The Accidental Mathematician

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.