Gender, conferences, conversations and confrontations

My departmental colleague Greg Martin has posted a paper entitled “Addressing the underrepresentation of women in mathematics conferences.” A comment and a bibliographical reference on page 9 of the text inform us that the paper is intended for publication in the Notices of the AMS. [Update, 3/20: I have been informed by the Notices of the AMS that they did not solicit the paper and will not publish it.] In the acknowledgement at the end, the author thanks “other friends and colleagues, too numerous to list here, for their encouragement and inspiration.” Given that we are employed in the same department, and that I often write here about gender, one might ask whether that large number included me. I would like to make it clear that it did not. Had anyone asked for my opinion, I would have discouraged it and, instead, encouraged the Notices to solicit a very different article.

I would have told them that such an article needs to be grounded in extensive firsthand knowledge of our practices related to conference organizing in mathematics. For that reason, it should be written by someone–better yet, by a group of authors–with broad experience in organizing conferences and an established record of promoting women and minorities in that context. It is not enough to point to the discrepancy between the gender proportions at the bottom and the top of the pyramid, and fall back on studies of gender bias in other fields for an explanation. It is necessary to diagnose the mechanisms that lead to it, addressing directly and specifically our actual practices. That requires experience and access to information including confidential and protected material. If a recommendation is made, it should first be tested in real-life conference organizing, and the results of such attempts should be analyzed. I would also insist that it should be written by a woman or a team of authors including women, and not only because women have direct knowledge of gender bias that men cannot have. Were the Notices to publish an article on the subject, it is likely that this would be suggested as a resource for prospective conference organizers; I know of at least one such attempt before the paper was even submitted. I do not believe that the article can have the necessary moral authority without a woman’s name on it.

Martin starts with, “In the context of mathematics conferences, the subject of gender is somewhat of a taboo. Certainly, bringing up the subject at all during a conference would be deemed outside the norm.” This is not true in my experience. I have organized many conferences. The NSF “broader impact” criteria include “broadening the participation of groups underrepresented in science, mathematics, engineering and technology,” and this carries disproportionate weight in mathematics as other ways of meeting these criteria are rarely available to research mathematicians. Mathematics institutes, in addition to being funded by the NSF and therefore accountable to it, often have their own diversity mandates. The organizers of conferences held under their auspices must report explicitly the number of women speakers and are often asked to increase that number. I have also attended many conferences. I have not found it uncommon, or outside the norm, for the participants to talk about gender-related issues in the space reserved for unstructured interactions. I have had many such conversations myself and have witnessed many more.

It is possible that Greg Martin’s experience has been different. He and I rarely attend the same conferences or talk to the same people. But these sentences point to a deeper issue, and not just with this article: the common belief that the gender problem in mathematics could be fixed if we only talked more about it. I disagree. I have said that I witnessed many conversations on gender at mathematics conferences. I did not say that they were all part of the solution. “Bringing up the subject” can mean complaining about the NSF diversity requirements, pointing out this woman or that one who was clearly only invited because of affirmative action, or explaining how we would all gladly invite more women if only they were a little bit better, even as we reassure everyone within hearing range that we totally believe in gender equality. We sure talk about gender. In terms of pure volume, we may be close to the saturation point already. It is not clear that this is helping.

There follows a long overview of literature on implicit bias and gender discrimination. None of these studies or findings are new to me. I’ve seen them on many feminist blogs and Twitter feeds, have linked to them and written about them here. Still, there is no shortage of people who are less familiar with the subject, and I will be glad if such a reading list is delivered to the mailbox of every mathematician in America and beyond. That is long overdue.

Unfortunately, the original research is problematic. It includes an analysis of the gender make-up of two conferences, the 2014 International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul and the 2014 Joint Mathematics Meetings of the AMS and the MAA in Baltimore. For both meetings, Martin sets the target benchmark for female participation at 24%, based on the fact that at least 24% of doctoral degrees in mathematics at U.S. institutions were granted to women in each year since 1991.

