Subconcious sexism: select examples

Example 1: A significant portion of my students address me as "Mrs. ScienceWoman" despite my repeated email signatures, etc. to the contrary. On the other hand, the lecturer with an M.S. next door to me is constantly addressed as "Dr. Lecturer." Guess what gender "Dr. Lecturer" is?

Example 2: I had a meeting with the daycare director this morning and I mentioned that I teach at Mystery U. She said she'd heard that, but didn't think there was anyone in the education department with my name. Hmmm, maybe I'm not in the education department.

I don't think my students or the daycare director are trying to be overtly sexist; I'd guess they don't even realize what they're saying. But these examples remind me how entrenched sexual stereotypes still are, and they make me wonder how many generations of professional women will have to hear them. What examples of subconscious sexism have you heard/seen lately? Have you responded to any of it?

More like this

what a shame, he's gone off the deep end. totally crackers. I wouldn't touch 'House of Numbers' with a barge pole, but it's no coincidence that the people who were in the film either died before the came out or a few years after.

Example 2 sounds more weird than sexist to me. Maybe the daycare director doesn't really know what goes on in a university and just assumes that if you're teaching there you must be in the education department because, er, teaching=education, right? Or am I being naive?

My last job was as a postdoc in a university hospital. When asked where I work, my reply of xx hospital was always followed by "are you a nurse?" never "are you a doctor" which is what the men invariably got. My colleagues who were medical doctors and female reported the same.

The one I encounter most frequently is being ignored when I speak up at meetings, only to have my idea 'recreate' itself anew in someone else's mouth a few minutes later. I also find that when a colleague (fellow student) gives a practice talk my comments are almost summarily and uniformily ignored. My (wildly immature) response is to just shut down--I stop speaking entirely, because I find it less painful to just sit in silence than to speak up and be ignored.

I recently read _Why So Slow_ by Virginia Valian on women's advancement (or lack thereof) in professional areas, including science and academia and she addressed this issue. It turns out that my "response" can actually be the best choice in many situations because the alternative (continuing to speak up and be ignored) leaves a kind of negative residue in everyone's else's mind and the overall status of the woman goes down because of this. And, of course, because the self-esteem drop that comes with being ignored. I was horrified, as at many other things in the book. However, it was really helpful to read it and realize at least I'm not crazy or imagining this stuff. Because I used to just draw the conclusion that it was all in my head and the problem was that I just had bad ideas.

By Andrea Grant (not verified) on 20 Nov 2007 #permalink

Pretty similar, 2005:
Elderly Guy: Where do you work?
Me: Over at University Physics Department.
Elderly Guy: And what is your job? I mean, certainly not as a physicist?

And 2007:
18-year old high-school graduate: You are a physicist? I thought, women can't be physicists!

I'm trying to start a study abroad program now, so the publicity machine is grinding away, with my name and credentials front and center. Yet I continue to get emails from students addressed to Mrs. Me or just plain Me. I can't imagine men have this problem.

And Andrea, I know exactly what you're talking about. I too shut down in grad school because my voice was so rarely heard; my ideas, however, were great when they came out of a man's mouth. It does wonders for your self-esteem.

csrster: Daycare director (and many of the daycare teachers) have college degrees in early child education from Mystery U. The comment may have had more to do with familiarity with this particular university than naivety about what goes on at a university. I'm finding that the daycare teachers are a pretty savvy, well-educated bunch.

I wanted to take a different route that the comments above and mention that it's hard for me not to, when I complain about husband, to say things like "men can't multi task" or "women are just more organized." Also when I'm on the phone
I haven't felt very discriminated against in science but I do feel this way when it comes to sports and I'll share. I've been playing rugby for 10 years (look it up if you aren't familiar), basically its a full contact sport. When ever I mention I play I get either "I didn't know women play that" "do you play with the men" or "do you wear pads"
Women play with the same rules as the men and neither wear pads. And myself and others I know are actually able to compete with men but in general there is a men's team and a women's team, just like soccer, ect.
Secondly, after playing for 10 years I got lazy during our move from east coast to Midwest and was half heartily playing with a local team and unfortunately broke my collar bone. Everyone tells me "well it was time for you to stop playing anyway" "you need to settle down and start a family" "that sport is too dangerous anyway". I have this gut feeling that if I was a man I'd get things like "don't worry you'll heal and be back on the field in no time" "just work harder and get stronger"
It's very frustrating.

In the first class of the term I give my freshman students expicit instructions on how to address their instructors (call everyone Dr. unless otherwise requested), and threaten them with hellfire if they ever call me Mrs. Redfield. I also remind them not to assume that their female instructors are any less qualified than their male instructors.

