Category Archives: academia

Universities in the time of climate change

This is the HTML version of my submission to the Proceedings of the JHU Workshop on Professional Norms in Mathematics, organized by Emily Riehl in September 2019. I gave a (virtual) presentation there, circulated a set of slides, and was in the process of writing a longer piece based on that when life started to get in the way. Here it is now, with updates to account for recent events. I owe much gratitude to Emily for her encouragement and patience.

1. My first attempt at this essay grew out of my frustration with common institutional responses to the climate emergency. “Sustainability” has become yet another bonanza for developers and manufacturers. New energy-efficient buildings are joyfully constructed, appliances are replaced as soon as a newer and slightly more efficient model becomes available. A typical sustainability webpage boasts of new construction, fundraising, and multimillion “green” developments, with a sprinkling of low impact feel-good projects on the side: bikes, straws, reusable coffee mugs. Institutions act as if “shop more, save more” were deep words of wisdom that applied to the environment, as if we could address a crisis of uncontrolled expansion by doing more of the same. As for the employees and customers, or faculty and students, we are expected
to allow ourselves extra time for construction-related detours on our way to work, yield the right of way to heavy machinery, take a yoga class if we discover that we have anger management issues, and otherwise continue as usual.

I spoke about this, remotely, at the JHU Workshop on Professional Norms in Mathematics in September 2019. I wrote in my set of slides for the talk:


Climate change will be hard on us, both physically and mentally.
Heat waves, wildfires, air quality, disaster preparedness and responses, power outages,
boiled water advisories, etc.: we will not be able to rely consistently
on modern age conveniences.

When the slides were circulated on the internet and blogged at the Azimuth, reactions were divided. One tech person on Twitter said that this was nonsense: we would be able to shield and air-condition a university in the middle of the Death Valley if needed, this would be an obvious priority given that the future of humanity depends on the continued ability of the smartest people to work in comfort. A few weeks later, under the threat of wildfires, the California utility PG\&E cut off electricity to various locations including the Berkeley campus of the University of California.

I also wrote this:


We will not be able to demand that everyone must operate at 100% capacity, 100% of the time. Employers will have to acknowledge that people are human, and plan accordingly. If lack of resources does not stop us, public health issues will do it.

I did not know that a global pandemic was just around the corner.

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Filed under academia, mathematics: conferences

Diversity statements

Well… it’s been a break. I will not try to explain it. This is a personal blog, I do not get paid for it, and I’m free to post as often or as rarely as I wish. I did plan other posts to restart it: one about math, another expanding on a workshop presentation I did a couple of months ago. But, diversity statements. So here we go.

I want to be very clear that I’m not down with the various comparisons that get made on similar occasions, including the McCarthy era, Stalinism, gulags, reeducation camps, cultural revolution, and so on. Institutions have the right to ask job candidates for statements on how they are going to perform various aspects of that job. Take, for instance, teaching statements at universities. If I personally believed that teaching quality should have no relevance to hiring at research universities, and if I said so in my teaching statement, and if that led to the outcome that one might expect, would I be punished for my beliefs? Or would I fail to meet a basic suitability criterion for the job for which I’m applying?

I do not actually believe that teaching quality is irrelevant, but here’s an example where I do disagree with common institutional practices. Every time someone here gets promoted or tenured, they have a “teaching report” prepared for them. That report includes a long and detailed analysis of their teaching evaluation scores, with statistics, comparisons to multiyear departmental averages, and detailed comments on minuscule variations in individual numbers. There is a large body of research showing that teaching evaluation scores are biased and that their correlation with teaching effectiveness is at best questionable. Arguments against their use in tenure and promotion cases have been made and have been successful at some institutions. And yet, we keep writing those reports, often against our better judgement. That’s not ideology. That’s how capitalism works.

At the same time, it is true that diversity initiatives can misfire. They can hurt the same people they are meant to support, and produce effects opposite to those intended. This can happen when those in charge of the initiative have good intentions but do not have the experience, expertise, or authority to carry it out properly. It can happen when the different actors and authorities involved, often different parts of the same institution, are at cross-purposes with each other. It can also happen when, as is common in academia, diversity is sublimated into hierarchy. Too many academics are happy to have a circle of young women gazing at them in adoration and would be delighted to promote more women into that position, but change their tune when the same women become more senior and start competing against them for resources.

