ageism in academia

I have a young face, especially for a professor. Other faculty assume I’m an undergrad, Ph.D. students assume I’m an undergrad, even undergrads assume I’m an undergrad. In some ways this is nice. I can be stealth on campus, blending in with the rest of the students. When I’m teaching, I have to earn my authority rather than getting it simply because I look wise (and I like earning things). And the undergrads I teach probably relate to me differently simply because I look their age, even though I’m a decade older than most of them.

As a researcher, however, looking young can feel like a disadvantage, since the wisdom and knowledge one has typically grows with age (at least in academia). Sometimes I feel like people discount my opinions because I look young, perhaps because my face communicates inexperience. Sometimes I feel like I have to compensate by being extraordinarily articulate or insightful, just to get people to listen to me. At conferences, people always ask me what I’m studying, who my advisor is, or where I go to school. I suspect that when people who don’t know me see me at a conference, they think, “just another student” instead of “I wonder who that important researcher is” like I do when I see older researchers at conferences.

Not that this has held me back. If anything, it means that any success I’ve had has been earned, which makes it all the more rewarding. And it shows that academia is still indeed some form of meritocracy, where it is the ideas and knowledge that one produces that ultimately shapes our reputations. In fact, when I’m 60, I’ll probably look like I’m in my 40’s (as my parents do), which will help me avoid all of the ageism directed at older professors, so any disadvantage I have now might turn into an advantage later in life. That should enable me to have a nice long career into my 70’s (assuming my brain still works!).

Ultimately, I feel lucky that ageism is the only real discrimination that I face. There are faculty who face ageism, sexism, and racism, which seems like an incredible amount of bias for one person to struggle against. Facing a bit of ageism here and there makes me empathize with people who face even more discrimination and makes it easier for me to avoid assuming anything about a person until I talk with them. And it helps me respect their successes even more, because I have a tiny glimpse into what it took to earn it.

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