“Professor Mistaken For Secretary”

As a ‘young’ female professor in my late thirties I went to the central research office to personally hand in a research project application file on the day of the deadline (a walk around the corner from my office). The (female) secretary behind the counter looked at the file and said to me: “Is Prof. X abroad because we need his original signature?”. Looking bewildered, “I am Prof. X”, I answered. The secretary was embarrassed of course and I tried to laugh it away a little as did some of her colleagues in the office who had witnessed the incident.

Maybe the secretary was also used to secretaries getting asked to deliver files rather than professors turning up themselves, I do not know…

Bemused rather than deeply insulted, this nevertheless is not an isolated incident. For example, when answering my work phone I always answer “Prof. X” in order not to be taken for a secretary. As I get and look older – and more self-confident perhaps – these incidents occur less and less, but I believe it is deeply gendered and male professors in the same ‘young looking’ age category on the average do not get the same treatment, both from women and men. The dominant image of the professor seems to remain male – white – and of a certain age, even today…

Story signed by : Pili Pala

The story happened to me as a Prof. Dr. in the years 2005-2009, around an academic institution in Flanders.

Posted under: sexism story

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4 comments

  • 87 on March 25, 2014 at 9:03 am said:

    In our research group, there are only 3 female researchers and around 17 male researchers. One day, I picked up the phone and I usually answer with the name of our group and then my own name. The man on the other side asked for one the professors in our group which was at that time not available. So I tell the man, he answers: ok can you tell me when he will be available. I told him that I had no idea. He answered me: how can you not know? You are his secretary… I explained that I was one of the researchers, not the secretary… But I didn’t get an apology…

  • SB on December 10, 2014 at 11:21 am said:

    When I pick up the phone, I am very often asked if Dr. XX is available. When I respond that I am Dr. XX, this takes some time to sink in. Usually, apologies follow, and this makes me understand how secretaries can get to be talked to.
    On day, I was working with my research assistant, a young man, several years younger than myself (though one might give us the same age from our looks). In that very same day, several students new to the institute repeated the exact same behavioral pattern: when passing past us in the corridors, they looked at us from far away, looked at my research assistant as they got closer and said hello to him -easily translated into, he is the boss, she is the assistant.
    Last week, while walking in the corridors, I crossed a researcher collaborating with one of the teams in our Institute. I said hello (as I ususually do when I cross someone in the corridors). It looks I was not worth being saluted in return -looks like I was not male enough, not director enough, not worth enough ….
    I have been a researcher for twelve years now, team leader for five years, just promoted research director. And these are just examples of everyday sexism in a competitive European neuroscience institute. Do I care anymore? No, I don’t because most of those showing this type of behavior are nice people and they apologize when their behavior is pointed to them. But yes I do care, because I feel deprived of the extra energy that one gets when she is made to feel that she is at the right place, that she is legitimate … that she is not an impostor. And yes I do care, because of my female PhD students who are achieving a tremendous amount of work, showing an amazing creativity, and yet who receieve all sorts of negative feedbacks (small negative feedbacks, so almost nothing to care about, but so many of them …).

  • LC on April 20, 2015 at 2:11 pm said:

    I am not in the field of education, however I can deeply relate to this on a daily and sometimes hourly basis. Unfortunately I am working in the field of mining within a big corporation, holding senior positions across several of the subsidiaries and at the parent company. I am 32 and get treated and introduced as a secretary almost at every meeting. I also run a non-profit professional body holding the Chairman position requiring me to deliver a Chairman’s speech every year – and early this year, one older gentleman who sat through my speech later approached me with the opening line “Great job! So you’re the secretary?”. It’s like a knife going through my heart every time I am considered the “secretary” – I worked very hard to get to where I am now and it’s painful to not be utterly dismissed. Sorry for the long rant.

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