Still not on MathOverflow

It’s been almost 2 years now since I wrote my MathOverflow post, but it still gets plenty of clicks, a comment now and then, and other feedback by email or otherwise. The subject has in fact come up again on MO recently, here and here.

I’d like to correct the chronology that the commenter fedja suggests in the first discussion above. I wrote my post in response to a discussion that was already well under way on MO, after my blog got linked there. Generally, I don’t go out of my way to write long posts on why I’m not interested in something or other. I’d rather write about the many things that do interest me. Also, I posted it before the discussion on MO started attracting comments like this one:


Women are not so interested in research. They are more interested in teaching. Possible to find a place with more women-mathematicians you should better look at a pedagogical forum of school/university teachers.

Followed up by this comment defending it, after a couple of people expressed objections:


It looks like [X] and [Y] regard teaching as something less important than research. For your information: teaching is as important and requires as much effort and ingenuity.

Which I’m finding very entertaining, considering that when I implied in a post that it was the research part of the job that attracted me in the first place, and that I could well imagine trading teaching for some other part-time work, I got a nasty personal attack in response. (No, you won’t see it if you click through. I have since deleted it and banned the guy in question).

Never mind MathOverflow. As some of you may have noticed, I’ve been ramping up comment moderation on this blog. When I started out, I did not screen comments before they were posted. I looked forward to getting feedback and trusted that commenters would post responsibly. That only lasted a few months. Even so, for a long time I aimed to approve most comments, on the general principle that if I disagree with someone, I’d rather argue my case and try to convince them than just shut them out. I still want to leave room for that, as long as the other party is arguing in good faith.

Unfortunately, I also get a lot of comments where dudes argue with something I never said in the first place, or stoop to explain what I know already, or quote advice for beginners at me when I’m actually an expert on the matter. I have often approved such comments and then explained the facts politely. The problem is, this was not the conversation I wanted to have in the first place, and I really don’t have the time to explain the same points over and over again. So, I now delete most of those comments without explanation. Sorry. It’s my space and I actually have no obligation to approve any comments whatsoever.

This is not restricted to any specific topics – I get such comments on all kinds of posts, from NSERC to political speeches – but gender posts seem to be a special magnet here. Look, guys, do you really expect women to describe specific incidents on blogs, complete with names and dates? I assure you that there are actual reasons why we don’t do that, and you might be able to guess them if you think about it for a moment. In the meantime, when we talk about gender bias, don’t assume that we must be wrong because otherwise we’d have to implement an administratively mandated 50/50 gender split or something, and anyway your experience does not confirm what we say. Have you ever been a woman in science? Actually, here’s someone who has.


Ben Barres had just finished giving a seminar at the prestigious Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research 10 years ago, describing to scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and other top institutions his discoveries about nerve cells called glia. As the applause died down, a friend later told him, one scientist turned to another and remarked what a great seminar it had been, adding, “Ben Barres’s work is much better than his sister’s.”

There was only one problem. Prof. Barres, then as now a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, doesn’t have a sister in science. The Barbara Barres the man remembered was Ben.

Prof. Barres is transgendered, having completed the treatments that made him fully male 10 years ago. The Whitehead talk was his first as a man, so the research he was presenting was done as Barbara. […]

“People who do not know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect,” he says. “I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.”

If you only have enough time to click through one link here, make it this one.

I suppose this could all be attributed to isolated incidents, the kind that never happens within a 300 mile radius from wherever you are. Also, it’s not like nobody has ever been impolite to a guy, after all. It’s possible that whenever I see something as a gender issue, it’s just because I keep misinterpreting everything and misunderstanding everybody. Of course, were I to show up on MathOverflow, everyone would take everything I say at face value and treat it with great respect.

But here’s the new policy for this site. I’m done with trying to convince everyone else that there are gender issues in science. Instead, I’d like to have more specific and productive conversations that assume some common ground and move the subject forward instead of going around in circles or getting derailed. If you don’t believe that there’s a problem, don’t comment here. There are plenty of other sites open to that type of discussions. Over here, you can safely assume that I’ve heard your argument before, responded to it many times over, and eventually got tired of the routine.

