Category Archives: feminism

Gifted while female

Popular entertainment stories about prodigies tend to follow certain common threads. The prodigy is smart but poorly socialized and sometimes a bit of an asshole. If well-meaning people can talk him off that perch, we get a happy ending (“Good Will Hunting”). If on the other hand a controlling parent or guardian figure is allowed to take over, the prodigy is more likely than not to crash and burn (“Shine”).

“Gifted,” the story of a young math prodigy named Mary and her mathematically gifted family, draws on both of these story lines, setting up a competition between the controlling figure (Mary’s grandmother Evelyn) and a well-meaning person (Mary’s uncle Frank). It’s funny and watchable. Mckenna Grace and Chris Evans have great chemistry. It’s also a film about three generations of female mathematicians, written and directed by men, with the participation of four mathematical consultants, all of them male. And it’s a missed opportunity. It’s not that men should not make films about women: I believe they absolutely should. It’s not that I would have preferred a social treatise about gender and math: I get my fill of that elsewhere. But I think that it was possible to go much deeper, dig through the clichés and explore a much more interesting territory. That road was left not taken.

I must start with disclosure: I was a math prodigy back in the day. I skipped a few grades, entered university at the age of 15 which was 4 years ahead of the normal schedule, and participated in math olympiads, where my highest accomplishment was being on the Polish team at the 1981 IMO in Washington. It’s not necessarily that much as prodigies go – I did not win any medals at the IMO, nor did I earn a Ph.D. by the age of 20 as some do – but then I was just a small town prodigy in backwater country and so you must calibrate your expectations accordingly. My parents couldn’t drive me to university classes or special gifted programs while I was in school. No such things were available where I lived, and in any event, my parents worked more than two full-time jobs between them, including both paid employment and maintaining a 5-person household at a time when food shortages were common and few Western style conveniences were available. Nor did they have a car.

I’m saying all this not to brag or complain, but to explain my interest in the matter and state my qualifications to discuss it. I’m aware that other folks may be less particular about such movies than myself. Public images of mathematical women continue to be scarce. Given how many Hollywood films still fail the Bechdel test, I do appreciate it when two women have a conversation that not only is not about a man, but also extends to mathematical research and female ambition. But if you’re looking for a review that only comments on the actual film and refrains from speculating on what could or might have been if someone else had made a different one, this is not it. I’m laying claim to my own territory which they have breached. I know the ground here. I talk to the birds and the snakes. I’ve learned my way around the place many times over. What about you? Are you interested in learning?
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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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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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On proof and progress in feminism

The recent allegations against several celebrities have led to a broader conversation on how we, as a society, don’t believe women. In a “he said, she said” situation, we trust the man and assume that the woman is either mistaken or lying. “Taking us seriously” means that we are advised of such and offered an explanation for our dismissal instead of simply being dismissed outright. It’s not only personal bias, conscious or not; there are institutional mechanisms perpetuating this state of affairs. No proof is ever sufficient if it comes from a woman. Should she present multiple affidavits, all signed and notarized in triplicate, she’ll be informed that they do not prove her claim; she, on the other hand, probably violated multiple rules and procedures by collecting and presenting her evidence in the first place. She should stop before she gets into more trouble.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing crop of men who, having declared themselves as feminists, proceed to lecture women on how they should go about equity-related matters. At a recent tech conference, a panel of male allies told women that they should just apply themselves a little bit more; another male panelist implored them to wait quietly for their good karma. Closer to home, I’ve been told repeatedly and earnestly that sexism in math would be solved if we only had unmoderated comments on research articles, or anonymous journal submissions, or some such. We’re instructed on what level of anger befits a feminist (low to nonexistent), which fights we can pick without belittling our cause (not many, and most of them were in the past), and how to address men in order to not alienate them (politely and with due deference). We’re offered advice that’s worse than useless in that we have to spend our time rebutting it. We have policies and procedures pushed on us that promote, at our expense, some alien, estranged concept called “women” that does not include us.

