Why I’m not on MathOverflow

There was a discussion on Meta MathOverflow recently about why female mathematicians have so little visible presence on MO. According to Ben Webster, among the top 300 highest reputation users there’s only one that he believes to be female. The exact number is not known, as there may be other female users posting under gender-neutral pseudonyms, but that again raises the question of why women feel they need to hide their identity and men do not. My blog got linked (thanks!), and that’s how I started to think about my own non-participation.

I don’t have a MathOverflow account. I check the front page every now and then, and I’ll probably sign up eventually, but I’ve never been tempted to post on a regular basis. The obvious and immediate reason is that I don’t have the time. I’m not terribly active in other online communities, either, so it’s not like I’ve singled out MO for a boycott.

That said, there are plenty of reasons for women to thread carefully in new communities, online and offline. You may have heard of FatUglyOrSlutty already, but if not, please do take a look. It’s a website where female gamers post screenshots of insults directed at them on gaming websites. Created just a couple of months ago as of this writing, it has already made waves, see here for example:

I first hit that question [“how they could not have known?”] many years ago as a teenager on IRC. One of my male friends logged in on his mother’s account, and was horrified to discover the messages that “Sheila” was getting from complete strangers and mentioned so on our channel. The women of the channel shrugged: it was always like that for us. The men were horrified to know that under the surface, we’d been quietly ignoring pick up lines and harassment and just not mentioning it all this time. It’s not like we were intentionally hiding it, it’s more that it happened so often that it wasn’t worth mentioning.

And here:

“The first rule is: try to avoid pronouns.” A tall order, especially when it comes to the basic act of writing. And taller still given that Brittany (whose full name and publication she wishes to remain anonymous) has worked in editorial media for several years. “I mean, of course you end up using them. But if it’s on Reddit or The Guardian online-anything with comments or feedback-it’s the same: you’re going to get shit if readers figure out you’re female.”

I’m absolutely not comparing the math community to gaming websites, not even close, and I want to make that very clear. If anything, mathematicians have been less sexist than the general public in my experience as far as direct interactions are concerned. The institutional and indirect sexism – the stuff that happens behind our backs, much to our chagrin – is another matter, but here you really have to go through most career stages to understand the actual extent of it. I have not had a career in any other walk of life and I can’t draw comparisons.

Still, the quoted excerpts make relevant points. The internet can be less than welcoming to women: if a geeky teenager gets burned on gaming sites enough times, she might well be reluctant to participate elsewhere or at least to disclose her identity. And second, if you’re a guy, you may well think of sexist incidents as annoying but isolated. You’re not likely at all to have any idea of how often we have to deal with them. And you might not be pleasantly surprised if you knew.

We get mistaken for graduate students: I had to field questions along the lines of “so who do you work with?” for at least 10 years after Ph.D. We get interrupted, talked over or ignored in conversation. When we disagree with our male colleagues, especially on administrative matters, we’re presumed to be mistaken until proved otherwise. In collaborations, we’re assumed to be the lesser participants far more often than we’re assumed to be the leaders. In situations that require a compromise, the “reasonable” expectation is for us to meet the other party about 4/5 of the way, if not farther.

I’m sure that men have similar experiences from time to time, but this is not a question of whether anything on the list has ever happened to you. It’s a question of frequency and intensity. See the gaming articles above.

Eventually, fatigue sets in. We’re tired of having to establish our credibility over and over again. We’re tired of the same old discussions when we try to call it out: do we really think it happened, and do we really think it was intentional, and bell curve and innate abilities and girls and dolls and babies. In fact, I’m not at all eager to have these arguments rehashed here. If you’re skeptical that sexism in academia is real, fine. I won’t try to convince you otherwise. I have other work to do.

Ultimately it’s our own judgement, not yours, that informs our careers. We seek environments where we can be productive and we try to avoid distractions. In my case, I’ve fallen behind on engaging in new communities lately. I don’t want to pre-judge anybody, least of all the guys in the MMO discussion thread who are not at all likely to need a sermon on sexism. Right now, though, I’m already invested in too many projects and collaborations. It took a long time to get here, but now I have ample opportunities to work with great people that I know I can work with. I can’t afford to divert much time and energy to establishing my credentials in yet another community that might or might not turn out well for me, and in a Catch-22 situation, I can’t expect to get established there if I don’t divert enough time and energy.

