Gender Bias 101 For Mathematicians

The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.


MYTH 1: Sexism is perpetrated by a small number of men, typically close to retirement age, who are “against women.” Most academics, especially mathematicians, are open-minded people who are against discrimination.

FACT: Please read this study on gender bias in science hiring:

In a randomized double-blind study (n = 127), science faculty from research-intensive universities rated the application materials of a student—who was randomly assigned either a male or female name—for a laboratory manager position. Faculty participants rated the male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than the (identical) female applicant. These participants also selected a higher starting salary and offered more career mentoring to the male applicant. The gender of the faculty participants did not affect responses, such that female and male faculty were equally likely to exhibit bias against the female student. Mediation analyses indicated that the female student was less likely to be hired because she was viewed as less competent.

See also summaries and discussion here and here, and my own posts here and here. This is not an isolated study, either. See, for example, this study on gender and blind auditions in music. I’ve seen the same exact thing in my own experience and heard about it from colleagues. Statistical evidence from my own university confirms it.

The bottom line is, we are all biased. We all tend to think of women’s work as somewhat smaller, derivative, inferior. We do so unconsciously and involuntarily. We are not aware of it, nor do we notice it in others. That’s what all these studies are saying. It’s as if everyone is wearing glasses with the same tint. You’re wearing them even if you’re “open-minded” or “against discrimination”, even if you start your sentences with “I’m not against women, but…”

It is not, and never has been, only about a few individuals who forgot to catch up with the times. It’s not about trolls who say horrible things about women on unmoderated blogs. It’s about you, and me, and everyone we know. It’s about the nice, polite, progressive people who just wish that their female colleague down the hall didn’t try to be more ambitious than is good for her. (She’s clearly good, but does she really think she’s equal to X and Y? And she doesn’t have the same leadership quality, either.) It’s about that paper by two female authors that’s just not quite as groundbreaking as this other paper written by two men. In other words, you need to start by examining your own bias.

MYTH 2: The best way to fight sexism is to identify the sexist men from (1). Then they will either have to change, or else we will give them a hard time and everyone else will learn a lesson.

FACT: Please see (1). It’s not just about a few bad apples who can be ostracized by the community if the community so chooses. It’s about the community itself.

Just so we know what we’re talking about, here’s an actual real-life situation from my experience. Professor X is against having Y, a woman, as a plenary speaker at a conference. His explanation is that Y has very few papers listed on MathSciNet, while an alternative candidate Z, a man, has many more. On the surface, this sounds unrelated to gender. The context, however, is that Y is a rising star whose most important work to date has not yet been listed on MathSciNet because of the time lag, even though it is widely known in the field. Z, meanwhile, is in his 60s, so of course he would have more papers. Situations like this arise often in organizing conferences, I’ve seen it many times, except that Y is usually a man and everyone loves the prospect of having him speak about his exciting new work. I’ve never seen the paper-counting argument invoked when Y was a dude, nor could I imagine it happening.

Do you criticize X for being sexist? Or do you just try to explain that the number of papers does not tell the whole story? What if some time later you see X engage in questionable behaviour again, but in different company? For example, the collaborators Y’ (a woman) and Z’ (a man) are seen together at a conference. X approaches them, then starts talking to Z’ about the Y’-Z’ joint paper as if it were his work alone, barely acknowledging the presence of Y’. Do you walk up to them and start lecturing X on his behaviour, never mind that you don’t actually know either Y’ or Z’? Perhaps X talks mostly to Z’ because they have collaborated extensively and been good friends for a long time. Is this an explanation that you should buy? Or will you let it go, but when you get introduced to Y’ and Z’, you’ll make sure to talk to both of them?

Do you understand what it means for a group to be biased? I do, because I’ve seen it. It means that when you call out X on his behaviour, the rest of the group sides with X, who is their valuable, respected colleague and deserves every benefit of the doubt. Who knows, X might have even chaired some committee on equity. Surely he didn’t intend to be sexist, and anyway, he actually has a point about those MathSciNet numbers. You, on the other hand, are an uncollegial troublemaker who accuses nice people like X of horrible things. You’re overreacting, and you need to learn to work with people. And next time there is a similar conference, there is a chance that others more collegial and reasonable than you will be invited to organize it.

None of this means that sexist behaviour should not be pointed out or discussed. There certainly is a place for it. It’s naive, though, to expect that this alone will solve the problem.