A few students think it's a joke, but most are grateful for the advice and abashed to realize that they might have been making gender-based assumptions.

after i get over reeling my jaw off the floor after reading one of these experiences (FSP has a ton, too) I fantasize for a while about how much I'd like to hear one of these said in my (male) presence so I can administer the smackdown. don't these knuckleheads have daughters? wives?
what freakin' century is this again?

Ah c'mon. Case #1 -- the students of both sexes apparently, since you didn't mention it's mostly males doing so, could simply be assuming that men are more likely to be stuck-up pricks who insist on worshiping symbols of authority like "Dr." I actually prefer to call profs by "Professor X," but "Dr." really is the height of pretentiousness, and I could see why they'd think a male ego would be more likely to require hearing it.

Case #2 -- it was a female doing the stereotyping, and since women aren't brainwashed by men, this is a problem for fellow women.

I was teaching Chemistry at a local high school. I had a student's mother walk over, ask if I was Stacy LastName, I replied in the affirmative. After looking startled, she sat down and then said that she assumed I was a man. After all, I was a Chemistry teacher.

I also had innumerable fathers tell me how to do my job and about the science.

My fellow (male) science teachers frequently would go looking for one of the other (male) Chemistry teachers if they had a Chemistry question, frequently saying to me: Do you know where ... is? I have a Chem question.

Re: case 1: An email signature is far too subtle a reminder. One of my male professors used to spend 2-3 minutes during the first lecture about how he didn't want to be called Mr. Professor, though just about any other title would work, including just using his first name.

There are a lot of ways of gently correcting them. You could try mock indignation "That's DR. ScienceWoman to you... I spent X years getting the darn title, and I'm going to use it." or just a simple request "I prefer the title Dr. to Mrs. here at the univ." I know that this is really more about the subconscious gender sterotypes, but unless they're corrected, those kids will never learn to rethink those stereotypes.

I was the only woman in a meeting for my new job. It was the first meeting of this long-standing committee that I attended, so (understandably,) the man who was running the meeting wanted me to feel comfortable. During the meeting he made a Monty Python joke. I got it, and I laughed, but he said "I don't want to bore you with my jokes, Rebecca." I assured him that I got the joke and I thought it was funny.

Another guy in the meeting gallantly came to my rescue and said, "She would know Monty Python because she majored in Physics and must have hung out with nerds." Not because, you know, I might enjoy Monty Python myself, or I might have my own nerdly credentials, or anything like that.

I do think it's sexist, and just unprofessional. My husband faces a similar problem, although in his case it is not sexist at all, simply unprofessional. He is being referred to as Mr. in official academic institution correspondence. I find that unacceptable, and almost insulting. I don't think I would ever insist on being addressed as "Dr." (that is if I ever graduate), but in official correspondence, I think it is important.
I think Mitch P. has some excellent suggestions.

Wow, I am really disappointed that students today would make that sort of error. I've noticed a general trend in the younger generation of being less closed-minded about things like that, but it still lingers, apparently. It could also be a comfort thing - maybe some students want someone nurturing around them, and will turn to a female prof with those hopes (definitely not okay, just trying to come up with an explanation other than blind disrespect and sexism).

One of my most enjoyable moments while I was in the Navy was when someone accidentally addressed me as "Sir" rather than "Ma'am." For me, that suggested that I was being seen for my rank rather than for my gender. Change is happening, slowly in some places, and it is our responsibility to firmly but tactfully enforce that change.

I'd like to add "Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman" to the reading list for women in fields traditionally dominated by men; it's a great read on subtleties involved in the workplace.

(Linked your post at Women's Bioethics Blog)

I am a younger-looking female science professor at a big university, and just last week an undergrad new to working in my lab asked me if I was getting my Masters. She is in her third year and had contacted me wanting to do research, so I was baffled by this question. I would have attributed it to true cluelessnes if only she hadn't acted so surprised that I had not only a Masters, but a PhD and a job as a professor.

At a meeting, last week, the attending female administrative office addressed me as Mrs Estraven. She never addressed any of the male professors present as Mr Whatever.
When I said I would like to ba called Professor (this is the usage in my country) she said that she felt that Mrs was more respectful. She did't apologize.

No one I know (just graduated college) would ever dare address a professor by Mr. or Mrs.... As far as I'm concerned, those titles are related to marital status--which has nothing to do with education or as a sign of respect. I agree with other people that it might not be a bad idea to take a timeout during one of your lecture days to just give students a general lesson on this sort of thing. Addressing a female professor as "Mrs" to me means that you think her primary "claim to fame" is that she's married. No! As a student, you care about the fact that she has an advanced education and has lots to teach you: hence Dr. or Professor.

