Honorary Dudeness

This semester I am again teaching a class with zero girls (as I wrote before, I feel silly calling 19 or 20-year old girls women; based on the fact that I didn’t consider myself a woman well until after kid No 2 and past the age of 30, I am sticking to calling them girls).  Lecturing to a 100% male audience happens occasionally, once every couple of years, and while you’d think it’s not that different from teaching a class with 1 or 2 women, it actually is different.  It doesn’t feel uncomfortable, but it’s not entirely comfortable either. I am a middle-aged, female, dog-and-pony show with vector calculus, waving colored markers in front of  a whole sea of mostly half-asleep young dudes. Being  that I am the mom of multiple young dudes, my general feelings towards my students are warm and motherly — mostly, I realize they are just oversize kids. But the whole experience is ever so slightly more weird with zero girls in the classroom than with at least some.

Another interesting thing is the relationship that I end up having with the occasional young woman in my class. Either they really like me and we develop a nice connection, or they are squarely at the “this professor sucks” end of the spectrum. Here’s an example. Last semester I had 2 girls in an undergrad class of about 30. I had a great rapport with that class, one of the top 2 or 3 experiences overall, and I received really high teaching evaluations overall. I had a lot of students in my office during office hours, the whole class was very upbeat. Of the two women, one did great, was very active and I got to know her through office hours, we talked about the follow-on courses, graduate school, etc. The other didn’t particularly care for me or the class . When I got the  student evaluations back, most of the student scores and comments were glowing, but among the unenthused ones, one mentioned that I was sometimes 1-2 minutes late to class. What I thought to myself as I read it was “Wow, how petty. And not even true.” While I cannot be certain, I am pretty sure the comment came from the second female student, because she has very distinctive hand writing.

Unfortunately, I think that it’s not very uncommon for women in the fields where they are underrepresented to develop one of the polar opposites of relationships  (this may also be true of other underrepresented minorities, I don’t know), with the relationship where other women are kept at an arm’s length or are being looked down upon actually being the more common variant. I know that, when you are a young woman in a field dominated by young men, and you are competent and confindent, you can often seemingly blend in by becoming an Honorary Dude — HD for short (I thought I had first heard this term from Zuska, but upon further digging it turns out she used Almost D00d; I remember a little light bulb go on in my head as I first read her articulation of this concept and it felt so familiar). I spent much of my youth in this mode, cherishing my HD status, because I was smart and meritorious and not like those other women. So I can see that competent young women often do come with their own small group of dude friends (who are usually either comparably or less competent than the girl) with whom they work and study.  I have yet to see two young women in the same circle/study group in any of my classes — it’s like no one wants to work with girls, not even other girls, and certainly not the HD’s who are “smart and cool, not like other girls.”

It’s a stereotype that women are often weird to other women, the “mean girls” syndrome and all that. Perhaps geeky women and their relationship to other geeky women are no exception. What I know is that I took me a long time, which I presume entails growing up, to understand that being an Honorary Dude is bullshit, that I am a girl/woman, and that no one ever forgets that for one second regardless of how much we all pretend. I also realized that other women really don’t need me to crap on their parade and that I should instead help them if I can. Unless another woman has really done something bad to me, I should get over myself and whatever insecurities I have and not demonize her for being successful or having different priorities than me. I am now that woman of whom I used to make fun, who is counting the female speakers at conferences and female participants on grant review panels and female interviewees during faculty searches. Why? Because I grew up and took off my HD badge and realized how disheartening it is to see to what degree my male colleagues — especially the good guys — really believe that 100% men is the norm, and that any women present are really either veritable superstars (even if most men are far from it) or are believed to be a token used to satisfy some political correctness requirement. This pisses me off, and it’s exhausting, but unless I bring it up nobody else does.

We often talk about female students needing female role models and mentors. But I think we need to be aware that we can’t a priori count on a female student establishing good rapport with a female teacher. Maybe that female teacher being lame or fat or  having an accent or being a minute late to class or however else unworthy of the female student’s admiration will actually do less to retain that student than the all-male professorial cast that the young woman expects. For young women, wearing the HD badge and placing even female instructors with all the other women may well be a necessary survival adaptation. I am established and fairly secure in who and where I am, and I am also older, so I have the luxury of consciously dismantling my Honorary Dude status among my colleagues or my male students, because I know the status is fake and it hurts other women. So as easy as it would be to continue wearing my HD badge, I keep electing to wear the potentially lame female prof one instead, and I keep trying to be nicer, more open, and more helpful to other women than even my gut tells me to be, and in spite of some young (or not so young) women looking down on me, as they think they know better or that I am weak or silly or matronly for being all female. But the benefit has been that I have also managed to establish better, deeper connections with other women than I have generally had in the past, and I have hopefully become more attuned to and more helpful with the struggles that women in STEM face.

