Can you see the pattern?

Since we talked about logical puzzles recently, here’s one for you to try. The International Mathematical Union has recently announced that its permanent office will be based at the Weierstrass Institute in Berlin. Two clicks from the front page, and you get to The Mathematical Community in Berlin, featuring photographs of 12 of the distinguished mathematicians who supported the bid.

Look at these photographs. Can you see a pattern?

For comparison, here’s a photo of the IMU Executive Committee.


Filed under academic politics, women in math

6 responses to “Can you see the pattern?

  1. Nicholas

    I take it, the pattern is that they all look male. Do you think the discrepancy (with the overall sexual distribution of people) is occurring in the selection of the Berliner mathematical community as a whole, the selection of the 75(+) who were asked to bid, or the selection of the twelve who were featured in that web page?

  2. I’m guessing that the discrepancy increases at each step of the progression. The twelve featured men are all administrators (presidents, VPs, institute directors, etc) and I wouldn’t be surprised if there just weren’t many women in that type of positions.

    But the other consideration is that apparently it didn’t even occur to anyone involved that the image projected by a photo gallery of 12 white men might not be pleasing to everybody. (“White” is a second pattern, although that’s easier to explain in this context.)

  3. CJ

    (… they all have what are, to Anglo-Saxon ears, funny names?)

    Seriously, though: I agree it shows a lack of awareness in public relations. It isn’t surprising— given how often rich companies with large PR departments goof up on issues like this, I wouldn’t expect whoever throws together a website for the IMU to think about it. And the only PR-savvy solution I can think of is to print the list of names with no photos, so that the phenomenon is less obvious. The goal is presumably to exhibit not a cross-section of the population supporting the bid, but the heads of the instutitions supporting the bid— and as you point out, that’s an extra level of male bias in what is already a pretty male population. (None of those men are what I’d call young, and that alone would probably account for most of the gender imbalance, not just in math, but in any administrative-level academia.)

    That said, I would not be any happier had they arbitrarily featured women who were not in administrative roles, just to add women to the mix (unless they also featured similarly-positioned men). If the reality is all male, I might even prefer a depiction of that to something more PR-friendly. There is a negative quality to end runs around the appearance of all-maleness that I can’t quite articulate. It’s not the idea of “tokenism,” but something subtler— the unconscious implication that paying enough attention to images itself constitutes progress. When I see promotional photos on business or school websites that seem arranged around the sole goal of including people from as many backgrounds as possible in a single image, I feel patronized. Or a more relevant example: in popular treatments of mathematics, you sometimes find discussions of mathematical achievements that (a) focus largely on 1800-present, but throw in someone like Maria Agnesi or even Hypatia, or (b) focus on accomplishments of giants like Newton, Euler, and Gauss, and then any women from the same eras that anybody can find, or (c) discuss mathematics of the modern era, mentioning all sorts of men, and then only Kovalevsky and/or Noether. Making this kind of attempt to “balance out” an appearance of male bias is, to me, no better than making no attempt at all.

  4. It was up to the bid organizers to decide what to include on the webpage. “Mathematical community” can be interpreted in any number of ways. In addition to heads of institutions – or instead of them, for that matter – the page could have featured leading researchers, program organizers, distinguished visitors etc. Perhaps casting the net a bit wider would have produced a more diverse picture. If not, then they’re in more trouble than I thought.

    I agree that playing with the image does not constitute actual progress and can in fact cover up a lack of it. (I was reminded of it recently as I drove the “Sea to Sky” highway between Vancouver and Whistler – if you don’t know what I mean, I’ll take some photos next time I’m there and post them here with an explanation.) Still, promotional webpages like this one exist for the sole purpose of projecting an image that will please the target constituency. The message I get from that photo gallery is that whoever put it together did not particularly care how women might respond. Probably, it never even occurred to them that the matter might be worth a thought. Promotional photos arranged to emphasize diversity (the woman, the black person, the Asian person, etc) can be patronizing, especially if they’re done poorly, but as far as political symbols are concerned, faked respect is better than none.

  5. Hany M. El-Hosseiny

    ” .. but as far as political symbols are concerned, faked respect is better than none”
    I do not agree.
    Real issues like the under-representation of women in the upper echelons of the mathematical community should be addressed seriously, part of that is to have a true image of what is happening now. “Public relations” viewpoint is in general harmful when dealing with truth.
    Also, it may be true that those twelve people played some significant role in supporting the Berlin bid for the IMU office and that the public relations issue is not as important as giving credit to whom is deserving.

  6. The issue of giving credit is a little bit more complicated. A bid such as this one is not a free-for-all where everyone participates and then the highest contributors are credited and rewarded. Instead, there is a committee (formal or informal) chosen in advance that handles most of the work. To play any significant role in the bid, you either have to serve on the committee or else a committee member has to invite you to participate. If all the significant players were male, they may well deserve the credit, but on the other hand it raises the question of why no women had been invited to contribute.

    More likely, though, the 12 men were actually selected based on PR considerations. See, all these respected people support our bid. Of course, the bid organizers’ idea of what constitutes good PR is very different from mine.

    As for the PR vs. telling the truth issue, I would like to respond to it at more length in a separate post – perhaps later today if I can find the time.