Ageism Goes Both Ways

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.


16 thoughts on “Ageism Goes Both Ways

  1. To address your question ” I often wonder if my younger male colleagues experience these kinds of questions, or whether they move through the campus landscape as scholar prodigies?”- I am a new tenure-track faculty who is male, and I have experienced many of these types of interactions. However, I have observed that this type of ageism is more pronounced with my women colleagues, or those who appear young.

  2. That is absolutely ridiculous treatment. Those comments are condescending beyond what one would expect from a colleague. I think you’re in the right here by taking them as a societal problem and not as a personal problem: I’ve heard comments like this before.

    And on the student side, I was talking with my girlfriend about how I wish there were more visibly gay female faculty I could network with. She responded with the best response: “how about more female faculty in GENERAL?” It’s so true. Her PI and collaborators are all older men. All the faculty I work with, my thesis committee and other collaborators, are gray-haired men. Maybe that’s why I feel so self-conscious about my presentation: when we’re the anomaly, we’re expected to represent an entire group.

  3. I believe you have highlighted many important issues here. Indeed, academia has become so overtly regimented in so many ways, one wonders if the concepts of “academic freedom” and “diversity” are mere artifacts displayed in bye-gone mission statements.

    Ageism is rife in academia- and I have seen it throughout my career. I spent 6 years getting my bachelor’s degree- and then I worked until I was 37 before starting on my MS. I was criticized for spending 6 years on a lowly undergrad degree- even though I earned degrees in two sciences. When I interviewed for MS slots, time & again I was lectured that I “frittered away” my life, and the vast majority of potential faculty simply did not want to risk taking on an older student “who may have developed many bad habits” in the work world.

    My doctoral studies came even later- EGAD! “You’re no spring chicken.” “Your academic track record indicates a lack of focus.” “At this age you will never have any chance at a tenure-track position.” “Why waste your time on this when you could be making six figures with your MS and all your experience?” “No one will ever take you seriously.”

    Imagine what was said behind my back?

    Not only are the attitudes in academia concerning age ridiculous… they are self-defeating. Ideas- good ideas- great ideas are not under the exclusive domain of trust-fund kiddies going from prep school to private college to prestigious research university to tenure-track position. Perhaps it’s time to take in a couple of hours of “Steve Jobs- The Movie.”

    Jobs walked away from academia as an undergraduate, because he understood just how the myopic regimentation stifled creativity. Ageism is just one of many facets Jobs was pointing to when he said “screw this.”

  4. As I understand it, adultism is the devaluing of the young, and ageism is the devaluing of the old. I don’t interpret your sharing as advocating for “reverse ageism”, as much as it was drawing attention to age discrimination of those who are young. Thank you for sharing your experiences and making them accessible to others, because in doing so, your sharing also validates the experiences of others who also have to deal with what you describe on a daily basis.

  5. I see this as a problem across professions, whether academic, private, or government. I was fresh out of college when the recession hit so employers could grab more experience and education for less pay. Without a masters degree or 5-10 years experience I was put out of the running for even temporary entry level positions in all sectors. I needed to figure out how to play into this game of seeming older because regardless of morality, I still needed to pay rent and start accruing professional experience. After reading extensively about hiring bias I stripped every indication of my age from my resume and cover letter. After this change I started getting call backs. If you’re not 30-45 years old and have at least a masters degree no one wants to hitch their wagon to you unless you have some serious networking capital to bring to the game.

    • Hey Rachel- I’m not certain what you describe is ageism. I experienced very much the same in science. Once I had the MS, and the experience, I never had an issue finding work- in fact, it usually found me. Much of this is a consequence of the marketplace, as you describe. When there is a certain critical mass of people with post-graduate degrees, your bachelors does not make you competitive.

  6. I’ve got to tell you – it might be ageism, it might be adultism, it might be neither, but it doesn’t stop, no matter what age or gender you are.

