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Today I was introduced in the cafeteria by a professor who I know to someone new by just their first name. Because of admissions season, I thought that the new person was a prospective grad student and I asked, "are you here for admissions?" and the reply was that "no, I just joined as an assistant professor here a month ago." I was already embarrassed enough but I think I stuffed my foot further in my mouth, when I said "oh sorry, sorry but you look so young."

The problem is that the person who I was introduced to is female, and I am afraid that I might have offended her. Am I just being paranoid or will some people really feel offended from such a comment?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Feb 19 '17 at 0:34
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I'm a female professor in my late 20s and I'm pretty sure I look even younger than I am. I've been mistaken for a student a bunch of times and it's always been an honest and totally understandable mistake. I'm often assumed to be a grad student; heck, I discovered in front of my mirror three days ago that wearing the school logo T-shirt I somehow acquired is inadvisable because it makes me look nearly indistinguishable from an undergrad.

I know doing this is embarrassing for the person who messed up, but looking at me and concluding that I'm very likely a grad student is reasonable and something I know is going to happen unless I'm wearing a fancy-schmancy suit. Heh! I've even done it myself. One time when I was meeting a (male) colleague, each of us mistook the other for a grad student; we've been teasing each other about it since. The only circumstances under which this would bug me would be if the person doing it were trying to be patronizing, or covered it up in a way that introduced some creepiness.

But yeah. I'm accustomed to it and I know my status surprises people. When someone asks if I'm a student, I laugh it off and say, "I am a very young faculty member." Most of the time thereafter I forget it happened. You did everything you needed to in order to make amends; I'd say put the guilt aside and move forward with a professional relationship with your colleague.

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    Glad to finally see an answer by a woman! (Judging by the other usernames…) This should be the top answer. – Dirk Feb 17 '17 at 18:25
  • Could you open up those: "trying to be patronizing, or covered it up in a way that introduced some creepiness" I think there is a true risk that OP is on his way to some of these, if my woman-English vocabulary is right. – user3644640 Feb 17 '17 at 19:15
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    Sure thing! I can't speak for every woman ever, but from my perspective, "Sorry, you look really young!" is neutral (I wouldn't take it as a compliment, but it'd only be insulting if the person kept going and emphasized their commentary about my appearance). These examples are all totally hypothetical, but something like, "Whoa, really? Are you sure you're old enough to be a professor?" or "Wow, you look younger than my daughter," would strike me as condescending, and anything along the lines of, "Oh good, so it'd be safe to date you," even if meant as a joke, I'd find creepy. (1/2) – trikeprof Feb 17 '17 at 19:36
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    What I tell people in general (based on my own experiences, anyway), is that you have to have a reeeeeeeeeally good reason to refer to physical appearance or ask about relationship status. From my perspective, an apology for mistaking me for a student is an okay place to (briefly!) refer to my looking young, because it's an explanation meant to help the person regain some face. Likewise, commenting on what I'm wearing is usually not a very good idea, but if I e.g. accidentally sat in a puddle and didn't notice, a careful way of pointing it out in the interests of being helpful is fine! (2/2) – trikeprof Feb 17 '17 at 19:43
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    Thanks for the answer. The conversation really was exactly the way it happened, and basically alarm bells started ringing in my head that I was being socially awkward, so I quickly said that I had to leave and left asap. My plan is to 1) not bring this up again, and 2) Remember her face so that this mistake does not happen again. – Pushpendre Feb 18 '17 at 0:15
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Don't worry (too much), I think this happens to everybody at some point in their academic life. Your case isn't even particularly egregious, given that the new faculty member just started as an assistant professor, so likely she actually was a grad student not very long ago. I once idly asked a fellow conference attendant who she is working with, and she told me that she is a tenured associate professor. Embarrassing? Certainly, but not the end of the world. You apologize and move on.

The problem is that the person who I was introduced to is female, and I am afraid that I might have offended her.

I am not sure whether being female makes her more or less likely to be offended. However, I can't help but notice that most such stories are about female professors, so it seems to me that we jump to conclusions about them more freely than for males (or we guys just have trouble assessing women's age accurately). In any way, I have learned my lesson to be extra-careful before assuming that a young-looking female academic is a student, and you should too.

Am I just being paranoid or will some people really feel offended from such a comment?

I would not worry too much. You can bring it up lightly on a good ocassion and apologize, if such an ocassion presents itself in the next weeks. However, don't make it a bigger deal than it is, and if she seems unbothered or hasn't even noticed, then let it go.

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    I definitely feel that accessing ages is way easier the "closer" someone is to yourself (gender, age, race, social group). So yes, I think males are more likely to to assess woman age (especially of woman much younger or older), but so do woman for men. – skymningen Feb 17 '17 at 9:03
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    "most such stories are about female professors" [citation needed]. Btw I was asked just this week to show my "student ID" while checking out a book from the library, so please factor that into your statistics of stories. And please factor all the other times that this happened to me and to pretty much any faculty member I know (male or female) below the age of 45, and that never turned into a "story" because we found such events to be entirely unremarkable. – Dan Romik Feb 17 '17 at 14:13
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    "I am not sure whether being female makes her more or less likely to be offended." Being continually mistaken for students or other "status errors" - being called Miss/Ms/Mrs instead of Dr./Professor, etc. is a pretty common experience of female academics. That likely colors their perception of such incidents. – Fomite Feb 17 '17 at 21:50
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    @DanRomik theprofessorisin.com/2011/07/28/… conditionallyaccepted.com/2015/04/28/stop-assuming forharriet.com/2015/01/… That someone also happens to men does not necessarily mean that it doesn't happen to women more frequently, or that it doesn't take place in a different context. – Fomite Feb 17 '17 at 21:52
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    @DanRomik It's a common complaint among a wide swathe of my female colleagues. I've never had a male colleague complain about it being part of their experience. That's good enough for me - and while we're talking about context, the experience of a minority being dismissed until they can amass overwhelming evidence of something is depressingly common. – Fomite Feb 18 '17 at 0:16
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I've been in similar situations, and I think there's one clear way to handle it. After you inadvertently underestimate someone's level of expertise or qualifications like this, the next thing you do after a quick apology is express interest in their work as a professional.

In this case the obvious follow-up questions after a brief apology look like:

  • "What's your area of expertise?"
  • "What are you researching?"
  • "Any advice for me? I hope to be on the job market soon."

Then continue with as genuine interest as possible. In short, the way to rectify accidentally treating someone like they're not an expert is to then treat them like the expert they are.

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I started working as a medical doctor when I was 24 years old, and it happened to me all the time, but mostly with patients. When I get introduced by a more senior doctor, they assume I'm an intern; when I do research I don't wear a doctor's coat and patients always wish me good luck "with my studies".

I'm only mildly annoyed by this, as long as they take me seriously after finding out my role. I'd advise you to do the same: just forget it happened and treat her like the assistant professor she is.
If she were offended the damage has already been done.

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I don't think you should be the least worried. You cannot guess someone's qualifications from their appearance (even if it is commonly tried). I'm a full prof who doesn't look young at all, and to this day the library staff see that I'm faculty only when they see my file on the screen, but it doesn't seem to be obvious to them beforehand. And why would it be?

You made an honest mistake. The young prof would likely be flattered or amused. And if she isn't, the onus is on her to be less easily offended.

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    –1 for the last sentence, not least because blaming someone for being offended is virtually always siding with prejudice. The OP recognizes that there is a real problem with STEM being unwelcoming to women and undervaluing their scientific contributions. It is a sad but true fact that the woman the OP encountered has surely been on the receiving end of countless incidents of dismissal and discouragement. Being offended by such an environment (even if some dismissals were accidental) is a perfectly reasonable response. – Greg Martin Feb 18 '17 at 8:20
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    Sorry, but where exactly does it say that this is about STEM? And where does the OP "recognize that there is a real problem with STEM being unwelcoming to women and undervaluing their scientific contributions"? – Martin Argerami Feb 18 '17 at 9:12
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Nothing really wrong has been done and you have already apologized for the part which you should apologize. Calling a female young is usually considered flattery, and your mistake could be maybe interpret as a "mistake", but I assume that you were not that smooth with it that anybody would consider your actions flirty. Based on the information and the assumptions I make to fill the gaps like your working culture, facial expressions and such, my advice is: Move on, and never look back. If you sweep the thing under rug it will be forgotten. Bringing it up, and dragging it further would be something that may rise suspicion or at least make things awkward.

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    I'm not a native English speaker, but from what I've gathered calling a woman a "female" ranges from weird to insulting. – user9646 Feb 20 '17 at 13:27
  • @NajibIdrissi Depends. quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/woman-versus-female-0 By quick googling it also seems that some radical feminist groups are advocating the use of woman, because they claim that nobody would use word male, which is rubbish. As a non-native English speaker myself, I tend to use whichever sounds better to my ear and whatever comes to my mind. In that sentence woman sounds awkward to me because both "woman" and "young" has "-ou-" between them. Also there is age differentiation to girls and woman; female being age independent. OP uses word female. Etc. – user3644640 Feb 20 '17 at 14:04

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