By autumnmist (not verified) on 20 Nov 2007 #permalink

I get the "Mrs." title a lot, too. I don't know if the same students call the male adjunct with a MS "Dr." or "Professor." (Majors call us by our first names, male and female, and that's what I'm most comfortable with.)

A lot of people poke their head into my office and say they are looking for a geologist. They often look rather unsatisfied when I ask if I can help them - I think that they took me for the admin assistant.

Students are regularly shocked at how fast I hike.

And... well, I've got a lot of stories. Some of them are ten years old now, but I've talked to other women who have had the same problems recently.

I get tired of having to disprove, over and over, flawed hypotheses about women's abilities and knowledge. It's draining. I would like to be able to focus my energy on other things - like teaching well, like doing good research with undergraduates, like being a good mom.

Example #1: I work for an engineering firm. I am frequently addressed, via email and even in a teleconference once, as 'Leonard' -- assuming I am male by a quick glance at my name.

Example #2: Being introduced as a new faculty member with my husband along for the tour and EVERY SINGLE introduction had the faculty welcome my husband as Dr. L instead of me.

Yeah, my most recent encounter with this kind of thing is Agnostic's comment above (and less obnoxiously, crster's). That is, here's the experience:

1. Woman identifies occurrence of sexist behavior, whether subtle or overt.

2. Someone rushes into the breach to deny that said sexist behavior could possibly be sexist and goes through all sorts of contortions to make up an alternative explanation that is less disturbing. Alternative explanation may be delivered either in (a) friendly, "I want to help you see you aren't suffering from sexism" tone, (b) condescending, "really, you are so overreacting" tone, or (c) hostile, "you women see sexism everywhere" tone.

No matter whether it's a, b, or c, I still want to puke on the person's shoes.

My anecdotal data, as a recent grad who did his bachelor's of math @ a good Canadian school.

1) No peer of mine was stupid enough to call any prof of ours by Mr./Ms/Mrs/etc in an academic setting. At least not twice.

2) I've called one of my profs' wives (that is, the wife of one of my professors, not one of the wives of my professor) Mrs. LastName while knowing that she was a prof of math in her own right, because I was meeting her socially. I also called this prof Mr. LastName or FirstName in the same setting.

3) I don't call profs by Dr. Name. Reasoning is that Prof. Name is more of a recognition of our relationship, whereas Dr. Name would make it an honorific. Furthermore, my own father is a prof without a doctorate, so I'm aware they need not occur together.

4) What the heck do I call a doctoral student teaching me? Or for that matter an adjunct prof, associate prof, etc - anything that's not a 'real' professor?

I had to explain to my boss at a small non-profit once that my coworker and I were not "the girls". He defended himself by saying that we were younger than him so it was okay. I pointed out that we were both, in fact, older than him. So, he switched gears and pointed out that he had an MS from Big State University. We pointed out that we had a MS and a PhD from Same Big State University. He then replied with "well, that was before I went there".

So...the standards were lower when we attended? He raised the quality of the university by his presence?

At this point he backed off and said he'd try to remember to call us "women".

This would not have been nearly so preposterous, except that his wife is a professor, PhD, and assistant dean at the local university!

I don't really care much for being called Dr. , the first name is fine. However, when I was an undergraduate and had a short experience working in a lab, my supervisor used to call me the equivalent of "baby girl" in his language. No kidding...

But my favorite anecdote is from graduate school. I was chatting with the secretary of my department and at some point I happened to mention that my boyfriend was coming to visit me from my home country. She immediately asked me if there were any chances of marriage and when I said probably not (we were in fact in the process of breaking up) she told me: "You don't have too much time, when you are thirty everything is over. You don't want to do Physics all your life, do you?"

I had a research student a few years back who would act just fine if he and I were meeting alone, but as soon as another male walked into the room....well, I might as well have been invisible. Even if I asked him a direct question, he addressed the answer to whatever other male was in the room!

This also happens with a particular colleague of mine. Luckily, I have a sympathetic colleague who will notice that this is happening and start employing tricks like looking at the colleague and then looking at me, or addressing answers to me when this colleague raises a question. But I haven't figured out how to handle this when I'm on my own. Sometimes I will make more exaggerated hand guestures, but this only works some of the time.

Very frustrating.

I didn't say either event was or wasn't sexist -- that is a pure debate on terminology, which is only slightly less fun than having Zuska puke all over your shoes.

I pointed out who the culprits were, namely a female in one case and both sexes in the other (we are to believe). Whether these facts count in the "is it sexist?" debate, I don't care; but it's an important observation.

"Ah c'mon. Case #1 -- the students of both sexes apparently, since you didn't mention it's mostly males doing so,..."

It isn't sexist because men or women do it, it's sexist because the assumption is that she isn't a PhD because she's female. Whereas her male counterparts are assumed to not be PhDs because they're male. I'm sure her female students could easily be just as sexist.

