This weekend I attended a surprise 30th birthday party for an old friend. Whilst I was there I got chatting to her neighbour, who I’ve met fleetingly on a few occasions about a decade ago. We got chatting again over the buffet food and I got round to asking where her life has taken her.
“Final year of a PhD,” she said.
“Nice!” I replied, impressed and jealous.
“Not one little bit,” she sighed.
It turns out PhDs are awful and everyone hates them. I’ve heard that before. I’ve heard that from lots of people, but I’ve never met a real-life PhD student. It was an odd surprise. She said it was the worst choice she ever made and begged me not to consider it.
How can I ignore such a dramatic warning of doom? It was surreal, almost like she’d been sent from the future in order to save my life.
I know it doesn’t really seem all that relevant right now, I’m only a first year after all, but I had some romantic notion that I’d do this degree, the masters, and do a PhD, then see out my days being Dr Jen, the uni lecturer. I’d crochet in my office between classes and give out meaningful advice.
Probably not going to happen now though. Not since the ghost of Dr future paid me a visit.
But what can I do instead? I’ve already had one career and I have to accept that there will come a time when I can’t just have a baby to get out of making career commitments.
Then there comes another problem. How will people know I’m clever? I’m sick of being patronised.
The trouble is, I look younger than my years and it seems I give the impression I’m a bit dim. Maybe it’s because I smile a lot, maybe it’s because I giggle even more than I smile. Perhaps my friendliness is seen as a sign I’m a bit simple.
I didn’t used to think sexism existed any more. When I was younger I loved my job, everyone was nice to me and treated me well. The customers I saw were friendly and kind, my peers and superiors treated me like a proper person.
It turns out everything was hunky dory because I didn’t have a very important job, so no one cared what I did. I was essentially being paid to look pretty on the front desk and make people feel welcome. As I gained more experience, tried hard and moved up through the ranks, getting specialist qualifications and a job in management, my treatment drastically changed.
I dealt with the more challenging customers, who would dispute the laws of physics with me, ask me if I’d just ‘come from school’ and make lewd and crude jokes in order to try and make me squirm.
Male colleagues would needlessly question me, undermine me in front of customers and on some occasions discredit the obvious solution and offer some irresponsible advice that would be no help at all. (Just to be clear, if you’re 55 and have been wearing reading glasses for a few years, there are no exercises that will cure you from needing to use them. On the same note, lenses that go dark when you go outside will not protect you from getting cataracts. Everyone gets them, they’re caused by infra-red radiation from the sun, tinted lenses may slow them down, only marginally though).
So how do I break out of this cycle? I have an inkling that even with a PhD I still wouldn’t be taken seriously, so what do I do?
After my dad died I dyed my hair dark and stopped bothering with my contact lenses or make up. For a good three months people listened. No one questioned my explanations, no one disputed the generally agreed upon laws of physics. The only difference was that I was a bit ugly. I got taken seriously, but my sales dropped too.
It’s a weird trade off when you’re a woman. If you make an effort to look good, then you can’t be clever. If you’re intelligent, you should at least have the decency to be ugly so that people can plainly see that your brain functions.
So what do I do now a PhD seems cursed? Become an accountant? (That’s not some poorly executed joke, it’s a real consideration for me, it’s in my blood dontcha know).
Or do I just accept that women don’t get treated as equals and try and fight against that?
I don’t know.
Suggestions welcomed below.