I’m also well aware that there are many allies out there, dudes who actually would like to improve the situation and do not want to be part of the problem. My suggestion to them is: when you hang out with us, try to talk less and listen more. You don’t need to tell us that you are trying to help – we likely know that already from your actions. You need to let us finish the sentence. You need to read the blog post and think about it before responding. You also need to understand that a response from you isn’t always necessary. It’s not all about you, all the time. Sometimes it’s about us.

That’s all. Thank you for reading.

12 Comments

Filed under women in math

12 responses to “Still not on MathOverflow

  1. François G. Dorais

    Thank you for posting this. The second and third links seem to be mangled. I think you meant and .

  2. Thanks – the link should be fixed now.

  3. Small point, and barely on topic but MO is in a little lull right now, with a lower post velocity than usual. It could be a good time for a well-connected group of people to implement a little harmonic analysis and PDEs coup d’etat and overthrow the algebraic geometry old world order. Wink wink nudge nudge say no more.

  4. Well, I’m trying to use my sabbatical to write some overdue papers. But I’m happy to pass on the suggestion in case others are interested🙂

  5. fedja

    I apologize for the confusion with time stamps, Isabella. As to the rest of your post, well, I’m listening. I want to make one thing clear however: no matter how I would like to see you on MO (consider this phrase as a personal invitation), I have neither power, nor desire to drag you there. The door is open but only you can make the decision to enter or not to enter. Whether you base this decision on what you see on the site itself, on your past experiences, or on your general outlook at this world is entirely up to you. Note that my attitude towards many other issues you raise in your post is also governed by this simple idea.

    >>Of course, were I to show up on MathOverflow, everyone would take everything I say at face value and treat it with great respect.<<

    As long as what you say makes sense, yes. Is it so hard to believe?

  6. fedja – Thank you for the invitation, but as I get older, I’m less and less willing to spend my free time on additional unpaid work, and that’s basically what MO participation would mean for me. It’s not a pleasure garden (birds singing, magic carpet unrolling before me, etc) where I’m denying myself entrance because of past trauma or whatever. It’s work. I suppose I could navigate that environment if I had to, but I’d rather take a break from work, read a book, or hang out in a math-unrelated forum for that matter. I don’t think that there really has to be a reason to not do something, so I guess we agree on that. Please do note that it wasn’t me who started asking the questions.

    I suppose that your second last sentence should read “As long as what you say makes sense to us, yes.” I’d have no problem at all believing that.

  7. fedja

    Yes, Izabella, it is work. What in our life isn’t? However, it is a work when you can choose what tasks to pick and what not to pick and how much time to spend on them, so it is as close to a pleasure garden with birds (and pterodactyls too, can’t have ones without the others) as I can imagine.
    Magic carpet you say? Again, you occasionally get that sort of ride there like everywhere else but I have to agree that treading an unpaved road on foot is more common. My invitation stands but, as I have said many times, the decision is yours and yours only.

    And another yes. In the fine art of communication, you have to ensure that your words make sense to the other side, not to yourself. I guess we can agree on that too.

    By the way, nice survey of the Favard length problem for self-similar sets! I wish I could say something more interesting on that subject now but I’m buried in other projects in the moment. Still, if you get some bright ideas, keep me updated🙂.

  8. As for “makes sense to us”, I was not talking about my lack of communication skills. I’m reasonably confident on that count. I was talking about the basic fact that I spend much (if not most) of my professional life disagreeing with mathematicians. Mathematical correctness may be objective and not subject to opinions, but I can’t say the same of significance, relevance, or sometimes even novelty, and that’s before we even get anywhere near gender discussions, grant panels, or departmental hiring decisions. But mathematicians have a habit of believing that whatever they’re thinking at the moment must be the absolute and objective truth, so if I disagree with them, that’s clearly just because I don’t understand. And that right there is enough reason for me to seek other company after work.

    Working on my own schedule and choosing what I do would indeed be lovely. Normally, though, my schedule is so packed that there’s not much left of that freedom. One more reason why I don’t need more work than I have already.

