The challenge of being little

I’m a small human. I started out small, stayed small, and now I’ve grown up to be a child-sized adult.

I’m from a family of scrawny people. My brother is a nobbly-kneed small man. He’s a primary school teacher and still shops in the boys section himself. He eats a high-calorie, lard heavy diet but still has to plan any physical activity with weeks of double rations in preparation. We’re little people!

In my mind, I’m a large human. Here, I occupy about 20 kg more space than in reality. But in truth, I’m about the size of twelve year old. Of judging by my attempts to buy good quality riding gloves last winter, I’m “Juvenile 8-11”.

Often, small is great. Long haul travel is a breeze! Kids clothes are cheap! Packed Melbourne trains are easy to sardine into! I’m also a trail runner. Before races, I often get encouraging, smiles at the start, just to zip by my larger, more muscular competitors on the first whiff of a hill.

In the workplace, small is often sub-optimal. Occasionally, being small in a professional setting is fun. I get asked if I’m a student, and then if I’m even old enough to have a PhD. People are usually pleasantly surprised by my competence.

More typically, being small is a hindrance. I’ve spent last week participating in Science Meets Parliament (SmP), a program that gets 200 Australian scientists into Parliament House and meeting politicians. In settings like this, it’s easy to get overlooked.

Last year at Science Meets Parliament, there were several times when I was literally pushed out of the way by my fellow delegates who were over-enthused by the chance to network. If I’m introduced to an influential person, it’s not uncommon that I’m effectively dismissed immediately. This is accompanied by a flicker of brutal recognition – small person, unimportant.

Other times, responses to my being little are subtler. In busy rooms or in corridors, I’m implicitly expected to move out of the way to accommodate larger people. In large meetings, it is hard to get a word in and when I do talk, I’m often spoken over or someone decides for me “what I really mean”.

It’s really frustrating! I left SmP last year feeling angry and disappointed in myself. I was treated like a child playing dress ups in my mum’s clothes, and I felt that I had let myself. Why should the value of my ideas be determined by my bulk or by my clothing?

This year, I am determined to be more assertive. Before SmP, I joked about sticking my elbows out and throwing in a shoulder to be able to maintain a conversation with someone for more than a few words. Or perhaps a foghorn would be great for my meeting with a politician, so that I could ensure I got a chance to speak at all?

I also dressed a little differently* this year.  In the mad morning rush, I threw on trousers, a shirt, and a tie and dashed out the door. I had a much more positive experience. I was able to hold proper, lengthy conversations. I didn’t feel like I was always in the way, or moving to accommodate others. I was generally treated respectfully.

I was also called ‘Sir’ a few times, which is not usual. Professional environments are often places where testosterone spills out of suit after suit. If I were to be cynical about it, I’d say that when people think you are a 15-year old boy, you get treated more far deferentially than when they think you are a small woman.

Of course it wasn’t that simple. As well as my different clothing choices, I’m sure I was also more confident. I’d been to SmP before, I am more confident in my research and communication skills than a year ago, and who doesn’t feel great when they look sharp?

Either way, while being small can be useful, it can also be a professional challenge. I’ve thought about investing in a punishing program of weights and protein supplements, but instead I’m learning to be bolder and more assertive.

I’m trying to stop apologising when I’m bumped into or automatically moving out of the way of everyone larger than me. Our professional environments are there for grown men, so it can be tricky to find professionally appropriate clothes. But the 15-year old boy look seems to be working, so I’ll stick with that for now.

And while it’s cutting when someone important looks at you and doesn’t see you at all, the only real way to make yourself relevant professionally is to do great science, be a generous colleague and a clear communicator, so I’ll try to work on that too.

If none of that works, I’ll just stick with being smug when I snuggle into my economy class seat and the already uncomfortable grown up and I set off on a 15 hour flight across the Pacific!

* Mainly more hurriedly.

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3 thoughts on “The challenge of being little

  1. Well, you certainly had a mighty presence on twitter. If, on the internet, no-one can tell if you’re a dog, no-one can tell if you’re a chihuahua either.

    (And I thought you were looking pretty sharp, too.)

  2. It may be that on the internet no-one knows you’re a dog, and in science you’ll probably find, as you move on, that there are many more people who “know” you by your papers (or tweets) – especially working in an area with the profile of yours – and probably won’t pay too much attention to what the person behind the papers looks like. The comparison with the alpha-male environment of Parliament House, which doesn’t seem ready for a female Prime Minister even in the 2010s, is an interesting one.

    (And I must admit I hadn’t even noticed that you were small, although that may owe something to the company I mix in when I’m not being a scientist – amongst female endurance athletes, people of your size are par for the course, as are those who are still getting asked for ID on licensed premises well into their 30s).

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