Yesterday I had a little meeting with a student who is exploring potential members of his PhD committee and wanted to know my interest and if I'd be a good fit and all that. He seems interesting and motivated and whatever, and the conversation was cool. (He's 36, so he asked better questions than most students who are right out of undergrad.)
And then, towards the end, he said, "I just have one more question for you, and I hope you don't take it the wrong way. Do you have children? Are you planning to someday?"
And I was like, "Buh?" But then said, well, my husband and I are expecting a kid in October . . .um, but what difference does it make?
He kind of hinted that he really wanted people on his committee who were going to have the right level of focus, and then he mentioned something about having had knee surgery . . . I wasn't sure what any of that meant and decided not to probe any further; maybe he'd had a bad experience at some point, or something . . . I later mentioned that I've worked hard with my grad students this summer to make sure they were all on really solid ground before the fall begins, so that when I am out of the office towards the end of the semester it won't inhibit their progress in any way, and he said that he found that attitude "really encouraging."
I had no idea what he was really getting at. Nobody has ever asked me anything like that in one of those conversations about committee interest.
And for a while after he left, I felt vaguely unsettled by the conversation but couldn't figure out what exactly it was that was bothering me, aside from it's general inappropriateness. But eventually I put my finger on it.
He was either trying to ascertain (a) something about my value system and whether or not I have a life outside of work, or, (b) whether or not I would take my role seriously if I were on his committee, or if I'm just here for jollies and all my focus is someplace else.
I resent the implication that what he actually asked would address either one of those questions. I also suspect he would not ask the same question of a male professor.
What if I had a very rich and active social life? What if I did a lot of volunteer work? What if I had no kids or plans for kids but I was caring for an elderly parent, or a disabled spouse? Or I was planning to go on sabbatical next year? Or I was in the middle of a horrible divorce? Or any other thing, among the million things that can mess with a person's schedule or plans or can impact whether or not they work 70 hours a week. Surely at his age he would realize that every life comes with some surprises and disruptions, and you just deal with them as they come.
If he's concerned that I'm a woman and so probably my career is just something I am taking seriously temporarily, then, that would really make me angry. I have of course encountered this attitude more than once, but it still shocks me, especially when it's coming from men of more or less my same generation (which, interestingly, it was in every case).
2 weeks ago