PSA: Keep your age assumptions about PIs to yourowndamnself

Jul 01 2014 Published by under Gender, Tribe of Science, Underrepresented Groups

I realize this is not news to most of you. But the Twitts are aTwitt today about the way youthful appearing faculty are treated by.....everyone.


From undergrads to grads to postdocs to faculty and administration there is a perception of what a Professor looks like.

And generally that perception means "old". See Figure 1.

Google Image Search for "Professor"

Figure 1: Google Image Search for "Professor"

So if you look in some way too young for the expectation, junior faculty are occasionally mistaken for postdocs or grad students.

This effect has a profound sex bias, of course, which is why I'm bringing it up.

Women are much more likely to report being confused for nonfaculty.

This has all sorts of knock on bad effects including how seriously their peers take them as scientists and peers, their own imposter syndrome battles and their relationships with trainees.

My request to you, if you have not considered such issues, is to just remember to check yourself. When in doubt at a poster session or academic social event, assume the person might be faculty until and unless they clue you in otherwise by what they say. Hint: When they say "my boss" or "my PI" or "my mentor" then it is okay to assume the person is a trainee. If they say "my lab" and don't further qualify then it is best to assume they are the head.

In most cases, it simply isn't necessary for you to question the person AT ALL about "who they work for".

I have only two or three experiences in my career related to this topic, as one would expect being that I present pretty overtly as male. They all came fairly early on when I was in my early thirties.

One greybeard at a poster session (at a highly greybearded and bluehaired meeting, admittedly) was absolutely insistent about asking who's lab it "really" was. I was mostly bemused because I'm arrogant and what not and I thought "Who IS this old fool?". I think I had ordered authors on the poster with me first and my trainees and/or techs in following order and this old goat actually asked something about whether it was the last author's (my tech) lab.

There were also a mere handful of times in which people's visual reaction on meeting me made it clear that I violated their expectations based on, I guess, knowing my papers. Several of these were situations in which the person immediately or thereafter admitted they were startled by how young I was.

As I said, I present as male and this is basically the expected value. Men don't get the queries and assumptions quite so much.

One final (and hilarious) flip side. I happened to have a couple of posters in a single session at a meeting once upon a time, and my postdoctoral PI was around. At one of my posters this postdoc advisor was actually asked "Didn't you use to work with [YHN]?" in the sort of tone that made it clear the person assumed I had been the PI and my advisor the trainee.

Guess what gender this advisor is?

51 responses so far

  • eeke says:

    I'm sure I'm not the only (female) person that this has happened to. I was challenged and nearly kicked out of my own lab when I first started my TT faculty position, just arrived and hadn't had a chance to get it all furnished and running. I got one of those "can I help you?" questions, when someone from next door wandered in. I asked him the same question, and he seemed to doubt me when I told him it was my lab.

  • SEL says:

    To be fair, the confusion at the poster session might be a bit understandable, since in some fields the sneetch with the star is always listed last.

    NatC....wait until you're 40+. They won't assume you're a graduate student. They'll assume you're an administrative assistant. I've had people stop by my office (I keep my door open) and ask if they can set up an appointment to meet with the professor whose office is next to mine.

  • drugmonkey says:

    in some fields the sneetch with the star is always listed last.

    my recollection is that the meeting required presenting author to be first, no matter status

  • Mc says:

    Although I do sometimes get confused for an administrative assistant, being over 40 as a female TT prof has not saved me from being asked if I am a grad student or post-doc. When I explain that I am a prof the next assumption is that I am a lecturer (we have teaching stream TT faculty too). Explaining that I also do research ("no not pedagogical research just basic science") somehow seems to circle us back to the assumption that I am a postdoc.

  • This used to really bother me, although I find it far less problematic the older I get.

  • anonscientist says:

    Where have all the mansplainers gone? Shouldn't there be some trolls hanging around here, explaining to us women that it's all in our heads/that we shouldn't be so sensitive/it must be "that time"? Or that, even if it does happen, it doesn't really matter?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Mansplainers don't tend to come around these parts much. Afraid of PP, probably.