Everything is relative to context, of course. If I were isolated and sidelined otherwise at work, chances are I’d be looking to MO and other discussion boards for conversations about my research area as well as support and companionship. There may well be such women on MO, and godspeed to them. Others might be more likely to show up if casual participation were easier and more rewarding, if we didn’t expect it to take forever to convince people that we might actually know what we’re talking about, if we had no reason to believe that we’ll keep getting a lot more shrugs than up-votes for a long time.

Reasons to believe are tricky bastards. They’re not always fair. In drawing on past experience, they don’t always care about giving the benefit of the doubt in the present. Then again, we’re not talking about career-shaping and heavily regulated stuff like, say, hiring or promotion or salary increases. We’re talking about hanging out on a website. I don’t need a reason to not visit a webpage, just like my male colleagues don’t need a reason to forget to mention to me the party they’re having next weekend. The folks on MO wouldn’t have needed a reason to ignore the question of why women aren’t joining them in greater numbers, either. Still, they responded with concern, and that gives me a lot of hope.

And if the change doesn’t happen right away? Well, those things do take time. As we’ve found over and over again.

Author: Izabella Laba

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

18 thoughts on “Why I’m not on MathOverflow”

  1. If anything, mathematicians have been less sexist than the general public in my experience as far as direct interactions are concerned. The institutional and indirect sexism – the stuff that happens behind our backs, much to our chagrin – is another matter.

    Isn’t this a kind of argument in favour of spaces like MO? Since there direct interaction is everything, and there is little institutional or administrative politics, or opportunity for going behind anyone’s back?

    Also despite all the stuff about ‘reputation points’, it seems to me that one doesn’t really have to do much to establish one’s credentials, other than ask and answer mathematical questions knowledgeably.

    Or possibly I am being wrong/naive, I am not a woman and I rarely use MO. Just a thought!

  2. To me, the “reputation” system looks like a formalized version of the same informal evaluation systems that social groups have been using forever. If a woman has noticed in the past that she is being taken less seriously than her male colleagues, she’ll expect the same on MO, for example that she’ll get fewer points than a male colleague for the same knowledgeable answer. The point system encourages a competitive mindset, and I think that mathematicians tend to be competitive by nature. If you’re female and expect to start with a huge disadvantage just for this reason, you may well be discouraged from participation.

    This of course is based on general life experience, not on anything that has actually happened on MO. I’d love to see MO develop a reputation (heh) for treating women fairly.

  3. I just wanted to thank you for writing this. I found it very interesting.

    A (male) mathematician and somewhat regular participant on Mathoverflow

  4. Dear Professor Laba,

    As a long-time contributor to MO, I feel reasonably confident to speak on behalf of the site: we would be extremely pleased to have you. You found a recent thread on gender imbalance, and this does indeed get batted around from time to time (and is, in full disclosure, an interest and concern of mine), but far more often people notice/complain/discuss the purely mathematical imbalances that exist on the site. Its density of expertise is currently skewed significantly towards number theory, algebraic and arithmetic geometry, category (and higher category) theory, and logic and set theory. But we are nowhere near critical mass in many of your research interests (e.g. analysis and applications to combinatorial number theory), so your presence would help a lot.

