Truth, images and consequences

If you haven’t checked out the link in my last post, I will have to spoil the surprise for you. The link goes to a Weierstrass Institute webpage promoting its successful bid to host the permanent office of the International Mathematical Union; the item of interest is the photo gallery of 12 distinguished mathematicians who supported the bid. All 12 are male, white, probably in their 50s or 60s.

My point was that such imagery could have alienated part of the constituency that the institute was addressing. The IMU Executive Committee for 2007-2010 includes two women (Cheryl Praeger and Ragni Piene), Ingrid Daubechies has just been elected President for the 2011-2014 term, and Christine Rousseau has been elected one of the two Vice-Presidents. As for race, it must be said that Germany is an overwhelmingly white country and Berlin an overwhelmingly white city, but then it might be added that the IMU mandate specifically includes reaching out to developing countries and its office will have to be able to support that mandate. I wonder if anyone at IMU flagged that photo gallery. Maybe they did, but other considerations prevailed in the end.

I would have left it at that. It was a PR misstep, easy fodder for a quick blog post but ultimately not that consequential. But then the commenters came up with reasons why, perhaps, the pictures should have been all male. They argued for “truth in PR”: if the reality were all male, it would have been wrong to falsify the image by including women who clearly didn’t belong. This, I believe, deserves a longer response. It’s not merely a question of “lying is bad”. You have to think a bit harder, consider the context, look past the easy templates to find alternatives.

If the community were indeed 100% male, if the only way to include a woman in the picture were to bribe a graduate student, then better not. That’s easy to check, though. I looked up the faculty list at the Weierstrass Institute itself, as well as the mathematics departments at Humboldt-Universität, Freie Universität Berlin and Technische Universität Berlin. They all have women on their faculty – not a large number, but reasonable enough in mathematics. Before you suggest that these women might be no research stars, I’d like to direct you to Olga Holtz’s webpage at TUB.

These days, the all-male reality is more likely to manifest itself on a different level. A department head might only pick male colleagues to chair significant committees – not that he’s biased, of course, it’s just that they are the natural candidates. The upper echelons of the institute or university administration might be predominantly (if not exclusively) male; this might lead to some soul-searching, particularly if it gets flagged by an external review committee close to the bean counter, but still any faculty woman who dares to show political ambition is chastised immediately for anything and everything. And if a PR webpage needs to be put together where photos of the especially important members of the community are displayed proudly, it might well happen that only men will make the cut. That’s just the natural order of things. I don’t know whether any of this actually happened in Berlin, but I know from my own experience and that of my colleagues that it happens in many places, early and often.

Let’s make it clear: we’re talking about political images here, not a census of the population. We’re talking about intangibles such as recognition, respect, the sense that one person is a leading community member while another one isn’t. In that regard, political images don’t have the luxury of simply reflecting the existing reality. They influence it, and they have to come to terms with the responsibility that this entails. If you promote a female mathematician as an academic leader, you can help her become one. If an institute publishes an all-male list of people whose support they’re proud of… you get the idea.

You could say that if the rule was to include only highly ranked administrators, and if all of those are men, then that’s how it had to be. I could counter that such rules are not handed to us on stone tablets. We create them, and we have the power to change them if they don’t serve us well. In this specific case, the picture could have been more diverse if researchers who are not administrators had been included, but at this point it’s not just the Weierstrass Institute that I want to talk about. It’s the general perception that going through the motions is good enough when it comes to gender diversity, that the results (no women in the picture) are acceptable as long as you can show that you made an effort or at least followed some kind of rules, even if those rules were entirely of your own making and you were well aware of their consequences.

In other words, we’d be much further along in terms of gender equality if we focused more on getting results, less on finding excuses, and if we approached it with the kind of problem-solving attitude that smart people normally exercise in other contexts.

It’s much easier to demand that a simple set of rules of political correctness be established: as long as you follow these, you’re off the hook. Every PR photo of a group of mathematicians should include a woman. Every faculty committee should include a woman. Between two equally qualified job candidates, the female candidate should get the first offer. Once these rules become simplistic enough, it’s equally easy to point to situations where they have absurd consequences. What if there are no women in the group? What if the women are already swamped with administrative work? What if the existing female faculty support the male candidate who works in their area of research? See how these rules make no sense? If that’s what the feminists are asking for, they should go take a hike. Or so it goes.

It’s not what we ask for. It’s not all black and white. There’s a place for strict rules, there’s also a place for political nuance and reasoned judgement, and there’s a place where we do or do not lend our support to individuals or institutions based on how they acted towards us, not on what excuses they made. Nor did I ever say that posting a woman’s photo on a webpage excuses a lack of action in real life. Hell, I have asked to have my name taken off webpages where it didn’t belong, and I have refused to participate in a PR effort on behalf of an institute that had not been especially supportive of my area of mathematics or my own career. Depending on where you are and how you got there, you might not have any good PR choices available right now, only some that are not as bad as others and a long road ahead of you.

You think it’s not fair? Take a look at the career advice webpages for women sometime and see how many thin lines we have to negotiate. We should come across as competent, but not too successful, because then we’re not likable. We should ask for promotions and salary increases, but not too aggressively, because again, we’ll undermine our cause by being less likable. We should dress well, but not too sexy or anything. We’re cold and calculating when we don’t display emotion, but oversensitive if we do. And we don’t get credit for just trying.

Really, if you make just a small fraction of the effort that we’re making every day, you’ll be fine.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

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