And also at the same time, such failures are immediately weaponized by those who think that diversity, equity and exclusion are dirty words, that women should stay in their place and that place is not in tech or academia, that ability is determined by genetics and genetics is determined by skin colour, and so on. And from a different angle, it is very easy to say that diversity actions must always fail as shown by the preponderance of evidence, that academic selection should be based on merit as it has always been, and that any external intervention to promote diversity must end in disaster. This happens in the same departments where external intervention is the only realistic chance of improvement for those marginalized. The preponderance of evidence that merit-based selection does not always work as advertised is rarely taken into account.

My own problem with the ideas of diversity, equity and inclusion is that they do not go far enough. They are missing a fourth component: justice. That would be a very different conversation, one that should include but not be limited to past affirmative action measures for white people as well as the actual historical facts of, say, lynching and witch hunts. I do not think that academia, by and large, is anywhere close to ready for that conversation.

I do not have a simple yes or no answer as to whether diversity statements should be required. I do not believe that being “for” or “against” diversity statements, with no qualifiers, is a useful way to have that discussion. It is completely possible to support diversity initiatives in general principle and also raise objections when such initiatives are not well executed. The specifics will depend on the institution, the people involved, the political and financial landscape in which they operate, and much more. With that said, if you would like to know what I think, here are a few things for your consideration.

Be clear about what you expect. Do you just want a statement about how the candidate is going to implement inclusive practices in their teaching? Or do you want a more general statement on diversity-related activism? If you want activism, and if you actually get an application from a Black Lives Matter march organizer, or from an Indigenous person who got arrested and convicted for protesting pipelines and now has a criminal record, what are you going to do? You should think about that before you put out the call.

Be aware of the balance of power. Do you want a statement on how the candidate has experienced racism, sexism, or other kinds of discrimination? Do you understand that writing up such experiences can be a traumatic process, better suited for therapy than for a job application? Do you believe that you have the right to ask disadvantaged people to bare their bruises for your evaluation? And do you honestly expect that doing so will get them the job? If, say, a Black woman writes up a long list of complaints related to sexism and racism at her previous institutions, this may impress the equity office, but what about the mathematics department? It’s the mathematics department that would have to shortlist her, and it’s very easy for them to not do so, and they really do not think that they have a sexism or racism problem, and they do not feel that someone who complains all the time would be a good fit for their collegial culture.

And what if that candidate did not just nurse their complaints quietly? What if they acted on it? Colin Kaepernick continues to be unemployed. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is in hiding. Actresses get blacklisted. The careers of women in academia who report sexual harassment are often derailed. Meanwhile, the straight white guy who regularly volunteers for diversity leadership positions will have a nice, safe diversity statement. Is that the intended outcome?

Be realistic. I have talked to undergraduate students who had to write diversity statements for their graduate school application. It’s a very awkward conversation to have. They are undergraduates. They have not done much in life. Those students who are more aware of social justice issues are likely those who have experienced them firsthand, so see above, with the added consideration that graduate students are right at the bottom of the academic pecking ladder.

Have you thought about who has the time and resources to volunteer and participate in resume-building activism, and who has to work two part-time jobs after school just to make ends meet? And that those part-time jobs might be at places like fast food chains where you are very much not expected to show leadership? And that organizing diversity initiatives at such outlets can get you fired?

We are not in Lake Wobegon. I did look up the Berkeley diversity rubric. It does indeed give low rating to candidates who describe “only activities that are already the expectation of Berkeley faculty (mentoring, treating all students the same regardless of background, etc).” This is a problem, but it’s not an ideological one. It is the same problem that we always have in academia where all faculty are expected to exceed expectations, everyone has to be above average, and at least 30% of us have to be in the top 1%.

The tradition of exceeding expectations in academia is intimately tied to the traditional reality of professors being men who had wives. Exceeding the expectations for one person is quite possible in those traditional circumstances.

A graduate student recently shared with me her experience of the “thank you for typing” acknowledgments found in the classics of our field. What they tell her very clearly is that many, if not most, of the scholars who produced “the canons” and attained tenure and status in our field did so by profiting from the labor of another person who was devoted full-time to the maintenance of the scholar’s life, career, and family. This raised a question for the aspiring historian: Would she be expected to produce the same quantity and quality of work, but without any of those patriarchal benefits?

