Monday, March 8, 2010

On The Margin

Recently, I attended a wetland conference at which I had been invited to speak in one of the sessions.  My husband accompanied me on the trip and also attended the conference, but did not speak.  He mainly came along to keep me company.

Instead of staying in the conference hotel, we made reservations at a local bed and breakfast situated in a more pleasing and relaxing area on the outskirts of the city.  The B&B host was curious about why we were visiting the area, so we explained about the conference.  He immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was my spouse who was going to be speaking.  My husband quickly corrected him (in a joking way) and explained that it was he who was the "trailing spouse".

The man was clearly embarrassed at his presumption and said, "Oh, my.  I really stuck my foot in my mouth, didn't I?  I should have realized in this day and age that it's a mistake to make such assumptions."

I assured him that I did not take offense.  And I didn't.  I suppose my lack of concern was partly due to self-confidence (and having experienced this many times), but mostly due to the fact that he apologized immediately and seemed to be genuinely appalled at his mistake.

I would contrast this experience with other situations in which I'm put into a subordinate pigeonhole by someone, and it's clear that nothing is going to change that perception.  These situations (in which I do become annoyed) usually occur in a professional (or professional-social) setting.  The most frustrating ones are those in which another person begins talking about a topic in which I'm an expert, and they deliberately ignore my expertise and anything I might have to say.  In some cases, though, it may be a complete lack of recognition on their part (of who I am).  They assume I'm just "the wife".

What do you do in such cases?

Speak up and say, "You probably don't realize it, but [subject] is my main area of research."


"That's interesting.  I just published a paper in Science on that very topic."

Or should you just save your breath and move on to talk to someone else?  I suppose for me it depends on my mood and level of energy.  I get weary of correcting these misperceptions.  Also, I think an offended reaction often makes you look defensive and lacking in self-confidence.

On the occasions when I've said something along the lines of the sentences listed above or offered an insightful comment about the topic, the reaction has been a blank stare and a continuation of conversation as if I had said nothing.  This happens rarely to me now, but was a very common experience when I was younger.  I've also noticed now that sympathetic male colleagues will often speak up and try to include female colleagues and students in the conversation, especially if it's obvious that they are being excluded.

It's a difficult situation and one that male colleagues rarely experience.  My husband is always saying, "Just don't be so sensitive and don't react to every [imagined] slight." Well, my response is that it's easy to overlook a social or professional slight when it has rarely happened to you.  However, when it has been a life-long experience [to be marginalized], you look at such seemingly minor interactions quite differently.

No comments: