Being a Young, Female Lecturer: Or, Why Age and Gender Still Matter

Let me start off this post by acknowledging that my research background and personality mean that I am not the most qualified individual to be tackling the trials and tribulations of female intellectuals. I study 17th-century political culture, which was the domain of a privileged, white, male elite. As for my personality, let’s just say that despite being straight, I don’t exactly fit the hetero-normative mold. I grew-up around men, and I’m more comfortable with them than I am with women. On top of this, the nature of my particular sub-field within the historical profession means that in order to survive, I’ve learned to defend my right to play in the sandbox. I’ve sometimes even beaten down those excessively polite and less aggressive scholars around me, seizing the best toys and determinedly clutching my prize. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve conquered some of the feminine arts too, and I even masqueraded as a domestic goddess and stereotypical wife until my partner and I divorced. But in the wake of my divorce, I’ve gone back to my old, much more masculine ways: swilling beer, watching Die Hard movies with an embarrassing frequency, and even taking up Muay Thai.

My outspoken confidence and willingness to scrap – traits that are often more readily ascribed to my male counterparts – have served me well. Despite the healthy dose of “No” that one gets in this profession, I’ve been fortunate enough to have all of my needs met. I’ve secured funding when I needed it, teaching when I wanted it, and published when it was required of me. So what then, if anything, do I have to offer on the topic of age and gender? Actually, a fair bit, so I somehow doubt this will be the last post on the subject. Despite my willingness to adopt a masculine demeanor, my baby-face and ample bust mean it’s also hard to forget that I’m not just an intellectual – I’m a young, female intellectual. That means that well before I had ever heard the term “mansplaining,” I was already used to being “now darling-ed” (a word of caution to my male colleagues: I wasn’t lying, I am taking Muay Thai, and I will kick you in the head if you keep doing this). Mansplaining is obnoxious enough at the best of times. It is almost unbearable in contexts like staff meetings or seminars where the social dynamic means that defending oneself would be counter-productive.

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[If you haven’t seen the How to Deal with a Mansplainer gifs of Hilary Clinton, check them out]

The challenges of lecturing have emphasized the age and gender issue even more. This is because the first time I was put in charge of a class of almost 150 students, I didn’t even have my Ph.D. So there I was, painfully aware that if I hadn’t worn my big people clothes, I could have sat in the front row and they wouldn’t have known I was the instructor. And without my degree, I wasn’t even Dr. Waurechen. I was just Sarah. Right now, some of you are thinking that I’m over-reacting and that my perceived age isn’t a big deal. Tell that to the people who constantly comment on the fact that I’m “so young to be a professor,” or the student who angrily scrawled on my evaluation form that s/he was tired of hearing me talk about trying to teach them professional skills because: “You have maybe 5 years on us and that’s it.”

As for gender, being female wasn’t helping my case either. Not only does research suggest that students prefer female teachers who exhibit traditional nurturing/maternal qualities – you can imagine how well I live up to that expectation – studies have also shown that an instructor’s effectiveness is often rated as much on their physical appearance and body language as it is on what they say. In fact, it turns out that any number of factors, completely removed from intellect and pedagogy, can cause a student to dismiss an instructor as boring, passive, and ineffective. Unfortunately, as you might have suspected, ­­the non-verbal cues that students use to come to such conclusions are often slanted in favour of straight, white, men. A woman’s tone and comportment can therefore work against her, and I knew this going in. But my bull-headed determination meant that while I was fully aware I was going to lose some battles, I was determined to win the war.

This is where we come to my shoes. Those who know me have been waiting for this, as my shoe collection has apparently become the stuff of student lore, recounted during drunken, end-of-semester parties.  So, remember when I said students generally reacted better to women who exhibited maternal characteristics? I don’t have those. Or rather, I do, but I’m not ok with putting them on display. What I am much more willing to showcase are a bunch of those non-verbal cues that students usually respond well to in men: my hand gestures are moderate but emphatic, I speak loudly and clearly, and I carry myself with confidence and generally look relaxed. The problem is that these things tend not to work well for women, and while audiences often read such traits as signs of authority and legitimacy in men, they often assume that the same characteristics signal subversive behavior and untrustworthiness in a woman. But what does any of this have to do with my shoes, you ask? Shoes, among other things, are how I cheated this Kobayashi Maru.