    I’m one of your grey-bearded white men in tweed (well, actually I don’t do tweed, but I doubt that matters), and I’ve had the latter 3 of your 4 example experiences happen to me, within the last month (and ok, the “wise beyond his/her years” comment doesn’t appear in my tenure review, but even with twice as many years teaching, I’m still apparently “new”…).

    I do suspect these things happen to females more frequently, but it seems to be a sad fact of life that people evaluating you, innately believe that they’ve better than you, regardless of your age, gender, skin color, etc.

  7. Another young (and young-looking woman) here. I find I get a lot of unheeded ‘advice’, sometimes from people who know a lot less about the issue in question than I do! My strategy has been just to nod and thank them. It’s a hard balance, because in this case I know they are coming from a place of caring about me / my career. Probably the ‘right’ thing to do would be to confront them about their assumptions, but when personal relationships are at stake it never quite seems worth it.

    On the plus side, I’ve yet to experience ageism/adultism from my students (something I always worry about!).

  8. This is very timely. I just returned from a conference where I attended a male scientists poster and the conversation turned to the fact that I have recently accepted a position on the other side of the country. Then, he asked me how my parents feel about me moving so far away. My parents?! What does that have to do with anything? I’m always so thrown off by this stuff that I never have an appropriate response in time. I’m still a graduate student but I’m also a married adult.

  9. Thank you for this! I am constantly told that I look young, and when I respond to correctly point out my age/position to someone, they tell me I should take it as a compliment or that “some day I’ll appreciate” the comments. This is despite my grey hair, my emerging wrinkles, and my classy look-how-old-I-am attire!

    This isn’t just in academia, though. This is a larger societal problem. I am mistaken for an undergraduate everywhere I go, whether I’m walking around campus and approached by *actual* undergrads wanting me to join their student groups (really?! I look 18 even to an 18 year old?? I am almost twice their age!), giving a public lecture, getting my hair cut, paying a plumber, talking to a pharmacist about a flu shot, whatever. It is a constant barrage. When I say I am a research scientist/faculty/whatever, they inevitably look shocked and often will say “oh, you’re too young for all that!”

    Young-looking men do get the same comments, but the impacts are different. Women in STEM fields are constantly told that they don’t belong. So these seemingly harmless statements get thrown on the huge, ever-growing pile of “evidence that I shouldn’t be here,” whereas a guy with a smaller pile of those comments can likely brush it off more easily and not take it to heart.

  10. I was just at a preview day for a graduate program and dealt constantly with questions like “How do your parents feel about you moving away?” and “Do you think you’ll be able to handle being out on your own?” and, once, “Are you a high school student interested in our undergraduate programs?”. Ha! I’m thirty years old, I have two children and a mortgage, and I’m applying to PhD programs. Thanks, anyway.

  11. As a 38 yr “young” male in academia, I have heard everything from “No gray hair? You must not be working hard enough” to “Are you old enough to be faculty?” To “You look like a kid waiting outside the principal’s office.”

    Imagine telling a colleague “You look old enough to retire.” Gasp!

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  13. I experienced real ageism in academia. I went to university when I was 46 yrs old and graduated when I was 50. Imagine the isolation. No social and network support. All my peers were 18 to 20 yrs old. Academic services and club activities at most universities are not catering to the mature student population. Discount for recreational sports such as ski pass excluded students older than 25. Museum visits in Europe are free for student up to 25. Jet program (opportunity to become a TA in Japan for 3rd yr student or new grad) excludes students older than 35, the same for the French teacher assistant program. I was constantly asked, what made me go back to school at my age? What would I do when I graduate? In other words, who would hire a 52 yr old new grad. Literally, people are skeptical about my chance of getting a job when I graduate. Especially, when I decided to further my education at grad school. I think that age is just a number, it should not hinder an individual’s talent and performance. I will graduate when I am 52. According to what you all said, it would be challenging for me to find a job. However, pursuing higher education has been a dream for me so I can’t stop. Hopefully I could eventually find a place to contribute my knowledge and experience.

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