Category Archives: academia

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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The limits of writing for free

Earlier this year, and to the disgust of much of the science writing community, Jonah Lehrer gave a speech at the Knight Foundation in which he apologized for his misdeeds. He was paid 20K for the appearance. Lehrer, you might recall, is the bestselling science writer who recycled old articles for pay, plagiarized stuff, and fabricated Dylan quotes he used in one of his books.

That’s the first data point. The second one is more recent. Last month, Nate Thayer started a lively debate on the future of journalism by publishing an email exchange between himself and an Atlantic editor who asked for an article for free. See for instance this analysis by Felix Salmon and a must-read response from Alexis Madrigal. But the article I’d like to highlight is Ezra Klein’s “Revenge of the sources”:

The salaries of professional journalists are built upon our success in convincing experts of all kinds working for exposure rather than pay. Now those experts have found a way to work for exposure without going through professional journalists, creating a vast expansion in the quantity and quality of content editors can get for free. […]

Now, the people who were once sources can write their own blogs, or they send op-ed submissions or even feature articles to editors looking for vastly more content. Think about Brad DeLong’s blog, Marginal Revolution, or the Monkey Cage. This work often doesn’t pay — at least not at first — but it offers a much more reliable, predictable and controllable form of exposure. It’s a direct relationship with an audience rather than one mediated by a professional journalist.

Time for the third and last data point. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the “main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences”, declares in its funding guide (page 32) that:

Investigators are expected to participate in activities that seek to engage the public with engineering and science. Results from individual research projects may provide opportunities to engage the public through various forms of media communication.

In official terminology, this is Public Engagement, part of something called Pathways to Impact which is a mandatory component of a grant application. This guide advises the researchers – among other things – to plan a public engagement strategy, develop “an activity timeline or Gantt chart” (?), and “[t]hink about [their] public engagement role as one that is ongoing”. (On paper at least, this seems to go quite a bit beyond NSF’s “broad impact”. While “public engagement” is listed as only one way of fulfilling the “impact” requirements, in practice many researchers might not have other options available.)

In other words, academics are told to practice journalism for free – the same thing to which Nate Thayer and others reacted so strongly.

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More on commenting and the publishing reform

Ingrid Daubechies asks on Math 2.0:

Suppose most mathematical research papers were freely accessible online.

Suppose a well-organized platform existed where responsible users could write comments on any paper […]

Would this be, or evolve into, a useful tool for mathematical research? What features would be necessary, useful, or to-be-avoided-at-all-costs?

This is not a rhetorical question: a committee of the National Research Council is looking into what could be built on top of a World Digital Math Library, to make it even more useful to the mathematical community than having all the materials available. This study is being funded by the Sloan Foundation.

There’s good stuff in the comments, especially here and here. I’ve said before that having comments on papers is not my highest priority, and I can think of other improvements on a comparable scale (significant, but without overhauling the whole system) that would add more value. So, in case anyone is interested and for future reference, here’s my take on a few specific issues that seem to come up again and again. In this post, I’ll stick to relatively small stuff, generally of the kind that could be set up initially by, say, NRC without much help from the community, as per the question I started with. There are of course bigger fish to fry, from the creation of new journals to rethinking funding mechanisms for science. But that’s for another time.

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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.

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On commenting, conversations, and epijournals

Earlier this week, I closed the comments on this blog. I was reading this post, by another blogger who shut down the comments at his place, and realized that I had wanted to do the same for some time. I really encourage you to read the entire post. This is not a matter of not keeping with the times (quite the opposite – I’ll get to it shortly), or of not having the right technical fixes for specific trolling problems. It’s about what conversations we want to have, when, where, and with whom – and when we’d rather walk out and do something else that’s more valuable.

In my own blogging experience, the feedback I get by email and in person has long been infinitely more valuable and insightful than most of the public comments I was getting here. There have been exceptions, and I’m grateful to those commenters, but there have also been entries where I deleted more comments than I approved. Instead of an attractive feature, it became a chore. And ultimately, this blog is not a community service that I am obliged to provide. I will not do it if I cannot enjoy it, and so changes had to be made.

The more I think about it, the more I agree with Dan Conover that open commenting for everyone might be on its way out as the default mode on the internet. Continue reading


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Intellectual property at UBC

I write this blog at home, in my free time. I have never used my office computer for this purpose. My home computer, printer, internet connection, and the laptop I travel with are all paid from my own personal funds. In the past, I charged the cost of laptops to my research grants, on account of their being used primarily for research-related travel; I no longer do that. I have personal email addresses that I use for work-unrelated correspondence, and I have never put a personal snail-mail letter in the departmental mailbox.

There’s a reason why I’m telling you about it.

Via Faculty Association, we learn that UBC is proposing a new policy on intellectual property. Labelled as a “revision” of the existing Policy no. 88, “Patents and Licensing,” it represents a radical departure from long-established basic principles on intellectual property and academic work. Basically, it requires us to cede the ownership of all of our research and academic writing to UBC, except where industrial partners have a competing claim. In no case, if the policy passes, will the ownership rest with the faculty authors.

Here are the relevant links:

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The perils of changing the subject

(My previous post on the topic is here.)

The responses to last week’s PNAS study on gender bias in science have been satisfying, for the most part. I’ve gotten used to avalanches of knee-jerk reactions every time a study on science and gender comes out. This time, there is a good deal (relatively speaking) of subdued and contemplative silence, at least among the actual scientists; the denials seem diminished in quantity. The effect might not be obvious to a bystander, but is quite noticeable to someone who has been following the debates for a while. I hope that this is a good silence, that some of us are taking the time to sit down and actually think about it.

This of course doesn’t mean that the subject has suddenly become totally uncontroversial. As Sean Carroll says in comments:

At least the trolls have moved on from “there is no discrimination” to “discrimination is rationally justified.” Progress!

I’ll be more specific. The wonderful, wonderful thing about the Yale study is that it allows us to have this discussion without being called “paranoid,” “hypersensitive,” or “emotionally unbalanced.” It feels refreshing and different to read long, argumentative comment threads on the subject and never see those words.

The discrimination apologists argue that, given the same “official” credentials, the rational employer will give preference to a man over a woman, because babies, pregnancies, dolls, biological differences, innate abilities, bell curves, life priorities, and other similar perennials.

Then there are press responses. The New York Times ran an article on the Yale study, then followed up with a discussion page. Here’s what one of the participants contributed:

There is little to suggest that colleges and universities are systematically discriminating against women or discouraging them from pursuing STEM disciplines. […]

Why should we focus on achieving balance in STEM fields, while ignoring the overall imbalance in higher education as men fall farther behind? Factors other than sexism are likely the cause as to why fewer women pursue STEM fields. When students choose majors, they take into account myriad factors, such as their interests, aptitudes and career aspirations. Some research suggests, for example, that women with high-levels of quantitative skills are also likely to have high aptitudes in other areas, while men with high STEM-aptitudes tend to be less talented in other areas.

That, right there, is why I usually stay away from this type of debates. Let’s recap what the study actually said: that given identical paperwork from two hypothetical job candidates, one male and one female, the woman was judged as less competent and offered a lower salary. This is not about whether girls, statistically speaking, are less interested in science. It’s about a specific candidate who had already met the prerequisites, got a degree, demonstrated interest and skill in research, stated his or her career priorities clearly and explicitly, and was received much better when his name was John instead of Jennifer.

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