If you can’t win under the existing rules, I say, change the rules. I had two choices, I could either walk into that 150-seater on my students’ terms, or I could set my own. And the only way I could do the latter was to unsettle students enough to force them to re-write their social expectations, hopefully on more amenable terms. Someone had once told me to wear whatever made me feel comfortable when lecturing, so I walked into that class – as I have every course since – wearing 4” super-spike stiletto boots.  Students are not used to seeing a prof in what can only be described as “shit-kicker” boots, and so it was not long before they noticed. I had shaken them enough to make them realize that they should be trying to figure me out as an individual, not as the latest fabrication of some professor-making machine, and they were somewhat terrified by the realization. Slowly but surely, with the aid of my shoes, and an admittedly exhausting determination, I convinced them that maybe they didn’t know what “women” were all about. Or, at the very least, what this woman was all about.

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[These are, currently, my favourite pair of lecture shoes]

This didn’t convince them all, and I’m sure some of them just wrote me off as a harlot who’d tricked her way into a profession where she didn’t belong. I also still occasionally run into colleagues (strangely, it’s often women) who criticize my unorthodox attire because “you don’t want students thinking you’re a tramp.” There is a real fear that despite my baggy grey pants and carefully chosen, form-rejecting sweaters, that my shoes denote a dangerous sexuality, and that my popularity is the result of my sex appeal. First of all, good to know that you think I’m hot. But seriously, how is it that in 2013 I’m still so easily sexualized? And why do you find this externally-imposed sexuality so dangerous? Not my problem. I have enough barriers to overcome, and I’m going to get around them any way that I can. Fellow ladies out there – especially those who have the double handicap of being young as well – do whatever works for you. To feel comfortable, I need to be able to act like a man, and dress like a woman. And I need to be able to speak with an authority and confidence unbecoming of my youthful appearance. I don’t know what others need; but whatever it is, find ways of making it work, and never EVER apologize for it.

I was going to finish there, but upon further reflection I think it’s important to add one more thing. Women do have one unique resource that can help us navigate this difficult system: other women. There is a real sense in academe, and the professions more widely, that senior women want to lend a helping hand and mentor those coming up behind them. These women have extended their hands. Grab hold and let them help you! You won’t regret it. In the meantime, please consider sharing your own stories and tactics in the comments section below.

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3 thoughts on “Being a Young, Female Lecturer: Or, Why Age and Gender Still Matter

  1. Yes yes yes. I do the same with shoes. And i completely get where you are coming from. But one caveat always acting in masculine ways may perpetuate some of the inequalities we experience? You might find the following interesting
    http://www.emeraldinsight.com/journals.htm?articleid=17047803
    It’s in a special edition on feminism and women in academia. It is about a particular group but resonates with wider academia. If you can’t access it email me.

    • Thanks for the link Katherine! I will definitely check this out. As for what I’ve called my masculine behaviour, I realize that it’s not always ideal. Nor am I advocating anyone copy me. Unfortunately, my likes and dislikes — and all the weird personality quirks that go with them — are what they are, and I am both unable and unwilling to completely change them. That said, as I have gained experience, I have tried to moderate them. My confession about mimicking aggressive male behaviour is there because I have indeed done this in the past, and I felt like honesty was the best policy. But in recent years I’ve fought hard to resist the impulse, and to occupy more of a middle ground between normative male and female behaviour. If I’m being honest, I can’t say I always succeed, but I do try. That’s the interesting part though: the learning 😉

  2. Pingback: Another Look at the Whole Gender Thing | Ph.D.s and Pedagogy

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