Thursday, November 29, 2012

Latent, Stereotypical Thinking



I got an e-mail from a local high school teacher that I thought I would share with you. Have you gotten one of these recently? If so, what did you decide do?

Hello Mr. Schmelz,

I am a teacher of Honors English at ABC High School. I write you today to ask if you would be so kind as to allow one of my Honors students to contact you, via phone or via email, for a brief interview about Astronomy as a career choice. This young man, XYZ, is very bright and very congenial . . .

DEF
Honors English I Teacher
ABC High School

After much thought, here is how I replied:


Dear DEF,

I talk to students all the time about careers in astronomy and would be happy to be interviewed by XYZ. However, and this is a bit awkward, there is no _Mr._ Schmelz . . . I am not only a professional astrophysicist, a PhD, and a full professor at the University of Memphis, but I am also a woman! I am not sure if this will change your preconceptions about who can be a successful scientist, but I hope it will. If XYZ would still like to interview me, please have him contact me to set up a time.

Dr. Joan T. Schmelz
Physics Department
University of Memphis

The teacher replied almost immediately. Much to my relief, she fell on her sword: 

Oh MY!  Even a mature and ardent feminist like myself suffers from latent, stereotypical thinking.  My sincerest apologies to you, Dr. Schmelz! XYZ is most sincere in his interest in astronomy . . . Thank you kindly for your offer to give of your time and expertise for this young scholar.

I realize that this was indeed the outcome I was hoping for, but I still worried about the tone. Should I have just deleted the email and not worried about it? I was trying to be a model of tactful assertiveness. Had I succeeded? Way too much creative energy went into this exchange. Of course, I could (and should) have been doing other things, but I admit that prying open the eyes of one self-described “ardent feminist” makes me feel that it was worth the effort. Hopefully, she will never suffer from her “latent, stereotypical thinking” again!

--Joan Schmelz

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

A recent response to referee report that I wrote anonymously started out with: "We thank the referee for his helpful comments."
The extra sad part is that the author of the paper was a woman. Unconscious bias seeps into all our minds.

Anonymous said...

I've had this happen (getting a Mr instead of in my case a Ms. or Mrs.) oddly enough in exactly the same situation: a forward-thinking, outreach-focussed teacher asking for contact.
I too agonised over it for the three emails we exchanged, until I had to supply a bio, which got written with lots of use of 'she' in it. Happily, the problem vanished in the next email ;)

Anonymous said...

Typically when I receive e-mails with the wrong gendered title, it is from someone writing from a non-Western country where the gender of my first name may not be obvious. If it came from someone local, I might inquire where that person received my name -- I don't use initials (so my gender should be obvious). If one has the habit of using initials instead of a first name on publicly available information like department websites, it's more understandable that such a confusion might occur. It still brings up the point about stereotyping and assumptions, but I wouldn't have upbraided (gently) the writer of the e-mail -- once you replied to the e-mail with your full name I'm sure the teacher would have realized his/her error.

Daryl Haggard said...

I had literally just clicked "Send" on the AASWOMEN Newsletter highlighting Joan's post, when I received an email that opened

Dear Sir Haggard, ...

Mind you, this was a message confirming receipt of an application to a fellowship open only to women. Seriously, Dr. is gender neutral, can't we just go with that so I don't have to send out the 100th email that says,

Thank you for xxx... Also, despite my apparently masculine name, I am actually a woman.

And that's being generous and assuming it's just my weird name that throws people off. It's kind of funny to conjure Daryl Hannah every time I need someone to believe that I am me, and I am a women, but it's also very, very tiresome.

Daryl Haggard said...

I had literally just clicked "Send" on the AASWOMEN Newsletter highlighting Joan's blog post, when I received an email that opened

Dear Sir Haggard,

Mind you, this message was confirming receipt of an application to a fellowship that is open only to women. Seriously, Dr. is gender neutral, can't we just use that? Then I won't have to write the 100th email saying

Thank you for xxx… Also, despite my apparently masculine name, I am actually a woman.

And that's being generous and assuming that it's just my weird name that throws people off. It's amusing to conjure Daryl Hannah every time I need to convince someone that I am me, and I am a women, but it's also very, very tiresome.

anita said...

I think you did the right thing in calling it out. This sort of things still happens far too often - I wouldn't be too bothered about being referred to as "Ms. xxx" if the man next to me wasn't then addressed as "Dr. xxx". I feel silly to point it out, but came to realize that things won't change if I (and others) don't call attention to these subtle forms of sexism...

megan said...

My childhood teachers insisted that "he" and "his" were neutral pronouns, and should be used instead of "they" "their" or (s)he / his/hers.

Ironically, they were nuns.

Also, I'm old but not older than many teachers -- so sometimes the language usage we were taught back in the day manifests in apparent bias, a flinch in response to one's shadow grammar teacher. In a habit. :)

Anonymous said...

I think you did the right thing in reminding the teacher explicitly that women are scientists too. I have explicitly written gender-neutral introduction emails if the recipient's gender was unclear; if we call people on their assumptions hopefully we can broaden people's awareness!

Anonymous said...

I think too much has been made of this. Has anyone ever heard of Joan Miro? I'd be less concerned about the pronoun than about the form of address. "Hello Mr. Schmelz" isn't a proper way to address a stranger. And it's an HONORS ENGLISH teacher who's doing this! Sigh.

Anonymous said...

One time when I was on jury duty and was called into the courtroom, the judge (an older man) would ask the male potential jurors if they were Mr. or Dr. but only asked the female potential jurors if they were Ms. or Mrs. When it came to my turn and the judge asked if I was Ms. or Mrs. I replied "Actually it's Dr."

I am a high school physics teacher and certainly would address any college professor as "Dr.".