And now we are starting to apply the same standards to diversity and equity work. I’m imagining the perfect Berkeley job candidate: a groundbreaking researcher, outstanding teacher, and a public diversity advocate and activist, with a stay-at-home wife (a former Mathematics undergraduate) who types his papers, books his travel, and prepares the materials for his equity and diversity workshops. Is that where we are going?

How about just doing the job that we were hired to do? In diversity and equity in particular, we do not need everyone to try to be a leader. The actual point of diversity and equity is that those traditionally assumed to be leaders in academia need to learn to shut up, let others talk, take the back seat, follow directions, do the work without constantly angling for leadership positions, I do not feel that the Berkeley diversity rubric is supportive of that goal. I feel that it promotes the same kind of power-seeking behaviour that has always been a problem in academia.

Should a major educational institution work to be more inclusive? Absolutely. Should it try to have equity and diversity leaders among its faculty? Of course. It might even try a targeted search or two, seeking specifically candidates who have a good understanding of diversity issues and experience in working on them. But we need to stop pretending that everyone can or should be a leader in everything.

Good intentions are not enough. When I was starting my first postdoc job, the then-chair of the department gave me a pep talk on how I should really pay attention to my teaching because that was going to be very important for my career. A few months later, I was placed in front of my first large calculus class: 210 students, many of whom were repeating that class, which I did not know. I did not know what background I could expect from those students, or how to manage grade disputes, or how to teach large classes, or how to teach in general. It did not go well. Looking back on it, I could have done worse. I could have just explained to my students that calculus was very important, waited a little bit, and then administered the final exam.

Some time between then and the end of my second job, universities started asking for teaching statements. It took longer, though, before they heard what everyone else was saying: that university teachers were never taught how to teach, and that merely asking a person to describe their good intentions was not going to help. Now, many institutions have measures in place: graduate courses on how to teach, teaching workshops for new instructors, and so on. These are often both mandatory and counted as part of the job. They work best when they acknowledge the reality that there are other demands on our time, that while some of us want to be educational leaders, others have different priorities but still want to do the job well enough.

There could well be a use for similar training with respect to diversity and inclusion. Not just the usual 20-minute online courses on how to avoid a sexual harassment lawsuit. Not open-ended discussions on race and gender and ideology and everything else in general, either. Just basic instructions on what is not appropriate to say in the classroom or to your female colleague, how to respond when a student asks for accessibility accommodations, or how to provide such accommodations without expanding your own workload beyond acceptable limits. Or, for that matter, how to organize diversity events, for those so inclined.

Going back to the Berkeley rubrics, I would have a serious problem with a candidate who scores low on knowledge and understanding but very high on the level of diversity-related activity. Even if someone scores high on knowledge, but that knowledge is mostly based on reading and not on life experience, I would still have questions. In mathematics, if you get it wrong, you can just erase the board and start again, In equity, you can do real harm. Instead of addressing racist views, you may end up giving some the opportunity to air such views unchallenged. Instead of making universities more equitable for women, you may confine them to lesser roles or create more male panels to lecture them on their behaviour.

The institution has to step up. A common failing of diversity initiatives is that people from the targeted demographics get hired (or admitted, or invited), then left to their own devices in a less than supportive environment. You want to hire more faculty from underrepresented groups. Great. When was the last time you talked to your current female faculty? To your minoritized faculty? Have you asked them what they think about your diversity plans? That female professor in math or physics or whatever who mostly does not talk to anyone? Are you even aware that she exists? Did you talk to those who left? Do you know why they did, or where they went?

You want your new hires to be active in supporting diversity, equity and inclusion. Are you going to give them the resources to do it? Are you going to give them the authority? Can they say that they speak for the institution when they tell instructors in a training session how not to be sexist? Or must their work come with the disclaimer that the views presented here do not necessarily represent anyone else’s and that the workshop facilitators are just stating their own opinions?

What are you going to do if their department disrespects them? What are you going to do if they become the target of a right-wing hate campaign, as many already did? Are you ready to help them and defend them? Will you have their back? Or will you just tell them to use their own resources and come to work as usual?

I hope this gives you some food for thought.