  • anonscientist says:

    PP is not unlike a pit bull.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    True.

  • E-roock says:

    This is exactly the reason I grew out my beard. Thank you thank you.

  • another lurker says:

    I get asked whose lab I'm in on an almost daily basis. But I feel like it mostly works in my favor. I think most people realize how hard it is to get a faculty job, so they automatically think I must be a superstar. Second, my feeling is that students are much more forgiving in their evaluations because I'm young looking.

  • E-roock says:

    Asking, "who do you work for/with?" Is shorthand for asking what your area of expertise & discipline are, secondarily: status / proximity to fame. I assume the questioner gets or got that question a lot. I understand why people do it. But it's fracking annoying and is one of the more distasteful parts of biomed culture. In my mind, it makes the questioner (could be a Sci society leader, NIH staff, a grad student, or a dean) look small & petty. When describing a potential project to a PO once, I was told, "if you're interested in X, you should talk to [my phd advisor], maybe pursue a K award." I said that Dr Advisor's last papers on that was years ago when I published my dissertation work, I'm planning to move it forward since Dr Advisor didn't. I did not say what I thought -- Dr Advisor was yapping at the conferences about it and somehow no one knew who the first author was.

  • Ola says:

    I'd like to see some evidence to support This effect has a profound sex bias [...] Women are much more likely to report being confused for nonfaculty. Given the late age of first R01 (42), and given that men get funded more easily than women (yeah yeah now who's making non-referenced statements about gender), it follows there should be greater numbers of under 42 male faculty, with females getting their first grants even later still.

    So, what's the gender breakdown on the age-at-first-R01? If the bulk of ESI grants are going to women (I suspect they're not) then you could make a case there are more junior women faculty out there as fodder for this type of confusion. I would bet the opposite is true - the young funded faculty are mostly male, so this mistaken age thing would primarily affects males.

    As a guy who has had exactly this type of thing happen to him a ton of times (started my lab at 30), I've anecdotally observed a few triggers - clothing (e.g. sneakers vs. regular shoes), hair (gray/bald or not), music (rap vs. classical), physical fitness (i.e., not having a middle-age-spread), cultural awareness (being on Twitter, having a cool picture on your laptop background instead of a picture of you and the kids at Disneyland), learning how to say no (hint - older people say it more, younger ones don't have the option and appear more keen). Do I sometimes change my behavior/appearance if I know I'm going to be in a situation where age perception might be a problem? Hell yes! We live in a world where "professionalism" and "age" are synonymous. If you're perceived as young then you will be assumed to be further down the professional ladder. This is not something about which panties should be twisted into knots.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    And just when I was saying we don't get too many mansplainers.... Sigh.

  • Dr Becca says:

    If the bulk of ESI grants are going to women (I suspect they're not) then you could make a case there are more junior women faculty out there as fodder for this type of confusion. I would bet the opposite is true - the young funded faculty are mostly male, so this mistaken age thing would primarily affects males.

    Are you genuinely serious with this? If so, I'm going to have to go ahead and revoke your scientist's license, because your logic is mind-numbingly flawed. Do you actually not get that this isn't about absolute numbers, but about proportionality per sex?

  • NatC says:

    @SEL
    That's making a pretty big assumption about my age.

    @Ola
    "If you're perceived as young then you will be assumed to be further down the professional ladder. This is not something about which panties should be twisted into knots."
    Yes. This *IS* the problem. This is not about how one acts, dresses or looks, it's about the bullshit assumption that women are often perceived to be much lower ranked and less powerful than they are.

    It is extremely insulting for you - without knowing anything about me - to assume that I'm wearing sneakers, listening to rap music, not able to say no, and generally acting/dressing like a teenager. For you these things might be triggers. For me they are (a) not things that I do, and (b) make almost no difference.

