|The author adorned in robes for graduation.|
This post is about moments of transition we experience throughout our personal and professional lives and how transitions can bring out the assumptions and perceptions people make about us. Transitions can manifest in many ways - becoming a grad student, a parent, an administrator, a project director, a manager of a resource management company, a university professor, a spouse. Each of these moments can be associated with a set of social expectations and responses. Sometimes responses to transitions are overwhelmingly positive. Other times, however, transitions spark negative or discriminatory responses.
In my experience, negative perceptions come in two main guises. First is the condescending praise I have received from either junior or senior (usually male) colleagues. A good example of this form of response is when I completed my comprehensive examinations during my PhD program, transitioning from student to candidate. I had received a lot of positive feedback for my performance in my exam, and word was spreading around the department. A male professor near the end of his career, who worked in my region but who had ignored me up until this moment, due in large part to my gender, stopped me in the hallway to congratulate me on my comps performance. He followed this up by telling me how there were many good jobs "teaching at community colleges." Now, I believe teaching at a community college is a valuable job and respect those who are in important teaching positions. However, I was now a PhD candidate at a large, well-respected research institution who had aspirations for an academic job at a comparable institution (which I now have), and a senior scholar was implying that I shouldn't set my sights too high because I was a woman. Predictably, I did not respond well to this "damning with faint praise" response to my years of hard work.
The second form of negative response is more insidious and, for me, less easy to dismiss. It has to do with what people expect when they hear the words "archaeology professor." Pause with me for a moment, readers. What are the images that immediately come to mind when you picture an archaeology professor? I would guess the majority of you pictured a middle-aged, bearded, white male. Others may have had different images, but I doubt many (any?) of you pictured a woman in her early 30s (who perhaps looks to be in her late 20s). I do not fit the mold of what people expect. For the first six months of my job as an assistant professor, I did not go two weeks without someone either asking me if I was a graduate student or making a comment on how young I was. Now, many of you might be thinking I don't have anything to complain about and should be flattered that people think I look young. Indeed, this is the message I get from most women who I speak to about this, and even some men. I argue this perception, that I should be happy people think I am young and enjoy my perceived youth while I can, is part of the problem. When a supposed colleague suggests I am a graduate student, she unintentionally puts me in a certain subordinate category based on my appearance. Our tendency to judge people on their appearance stretches far beyond the walls of the ivory tower, as recent viral photos (such as this one) have demonstrated. In a society where youth is held on a pedestal and many women spend thousands of dollars on plastic surgery and products to ensure that no wrinkles are visible, I am looking forward to the day where I look the part of a university professor. Or, to think about this a different way, I look forward to the day where the image of a university professor includes all shapes, sizes, ages, cultures, and genders.
How about you? What negative perceptions or assumptions have you faced at moments of life/career transition? How can we work to create an inclusive and supportive environment in archaeology?