This is all of a piece with the culture that casts men as leaders and experts, and women as supporting characters and understudies. In feminism, as in everything else, men believe that their superior knowledge and understanding bestows upon them a natural authority and responsibility. Our equality will be measured, apportioned and dispensed to us by polite, congenial men, men who will invite us to advise and support them as needed, but will always reserve the right to overrule us should they deem it necessary.

Basic things are basic. You spoke over women in committees, silenced them in faculty meetings, denied their requests, and then you don’t understand why they don’t accept your valiant leadership with gratitude? Golly gee, the world can be so unfair. That said, we do need allies. We could use more help. And there are men who, I’m sure, have all the best intentions. And that makes it so much more disappointing when these men dismiss our hard-earned insight in favour of their own solutionism, where each problem has an easy answer and those that do not are declared nonexistent.

Consider the large body of research on unconscious racial and gender bias. Have you also paid attention to the public responses to such studies? Most men, and some women, might read a study on gender bias with astonishment and disbelief, having had no previous intimation that this was going on. They might argue back that not all men do this, and that some women succeed in tech, and women have babies and girls play with dolls. Above all, they will demand more proof. If it’s a lab study, it needs to be repeated and checked against real life statistics. If it’s statistics, then individual cases must be examined for other possible explanations. If it’s individual stories, that’s just anecdata, we need statistics and/or a lab study. To ensure appropriate collegiality, all this must be provided without hurting men’s feelings or contradicting their beliefs.

Many women, meanwhile, respond to the results of the same study with a collective “duh” on social media. It’s hardly news to them that X happens, even if the numbers might still surprise them. They see it all the time; they also see Y, Z, W, and much more. They had talked about it between themselves, thought about it, written about it at length. Nonetheless, they are the first to point out the importance of the study, to praise and publicize it. They do so because it legitimizes their own experience in the eyes of others, opens up a window in which they might be permitted to speak out. It offers evidence other than the flimsy, useless threads of their own words.

None of their knowledge is available to those who insist on conducting every conversation as it if were a criminal trial. There’s no chance of normal discourse. Why did I say “they see it all the time” when there was this one time it didn’t happen? And that other time, too? Who are “they,” anyway? Can we have their names and institutional affiliations? Have we heard the other side of the story? And so women are studied as if we were baboons, endangered for some reason but incapable of articulating what it is that ails us, so that researchers have to rely on statistics, experiments and third-party accounts.

Do you care about proof, or about progress? You can read all the peer-reviewed research, attend all the official panels, and you’ll still only see the tip of the iceberg. You’ll see the isolated facts but you’ll have no idea how to connect them. You’ll see the molehill that can be proved in a scientific paper, but not the mountain that we are forbidden to talk about for confidentiality reasons, and not the one that we stopped talking about because nobody believed us, either.

This post, unlike most of what I write, has no hyperlinks. This is on purpose. There are many related links in my earlier posts, and more in my Twitter feed linked on the sidebar. It’s easy enough to google around and find more. Alternatively, you could entertain the possibility that what I’m telling you is the actual truth of my experience. That would be a good start.

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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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The human factor

A recent Telegraph article suggests that “females, as a whole, are not hugely engaged by science.” Emphasis mine:

The problem with science is that, for all its wonders, it lacks narrative and story-line. Science (and maths) is about facts, and the laboratory testing of elements. It is not primarily about people. Women – broadly speaking – are drawn to the human factor: to story, biography, psychology and language.

This self-proclaimed people specialist keeps referring to women as “females,” the noun more often than the adjective. For instance: “Biology and nature, he suggested, will generally nudge females away from [science and engineering].” Here’s to biology, I guess. And to consistency.

Here’s one good rebuttal, with further links. This essay in particular matches a great deal of my own experience. But I also want to question the “science is not about people” line from a different angle–the one that scientists adapt enthusiastically and unquestioningly in every funding application, from individual grants with a training and/or collaborative component, to conference funding, to large institute grants. For example:

The mandate of PIMS [Pacific Institute for Mathematical Sciences] is to:

  • promote research in and applications of the mathematical sciences of the highest international caliber
  • facilitate the training of highly-qualified personnel at the graduate and postdoctoral level
  • enrich public awareness of mathematics through outreach
  • enhance the mathematical training of teachers and students in K-12
  • create mathematical partnerships with similar organizations in other countries, with a particular focus on Latin America and the Pacific Rim.

