The Accidental Mathematician

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.