On proof and progress in feminism

The recent allegations against several celebrities have led to a broader conversation on how we, as a society, don’t believe women. In a “he said, she said” situation, we trust the man and assume that the woman is either mistaken or lying. “Taking us seriously” means that we are advised of such and offered an explanation for our dismissal instead of simply being dismissed outright. It’s not only personal bias, conscious or not; there are institutional mechanisms perpetuating this state of affairs. No proof is ever sufficient if it comes from a woman. Should she present multiple affidavits, all signed and notarized in triplicate, she’ll be informed that they do not prove her claim; she, on the other hand, probably violated multiple rules and procedures by collecting and presenting her evidence in the first place. She should stop before she gets into more trouble.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing crop of men who, having declared themselves as feminists, proceed to lecture women on how they should go about equity-related matters. At a recent tech conference, a panel of male allies told women that they should just apply themselves a little bit more; another male panelist implored them to wait quietly for their good karma. Closer to home, I’ve been told repeatedly and earnestly that sexism in math would be solved if we only had unmoderated comments on research articles, or anonymous journal submissions, or some such. We’re instructed on what level of anger befits a feminist (low to nonexistent), which fights we can pick without belittling our cause (not many, and most of them were in the past), and how to address men in order to not alienate them (politely and with due deference). We’re offered advice that’s worse than useless in that we have to spend our time rebutting it. We have policies and procedures pushed on us that promote, at our expense, some alien, estranged concept called “women” that does not include us.

This is all of a piece with the culture that casts men as leaders and experts, and women as supporting characters and understudies. In feminism, as in everything else, men believe that their superior knowledge and understanding bestows upon them a natural authority and responsibility. Our equality will be measured, apportioned and dispensed to us by polite, congenial men, men who will invite us to advise and support them as needed, but will always reserve the right to overrule us should they deem it necessary.

Basic things are basic. You spoke over women in committees, silenced them in faculty meetings, denied their requests, and then you don’t understand why they don’t accept your valiant leadership with gratitude? Golly gee, the world can be so unfair. That said, we do need allies. We could use more help. And there are men who, I’m sure, have all the best intentions. And that makes it so much more disappointing when these men dismiss our hard-earned insight in favour of their own solutionism, where each problem has an easy answer and those that do not are declared nonexistent.

Consider the large body of research on unconscious racial and gender bias. Have you also paid attention to the public responses to such studies? Most men, and some women, might read a study on gender bias with astonishment and disbelief, having had no previous intimation that this was going on. They might argue back that not all men do this, and that some women succeed in tech, and women have babies and girls play with dolls. Above all, they will demand more proof. If it’s a lab study, it needs to be repeated and checked against real life statistics. If it’s statistics, then individual cases must be examined for other possible explanations. If it’s individual stories, that’s just anecdata, we need statistics and/or a lab study. To ensure appropriate collegiality, all this must be provided without hurting men’s feelings or contradicting their beliefs.

Many women, meanwhile, respond to the results of the same study with a collective “duh” on social media. It’s hardly news to them that X happens, even if the numbers might still surprise them. They see it all the time; they also see Y, Z, W, and much more. They had talked about it between themselves, thought about it, written about it at length. Nonetheless, they are the first to point out the importance of the study, to praise and publicize it. They do so because it legitimizes their own experience in the eyes of others, opens up a window in which they might be permitted to speak out. It offers evidence other than the flimsy, useless threads of their own words.

None of their knowledge is available to those who insist on conducting every conversation as it if were a criminal trial. There’s no chance of normal discourse. Why did I say “they see it all the time” when there was this one time it didn’t happen? And that other time, too? Who are “they,” anyway? Can we have their names and institutional affiliations? Have we heard the other side of the story? And so women are studied as if we were baboons, endangered for some reason but incapable of articulating what it is that ails us, so that researchers have to rely on statistics, experiments and third-party accounts.

Do you care about proof, or about progress? You can read all the peer-reviewed research, attend all the official panels, and you’ll still only see the tip of the iceberg. You’ll see the isolated facts but you’ll have no idea how to connect them. You’ll see the molehill that can be proved in a scientific paper, but not the mountain that we are forbidden to talk about for confidentiality reasons, and not the one that we stopped talking about because nobody believed us, either.

This post, unlike most of what I write, has no hyperlinks. This is on purpose. There are many related links in my earlier posts, and more in my Twitter feed linked on the sidebar. It’s easy enough to google around and find more. Alternatively, you could entertain the possibility that what I’m telling you is the actual truth of my experience. That would be a good start.

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ICERM postdoctoral positions

I’m co-organizing the program Dimension and Dynamics at the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics in Spring 2016. (Yes, this means that I hope to participate in the program. Details to follow when they are finalized.) ICERM has several postdoctoral positions associated with the program, one for the full academic year and four for the semester. Applications should be submitted via MathJobs. There is also funding for program visitors and workshop participants; the ICERM webpage has more details on that.

The program covers various aspects of dimension theory and dynamics, from ergodic theory to hyperbolic dynamics to computation. In my own research, I’ve been increasingly attracted to connections between dimension theory and dynamical systems on one hand, and harmonic analysis and additive combinatorics on the other. I look forward to doing more work in that direction in the next few years.

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Diversity and mathematics

bell curve1

Mother Jones, last year:

According to a new psychology paper, our political passions can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills. More specifically, the study finds that people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.