MYTH 3: But if everyone is biased, then nothing can be done anyway, end of conversation.

FACT: You’re a mathematician, right? What do you do when you see a difficult problem? Do you give up, collect your toys and go home? Or do you start chipping at it, looking for a crack that will take you part of the way? The Riemann hypothesis is hard. There are nonetheless hundreds of papers about it, maybe thousands, proving partial results, collecting evidence, developing variants of it and examining connections to other problems. Try having the same attitude here. Use your famous problem-solving skills. You’re not going to solve the problem of sexism in the world in a single stroke, just like your two-page proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem probably won’t work, either. But you might still do some good.

MYTH 4: The main part of any conversation about sexism should be debating its existence – with the understanding that if it’s not proven beyond all doubt, reasonable or not, then it doesn’t exist.

FACT: How much proof do you want, exactly? Because nothing ever seems to be enough. It’s almost like we actually have to deduce sexism from the axioms of real numbers, and even then someone might tell us to go back to the axioms of set theory, and without the axiom of choice, either. I’ve mentioned a couple of studies already, and there are many more, but that doesn’t matter, because these are not real-life situations, or not in mathematics, or not in this country/university/department, or not on this particular website on that particular day of the week, or whatever. When we talk about our own experience, that’s isolated anecdotes at best, and anyway we probably misunderstood the situation, because nobody intended to do us harm. (Please read (1) again at this point.) When we talk about real-life statistical evidence, that’s not conclusive, either, because all differences are explained by women having babies, other priorities, etc. (Except they’re not, as the linked document explains very clearly.)

I may never be able to prove conclusively, rigorously, beyond all doubt, that I would be harassed with 100% certainty if I were to show up on Math Overflow. That was never my point. I make my choices based on my own assessment of gains, losses and probabilities, not yours. That’s why I’d rather grab my camera and hit the botanical garden instead, or go to a different internet forum, or engage in any number of other activities that – in my totally subjective and statistically unproven opinion – I’m going to enjoy. Your approval (or not) of my decisions is not relevant. It’s not all about you.

The conversations that I do want to have are different. Just because we can’t “prove” sexism to those who refuse to believe us doesn’t mean that we don’t have to deal with it. I’m interested in talking about how we cope and get ahead, what has worked well, what backfired. I want to hear other women’s stories, and tell my own. If we can’t talk directly and openly about our actual experiences, for example because it involves confidential committee deliberations, then there are surrogate stories from popular culture. (Me, I could spend a very long time talking about Mad Men.) If you jump in there demanding proof of sexism, you’ll be interrupting and talking off topic, and I will ask you to leave.

MYTH 5: I’m writing all this because I’m worried that men don’t like me and I need to be reassured. The response I’m hoping for is that some guy will take my hand, look into my eyes, and tell me with deep conviction that he and all the men he knows are not sexist at all, and I’m a valuable member of the community, and they like me and will always be fair to me. I will look up at him, wipe the tears from my eyes, and ask “Really?”, not quite believing my happiness. “Really,” he will nod seriously. Then all my worries will fall away, I will sign up immediately for Math Overflow, become an enthusiastic supporter of journal comment pages, and probably break into a song as well.

FACT: I really hope that you’re not thinking this, but in case you are: Dude. Did you understand anything I wrote? As a matter of fact, you are being sexist, right at this very moment. A senior mathematician is trying to explain to you her observations and understanding of gender bias, based on her decades of experience in academic positions in mathematics departments, service on university and professional society committees, editorial boards, etc. constantly evaluating people and being evaluated herself. Your response is to dismiss everything she says straight out of hand, because she surely doesn’t really mean it.

Seriously. I’m not expecting you to agree with me on everything. Feminists often disagree between themselves. My own thinking has evolved and will likely continue to do so. But if I tell you what I have seen and experienced, I expect you to do better than just say, “No, it didn’t happen, because I don’t believe it did.” If your own experience is different, by all means tell me about it, but don’t assume it to carry more weight than mine. If you’re annoyed because I’m overanalyzing something that (in your opinion) doesn’t even exist, you’ll be happier reading something else instead, and you don’t need to inform me, either.

All of the above was inspired by actual comments on the internet, either here (before I closed the comments) or on other blogs and discussion pages. The list is far from exhaustive, and I might write a second instalment when I have the time.

Update, Feb 11: Paul Siegel has an excellent follow up here.

Author: Izabella Laba

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

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