If you are a young woman in STEM, ask yourself how your view your scientific elders. Do you have different, perhaps unreasonable expectations of your female instructors? InBetween had a really nice summary of how students view male and female TAs. Are there some female instructors you just don’t like without being able to point out what it is that you dislike? Do you feel the same way towards your male instructors? What about your peers — are there other girls/young women with whom you study? Ask yourself if you judge your female peers more harshly because they are girls.

19 comments

  1. Interestingly, I have had exactly the same experience! Thank you for blogging about this. A pattern I often notice is that the female students who hate me mostly tend to be white, while the ones that like me are usually not. Needless to say, I am not white. I don’t think anyone is intentionally being racist here, but there might be some amount of “coolness factor” I am lacking by being a non-white female professor in an engineering discipline.

  2. Luna — that’s an interesting observation! I am white but not US-born, and have generally had considerably better rapport with international female students than the domestic (US-born) ones, who generally tend to dislike me. But now that you mention it, the international female students here are generally not white, while I think all my US-born ones have been white. Likely, while I look as white as they come, I am not considered really white, i.e. I have another type of otherness (foreigner, accent) that removes some (or most?) of the pale complexion privilege.

  3. I had an HD badge as an undergrad, gave it up for PhD and postdoc (perhaps because I shifted fields slightly to something more bio and less engineering?) and then eagerly took it back up when I started as an Assist. Prof. in an engineering department. It was definitely a survival strategy for me at the time. Now, with two kids and tenure, I am trying to fully own my identify as a mom, a woman, a wife, a kick-ass scientist, a fashion-lover, and an educator. It took me quite awhile to realize that there doesn’t have to be a cognitive dissonance between these various roles.

  4. I definitely aspired to be an HD in my youth, largely because that’s the example that was set to my by the many professionally successful women among my parents friends. I was more or less able to feel like I was an HD in high school.

    I received a pretty brutal punch in the face when I went to college and really struggled in a lot of challenging classes. I was forced to reexamine my HD aspirations when it became obvious to me that many women are way way way more talented and competent that I am, and there was no way I could retain any shred of intellectual honesty and feel like I was different from “those women”. I still struggle with this and have to be conscious of my biases, but now when my techie friends make statements such as “there are no good looking women engineers” I call them out as full of shit and point out the sexism in these trolling comments, rather than nod along and take comfort in my lack of interest in fashion.

    At the same time, I sometimes feel like an HD at work because it is sometimes genuinely easier for me to talk with the older male engineers than to talk with some of the women (whom I also really like and respect) because I feel like I don’t have to be as careful with what I say. I definitely have a tendency to say dumb shit that I think is funny sometimes, and I feel like there are fewer consequences to saying dumb shit around other people who say dumb shit themselves.

    Having seen some interactions that my one awesome black female has had to deal with, I do think that being white makes it easier for me to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to getting respect from new hires.

  5. I have never been like this — I always sought the company of other women in physics, and sometimes got surprised reactions about this. One of my female collaborators said that she had tried to avoid female collaborators because of bad experiences, and it was really unexpected for her how well our collaboration went. For me it is the opposite. Several of my best collaborations were with women. I find them mostly more pleasant to work with than men, more honest, and more precise. But I have also preferred female to male friends for all my life.

    I like the term “honorary dudes” a lot. I know quite a few women who can be described like that, and God, they get on my nerves. It seems their main goal in life is to be respected and liked by men. They laugh along with sexist jokes, and get drunk with the guys, and at the same time are usually pretty and tough and well dressed and cool. However, for some reason, they are never fully part of the cool gang of men. They are always a bit on the margin, and struggling very hard to stay inside the cool group. That is also why they are especially mean to people on the outside. I have met quite a few women like that, and I find interacting with them always hugely depressing, because I feel that they are really really a sign of how alive and strong patriarchy is. Nothing more depressing that having another woman look at you doubtingly if you try to talk to her about science, as if she did not really believe it was possible that you could say anything useful….

  6. Xykademiqz, that’s very interesting! Now that you mention it, I agree that there is a domestic/international angle as well. Female international students mostly like me, and the domestic ones are split 50/50. The ones that dislike me usually tend to be white, and the ones that like me tend to belong to a minority group (either the same minority as me or different). I wonder if there is some “otherness” at play here, for both of us.

  7. As a student, I can partially relate from the other side of the curtain. Relationships with woman professors in a male-dominated field have a higher propensity towards awkwardness. As a woman student, I have felt as if I am expected to build a rapport with woman professors; this pressure makes relationships weird and ends up stunting their growth unless I really feel comfortable with the prof.

    In terms of friendships with other woman students, though, I haven’t experienced the HD syndrome at all. In classes and at conferences, we often will sit together and have more personal conversations than we’d have with men students.

