I am a young female science professor in a tenure track job at a major research university. That in itself is both a major accomplishment, and a very rare thing. I look my age, or maybe a bit younger, and people who don’t know me usually assume I am a student. New students who enter my office usually cannot hide their surprise upon meeting me, and some people have even asked me where the professor is. When I first moved into the office, the department asked someone to come clean it after the recently retired prof who used to have the office moved out. I happened to be there when the cleaning person came by, and she helpfully informed me that “a new professor is moving in” clearly thinking I could not possibly be that person despite being in that office.
Moving around the wider world, I don’t often mention my profession, but it sometimes happens that I meet a new person or strike up a conversation with a stranger, and my profession comes up. People react with surprise, every time. Sometimes, with extreme surprise and disbelief, even thinking I am joking. I am now purposefully vague unless asked specifically about what I do.
All I did was follow what seemed to be the most obvious path at just about every decision point in my life. I was smart and did well in high school, so I went to college and majored in my favorite subject (a science). I did well there and liked it, so I went on to grad school. I did well there and still enjoyed it, so I went off to an academic postdoc, then a faculty job. I never skipped any grades, spent 4 years in college, 5.5 years getting my Ph.D., and 2 years as a postdoc. Not so weird for someone who always wanted to be a scientist.
And yet, it’s very lonely where I am now. My colleagues in my department, while nice people, are almost all men much older than I am. There is only one other woman besides me in the department, and we are decades apart in age. The professor closest to me in age in 8 years my senior, and while friendly, we aren’t particularly close. How did I become such an anomaly, when all I did was follow what seemed like a straight-forward path?