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Filed under academia, feminism, women in math

A seminar room of our own

Following my last two posts on women in mathematics and the internet, I was challenged to turn my crystal ball sideways and look at it again. I have talked about what I oppose (comments on the arXiv). I have talked about initiatives that are successful but labour-intensive and difficult to pull off (research conferences for women). Are these the only choices we have? Must the internet disadvantage women in math?

The fact is, the positive impact of the internet on my own career would be hard to overestimate. I had long-distance collaborations by email that kept me going when I was isolated at my institutions of employment. I made new mathematical contacts over the internet. I do not need the departmental coffee room to keep track of research developments or professional opportunities. I get my news from blogs, social media postings and online discussions.

It might be too much to claim that, without the internet, my isolation would have killed my research career. Remote communication existed long before computers, even if it was less efficient. It is also possible that, in other circumstances, I might have made different career choices. Yet, the particular career I did have was largely shaped by the internet, and, given that women are especially likely to be isolated within their institutions, it should be safe enough to say that my experience was not unique. It is easy to overlook this kind of impact when it’s all around us, uncontroversial and taken for granted. Still, it’s there, a vital lifeline to those of us who might otherwise have been left stranded with no way back in.

We should not forget career advice. Perhaps you’re negotiating a job offer. Articles and blog posts can tell you about the process: the timeline, the framing and manner of speech, the range of what might be expected. You can ask about your specific case in a trusted discussion forum. But when I first went on the market, I did not even know that one was supposed to negotiate at all. Somehow, I’m still here. I’m not always sure how that even happened. The withholding of information has always been a means of control, and the internet is the best antidote to it that we have.

We can, and should, go much further. In recent years, I have been making a conscious effort to avoid those environments that I consider suboptimal for me, and to spend more time instead in feminist spaces, many of them online, with people who share deeper ties with me than mere geography and profession. As my commitment and involvement there increased, as I learned and grew in these spaces, as I began to pay more attention to how they were optimized for growth and learning, I found that this also affected the ways I approach mathematics and especially mathematical collaborations. I found the advantage that has been missing from my mathematical career all along.

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The mathematics of wheel reinvention

The first talk I attended at this year’s JMM in Seattle was Tim Gowers’s lecture on how the internet and mass communication might change mathematics. Tim started out by listing some of the more dysfunctional features of how we do mathematics today, then suggesting how they might be improved. I very much agree with that part, and I would like to mention a few points from it here.

Our basic and most important unit of discourse is a research article. This is a fairly large unit: effectively, we are required to have a new, interesting and significant research result before we are allowed to contribute anything at all. Any smaller contributions must be bundled and packaged into units of acceptable size, or else they go unacknowledged. A comparison that came to my mind was having to conduct all transactions in twenty-dollar bills. Whatever your product is, you would have to sell it for $20 or else give it away for free, with nothing in between. It should not be difficult to see why this would not be am ideal environment for doing business. We should have smaller bills in circulation. It should be possible to make smaller contributions–on a scale of, say, a substantive blog comment–and still have them count towards our professional standing.

Our culture is extremely competitive. We value beating others more than we value helping them. All that matters is getting “there” first and scooping everyone else on our way. Intermediate results are worth far less. Additionally, this prioritizes one specific type of contributions over all others, even in those cases where a different order of priorities might be more reasonable. A good expository paper might have more impact on its area of mathematics than a middling research article; and yet, expository work is rarely, if ever, taken seriously by funding agencies and tenure committees.

We spend a great amount of time and energy on reinventing the wheel. A mathematician working on a problem might start with relatively small reductions, observations and lemmas that, by themselves, do not qualify as journal-publishable units; if that effort is not successful, these smaller contributions are lost and the next person working on the same problem has to reprove them all over again. Moreover, information such as “this method didn’t work, and here’s why” might be very useful to that next person. If nothing else, a great deal of time might be saved that would otherwise be spent on trying out unsuccessful approaches. Yet, there is currently no system in place to circulate such information and reward those who provide it.

Consider also how we work and collaborate. We are all gifted in different ways: some are better at imagining new ideas, some at asking questions, some at turning informal sketches into rigorous proofs, some are walking encyclopedias of the relevant literature. Yet, we have decided that each of us has to be self-sufficient and do all of these things equally, instead of allowing people to focus on what they do best and forming collaborations based on complementary skills. (I’d add that such collaborations obviously exist, including in my own experience. We just pretend, at least in official paperwork, that this does not happen.)