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    "Hell yes! We live in a world where "professionalism" and "age" are synonymous."

    ^^ this. I'm male, in the age range of a typical TT applicant, and am applying to faculty positions now. Hopefully I will be on the TT by next year or 2016 at the latest. However, when I look at myself in the mirror, I can only see a postdoc staring back (age/looks). I could easily be the guy that looks at me and thinks, oh he must be a postdoc. What really is the difference, appearance wise, between a senior postdoc and a fresh asst. prof? I would be neither surprised nor bothered if people confuse me for a postdoc for the first 3-4 years on the TT, as long as it stays as just perception and does not translate into actions that affect my productivity or other professional outcomes.

    Interestingly, on the flip side of this, when I was looking for a postdoc right after my PhD I attended a small conference and found this one guy's talk very interesting. He was older (late 30s) and so I assumed he was a young asst. prof. I decided that I would ask him about a potential postdoc position in his lab once his talk was over. A few moments later he reached his acknowledgements slide and it turned out that he was a senior postdoc in another PIs lab! So much for that potentially exciting postdoc position...

  • AP says:

    I agree with Ola. In my experience, this is not necessarily biased towards females. Young males face the same situation on a regular basis. I am male and started TT position at R1 at 28. I cannot count the number of times I have been misidentified or assumed to be a graduate student or postdoc. In fact, it is the default assumption when I meet someone new at a conference who is outside of my small subfield. It is also the default for administrators (whose salary my indirect costs are helping to pay) and the admin assistants at my own university.

    I tend to be an optimistic/positive person and look at it as a compliment. It should be a good thing that people believe you are too young to be a PI. That means you've been extremely successful for your age. Just my thoughts from my experience.

  • Jeezus fucke, are you motherfucken d00ds illiterate???? This issue has nothing to do with whether d00ds are sometimes thought be more junior than they are, and what that means for d00ds' career advancement. The issue is whether women are more likely to be thought to be more junior than they are, and what that means to women's career advancement.

  • AP says:

    The title of the post is "keep your age assumptions to yourself" - not about discrimination against women.

    I think this thing happens to unusually young faculty of both sexes on a constant basis. It may happen to female faculty in their 40s (not an unusually young age for PI) more often than male faculty in their 40s. In fact, I'm also certain that it does. However, that seems to be a different issue to me than the one identified in the title of the post.

  • Ola says:

    @NatC
    When I said triggers, I was referring to things that I have done, which resulted in my age being mistaken (this was in a para that began with "As a guy who has had exactly this type of thing happen to him a ton of times"), NOT things which trigger me to mis-judge someone's age.

    @Dr Becca
    Yes yes I get that it's about proportion, not absolute numbers.* So, refining my original question to DM, where are the facts to support that the proportion whose age is mistaken, is greater for women than for men? And maybe let's consider the possibility of observer bias in such numbers (underlying rates may be similar, but women may be more likely to make a deal of it, guys more likely to shrug it off). Where are the age-matched studies showing a 35 y.o. female PI is more often mistaken for a student than her male 35 y.o. counterpart? I suspect the N is too small to detect a significant difference.

    *numbers do matter - your chances of getting bowel cancer are pretty small, but with 7 billion people on the planet, it's a pretty big fucking problem!

  • drugmonkey says:

    I tend to be an optimistic/positive person and look at it as a compliment.

    This is your privilege talking. As I was trying to relate in my comments, I was likewise able to take any minimal similar experiences in the early part of my career as an amusement at worst. It is more likely in my not so humble opinion, that when men are perceived as surprisingly young, this goes to their benefit as you suggest. With women, I suspect it is not so positive.

    The title of the post is "keep your age assumptions to yourself" - not about discrimination against women.