    Edited to add: contrary to what you say, there are actually things that site owners and moderators can do to make the site more attractive. It won’t help when someone is just not interested or doesn’t have the time, but it might persuade lurkers to become actual participants, or it might give users a reason to stay active instead of abandoning the account. For example, see this article on photographers on Google+ vs. Flicker.

    http://thomashawk.com/2012/11/google-the-nicer-social-network-for-photographers.html

  9. For anyone who is following this post: please also see the two comments by Christina Sormani on this one.

    https://ilaba.wordpress.com/2012/02/26/women-in-math-and-the-overhaul-of-the-publishing-system/

  10. plm

    I’m not too sure, but the more I think about the overhaul of mathematics research and publishing through the web the more I think that we’ve seen most of what will remain when the dust settles.
    I am spending less and less time on the computer, as I find this more productive for me, and I think mathematicians who have not been too lured, hooked, are fine with it mostly. I mean this to resonate with your still not being on mathoverflow.

    There is certainly a mix of reason, one is the fact that, perhaps surprisingly, thinking is nearly optimally done without any advanced technology, and among imaginable technologies, I feel paper is about the most useful.

  11. fedja

    >>thinking is nearly optimally done without any advanced technology, and among imaginable technologies, I feel paper is about the most useful

    mathematicians have a habit of believing that whatever they’re thinking at the moment must be the absolute and objective truth

    I noticed that about many non-mathematicians too😉. The only difference (for me) is that with mathematicians I often discuss the things that are of real interest to me and in which I have a personal stake sometimes, so the arguments may get quite heated while with non-mathematicians the conversation usually stays at the "small talk" level ("Nice weather! Should we go skiing tomorrow?" is about as controversial as it ever gets), so, of course, the habit you are talking about is much less pronounced in such situations. Anyway, since I fancy I can qualify as a "mathematician", be sure that I'm perfectly aware that what I'm thinking on this issue or otherwise is not an absolute truth and that I can be (and most likely am) as stupid as anyone else. If that helps, this confession is in the public domain now🙂.

  12. fedja – this is drifting too far from the original topic. To go back to where this started:

    I suppose this could all be attributed to isolated incidents, the kind that never happens within a 300 mile radius from wherever you are. Also, it’s not like nobody has ever been impolite to a guy, after all. It’s possible that whenever I see something as a gender issue, it’s just because I keep misinterpreting everything and misunderstanding everybody. Of course, were I to show up on MathOverflow, everyone would take everything I say at face value and treat it with great respect.

    In this context, your remark about “as long as what you say makes sense” suggested that I might be treated well on MO if I only say things that everyone approves of. But actually, even that is not clear. I’ve had comments here on this blog where someone would for example take the time to explain to me something that I said in the main post already. Technically, I suppose the commenter agrees with me. But I’m gonna delete anyway.

    Look at the original MO discussion about women. There were two responses from women mathematicians, from me on my blog and esmeyny on MO. Some of the MO participants did take us seriously, for which I’m thankful. Others told us that what we were saying about our own experience couldn’t actually be true, changed the subject to gendered pronouns (something that neither of us even brought up), and so on. Once the discussion degenerated to the point where the research/teaching comment was debated, there were no serious attempts to get it back on track and in a productive direction, only voices to close the thread. This did not leave me convinced that MO participation would, for me, be a pleasant and rewarding pursuit.

    Also: you’re saying that it’s totally up to me whether I’m on MO or not, but on the other hand, you keep arguing anyway. Are you just telling me about your own MO experience, or are you implying that my choices are wrong? Because, you know, it’s perfectly fine for different people to be different. In my case, it’s not just that I’ve had unpleasant interactions with mathematicians in the past. It’s also that I’m not really after that particular carrot. I’m happy when I get to spend my free time on other interests. They’re “real” interests, too, not just on the level of small talk. I’ve had discussions (sometimes heated) with non-mathematicians on topics that I care about deeply. If you enjoy MO, that’s great. I’m glad for you. But that will not persuade me to join.