Are female professors invisible to undergrads?

One hundred percent of the last eight undergraduates to contact us about doing research in our laboratory have contacted my male partner and not me. Only one of these students was female. She too contacted only Dave. What is going on? Isn’t it obvious we run a joint program?

Do these students not look at our web page? Do they not talk to anyone? If they did, they would know that I am the one that takes the leadership role in our group with undergraduates. They could easily contact both of us. But they do not. They only contact Dave.

That first email to a professor inquiring about research is really important. I’ll write about it later with a different heading. What you should know is that what you are asking is the free give of about fifteenDSC01871 thousand dollars in time and supplies per semester, not to mention any salary you might get, and not including faculty salary. You are asking for time from people who have very little time. You are asking for a lifetime of letters of recommendation. You are asking for an adviser, a supporter, a person who will intervene on your behalf, a person who will take a parent-like interest in your success. You are asking for a person that will actually see to it you learn the things you should be learning, how to write, how to think critically, statistics, careful experimental design, collaboration, planning, time use, responsibility, and much more.

Is female professor invisibility a Wash U thing? Is it a mid West thing? What is it? What is your experience? I have to say this was not an issue at Rice University in sunny Houston.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Genber bias, Undergraduates and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Are female professors invisible to undergrads?

  1. get the book ‘gender dilemma’ I want to start researching this invisibility phenomena… perhaps we could do a project together 🙂

  2. I think a lot has to do with (1) how you present yourself on university websites, or how present you are on them (e.g. Honors College listings etc.), (2) what academic advisors for undergrads know about you, and (3) whether and how you teach an undergard lecture. In my experience, most undergrads understand nothing about university hierarchies, nothing about your investment in them, nothing about degrees or other credentials that may distinguish you from your colleagues or even grad students. I get a lot of enquiries, mostly from students who heard from advisor or my TAing grad students about me.

    • Actually I’m fine with just Joan and I laugh at them when they query my Ph.D. Honestly, they have no idea of all the work we’ve done! The Ph.D. is almost trivial by comparison with all the stuff we’ve done afterwards. What most bothers me is that until they get inside our lab group, I am invisible.

      • I didn’t mean that worry (too much) about what they call me. I meant that if they don’t understand the difference between a professor and a graduate student, they also don’t know how (or where) to read other credentials like publication record etc. They just choose people based on criteria that have nothing to do with what we think they should use – like past research or mentoring record etc.

    • I do find this odd. You’re not any more or less approachable than Dave, as far as I can tell. I wouldn’t immediately chalk it up to gender, but maybe some other interpersonal thing? If it is gender, that’s really, really depressing.

      • This is by email. They have not met either of us and have no idea about much of anything except our names and the general area of our research

      • Wow. This is really outrageous, both men and women alike. This is a cure for the notion that we’re almost there on gender issues.

        Stuff like this is why a professor in our Physics department changed her name to Michael. No joke.

  3. Hi Joan — It may be a Midwest thing. I have a chronic problem at Avila with students calling me “Miss Gastreich” or “Mrs. Gastreich”, even though I am clearly DR. Gastreich on the syllabus, on my office door, and on all the Departmental information. I also, of course, introduce myself as DOCTOR Gastreich, with increasing emphasis on the doctor part every semester that passes, but to no avail. Some students call me “Dr.” but many, many call me “Miss” or “Mrs.” And there seems to be no relationship between the gender of the student and their tendency to make this mistake — both the men and the women do it.

    I have asked my male colleagues at Avila if they have run into the same problem; if the students tend to call them “Mr. Daggett” or “Mr. Fitch”, and the answer is no — accompanied by a puzzled look that indicates it never even occured to them a student would make such a mistake. It seems it’s much harder for students to get it into their heads that a woman professor is a doctor, too.

    • I get the Mr. McGlynn as often as my departmentmates get the Mrs. or Miss. Our new undergrads are about as unfamiliar with the university culture as you can get, though. I only get firm in correcting it when they botch it for the women in our department. I’ve been bred to think that’s worse.

      • I think some universities do not use “Dr.” at all, but it is uncommon. The problem with the mistake is how often it is differentially applied. I hope this blog helps people unfamiliar with academia understand this culture, if this is a career path of interest.

  4. At my undergraduate we had two female professors in my department. One of them was disliked by most of the guys because of the typical woman in power problems (they thought she was too hard on them, annoying, etc.). The other was in her early 30’s and quite new to the school. She was liked, probably because she wore funny t-shirts to class. I worked with both of them on summer research, but they both led their research without another professor, so there was no one else I could have talked to anyway. I also went to a liberal arts college, so it could be that that influenced things.

    At my graduate school, I have absolutely zero female professors that I’ve had reason to interact with (classes, adviser, etc.). This probably speaks to a whole other set of problems, but it is interesting to me the stark difference between my two schools.

  5. Juli Carrillo says:

    Hi Joan — Have you asked them why? I am sure you would have said if it is because they have taken a class from Dave and not you. Really strange . . .

    • I sent them the link to the blog and asked what they thought. I have not cornered them individually yet. Since I posted this we got another, a woman, contacting, guess who…..Dave! Right, it is not that they know us from a course or anything.

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