    I know that you are right in what you say about the subtle biases against women in academia (because no woman in academia that I’ve known sufficiently well has told me anything differently, and I have heard more jaw-dropping “Oh no he didn’t!” stories from women in math than I can easily count). It is subtle though: as a man in academia, I have definitely had most of the experiences you described above, but with the volume turned down to a much more acceptable level. For instance I am 8 years past my PhD and people often think I am a graduate student: two nights ago I was in the department very late on the border of very early, and rounding the corner to my own office I ran into a CS graduate student who asked me “So, do you have a paper due tomorrow too?” Most people who meet me in cafes seem to assume I am a student rather than a faculty member despite the fact that I don’t look especially young for my age (more annoyingly, some of the same people seem to assume this multiple times). And just today in a committee meeting I got cut off in the middle of a sentence by a more senior colleague who happens to be a woman. The difference of course is that taken all in all these things happen rarely enough and innocently enough that I can almost always brush them off. (In the meeting today the first time I was cut off another senior colleague said “Please let him finish” and the second time I was cut off I myself asked “Can I finish my sentence?” the point being that I felt comfortable enough to ask this of a more senior colleague. Actually she and I are very friendly so I was not in any doubt of the answer.) I guess the point of this long paragraph is that just relating the facts of what one experiences as a woman in academia may not be enough to get the point across: it’s an issue of intensity and multiplicity. (On the other hand I have never attended a conference and been mistaken for a secretary, which has happened more than once to a certain female colleague of mine.)

    Now that I’ve attempted to establish some credibility on my awareness of gender discrimination issues, back to MO: there is really no bias in treatment towards women on the site that I can see. Moreover, the site has mechanics which are more formalized than a random conversation or sequence of responses to a blog, with the effect that the system is literally designed so that the best answer rises to the top irrespective of who has given it. If a woman correctly answers a question on the site, then others will see that the answer is correct and indicate as much in a couple of different ways. If some other answer appears later which is not as good or simply derivative of the original answer, then if it gets dramatically more votes it is very likely that someone will comment “Hey, what’s wrong with X’s answer? It seems completely correct” and the disparity will be addressed. In other words, the whole thing is more based on actual merit (in this case correctness and usefulness of answers) and less on nebulous opinion than general academic reputation, so if I am were a woman in mathematics I think I might enjoy the levelness of the field and look forward to playing on it.

    But of course being too busy to participate is a perfectly fine excuse. For me, I try to weigh the time I spend on MO against what I think I might be doing otherwise. If the other thing is surfing the internet reading math blogs or (gasp!) non-math content, then my time is definitely better spent on MO: I learn stuff, help people out, and meet new people that way. If the other thing is doing my own research, then sure, I had better put aside some quality time for that…

  5. To me, the “reputation” system looks like a formalized version of the same informal evaluation systems that social groups have been using forever.

    It seems to be a recurring theme of discussions about MathOverflow that we try to convince people that the reputation system isn’t for evaluation, with somewhat mixed success. It really is there to enable community moderation (which is in turn what keeps the site from collapsing), not to judge people, and I haven’t seen much that users of the site are using it for that purpose.

    I do really appreciate the post though; I think it’s a very valuable contribution to the discussion.

  6. Pete – Thanks a lot for the invitation and the thoughtful response. (And please call me Izabella.) I have not spent enough time on MO to be able to say much about how women are treated there, but from what I’ve seen of the gender-themed threads, there seems to be a good deal of genuine concern and very little common trolling, so that’s a good sign.

    Ben – I hope that it will work as intended. When I do have time (won’t happen for the next few weeks), I’ll try to take a look specifically from that angle.

    A few more things in response to the comments here and in the thread:

    It’s tempting to look for a *single* reason why women aren’t on MO, and ideally, that reason would be something that actually happens on MO. My point was that it isn’t that simple. There’s usually a combination of reasons and circumstances, and most of them have little or nothing to do with MO itself: time constraints, past experience in other math communities, past experience on the internet, past experience generally in life, internet usage patterns, balancing work with other interests, and so on. All that gets weighed against the potential benefits. The answer isn’t always a clear “yes” or “no”, more likely it’s something along the lines of “maybe later when I have the time” or “if more of my friends sign up”.

    In my own case, and in light of my own past experience in the profession (not on MO), I wouldn’t be discouraged from joining a new and mostly unknown math community if I had a clear reason to do so, but neither would I see it as a “fun” thing to do. I’d see it as work. I don’t have a clear reason *not* to do it, and I suppose there could be benefits, but this isn’t compelling enough when there already aren’t enough hours in a day for everything else I do. (The small amount of time that I spend on non-math content is not negotiable. Sorry.)