  8. This is fascinating! As an undergrad, personally I didn’t experience this dynamic, because I went to a women’s college. Every member of my study group was a woman, and I think there was also a higher proportion of women professors in my physics department than typical, so about half the classes I took were taught by women. In high school, I was always a bit wary of girls who seemed fashionable, put-together, or in any way “popular,” but I had to quickly get over that in college. I sometimes do notice saddening divides among my women colleagues between geeky vs. fashionable, domestic vs. international, “honorary dudes” vs. not and think I benefitted from learning in college that I can get along well, academically and socially, with women in any category.

  9. I have also never been like this– I’ve always made a connection with the one other woman (or sometimes other women! yay!) in my male-dominated classes. At work, we recently tipped to female-dominated with our latest hires, which is insane for my field. But if a place is a nice place for a woman to work it seem to attract more women, so our best qualified applicants are now more often women than not and they come when we give them offers.

    I did have a female professor in college who was very much hostile to other women-I dropped her class (and took the required Real Analysis from another female prof who was absolutely delightful, and avoided the Topology elective), but she literally caused mental trauma (requiring psychological counseling) both for my roommate and for our older mentory female friend. She was only a bitch to her female students. (Also sexist– she recommended I take Diffy Q as my first college course, but a male student with an identical high school record take a much tougher class as his first course… though I actually got the better advice as he crashed and burned in his class.) She even talked about how she had it so tough (she was sexually harassed among other things, which is terrible but not an excuse) that she thought we had it too easy and should have to suffer.

    My senior year I was the ombuds for the students and I talked with the chair about her to see if they could require her to have sensitivity or sexual harassment training because I’d amassed such a list of her digging at female students (but not male students), with extra special harassment reserved for my genius roommate. I don’t know if it helped or not.

  10. Really interesting post, thanks! I am not traditionally feminine (I have zero interest in makeup or fashion for example), so I definitely developed in middle school through high school a “not like those girls” attitude as a kind of defense against bullying. In college I started to realize that women are not sheep for wearing makeup and liking boy bands, and I’m not special because I play video games and eschew feminine things. In other words I grew up. One nice thing about that, is that I started to embrace some of the more feminine things about myself (I love romance stories/TV for example).

    I work with lots of women now, in my field (evobio) it would be career suicide not to, and why would you want to cut out half your collaborators? There seems to be a nice array of feminine and masculine traits/interests among women in bio. I really like the diversity. I generally also get along with men fine, I’ve only run into a few sexist jerks (one of which I ran screaming from a collaboration with early in grad school).

    Weirdly enough I occasionally do still feel… an attitude coming from a few select women regarding my lack of femininity. It seems like maybe some women are worried I might be an HD and therefore be judging them (I do still present as one, for the most part, in that I have primarily “dude” interests and not many traditionally feminine ones). Or maybe they are just jerks who should stay out of others’ business. Anyway it can go both ways.

  11. Good god. Are there still classes with only one or a few women students? How depressing. I remember being the only female student in classes back in the 80s, or one of very few, but I thought we were past that. (Those days are long gone in biology at least).

  12. I have to admit that I have often secretly enjoyed my unique status as the-only-woman around (grad school, postdoc, faculty – yes, there were hardly any other women, and none in my subfield). Makes it easier to stand out at conferences in the sea of sloppily dressed dudes 🙂
    That said, I do often teach classes with only one or two women, and they are usually terrified to ever speak up. Most of them like me just fine, a few even to the point of worship, but they let their male classmates run the discussions. If I call them out, they are embarrassed, and they prefer to keep a low profile. In ten years of teaching, there has not been a single exception. Why? I really have no idea! I often wish they would put on the HD badge and kick some ass! Like I know they could, if only they dared to!

    I do have cordial relationships with most other women in my field, and I have never been treated badly by a female colleague. However, it did take some growing up, like you say, to even realize that I do tend to wear my HD badge. I also made fun of women who were counting women at conferences and I stayed as far away as I could from any women-in-science events. I always had a hard time taking up a general fight for the cause, but to my credit, I did make special efforts to encourage and help every individual woman who has crossed my path (including students, peers or even more senior colleagues). As I get older, I find myself doing that with ever deepening conviction and a growing sense of purpose.

    I hope that I am not delusional, and that my comfortable HD status can be used for the good. I am trying to spin it as an AC (Awesome Chick) status instead, but cannot tell you whether that is working – it is tricky to solicit opinions on your AC status from unbiased observers…

  13. Hmm..I tried to comment but my computer sucks 😦 Anyway, I was totally an HD when I was an undergrad, even an early graduate student. It’s embarrassing to look back on things I said about female professors or any woman in a position of authority, especially now that I’m much more aware of those types of things.

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