As faculty, I have learned to be more cognizant of unconscious bias, how people view me and what’s going on around me. Sometimes, in a room full of people who do not know me, some assume that I am a student. This has happened at conferences and board meetings. In the same room, some people will talk to other faculty as faculty but ask me what year of my PhD program I am in.
It is tempting to get flattered and think that I look young, and hence the misunderstanding. However, this has nothing got to do with age. Many people are subconsciously primed to think of women and minorities as holding lower positions. White faculty, brown student. Male faculty, female student. Male doctor, female nurse. People are not evil but they just do not know any better.
If it was about age, they would assume I am young faculty, not an older student. I always use this as a teachable moment for my minority students. I sense those few seconds of discomfort when I calmly tell them that I am not a student. However, I do not take my position for granted.
For example, I never wear jeans and informal clothes to work. I am always in semi-formals or formals. I don’t care whether people think I am a student because those are their biases to deal with. However, I am immensely aware of the responsibility my position brings, not just for me, but for others who are training to be faculty. My colleague next door will wear denims, sports jacket and running shoes and no one will flip an eyelid. However, I cannot assume that I will be treated like a faculty if I wore the same kind of clothes. We do not live in an ideal world. We don’t get what we deserve. We get what we negotiate.