Women in Math, or Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

Several times over the last few weeks I found myself opposing certain initiatives intended to promote women in mathematics. Most of these discussions were not meant to be public and so I won’t quote them here. I’ll just say that, yes, there is a gender bias in science (and I’ve experienced it), but scoring easy points by improving gender statistics is not always the right answer. Specifically, promoting women does not always mean hiring more of them or appointing them to every committee. There are other considerations that should be obvious but often get overlooked in this particular context.

Research-track faculty – male or female – are independent researchers. We are expected to have our own research programs. We choose our own research directions and pursue them according to our own best judgement. It’s a basic part of our mandate as university researchers. That’s why we spend so many years in formal training, that’s why we’re put through sequences of temporary appointments before landing a permanent job. By the time we get tenure, we are expected to be able to plan and carry out an independent research program not just for ourselves, but also for the benefit of the junior people (postdocs, graduate students) that we are supervising. We engage in collaboration, but we don’t just give up our own research programs to join someone else’s.

That said, it’s very hard – impossible, in some ways – for us to work in isolation.

It’s not just a matter of having a collaborator next door. It’s nice to have one, and better yet to have several, but nowadays many of us have long-distance collaborations via email and periodic visits and this can work very well. However, we can’t -for example- supervise graduate students by email and periodic visits.

There are good reasons why professors don’t run private graduate programs out of their basements. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, it takes a department to raise a graduate student. It takes basic and advanced courses, seminars, exposure to a research community in general and to current research in their area of specialization in particular. A strong group in a given area will attract good graduate students, offer advanced courses and seminars on a regular basis, organize programs and conferences. The isolated researcher has a much harder time doing any of this.

I’ve focused on graduate supervision because this is an explicit job requirement. At UBC and other universities, an insufficient record of graduate supervision can be a problem when we come up for promotion. There are many other ways, though, in which a researcher benefits from being part of a community.

This is why hiring decisions are usually based on two things. One is the excellence of the candidate and this should require no explanation. The other is the candidate’s “fit” with the department – a generic term referring to various strategic considerations, such as whether this person will be supported in what he is doing, who he will interact with, what he will bring to the department and how the department will take advantage of having him as a faculty member.

I’ve used the male pronoun “he” for a reason.

Too often, administrators and departments ignore the “fit” considerations when it comes to hiring women. They see women as somehow more pliable, able to fit in places where a man wouldn’t, more willing to adjust by giving up on their own goals and to settle for playing the second fiddle to other faculty.

This does result in hiring more women faculty, especially when there are special policies and grant programs to that effect. Unfortunately, the same women can find it very hard to succeed in their new positions. Basically, the departments that hired them were never interested in their actual research program – at least not interested enough to put their money where their mouth was. The women find themselves isolated, overworked, cut off from departmental funding opportunities and “career-enhancing” assignments. And no woman has ever endeared herself to anybody by making demands.

I know because that’s what happened in my own case. I was hired at UBC through the University Faculty Awards program in 2000. I did not work in any of the department’s Official Priority Areas. Soon I found out that there were plenty of faculty who would have liked me to support their research programs, but none who would join me in what I wanted to do. I noticed other things, too. The basic graduate courses in analysis were taught at an embarrassingly low level and completely disconnected from any active research topics. As for advanced courses, there were 3 of them between 2000 and 2008. (For comparison, there were over 25 advanced courses in probability over the same period of time, including summer schools. By “advanced” I mean “not cross-listed as undergraduate.”)

Obviously I had a hard time with the graduate supervision thing. And the career-enhancing assignments thing. And the opportunities thing. I’ve had to work much harder and wait much longer than my colleagues, and even that wasn’t always enough.

I was completely isolated for six years. I don’t particularly care to go into further details.  UBC finally hired a second analyst in 2006; last winter, an external department review committee recommended further hiring in analysis. The department is currently advertising in the area. We’ll see.

I’m mentioning all this because my name has been used as an example of a success story, against my wishes, including by the same people who had made my area of research a non-priority. Sorry, but you’re whitewashing it. You have no bragging rights as far as I’m concerned. Next time you want to hire a woman, great, but first make sure that you think of her as an independent researcher just like yourself. With her own goals and priorities. Once she’s been hired, she deserves the same support as everyone else in the department. For instance, instead of hiring yet another female assistant professor and then leaving her to her own devices, hire a male candidate who will support the women you already have. That’s what I would call “gender equality.”


Filed under feminism, women in math

3 responses to “Women in Math, or Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

  1. Michael Lacey

    This thoughtful post. Thanks for taking the time to put up this piece, which should be read and considered by many.

  2. Laura B

    Excellent, and a clear exposition for those of us who are not faculty. I think this should be an op-ed piece somewhere, since it surely is not limited to maths, nor even to academe!

  3. Hi Michael and Laura,

    Great to see you here! Laura, are you coming up to Toronto sometime during the Fields program?