NSERC pays 1.15M per year for this, and that amount does not include provincial funding or support from participating institutions. I suppose one might argue about the precise meaning of “primarily,” but the “human factor” does not exactly seem unimportant. You could also look at the webpages of individual institute programs:

The purpose of this programme is to bring together researchers in these diverse areas of mathematics, to encourage more interaction between these fields, and to provide an opportunity for UK mathematicians to engage with an important part of the mathematical computer science community.

This is very standard language. Every conference, workshop and institute program aims to bring together researchers, encourage interactions, promote the exchange of ideas, contribute to training, engage the community. Every conference proposal and grant application emphasizes it. Every funding agency demands it. Every mathematics institute derives its very existence from this notion.

And how do women score here? In light of their natural, biologically determined talents and inclinations, surely we should be looking for women scientists in particular to manage all those human interactions, or at least to participate in them significantly? PIMS has never had a female director or deputy director. Among the more than 120 participants in the program I linked above, there are 3 that I recognize as women. There are many more such examples, more that I could ever have the time to list. Women are often underrepresented at conferences (read the comment section for testimonials), both as speakers and as organizers, and when they are represented proportionally or better, this is often framed as an affirmative action gimmick rather than genuine appreciation of their contributions.

We sing the importance of communication, interaction and connection-making at the bean counters, then ignore it in our own deliberations. We take pride in choosing conference speakers based on “scientific merit,” defined as a best paper contest with an all-male jury, even when good arguments can be made that the “human factor” should in fact count towards scientific merit. And heavens help anyone who might raise the idea of inviting more women to conferences based on their alleged skills in interpersonal communication. And I don’t see women being overrepresented among institute directors, deputy directors, or other high profile research facilitators, all positions for which women should be particularly well qualified by the virtue of biology and nature.

Consistency, indeed.

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G.H. Hardy and Mrs. Ellis

David, by Michelangelo. Image: Wikimedia

David, by Michelangelo. Image: Wikimedia

If you haven’t yet read this classic essay by Linda Nochlin on the question of why there have been no great women artists, I recommend it very highly. The essay is from 1971, but Nochlin’s points remain very much relevant to today’s arguments about why there have been so few great women philosophers, or mathematicians, or whatever.

Nochlin starts out by questioning the common notion of a “great artist” as a singularity that exists independently of society and history. The truth is, it takes at least a village. Great artists are enabled by the society they live in, draw on its artistic traditions, engage in a dialogue with other practitioners. Indeed, if artistic greatness depended only on innate talent, it would be very difficult to explain what Nochlin calls “conditions generally productive of great art,” such as must have existed, for instance, in the 15th century Florence and Rome, or in France in the second half of the 19th century. (We’ll note here that much of the same can be said of mathematics.)

The society also establishes standards for what qualifies as “great art,” and what does not. In the pre-impressionist Europe, historical painting– understood broadly so as to include biblical scenes, Greek and Roman mythology– was considered the highest and most prestigious form of art. Landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, and other suchlike were deemed less worthy. To wit:

Until the 20th century, Mona Lisa was one among many and not the “most famous painting” in the world as it is termed today. Among works in the Louvre, in 1852 its market value was 90,000 francs compared to works by Raphael valued at up to 600,000 francs.

“Great art,” going back to ancient Greece and Rome and then again starting with Renaissance, more often than not depicted naked and partially naked human bodies. Think Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Botticelli, Rubens. Even when the figures are clothed, the paintings still display a thorough knowledge of human anatomy. Such knowledge was usually gained through extensive study of the nude model, a practice that continues to be a mainstay of art programs. And yet, as Nochlin explains in detail, nude models (both male and female) were forbidden to women painters before the end of the 19th century. That right there explains completely why there has been no female Michelangelo or Raphael.

Nochlin cites many other ways in which the society refused to enable women artists: the apprenticeship system, access to academic educational institutions such as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, opportunities to establish suitable relationships with art patrons, and more.

But the part I want to highlight here is the prevailing attitude to “the lady’s accomplishment”:

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