According to Martin, “only one of the twenty [ICM] plenary speakers (5%) was female.” The full list of ICM plenary speakers is available here and includes two women, Maryam Mirzakhani and Vera Serganova, out of a total of 21. I am guessing that Martin removed Mirzakhani, whose lecture was cancelled, from his count. I will not exclude her from mine. The cancellation was announced at very short notice, on the morning of the talk, and there was nothing that the organizers could have done about it. 2 out of 21 is roughly 10%. Compared to the proportion of women among tenured and tenure-track faculty at research universities, the group from which ICM invited speakers usually hail and therefore a more appropriate benchmark, it does not look far off. As a bonus, the representation of women among last year’s Fields medalists was in fact 25%. Mirzakhani’s award was well deserved; in the past, however, women who did equally groundbreaking work in science have been denied due recognition. It is worth considering that this did not happen last year.

This does not mean that there is no problem. I would argue that the ICM is not an especially good example in this context, given that ICM invitations are treated more like major research awards than conference invitations. (The underrepresentation of women among award winners is also a problem, but it is not quite the same one. For instance, I would imagine that the ICM organizers do not have to worry often about speakers of any gender declining their invitations.) In fact, gender inequity tends to be less acute at large meetings such as ICM or JMM, where the speaker lists are often negotiated between several levels of committees and which are subject to oversight by funding agencies and professional organizations. It can be much worse at local workshops and seminars where the organizers face no external scrutiny. It is there, far from the ICM spotlight, that too many women are left out and forgotten.

I do not see 24% female representation among the speakers in the UBC number theory seminar. Out of 20 speakers so far during this academic year, only one was female; this matches exactly Martin’s statistics for 2014 ICM plenary speakers with Mirzakhani removed from the count. I do not see 24% female representation among graduate course instructors in the department. I do not see it among the authors published in the Notices of the AMS. The harmonic analysis seminar here–the one I attend–does not have 24% women speakers, either, although we are not that far off (1 woman out of 8 speakers this year so far; we have 2 speakers in the coming week, 1 male and 1 female, which will bring it up to 2/10). It is clear that we are losing women everywhere along the way, long before we get to the ICM level.

I am saying this because the reader might well infer from the article that women were not well represented at the ICM simply because the organizers were not aware of the issues related to gender bias, and that the proportion of women would have been higher if only the program committee had followed appropriate procedures such as those outlined in the article. I do not believe this to be the case. I do not believe that this is even in the right ballpark.

This brings us to the recommendations in Section 4:

Once we assert gender diversity as one of our priorities and acknowledge that the current system hinders our ability to fulfill that priority, it becomes clear that we must consider an explicit process for our conferences to assure adequate representation of female speakers.

We have gathered in this section some guidelines for meeting this priority. Many of them are common sense, especially now that we understand the causes and ubiquity of underrepresentation.

The suggestions range from “Set explicit targets—for example, that 30% of speakers should be female” (with an admonition to call it “targets” rather than “quota,” to signify that this is “a goal that we already wish to achieve”), to “Pay attention to `extracurricular’ details” (access to restrooms is mentioned), to “Thoughtfully monitor interactions with other mathematicians” (for signs of gender bias) and “Speak about mathematics skill as a malleable quality rather than a fixed quantity—not just to students, but among ourselves.”

I must say I admire the optimism on display here. Having read the article this far, of course we now understand and agree that women are unfairly underrepresented in mathematics and that this is due to the implicit biases we all carry. How could we not, when it was explained to us so clearly? How could anyone doubt the conclusions of so many studies and articles? And now that we are aware of the problem, how could we not resolve to correct it? All we need now is a few practical hints to point us along the way, and so here they are provided to us.

I, at this point, would not even know what it is like to have such confidence in one’s power of persuasion. Being a woman in mathematics does not condition you that way. Nor does being isolated in your department as the only research-active faculty member in your area. Nor does being excluded from teaching graduate topics courses. Nor does being told repeatedly that everyone else’s priorities are more important. Nor does talking to many, many women and people of colour whose experience was similar to mine. Nor does talking to those whose experience was much worse. I assure you that none of this happens to us because we do not try to explain or argue.