    To the commenters who haven’t seen bias on MO – you probably wouldn’t have seen it unless it had actually happened to you. I’d be very surprised to see for example two identical answers to the same question, one by a male poster voted way up to the top, the other by a female poster ignored altogether. I assume that this would get corrected as Pete was saying. What’s more likely is that a post on some subject you’re interested in will start attracting attention, you’ll read it, and… wait, didn’t you say all that and more in a different thread 3 months ago? And didn’t everyone ignore it back then? Sometimes this gets pointed out, other times it doesn’t. You’d have to cross-check different threads over a period of several months or more to detect it, and I don’t really see any reasonable person devoting themselves to that sort of detective work.

    In response to a comment from Mariano about “casual participation” – it’s not just the collecting of points that I was talking about, it’s the community aspect. I mentioned the points because I wouldn’t be surprised if they were used and understood as tokens of community approval. Correctness in mathematics is pretty objective. “Usefulness”, “interest” or “relevance” – less so.

  7. “For instance I am 8 years past my PhD and people often think I am a graduate student”

    People also sometimes think that I am a graduate student, but in addition they often think that I am a secretary. And you know, we will both age and grow out of being a potential graduate student, while I will remain a potential secretary.

  8. Along with the explicit biases, it may be that there is an internal bias to MO– perhaps the very idea of a community dedicated to, let’s face it, displaying its knowledge about mathematics for the world to see is inherently masculine? Perhaps there is something about formal academia that makes more males desire to participate in this alternate space? People often think about these things in the opposite way, as if the patriarchy at work has not primordially chosen its own fields; it then acts as though women need to “catch up”, wondering why their system has proven to be exclusive when it was supposedly not designed that way. This notion should be under serious question.

    Just a few thoughts, great blog btw.

  9. This comment is mostly directed at the Izabelle Laba/Pete L. CLark/Ben Webster trialogue: Thought-provoking post, for sure and I agree with lots of what’s been said here. However, I feel one of the general points made by Izabella Laba – namely about the ‘work’ aspect of joining a new community and potentially having to re-establish credibility etc. probably wouldn’t be true of Professor Laba herself on MO (although may be – as I’m sure was more her point – true of less well-known female mathematicians). And also, the point I’m about to come to relates to some general remarks made on the potential flaws of the reputation system: Basically, people in the community are likely to have heard of Izabella Laba and might well be familiar with which fields she works in etc. What seems to happen in these cases is that credibility is pre-assigned! There are more than a few threads started by well-known mathematicians or ‘big names’ that have got lots of up votes and lots of answers on which people have made comments to the effect of ‘OK we’ll keep it open but let the community briefly introspect on the fact that had this been started by someone anonymous or with poor English then it would have been shut down’. And similarly with answers. (One might argue that one side of the coin is indeed positive: If a Fields medallist gives an answer on their subject, maybe we should take it more seriously and expect it to be good – What are medals for? – and upvote it. And maybe these people are the sort of people one wants moderating…?)

    Izabella, perhaps you are also tired of people saying things like what I am about to say… but I think that if we want to address balance on MO (gender and ‘density of expertise’) then it seems much more likely, due to the ‘social’ nature of the forum to me to start from the top-down via a sort of ‘horizontal mobility’ principle whereby established female analysts (let’s say! – because I am analyst) appear on MO and are respected appropriately – and immediately – because everyone can see their name and their link to their faculty page with their papers etc and knows they know what they’re talking about (OK a bit sad that this might be necessary but you get the point). Then women would be ‘visible’ so that the next young female analyst who looks at the sight sees Prof Analyst there straightaway. This is as opposed to hoping for a bottom-up phenomenon whereby women arrive as unkonwns on MO and do genuinely have to slowly prove the credibility within the online community.

    I hope this makes sense and isn’t offensive to anyone – sometimes posting comments can be a bit of a minefield. Hopefully it is clear that the intentions are good nevertheless.

  10. @Ben: If reputation is only to enable moderation, why is it shoved at the users so frequently? I looked at the mathoverflow interface again after reading some of the comments, and was shocked to realise that every single time a user name is displayed the reputation is listed.

