot back that ageism, like racism, can only go one way. Young people are the privileged workers of the academy. At the time I capitulated. Was I advocating reverse ageism? How embarrassing! But recent experiences have caused me to return to the question.
I do not in any way want to argue that academia is more or most discriminatory towards young faculty. Given the well-documented discrimination against older faculty who remain in temporary and adjunct positions with little chance of a full-time hire, it would be ridiculous for me to participate in a discrimination competition. Robert Mckee has a great piece on this exact topic. I do want to argue that ageism is a complex and nasty monster that intersects with gender, race, class, sexuality, and other axes of oppression to close doors and make the workplace uncomfortable if not downright hostile to young women faculty.
Let me give you some recent examples from my daily work routine.
- I teach a class in a computer classroom at a satellite campus. Every time I walk into the computer lab door, a staff person asks where my teacher is. Usually he or she phrases it like this: “Are you supposed to be in here without your teacher?”
- During the tenure review process (based strictly on teaching because I am at a CC), I am regularly referred to as “inexperienced,” “new,” “wise beyond my years,” or “just starting out.” I have been teaching for 8 years. Usually these terms come into play when I am implementing pedagogy that is grounded in current Composition research.
- In a recent faculty meeting, I suggested a minor change to department policy regarding evaluations and offered to spearhead the process. A tenured faculty member said she wanted to “protect me from too much work” as a reason to shoot the proposal down.
- After class I was filling in attendance on my Ipad in a communal office space. The next day, I was gently reprimanded by an older male faculty member for being unprofessional and failing to greet him as I was “too busy texting or whatever on my cell phone.”
Reading this list, I can imagine a skeptic saying, that’s not ageism, it’s called the tenure track! Sure, I am on the tenure track, but I note a distinct flavor of “You are so young. Do you really belong here?” beneath these events. I often wonder if my younger male colleagues experience these kinds of questions, or whether they move through the campus landscape as scholar prodigies? Wunderkinds?
These experiences began as annoyances and have since grown into gnawing concerns. In an attempt to address age-based assumptions about my role on campus, I dress beyond my own definition of professionalism. I am the blouse-and-skirt-in-neutral-colors professor these days. I wear large-framed glasses and cut my hair short. I carry a briefcase-like bag. I recently spoke to another young faculty member and we laughed when we realized we were both dressed up to avoid being seen as students. She had recently been asked to leave a library office reserved for adjunct faculty because “students aren’t allowed to work in here.” With ageism, like so many forms of discrimination, those in vulnerable groups change to fit the norms of the institution. And when those changes fail to make us belong, we tend to blame ourselves before talking with others and identifying a systemic problem.
We know that academia is hostile to all kinds of people who don’t look like gray-bearded white men in tweed. The hashtag #ilooklikeaprofessor did some great work to show academics in more diversity. But there is work yet to be done so that women can enter an institution that contours to our presence, not the other way around. My substantial brain power should go towards being a professor, not worrying about how to look like one.