The Accidental Mathematician

An entirely positive approach. Or something.


The other prefatory comment that I would make is that I am going to, until most of the way through, attempt to adopt an entirely positive, rather than normative approach, and just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our common goals of equality.

Larry Summers

Now, I know I had somethin’ to say
But the problem is, to say somethin’
Uh, you’ve got to say it.

Stan Ridgway

John Tierney follows up as promised on his exquisitely daring column from last week:

  1. Claims of discrimination against women in science cite the same single Swedish study from 1997 over and over again.
  2. Many other studies conducted all over the world did not show similar bias.*
  3. Legislation doesn’t work, and anyway, women are just not that much into science.

I don’t even like to engage in this type of discussions. To me, they always have the taste (so to speak) of having a restaurant owner tell me that there can’t possibly be a cockroach in my soup because the restaurant has passed very strict inspections, can’t I see the certificate posted on the wall? Also, statistics show that the frequency of cockroach infestation is decreasing throughout the city, and in any case the pests don’t come out during the day – and all the while, said cockroach is swimming merrily across my plate right in front of me.

Forget the Swedish study from the 1990s. Let’s look at the results of this year’s Canada Research Excellence Chairs competition. 19 world-class scientists were hired into lucrative positions at Canadian universities, with the kind of research support that most of us can only dream of – and all of them are men. Not only that, but there were no women among the 36 shortlisted candidates, either. That did attract attention. Of the several explanations offered, some just don’t hold any water, for example that the female candidates might have somehow been intimidated by the tough competition and short deadlines. (Remember, we’re talking about star scientists here, not shrinking pansies.) This, however, cuts to the heart of the matter:

The academic “old boys club,” also was a factor. With limited time to find and court top researchers, universities resorted to “informal processes” to find candidates, the study finds. “These informal outreach processes may have involved senior researchers identifying potential nominees from among their international peers,” it says.

One remarkable feature of the debate on women in science is the eager participation of bystanders who don’t have the first clue as to how academia works, but nonetheless hold very strong opinions on the subject based on whatever they might or might not have observed in their own walks of life. I’d like to try to explain a couple of things to them.

It’s very easy to say that we should just select “the best candidate” for each position or award. It’s much harder to evaluate who’s best, or even just decide on the criteria to be used in the evaluation. For an introduction to the many problems with assessment of scientific accomplishment, you could start with all the references on this page and then go on from there.

With that in mind, it’s often the informal processes that make the difference between a “good but not outstanding” researcher and someone who develops into a research star. Getting a tenure-track position at a research university, followed by promotion to tenure, is a prerequisite; however, contrary to how it tends to be painted in these discussions, it’s far from being the high mark of a research scientist’s career. Anyone aspiring to be a leading researcher has much, much further to go. There are many studies counting the years from hiring to promotion and analyzing the statistics back and forth, but the fact is, this is not what makes or breaks us. It’s the collaboration and leadership opportunities, the invitations to give high profile lectures, the availability of research funding, the quality of the graduate students one supervises, and much more.

All of this can be incredibly difficult to quantify and analyze. I’ve been asked over the years to fill out various questionnaires on gender bias and I’ve always found them frustrating. There’s a box for the number of collaborators we’ve had, but not their rank or excellence. There’s another one for whether we’ve been asked to chair a committee, but the distinction between a hiring committee and a committee to buy coffee for the faculty lounge is rarely made. We’re asked how many invited presentations we’ve given, but then invited lectures are not all equal. We’re asked about the size of our individual research grants, but what goes unaccounted for is the various other funding sources that are set up in accordance with the local political configuration – if you’re not in the loop, there’s no point in applying. We’re asked how many graduate students we have, but not about the quality of the pool of applicants available to us, or how many of them are supported by scholarships rather than our research grants. Yes, much of it does revolve around money. That’s the way it goes.

And all of this is governed by “informal processes”. A committee might for instance be tasked with recommending candidates for an award or a chaired position. Typically, this starts with the committee members putting forward some names that come first to mind. These would usually be doppelgangers for previous recipients and other “obvious candidates”, often known to the committee members in various professional capacities. In mathematics, 99% of the time none of these first choices will be female. I know because I have been on many such committees. We do not tend to come first to anyone’s mind as potential leaders. We’re still thought of as other people’s little helpers who should be happy to have tenure and shouldn’t get too pushy and ask for more.

At that point, a committee member (often a woman) might notice that all the candidates proposed so far are men, and ask specifically if any women could be considered. More often than not, several names are immediately mentioned, all of then quite comparable to (or better than) everyone’s first choices. They get added to the list but don’t necessarily displace anyone from the top of it, because then someone would have to speak out against someone else’s first choice, and we don’t want to do that, do we? And this is the best-case scenario where there actually is a committee and some sort of a procedure. Too often, the department or committee chair simply makes the call based on his own first-come-to-mind choices and possibly an informal consultation with one or two friends. No scrutiny, no opportunity for correction. We lose.

You might expect me to say that legislation or affirmative action can’t fix that, anyway. You’d be wrong. Legislation is often the only effective means of counteracting a combination of self-interest and long-ingrained habits. It can be a blunt tool, it can be misused. Whatever. It still works, as those various studies have shown over and over again. It’s still the best remedy that we’ve got.

*It’s quite possible that Tierney is misusing at least one of the studies he cites. He quotes a sentence about “comparable opportunities” (page 141), but then he conveniently ignores the multiple warnings against interpreting the results the way that he interprets them (e.g. page 149). The actual text of the report states clearly that “positive changes have taken place and continue to occur”, but also that many problems remain and, moreover, wide variations by field and department have been noted. Some of the problematic areas include workplace climate, networking, use of institutional resources, and salaries (page 146: among full professors, women make on average 8% less than men). The report then proceeds to make recommendations such as “Disseminate successful strategies to increase the gender diversity of the applicant pools” (page 151, still in the same section) – much along the lines of the legislation that Tierney scorns.

And this comes as close to supporting his claims as anything I’ve seen. Many other studies, such as this one, have a much less generous take on it.