    Do I really have to hold your hand on this? My point was that these assumptions can have negative impact and this impact is disproportionally likely to land on women. So the best thing is just to keep it to yourself. Actually, the best thing is for all of us to be aware of our potential biases in this area and work to minimize the impact of our biases if we indeed express them.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Where are the age-matched studies showing a 35 y.o. female PI is more often mistaken for a student than her male 35 y.o. counterpart?

    All science starts with observation. I observe this to be the case. We are now in the midst of discussing the breadth of such anecdata.

    Are you asserting that your experience is that there is no sex bias in the mis-perception of women faculty as more junior then they are? If so, I can put you in the proper box for scoring purposes and we can move along with the process.

  • Dr Becca says:

    women may be more likely to make a deal of it, guys more likely to shrug it off)

    I can't help it, I just get so EMOTIONAL!!!!!!!

  • Acclimatrix says:

    Thanks for this post. As a woman, I already feel like I struggle to be taken seriously at times; I've been infantalized, patronized to, and mansplained more than I can count. My baby face only makes it worse.

  • girlparts says:

    Thank you for addressing this, DrugMonkey! In a job interview, the first thing out of two interviewers' mouths (in separate meetings) was "you look too young to be a professor." I was denied the job on account of being "too immature." I have had to insist that I am a PI, after subtler hints failed (like "I am in my own lab"). This happens to me slightly less often now that I am in my 40s.

    This may bother me more than it should, but not being taken seriously is a real barrier to success in our field.

    Sometimes I wonder where people think that professors come from. We go to graduate school in our late 20s/early 30s and then suddenly turn 55 after a few years of postdoc?

  • E-roock says:

    If women would just grow out their beards and conform, they'd appear older and more distinguished. I don't get all this whining for choosing not to conform to community expectations.

  • dsks says:

    "Where have all the mansplainers gone"

    Oh, they'll come back around eventually. Their migration patterns are seasonal, you see. Their innate insecurity and conviction that it is, in fact, they who are the victims, encourages a herd-like organization; thus reducing the likelihood, in their eyes, of getting picked off by one-by-one by a roving band of predatory manhaters.

    There were some grazing over at proflikesubstance a while ago, but I think they've moved on to find fresher pastures to fertilize with the contents of their irritable bowels. So it goes.

  • neuronerd says:

    I was at a meeting recently and somebody asked me if my post-doc was my teenage daughter. she has published 7 papers in my lab over the past 4 years.

  • Ola says:

    AP has it right. DM, since when is refusing to be put out by something other people might find offensive, "privilege taking"? Do any of you consider AP's position (very close to my own) that this happens a lot, and you can either get all pissy about it, or just not bother fighting and wait for the aging process to take its course. There are more important things for jr faculty to worry about (like running a fucking lab!)

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    Relaxxx pit bull Physioprof. Let the boys share their anecdata too. Even if it does not strictly address the intention of this post. This is a blog, not a court room.

    Either way, I think that in early TT stages (early 30s) it is a problem for both men and women. I think that it becomes a seriously disproportionate women's issue at later ages (lets say 38-40+).

  • E-roock says:

    Telling others to keep quiet and do their job ("running a lab") is exactly the privilege taking we are talking about, ffs. Don't you understand that the job of running a lab is impeded by these douchery assumptions about age/gender of who is entitled to run a lab?

  • FS says:

    Ok so this is a problem for younger faculty of both sexes.
    Glad there is at least that one thing we can agree on here.

    What should be done to make things better?
    What can be done with out getting professionally ostracized?

  • Jason says:

    There is entirely too much liberal arts idiocy invading scientific venues.

    I cannot believe I just saw a scientist rambling about checking one's privilege. Fucking idiotic. That kid from Princeton said it best- telling people that they are speaking from privilege is way of shutting off debate. How fucking condescending to assume you can assume somebody's motivations based on a three sentence post on a blog. Even more condescending to inform them that you have greater insight into their personality that they do.

  • E-roock says:

    What should be done to make things better? Stop making and acting on age / gender assumptions. Can't you read?