I was reminded of it while reading the article “Does Diversity Trump Ability? An Example of the Misuse of Mathematics in the Social Sciences” in the Notices of the AMS. The author, Abigail Thompson, takes on a well known and widely cited paper:

“Diversity” has become an important concept in the modern university, affecting admissions, faculty hiring, and administrative appointments. In the paper “Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers” [1], L. Hong and S. Page claim to prove that “To put it succinctly, diversity trumps ability.” We show that their arguments are fundamentally flawed.

Why should mathematicians care? Mathematicians have a responsibility to ensure that mathematics is not misused. The highly specialized language of mathematics can be used to obscure rather than reveal truth. It is easy to cross the line between analysis and advocacy when strongly held beliefs are in play. Attempts to find a mathematical justification for “diversity” as practiced in universities provide an instructive example of where that line has been crossed.

Thompson proceeds to shred both the “mathematical theorem” and the numerical examples from the Hong-Page paper. The actual paper is available here, and I have satisfied myself that Thompson is not unfair in her mathematical analysis. Her article, however, does not exist in a vacuum. It will be read in mathematics departments, organizations and committees where “diversity” is viewed as a bureaucratic imposition made on them by distant administrators who don’t understand research, even as their few women faculty often find themselves alienated and sidelined. That’s why I would like to add a few things.

First, there are many sound reasons for diversity that have nothing to do the article in question. (I will restrict this post to the benefits of diversity per se, independently of how that diversity was achieved. Affirmative action has its own reasons and will get its own post soon.) It should be common sense, not a mathematical theorem, that there are advantages in having a wider perspective and more than one problem-solving approach. Continue reading

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Art in the life of mathematicians


This book has been in the works for some years now, and I’m thrilled to finally have a demo copy to show you. The book will be published by the American Mathematical Society. The demo copy has been produced (impressively quickly!) by the Hungarian publisher Ab Ovo. I’m very grateful to Anna Kepes Szemerédi for envisioning this project in the first place, and for all the hard work she has put into it.

I have contributed an essay on photography. You can download it here, and here is the gallery of the photos I offered to be used in the book. The photo on the cover is also mine. I hope that this will encourage you to purchase the book when it becomes available; I’m only one out of many contributors (see the cover for the list of names), and the book format will add further value through graphic design. If you’re expecting “mathematical art” as exemplified for example by the Bridges conference, I must warn you that this is not what I do. (In the essay, I explain why.) There is some overlap with one of my blog posts from last year: the post was adapted from an earlier version of the essay, and then I used it in writing the final version.

Anna first approached me about this in late 2011. I was much less confident then, both in my photography and in my writing. I have worked on both since then. One thing I wish I’d seen before I submitted my contribution is this classic piece by Linda Nochlin on the absence of great women artists in the history of art. Here’s what she says about “the lady’s accomplishment”:

In contrast to the single-mindedness and commitment demanded of a chef d’ecole, we might set the image of the “lady painter” established by 19th century etiquette books and reinforced in the literature of the times. It is precisely the insistence upon a modest, proficient, self demeaning level of amateurism as a “suitable accomplishment” for the well brought up young woman, who naturally would want to direct her major attention to the welfare of others–family and husband–that militated, and still militates, against any real accomplishment on the part of women. It is this emphasis which transforms serious commitment to frivolous self-indulgence, busy work, or occupational therapy, and today, more than ever, in suburban bastions of the feminine mystique, tends to distort the whole notion of what art is and what kind of social role it plays.

This got me thinking back on what I wrote about photography and wondering for a moment if I might have fallen into the trap of “suitable accomplishment.” In the end, it clarified for me the distinction between the commitment to the process of getting better, and the expectation of achieving a certain level of excellence, and the expectation of gaining public acclaim. I have always been anything but unambitious. Nonetheless, I have never aimed to be a “great artist.” I am not altogether indifferent to success in art, as evidenced by this self-promotional post, but what made me pick up the camera is the pleasure I find in taking photographs. My enjoyment of it is not conditional on finding an audience, receiving public recognition, or on any presumption of greatness. Instead, it comes from trying to get better at it. The pleasure is not in taking the same photographs over and over again, but in expanding my range, improving my technique, seeking out new ideas and solutions. The seriousness of my commitment is in my engagement in the process.

I suppose that this does not make me a lady.

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ICM update: talk slides

Since a number of people asked, here are the slides from my ICM talk yesterday. I have also posted them on my preprints page. I believe the talk was recorded and the video will presumably be available from the ICM webpage. Alternatively, you can read my ICM proceedings paper for a longer version.

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Maryam Mirzakhani makes history

The IMU has just announced this year’s Fields medal winners. For the first time ever, a Fields medal has been awarded to a woman, Maryam Mirzakhani. I will have the honour of attending the ceremony this morning.

The official press release on Mirzakhani’s research is available, as are the citations for the other Fields medalists. I’d like to speak to what the selection of a female Fields medalist means to me as a woman and a mathematician. In that, I would like to paraphrase something that Melissa Harris-Perry has said about the election of President Obama. Mirzakhani’s selection does exactly nothing to convince me that women are capable of doing mathematical research at the same level as men. I have never had any doubt about that in the first place, and I have said so here many times. What I take from it instead is that we as a society, men and women alike, are becoming better at encouraging and nurturing mathematical talent in women, and more capable of recognizing excellence in women’s work. I’ve said here before that the highest level of achievement within the age limit set for the Fields medals requires a confluence of both exceptional talent and favourable circumstances. Talent must be recognized, nourished, directed in productive ways, accomplishment must be acknowledged and promoted. Among the setbacks I experience every day and hear about from other women, Mirzakhani’s award offers a reason for guarded optimism, a point of evidence that sufficient dents have been made in the many layers of glass ceilings that a woman could break through all of them to the highest level.


Filed under mathematics: people, women in math