I agree with all of this, and I’d love to see us abandon the old ways and adapt new ones. We are far too invested in forcing everyone to fit the same mould. In a profession we like to call creative, I’d love to see more diverse and varied career paths and modes of expression. I’d love to see the flow of information a little bit less hampered by our ambition and competitive instincts. Think of all the theorems we could prove if we allowed more people into the field and, instead of hampering their intellectual power, harnessed it to the full.

I do not believe, however, that such changes are inevitable, and I have very little faith that they will be forced by the internet and other means of mass communication. It takes more than technology to change the culture. The early evidence is not encouraging. The basic discourse unit is still the research paper, except that we now post these on the arXiv. Other types of research contributions are still not being counted towards career progress, even as the subject comes up in discussions over and over again. We are as competitive and territorial as ever. The Polymath projects came and went; one was successful, another one was somewhat productive, others fizzled out. They did attract more participants than conventional math collaborations, but they never became truly “massive” as originally envisioned. People still ask questions on Math Overflow, and sometimes they get useful answers, but it never became the universal communication and collaboration platform that some of its early enthusiasts seemed to imagine. Other, smaller discussion boards went mostly unnoticed. There’s not much actual research that gets done on public blogs or social networks.

At the end of the talk, someone raised the diversity point in a question. The participants in Polymaths, Math Overflow and other similar projects are even less diverse than the general population of research mathematicians. Is there a reason why women and minorities tend to stay away from such venues? What can mathematicians do to ensure that all of us feel welcome to participate? I do not feel that Tim really answered that. He said (and I hope that I’m summarizing it fairly) that all those changes are just going to happen, like it or not, because they bring a more efficient way of doing mathematics and nobody will want to give up on that. It is an unfortunate fact that some people feel less comfortable on the internet, but in the end we will all just have to get over it.

I would like to suggest a different answer.

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Filed under academia, mathematics: general

A response to Scott Aaronson

Scott Aaronson has been kind enough to respond on his blog to a couple of my tweets. I would like to thank him for his interest and engagement, and encourage everyone to take the time to read his entire post. There is also an excellent discussion in the comments.

Much of the discourse focuses on the use and misuse of jargon in social and physical sciences, and specifically on words such as “privilege,” “delegitimization,” or “disenfranchised.” I’ll address that in a moment, but let me first say that my main reason for objecting to the comment that started this discussion was the phrase “This isn’t quantum field theory” at the end. I understood this, in the context of that comment and the comment to which Aaronson was responding, and in light of the similarity to the well known phrase about rocket science, to imply that social sciences do not have the same complexity as quantum field theory and should not need a multilayered structure where concepts are defined, compared, then used to define further concepts, whereupon the procedure is repeated and iterated, so as to make advanced discourse possible and manageable. Aaronson has now explained that this would be an oversimplification of his position, and I’m glad to stand corrected.

I also would like to speak to some of the other points that he makes about language, feminism, social science, and clarity of writing. I’ll try not to repeat the arguments that his commenters have already made, perhaps better than I could have done it. Still, I have no desire to hide (as some have suggested) behind Twitter’s 140-character limit and avoid making my case at more length. And so, here we are. I will just quote the last two paragraphs from Aaronson’s post, but please do go to his site to read the rest:

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ICERM postdoctoral positions

I’m co-organizing the program Dimension and Dynamics at the Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics in Spring 2016. (Yes, this means that I hope to participate in the program. Details to follow when they are finalized.) ICERM has several postdoctoral positions associated with the program, one for the full academic year and four for the semester. Applications should be submitted via MathJobs. There is also funding for program visitors and workshop participants; the ICERM webpage has more details on that.

The program covers various aspects of dimension theory and dynamics, from ergodic theory to hyperbolic dynamics to computation. In my own research, I’ve been increasingly attracted to connections between dimension theory and dynamical systems on one hand, and harmonic analysis and additive combinatorics on the other. I look forward to doing more work in that direction in the next few years.

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Filed under mathematics: research, recruitment

Diversity and mathematics

bell curve1

Mother Jones, last year:

According to a new psychology paper, our political passions can even undermine our very basic reasoning skills. More specifically, the study finds that people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.