  • drugmonkey says:

    telling people that they are speaking from privilege is way of shutting off tired, repetitive, already been done, asked and answered, stupid, BINGO!liscious debate

    F.T.F.Y.

  • E-roock says:

    In what way is speaking about the working conditions of science research professionals "too much liberal arts idiocy?" There are so many insinuations there to unpack. What's idiotic about liberal arts, what does it have to do with this conversation, how are liberal arts professional scholars different from science professional scholars, why might working conditions be okay to talk about among one group of professionals but not another, in what way was the post rambling, why can't you believe it came from a scientist (specifically)?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    This blog wholly endorses the virtues of a liberal arts education.

  • anonwomanscientist says:

    Thanks for writing this, spot on. More anecdata from a female PI who has gotten versions of this throughout her 30s and 40s, including everything from being mistaken for a grad student, post doc, and someone's wife or assistant (i.e., "Which Dr. do you belong to?). I always though it would stop at some point, but it happened regularly well past the point of having multiple grants, independent lab, TT job, hitting mid 40s, having a kid of high school age, and wearing only very serious shoes. Really it is remarkably common for women. My male colleagues of similar age and status don't experience that and when we discuss, note that they get brilliance bonus points if they are perceived as younger. Particularly found that in a southern medical school, but it happens everywhere and has corrosive effects.

  • gingerest says:

    Formal logic and structured debate are skills within the bailiwick of philosophy, one of the liberal arts. Just sayin'.

  • Either way, I think that in early TT stages (early 30s) it is a problem for both men and women. I think that it becomes a seriously disproportionate women's issue at later ages (lets say 38-40+).

    I doubt that this is the case. I think as a senior postdoc being on the job market (or at trying to establish my own group, as there's not that much of a job market in Europe) it absolutely helps when people take you seriously and don't doubt your qualities because you happen to look "young". In fact, in this career bottle neck (postdoc -> PI) it may be crucial to be taken seriously so people will hire you.

  • Geeka says:

    I've been to scientific meetings where it was assumed that I was my PI's wife. I didn't even get grad student (which I was) or tech. What burns my ass more is that this was more acceptable despite being 24 years his junior.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yeah. That's kinda ridic, Geeka.

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    Geeka - Maybe your PI looked younger than the 24 years gap between you two...see, people made assumptions about him too and he was assumed to be more junior than his accomplished self! See! Just kidding... 🙂

    Jokes aside, that is pretty stupid. Unless he has a history of marrying women decades younger than him.

  • Katie says:

    I get mistaken for a grad student regularly. Both times I interviewed for a TT job, when I arrived in the department I was asked if I was a prospective graduate student-
    Um, no, but now I am feeling super awesome to head into this job talk." Or now when I, on many separate occasions, when I am asked whose lab I am in and I explain "Mine. I'm a professor" and I get the full on up-down scan of my body & clothes while the person processes new information in complete conflict with their biases. Thank you for writing this post, I will proceed to share it widely.

  • gingerest says:

    I think that was a joke but just in case: it's still pretty stupid even if he has a history of marrying women decades younger than he, because it's stupid to assume that women at meetings are some dood's wife/daughter/sister instead of, you know, conference attendees.

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    True that, but at conference socials several times spouses do attend.

  • gingerest says:

    Yes, of course, but it is unwise to assume two people of any gender combination are dating or married just because you're meeting them at the same time socially.

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    Absolutely.

  • gibbs says:

    Thanks for this. I am a woman in my early 30s just starting my second year tt at a pui, and I get mistaken for an undergrad on a regular basis (despite age and professionally appropriate dress, hairstyle, demeanor, etc.) In my experience other young faculty are less likely to make this mistake, most of my mistaken (assumed) identity experiences were with 40+ men. I haven't had nearly as many experiences where other women have assumed I was too young to be a professor, possibly because they are better able to read the visual clues provided by dress, etc. or perhaps because they are just less likely to make assumptions.

  • […] 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 […]

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