Although, admittedly case #2 does have some signs of being a brain-fart. Teaching = education, and then the daycare person might have actually gone through the education department there as part of her credentialing.

I'm not sure about sexism per se, but those were certainly behaviors founded in gender stereotypes. Stereotypes are equally annoying, and even harder to change.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 20 Nov 2007 #permalink

My husband and I both have PhDs in geology, yet a senior prof in his department insists on addressing joint correspondence to 'Dr and Mrs X'. This drives me up the wall. My husband tries to brush or laugh it off, and can't understand why I get so mad about it (although he admits that it would be different if things were addressed to 'Mr and Dr X'). He won't say anything to senior prof as this guy conducts his appraisals and could influence his progress. However, Christmas is fast approaching and with it the inevitable 'To Dr & Mrs X' Christmas card.....methinks this could be matched with one 'To Mr Senior Prof' this year!

By Grumblepuss (not verified) on 20 Nov 2007 #permalink

Tatarize -let's not temporize on this issue. I'm trying to earn my "Zuska puked on my shoes" t-shirt here!

I work as a research fellow in teaching hospital. I also do sessional clinical (allied health) work. This morning in clinic, Prof saw me at the photocopier, whereupon trivial chit chat ensued:
" So Mrs [job title], my patent has been approved and I could have money to employ you"

Perhaps it was the look on my face or my body language that led to him revising his statement:
"ah, so Ms [job title], did you see that my patent was approved?"


But of course did I say anything to correct him? No. To be honest, I think it's a waste of time. Nevertheless, although my grad students address me by my first name I always refer to my colleagues (peers, Profs and otherwise) by their appropriate academic title. As us scientist mothers know, modelling good behaviour and setting a good example is much better than throwing a tantrum...

mandyd: You have every right to say, "actually, I'm Dr. X, but you can call me _first name_". It is just like you correcting someone if they called you the wrong name. Nothing to be guilty or angry about. Just correct them. It is not a waste of anyone's time - you are worth a co-worker knowing your correct title.

Ooo - I can think of many instances but the one that comes to my mind first is of a friend who got alumni mail from the U where she got her PhD addressing her as Mrs. I think her husband actually called the U and told them they would never get any money if they couldn't even call their own graduates by the title they confered on them.

I must say, as a recent undergrad, at my school all the students spoke to the professors as "Prof LastName", and among the students they were simply "LastName". This occasionally led to some gender related confusion "X is a guy? I thought all the biology people were women." But we would never *ever* use anything other than "Professor", or the very occasional "Dr." We even used "Professor" when we were pretty sure that it was not the person's title, as a way of being polite.

Wayfarer's is funny. And a cheer for Zuska!
As probably one of the younger people to comment here (24 yrs old), I find much of this very interesting. I am unashamed to call myself a feminist, although I'm told so many of my generation are afraid. I see and value these small things as adding up and making significant differences. The weird thing is, I really haven't experienced much of it myself. I think maybe I seek out and associate with those who won't make such mistakes. My advisor is a woman, and our lab is nearly all women as well. Since meetings where I express ideas, so far, only occur in this context, there are no gender issues. But I see it around me - I see a lot of it in how the rest of the faculty treats her.

I would totally hate the first one - I've only been married for a little over a year, and I took a hyphenated last name. I go by Ms., as well. I hate it when people call me Mrs. Husband's last name, or even worse, Mrs. Husband's first and last name. But I'm not shy, so I usually say, actually, please call me Ms. mine-his.

In my own department, it is common for the professor to invite the grad students to call them by their first names. In the two classes I'm in this semester, they are in a different department, and I have to catch myself to not assume I can call them by their first names too. They are male.

In the academic context, I call everyone who teaches a class Professor, be they adjunct lecturer or full professor, PhD or not.

In an attempt to re-establish my non-sexist credentials, I should say that I've become quite annoyed with certain people referring to my wife and I as "Dr & Mrs csrster" when "Mr & Dr csrster" would be no more or less inaccurate.

"I pointed out who the culprits were, namely a female in one case[.]"

Zuska, I think you need to add "d" to your list: "a woman said/did it, so it can't be a function of patriarchy".

Hmm, yes it does seem that there's a way to go yet. One thing that might help is that at our university (the third largest in the country) we encourage students to address staff by their first names. Of course, this may not fly in the US which I've always found a little ... more formal than I think is sensible.

By caboolture (not verified) on 26 Nov 2007 #permalink

Why wouldn't a sexist comment by a woman be a function of patriarchy? Many, if not most women internalize sexism. I know several unfortunate women who are quite sexist.

By thelastpolarbear (not verified) on 27 Nov 2007 #permalink