I was reminded of it while reading the article “Does Diversity Trump Ability? An Example of the Misuse of Mathematics in the Social Sciences” in the Notices of the AMS. The author, Abigail Thompson, takes on a well known and widely cited paper:

“Diversity” has become an important concept in the modern university, affecting admissions, faculty hiring, and administrative appointments. In the paper “Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers” [1], L. Hong and S. Page claim to prove that “To put it succinctly, diversity trumps ability.” We show that their arguments are fundamentally flawed.

Why should mathematicians care? Mathematicians have a responsibility to ensure that mathematics is not misused. The highly specialized language of mathematics can be used to obscure rather than reveal truth. It is easy to cross the line between analysis and advocacy when strongly held beliefs are in play. Attempts to find a mathematical justification for “diversity” as practiced in universities provide an instructive example of where that line has been crossed.

Thompson proceeds to shred both the “mathematical theorem” and the numerical examples from the Hong-Page paper. The actual paper is available here, and I have satisfied myself that Thompson is not unfair in her mathematical analysis. Her article, however, does not exist in a vacuum. It will be read in mathematics departments, organizations and committees where “diversity” is viewed as a bureaucratic imposition made on them by distant administrators who don’t understand research, even as their few women faculty often find themselves alienated and sidelined. That’s why I would like to add a few things.

First, there are many sound reasons for diversity that have nothing to do the article in question. (I will restrict this post to the benefits of diversity per se, independently of how that diversity was achieved. Affirmative action has its own reasons and will get its own post soon.) It should be common sense, not a mathematical theorem, that there are advantages in having a wider perspective and more than one problem-solving approach. Continue reading

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Filed under academia, feminism, mathematics: general, women in math

Thanks, U of T Math

I’d like to thank the University of Toronto mathematics department (my doctoral alma mater) for the nice news item on its front page mentioning my ICM invitation. (It was posted a while ago, but I only saw it now.)

Being invited to speak at the ICM is often regarded as one of the highest honours that a mathematician can receive. It is a truly international recognition of the depth and ground breaking impact of their research.

UBC, meanwhile? Nope. It’s not that they don’t update their webpage, either – the page has been updated since the announcement.

This is of course the season for graduate and postdoctoral applications. Departments go out of their way to compete for the top candidates, and one part of it is showcasing the accomplishments of their faculty (to get the prospective students and postdocs interested in working with them) and their former postdocs and students (hey, this could be you). UBC Math has 3 session speakers at the 2014 ICM: Kai Behrend, Jun-cheng Wei, and myself. Additionally, Ben Green (who was a postdoc here for a year) is a plenary speaker. Is there some reason why UBC Math would not want to advertise it?

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Filed under academic politics

Leaning back and smelling the roses

Now that the list of next year’s ICM invited speakers has been posted, I’m pleased to be able to say here that I will be speaking in Section 8: Analysis.

It gives me far less pleasure to say that the UBC mathematics department did not approve any graduate courses in harmonic analysis for this year. My proposal for a 600-level (topics) course was rejected. This is not an isolated incident: I have been at UBC since 2000 and I still have not taught a single 600-level course.

For comparison, the department had one ICM speaker in 2006, two in 2010, and there are two others (in addition to me) in 2014. One of those was only hired last year. Of the remaining 4, each taught at least one 600-level course in 2009 or later. They all boast large research groups, each with several full professors and at least 2-3 graduate courses each year in their research areas. Meanwhile, I’m still the only full professor in my group. As it happens, I’m also the only woman among the UBC ICM speakers. Make of that what you will.

In the past, I might have given lectures anyway on the same topics, or offered a working seminar instead that students could take for credit as a reading course, in addition to my assigned course load. I have in fact done that, back when my teaching load was reduced thanks to the UFA award. Not any more. If the university does not want my topics course, it will not have it.

When I see women being admonished to “lean in” to advance their careers, I think back on the time when I actually tried to do that. “Internalize the revolution.” Be ambitious. Take risks. Seek out opportunities. Don’t hold yourself back. Above all, accept the relentless and accelerating career demands, because that’s good for you, because of course it is. Except when it’s not.

I gave reading courses. I supervised 4-5 graduate students as early as 2005-06, back when I was still the only active harmonic analyst in the department. When the local PIMS institute offered no support, I organized a program at the Fields Institute instead. I accepted a good deal of administrative work at and beyond UBC. I served 3 years on the Putnam problem-setting committee.

Tenure-track and tenured positions tend to have no clear job description. Only the course teaching load is fixed, more or less. In popular imagination, this means just a few hours of work per week. In reality, tenure, promotion and pay increases depend on meeting the institution’s “standards,” which in turn are established via a rat race between faculty members. Two parallel rat races, actually: one to achieve more in science, one to ascend to a position of enough influence in departmental politics to push one’s own interpretations of the outcomes of the first race. Clearly, I’ve done better in one of those than in the other, as was my preference all along.

Of course achieving is easier when one’s work is supported by one’s institution, in a variety of ways that are never written into any contract but nonetheless make a world of difference. Some groups here (probability, number theory) have 6-8 faculty; of course it’s easier for them to attract graduate students and postdocs, or to offer several graduate courses each year with the department’s blessing. Of course it’s impossible to function in a similar manner when you’re isolated, as I was for many years. You try anyway, “leaning in” and hoping that it will get noticed, seeking external leverage when it doesn’t, as wise colleagues keep lecturing you on how everyone else’s needs are greater and priorities more important than your own.

But now? I have nothing left to prove here. I’m a known quantity and have been for some time. My research is going better than ever. There can be no doubt as to whether I’m capable of building a group or advising graduate students.

My employers are more than welcome to lean in and take advantage of that. Even just with the current faculty, we could have an excellent graduate training program in harmonic analysis here, one of the best in the world. Just give us one or two guaranteed graduate courses each year. Stop insisting on the false alternative where we either have to teach the same syllabus every 1-2 years in our graduate courses or give them up altogether, because smaller groups really need more flexibility than that. Cut back on those degree requirements that serve no purpose I can think of, or that prop up the largest groups but are not relevant to the thesis work of everyone else’s students. And please please cut down on the bureaucracy, both within the department and at the university level, because I’m tired already of having to deal with that.

But if not, then, well, not. Or nought, if that’s your fancy. Life is too short to be spent on a hamster wheel, even as colleagues throw wrenches in it and the only reward is more time on the same hamster wheel back again. That stretch of my career is over and done with.

I’ll lean back in when you do. Make of that what you will.

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Filed under academic politics, feminism, women in math

Gender Bias 102 For Mathematicians: Merit

A long time ago, I promised a follow-up to my Gender Bias 101 post. One thing I’ve found out the hard way is that I can’t promise to post anything here on a regular schedule, or according to deadlines. Paid work takes precedence, as does vacation time and my other interests – that’s one problem. The other one is that I don’t really have much to say about gender that’s not complicated. That’s why, instead of one follow-up, you’ll get several “Gender Bias 102” posts on different topics. This is the first one. The rest will follow… oh, whenever I get around to it. I did mention a paid job that takes precedence.

I’ve said already that this is complicated. That’s my main point here. There’s no such thing as a complete explanation of sexism that will fit in a single post. You shouldn’t assume that you can learn everything you need to know from me, either. There’s a lot of women out there, with different experiences, and none of us have all the facts or answers. What I’m aiming for is this. When the subject of gender bias comes up, well-meaning colleagues like to offer one-sentence explanations and simple solutions, for instance (today’s example) that we should “just” evaluate everyone based on merit and not gender. I’ll try to give you reasons to stop and think about it twice. Once you do that, it’s not hard to find further reading, should you be so inclined.

Deal? OK, let’s get started.

MYTH: We should just evaluate everyone based on objective merit, regardless of gender, race, or other similar considerations.

FACT: Wouldn’t it be nice if we could actually do that. Unfortunately, it’s much easier said than done.

First, we do not evaluate people or their work objectively, even when we think we are doing just that. Gender is a known risk factor. I cited this Yale study last time, and an older one with similar conclusions can be found here (PDF):


In the present study, both male and female academicians were significantly more likely to hire a potential male colleague than an equally qualified potential female colleague. Furthermore, both male and female participants were more likely to positively evaluate the research, teaching, and service contributions of a male job applicant than a female job applicant with an identical record. These results are consistent with previous research that has shown that department heads were significantly more likely to indicate that they would hire female candidates at the assistant professor level and male candidates with identical records at the associate professor level (Fidell, 1970).

Incidentally, if you believe you have no gender bias, then statistically you are in fact more likely to be biased. That’s not self-help mumbo-jumbo, that’s Nate Silver.

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Filed under academia, feminism, women in math