I have learned instead that we all excel at finding excuses for maintaining the beliefs that we want to maintain, even when the evidence against them is overwhelming. There is a body of research supporting that, for instance:

Our new research, recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, examined a slippery way by which people get away from facts that contradict their beliefs. Of course, sometimes people just dispute the validity of specific facts. But we find that people sometimes go one step further and, as in the opening example, they reframe an issue in untestable ways. This makes potential important facts and science ultimately irrelevant to the issue. […]

We presented 174 American participants who supported or opposed same-sex marriage with (supposed) scientific facts that supported or disputed their position. When the facts opposed their views, our participants—on both sides of the issue—were more likely to state that same-sex marriage isn’t actually about facts, it’s more a question of moral opinion. But, when the facts were on their side, they more often stated that their opinions were fact-based and much less about morals. In other words, we observed something beyond the denial of particular facts: We observed a denial of the relevance of facts.

“Having a conversation” on privilege and discrimination is no guarantee of progress:

In her public school this year, my first-grade daughter learned that Daisy Bates helped integrate the Little Rock schools. She knows that Ella Baker, someone I’d never heard of till I went to college, was part of the civil rights movement. Meanwhile, her school has a combined black and Latino population of 15 percent, down from nearly 30 percent just seven years ago.

In school, white children are taught to be conscious of race and racism in a way I never was when I was as a kid in the 1970s. Yet they go to schools that are in some respects more segregated now than they were in the 1970s. In 1972, under Richard Nixon, 36 percent of black students in the South attended white-majority schools. By 2011, under Barack Obama, that number had plummeted to 23 percent. In every region of the country, a higher percentage of black students go to nearly all-minority schools than was the case in 1988. The same is true of Latino students in the South, the West and the Midwest.

Microsoft Word recognizes the word “desegregate.” It doesn’t recognize “resegregate.”

And, specifically with regard to gender issues in science:

The PNAS study involved an experiment where biology, chemistry and physics professors at research-intensive universities evaluated job applications for a lab manager position. They were presented with identical CVs with either a man or a woman’s name. The participants rated the male applicants more favourably along every measure and offered them a higher starting salary, even though the women’s CVs had the exact same information.

In the present study, the researchers find that 433 comments were negative. That is, the commenters refuse to believe the findings on gender bias. Men are more likely to do so. There are eight types of negative responses, that draw on a range of justifications from biology to social conventions. […]

In another post which I authored for STEM Women, social science is also called into question in a most illogical way. I had presented a scientific critique of a study published in the New York Times. The study argues sexism is dead in academia. I showed that the study’s methodology was flawed. In the Google+ discussion, a man argues that my analysis (of a social science study) is biased because of my sources (also social science studies). Another male mathematician posted the original NYT article and used it to attack psychology as a science, but he also offers his personal experience saying that the authors (both psychologists) are correct in their assessment that there is no sexism in academia.

In these examples, we see how social science is malleable to the public and non-social scientists alike, who either attack the study based on its argument (that gender bias exists) or discipline. Social science findings are welcome when they match someone’s world-view that inequality does not exist.

We gerrymander research areas so as to keep in the people we choose and exclude those we would rather keep out. Even those gerrymandered borders can fluctuate, expanding when more names are needed on a funding application and then shrinking back when the benefits are shared. We define “interesting and exciting” as that which interests and excites those colleagues whose opinions we respect, and we respect them the most when they agree with us. We cite the “enthusiasm” of colleagues, or lack thereof, as though it were an objective and quantifiable measure of worth. We can start with the same data and show either perfect balance and harmony or a glaring need for action, whichever suits us better. We are scientists, we are smart and creative. We can always find a way. We do all this in conference organizing, in hiring, publishing, award selection, funding decisions, in every aspect of academic life I can think of. We care deeply about those women and minorities who are absent, hypothetical, or nonexistent, devising elaborate strategies to attract them and treat them fairly, but ignore those who are already there, standing right in front of us and asking for the same resources that their colleagues have been enjoying all along.

None of Martin’s recommendations are new. There are websites, journal articles and blog posts (read also the comments) on the subject. More than that: similar guidelines, at least with regard to setting goals for gender diversity, have already been in place for years at several mathematics institutes and funding agencies. (Thankfully, institutes do not tell us what to think or talk about.) For a Notices article, it should not be too much to ask that the author should be aware of that, or that he should contact a few program officers or institute directors who have implemented such guidelines and ask them how well that has worked so far.

He would likely find out what many conference organizers know too well: that when you push for more women, you get pushback. Rarely, if ever, does this come as explicit opposition to the inclusion of women. Instead, it is framed as insistence that the original plan was the best possible, that the speakers were chosen carefully based on merit and relevance, and that there really are no more women in that research area who work at that level and would be available to speak. And that might in fact be correct, even if it might also raise questions about the reasons for this state of affairs. Or it might not be. Declaring good intentions is the easy part. The hard part is enforcing your policies when people whose judgement you have to respect disagree with you. You have to make your case while maintaining a working relationship with volunteers who accepted a significant workload without pay and could quit anytime. You have to allow that those who argue against you could be right. Sometimes you can find a solution that works for everybody. Other times, you have to accept that the higher moral ground is not always clearly delineated and that a compromise might be better than nothing.

I have seen this in my own practice of organizing programs and conferences. I have heard it from Jill Pipher, the ICERM founding director who has made diversity an explicit priority at her institute. I have heard it from Carlos Kenig, the chair of the ICM 2014 Program Committee. I have heard it from many others. If they were willing to write an article on the subject and talk from experience about meeting and overcoming such resistance, I would be very interested to read that.

Greg Martin does not acknowledge it at all, assuming instead that we will all be on one page. This raises the obvious question: if his recommendations are taken into account and yet women continue to be underrepresented, what then? Will we say that the outcome must be fair because the correct procedures were followed? I am not asking in the abstract. I am asking because this is something we do in academia. I have seen it many times.

He misses much more. He does not mention, for instance, that there should be a code of conduct and that it should be enforced. This is featured prominently in many posts and articles on women in tech, including those listed in the bibliography; yet, the idea has very little traction in STEM academic fields. If there is a taboo subject that we really do not bring up at mathematics conferences, it would be that. We are averse to policing other people’s behaviour. We ignore the “routine” misbehaviour–mansplaining, interrupting our conversations, talking over us and silencing us–and pretend that anything more egregious does not happen.

This is where men in fact could help a great deal. I do not need male colleagues to explain sexism to me. I need them to step up and call it out when we are interrupted and ignored. Unfortunately, they rarely notice such things; when we point it out, we are told that surely that person did not mean it and that everyone regardless of gender has been on the receiving end of impolite behaviour. This is one of the reasons why I have reduced my own attendance at conferences and why I have been spending less time with mathematicians in general. I do not expect that this culture will change in my lifetime. All I can do is vote with my feet.

I do not believe that implicit bias is just a superficial poisonous icing on an otherwise healthy cake. I do not believe that it only exists because “[w]e are complicated human beings in a complicated society.” I believe that it serves a function. It would be very uncomfortable psychologically for us to enjoy the benefits of excluding women or minorities while, at the same time, believing them to be our equals. We must therefore be biased. We must believe them to be inferior, deficient, or at least different. But the same psychological comfort can also be provided by theatre: the theatre of declaring “I consider myself a feminist, but…” (I know many women who cringe and run when they hear those words), the theatre of institutions setting up diversity and equity policies that carry no stick and have no bite. What we need is less talk and more enforcement of what we have already talked about. We should not assume that our colleagues will become better human beings just because they read a few papers. They might, but such changes do not happen quickly, if ever. In the meantime, we have to deal with them as they are. This is only a blog post, not a Notices article, and so I will not try to offer advice on how to do that. I hope that someone else will.

Author: Izabella Laba

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

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