  11. I am going to say this bluntly, and hope that the point won’t be lost. It is exactly the domination of the site by aggressive, confident men like some of those who have posted above here that makes using Math Overflow complicated for many women (and some men). These are men many of whom are probably quite sensitive to the difficulties faced by women. However, one of those difficulties is that the academic life cycle, from the student phase to the grant chasing phase, occurs in a system which favors aggressive, pushy, confident, self-absorbed, etc. behaviors – behaviors which seem to be more common in men than they are in women – and the absence of women on MO may be just another reflection that such a system inherently favors a certain kind of personality. The rating system probably also favors the show-off and the ambitious – it gives the former a forum and the latter a motivation.

  12. I do not think that any of the commenters above have been aggressive, pushy, or self-absorbed. The discussion so far has stayed on topic, and has been polite and considerate, in sharp contrast to the troll infestation I’ve seen in many women-in-math posts elsewhere.

    I’m fine with confident and aggressive (in a good sense) behaviour. I’m no shrinking violet myself and it has served me well. The problem as I see it is that women are socialized to *not* behave confidently or (heaven forbid) aggressively. We’re socialized to be timid and submissive, and that’s a serious handicap in a competitive professional setting. Both men and women are trained to see confident and aggressive behaviour in women as unwelcome, unlikeable, and often unprofessional, even as the same exact behaviour is actually expected of, and praised in, male professionals. It’s easy for men to assume that they’re just being professionally aggressive “in a good sense”, and not realize that women cannot respond in kind without unwanted consequences. See here for example.

  13. A minor point to add to the above conversation – On the theoretical computer science stack exchange website Dana Moshkovitz (http://people.csail.mit.edu/dmoshkov/) is one of the most active participants, and has among the most reputation points. Both her questions and answers seem very well received, and with good reason.

    While she’s one of the few women involved, I’ve never seen her contributions treated with anything but the most respect.

  14. Izabella, in part motivated by the discussion above, I joined MO a few weeks ago. It’s an interesting world, and one clearly sees the ‘pioneer effect’ in terms of distribution by sub-disciplines.

    More germane to your blog post is a discussion on meta.mathoverflow.net:


    The commentary is fascinating. Some of the posts are thoughtful, whilst some are genuinely odd (one poster suggested gender reassignments as a way to address the imbalance, I hope tongue-in-cheek).

    There’s a fairly simple reason why some people may avoid becoming active users. Unlike conferences or professional seminars, in MO anyone can ‘walk up to you’ and offer their view in the form of a comment or an answer.

    Life’s too short to deal with obnoxious people. I venture for some readers of MO, the helpfulness of some users is overpowered by the abruptness of others.

  15. I actually wrote my post in response to that thread… to the first part of it, anyway. The thread continued for a while after that before it was closed. I don’t really care to respond to some of the comments in the second part. You’re right: life is short and just because someone wants to pontificate on women in math (or any other subject) doesn’t mean that he also has a claim on my time.

  16. Of course there is no reason to come to MO if you do not need it; I am sure that’s the case for most mathematicians. But the way you write about it made me sad. So much so that I am now writing this. With no evidence of
    gender harassment at MO, you connect the two. You speak of reputation points as if they matter. (I ignore them. What I do not ignore is names, eg your answers on harmonic analysis would initially carry more weight in my mind than nearly any other MO user). You write “If I were isolated and sidelined otherwise at work, chances are I’d be looking to MO and other discussion boards for conversations about my research area as well as support and companionship” as if that’s is why people spend time at MO. Are those at MO “isolated and sidelined”? Hardly. I cannot speak for others but MO lets me connect with great people whom I never meet for geographic reason; I do not work with them and probably never will but it is incredibly useful to have them respond at times. Another reason I am at MO is that it helps me develop and impact areas close to my heart (by educating others about them). Again, I am not inviting anyone to join. Rather I wish you could understand those of us at MO better.

  17. Igor – Please read what I actually wrote about “gender harassment”. I said that many women may have been burned in other online communities. What I see in mathematics is more gender bias than gender harassment, and yes, there is a difference. I made no claims about why MO participants are joining, and I’m glad that it works for you. I don’t generally write long posts about why I’m not interested in something, either. This one was in response to a discussion that was already taking place on MO, after my blog got linked. I talked about what’s in play (or not) personally for me. That’s all.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: