Last week, Pretty Boy started working in my research group in my department at school, and my personal life collided rather jarringly with my work life.
Let me start with some background regarding our situation, both why it’s such a big deal for me that my work and personal lives are colliding and why Pretty Boy is now working in my research group.
For the latter, it was actually pretty fortuitous that a job in my research group found Pretty Boy. In my first week at school, I met many of my new colleagues in the department and my research group. They were curious about me and, once I mentioned him, about Pretty Boy too. And as I frequently have a habit of doing (possibly a little too much), I started talking about Pretty Boy. There’s a lot to talk about—motocross, his willingness to move across the world with me, what he plans to do here, what marketable job skills he might have, the prospective ease with which he might find employment in Australia. It was about at that point in one such conversation that the very quiet, Very Intriguing Man 2 (not to be confused with Very Intriguing Man) rather excitedly interjected into the conversation that the group was going to be starting a project soon that would require some short term manual labor. VIM2 was just starting the process of posting the position and hiring someone. A position Pretty Boy just might have the skills for and interest in doing.
It took a little back-and-forth between Pretty Boy and VIM2, and some more back-and-forth with the HR department, and then Pretty Boy was officially hired! And we were really happy. As I’ve mentioned, Pretty Boy finding work was a concern we both had before moving, and it seemed like such a great idea to have him working on campus. The workshop is on the other side of the campus from the engineering building where my office is located, so we are not in the same building, but the campus isn’t that big, so we aren’t that far from each other either. I envisioned me and Pretty Boy biking to campus together, meeting up somewhere between our two buildings for lunch, those kind of cute things. I did not anticipate how having Pretty Boy around would effect how I felt at work.
I take my work pretty seriously. Research and PhD’s are pretty serious stuff, but beyond that, I take how I appear at work pretty seriously too. I want to appear serious about my work. I want to seem deserving of research funding, like I know what I’m talking about, like I’m someone who can get the job done, because most of the time, I think I am those things. When I’m teaching, I want to appear knowledgeable, supportive, approachable, but also in control, authoritative, and serious, because that’s who I want to be as a teacher. I think these are fairly universal things that people want to project and embody in academia. Academics are often judged based on concrete evidence (stuff pertaining to actual skills and knowledge like past work, publications, presentations, even conversation about technical topics) but unfortunately, also on physical appearance (looks, clothing, age, demeanour). And in my case, many aspects of my physical appearance work AGAINST wanting to appear like I know my stuff: I am young, I look younger, I am female, I am not appropriately foreign, and I’m not frumpy*. I could write posts and posts about why these things work against me in my field in academia, but for now, I’ll just say I’ve got a lot working against me in an old boy’s club, male-dominated field.
With all these thoughts about appearance, I have always acted very deliberately in graduate school. This includes paying attention to how I physically appear and how ‘loud’ my personality and personal life is. I dress more formally than almost all of my classmates and even professors, and I tend to act more formally too. Appearing goofy or silly might be okay for my white, male colleagues who look and act just like my white, male professors, but when I feel like I have physical attributes that may cause me to be unfairly judged, I don’t want to compound that judgement with anything else.
Having said all this, I think I do a pretty good job of not fixating on it or letting it stop me from doing certain things when I want to (like wearing high heals), but its has definitely effected the version of myself that I have always been at school (more serious, more socially withdrawn). And this worked at the University of Minnesota where I experienced very little social interaction. It just wasn’t the kind of work environment where people expressed a lot of personality.
The version of myself that Pretty Boy brings out of me couldn’t be more different than that. He brings out the goofiest and silliest sides of me, the carefree side, the
spontaneous as-spontaneous-as-I-get side. And its great within our relationship, because we have fun and laugh and be silly and goofy together. He helps me be less self-conscious in public too. When we are silly or goofy or love-y in public, I care a lot less now about what other people might think than I did before we were together. Both the version of me that I am at school and the version of me that I am with Pretty Boy are authentic me, the difference is which sides I am comfortable being in which environment.
So I have always just been the ‘me’ that I am with Pretty Boy when I’m at home and the ‘me’ that I am with my colleagues when I’m at school. Until Pretty Boy showed up in my work world.
The day he started working, we were taking a new group photo for the website. I assembled punctually with the rest of my colleagues at the specified location, wearing clothing I felt was both appropriately professional and casual, waiting patiently and quietly for the picture taking to start. And then Pretty Boy came bounding up to me with a big, cheesy grin on his face, looking like he was going to sweep me up in a bear hug and give me a big, excited kiss. And I. .absolutely. .froze.
Under normally circumstances, I would have loved to be swept up in a hug and smooched on by my husband, wherever we were. But I was mortified by the thought of people who are still mostly strangers, who I want to view me as a competent, serious researcher, seeing me act that way. I am not comfortable enough yet with my status in the group to feel like acting so casual in front of them would not color their opinions of me. It shouldn’t and I don’t necessarily believe it explicitly will, but I’m not comfortable taking the chance. So we didn’t hug, I let Pretty Boy kiss me on the cheek, we took the group pictures (which my supervisor insisted Pretty Boy be in though I wouldn’t let him stand next to me), and the moment passed. Everyone went back to their offices, and Pretty Boy and I walked a comfortable distance away from my building, kissed goodbye, and went back to work.
Since then, I haven’t been caught off guard again to that extent, but I am still really struggling with it. I want to meet Pretty Boy for lunch and kiss him goodbye when we go back to work, but when we do, I’ve found myself looking around before or after we kiss, wonder if anyone saw. I feel this pull inside of me, wanting to respond or act in two distinct ways when I’m faced with a situation, because those situations now contain elements from my personal life and my work life.
I still haven’t figured out what outcome I want, what resolution I will be happy with. Find a way to isolate my interaction with Pretty Boy when we’re on campus? Be more casual with my colleagues? Neither? I don’t know. I have witnessed very few women in science and engineering academia who have dealt with their personal and professional lives intersecting, and I don’t know that they handled it all that well. For me, I think it will end up being a compromise. I will still be more formal with Pretty Boy when we’re on campus, still maintain a level of professionalism and seriousness, but I want to allow myself to be more human in a professional setting as well. I recently read a blog post about giving yourself permission to accept yourself, as you are. I really identified with the post, and it made me think of repeatedly practicing and polishing ‘informal presentations’ or stressing out about picking out clothes for a presentation or first day of the semester or even just a regular day at school. I want to have confidence in myself even when I don’t know all the answers, when I don’t seem perfect, and that’s hard and human.
BUT I never let anyone try and convince me that how I look in academia doesn’t matter, that how I appear won’t have an impact. Because it definitely does. Occasionally someone will try to convince me that appearances don’t matter. Someone who usually just so happens to have the exact look and attitude and background that leads people to assume they are smart or nerdy or whatever, the look that has a positive impact on how people judge them. And I will tell them this is very much not the case for me.
*In almost all other environments, looking frumpy generally works against women. If its a certain type of frumpy (not mine) and the right kind of academia (science and engineering), I think it can work for a woman. Similarly for being the ‘right kind of foreign.’