Their own wisdom

This post is for Hillary Clinton.

Now even in the matter of homesteads women are not allowed free land unless they are widows with the care of minor children […] The alleged reason for this discrimination is that women cannot perform the required duties and so, to save them from the temptation of trying, the government in its fatherly wisdom denies them the chance.

But women are doing homestead duties whenever homestead duties are being done. Women suffer the hardships – cold, hunger, loneliness – against which there is no law; and, when the homestead is “proved,” all the scrub cleared, and the land broken, the husband may sell the whole thing without his wife’s knowledge, and he can take the money and depart, without a word. Against this there is no law wither!

No person objects to the homesteader’s wife having to get out wood, or break up scrub land, so long as she is not doing these things for herself and has no legal claim on the result of her labour.

– Nellie McClung, May 1916

The laws have changed over the last 90 years, but that business with claiming the fruits of our labour for ourselves is still unfinished. We may be legally entitled to equal pay, but just recently the U.S. senate blocked a bill that would have actually allowed women to enforce it. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both voted for the bill. John McCain did not vote, but was happy about the outcome.

Even when the results of our labour are legally ours, it’s just, well, impolite of us to insist on claiming them. Hillary has experienced it. I have experienced it. Many of us have.

I’ve never believed that women should support Hillary because of their experience of discrimination or backlash. There are better reasons to vote for a candidate, Senator Clinton or otherwise. What are her policies? How exactly is she going to help us? But it is because of that experience that we understand a little bit better what she is doing and why, regardless of whether we agree with her or not.

She didn’t quit when she was told she should? If you had given up a fight for the sake of collegiality, only to have it rubbed in your face, if you had been asked to concede time and again for no apparent reason except that it would be nice of you to do so, and if you didn’t see any of that happening to your male colleagues, you too would develop a gag reflex when it comes to voluntary concessions. You might, in fact, aim to go too far in the other direction, because that’s what you do first if you want to find a good balance.

She was negative and divisive in her campaign? Yes, she was, and that has cost her. She has tested everyone’s patience, mine included, with the Bosnian sniper fire stories and the endless speculations on how she would be winning if the rules were different. The rules are what they are, and she, of all people, should know that well enough. She’s spent too many years learning and following the rules.

But back to being divisive? Just recently, I came upon a study that claims that women don’t get elected to public offices because they’re not really interested. There will be a separate post about this, because I’m a little bit familiar with the “ambition gap,” but for now I’ll just say that this perception is a real problem for us. If Hillary had been less negative, the default assumption would have been that she didn’t really want the job all that much. She did want it, and she was negative, and that got her in another kind of trouble.

Barack Obama had a whole different set of default assumptions to fight. He handled it better, and he won. I hope that he wins in November. But this post is about Hillary.

Next time that a woman runs for the U.S. presidency, I hope that she will run a better organized campaign and that she will not have a history of politically expedient, but ultimately misguided, votes. But also, that she will not have to spend much time establishing that, yes, a woman might actually run more than a token campaign. That she will be judged on her policies, not her clothing. Perhaps she will even get to the point of being able to run without first having to make all those compromises that become a liability later on. Then she might be able to win.

And that just might be possible because of Hillary’s campaign. In the end, she did change the rules. A female candidate is no longer just a token candidate, it’s someone who might actually get the nomination. It’s someone who might have a very close fight with one of the best politicians, of either gender, that we’ve seen in a long time. Someone who does want the job and will likely be good at it if elected.

The glass ceiling is made of presumptions and beliefs. Hillary did break that.

Here’s how Nellie McClung ends her essay:

Women will make mistakes, of course, and pay for them. That will be nothing new – they have always paid for men’s mistakes. It will be a change to pay for their own; and in paying for them they will learn wisdom.

It’s my party and I blog if I want to…

There’s a discussion over at the Secret Blogging Seminar on the following subject: is it just a coincidence that the eight bloggers are all male? If the initial slate of bloggers was put together at a private barbecue party where everybody was male, is that a good enough explanation? Should women have been included, or at least invited? Should we even care?

I’d like to put the whole issue of quota systems aside for the moment – I have commented on that elsewhere, in case anyone is interested. There’s something else here that I think is more important.

Most of us will agree that quota systems have no place in our personal lives. It’s nobody’s business to check attendance at, or otherwise regulate, other people’s barbecue parties. There’s no point in telling anybody who they should or should not socialize with. Our private lives are just that – private.

The problem is that there’s no clear separation between our personal and professional lives. We socialize with other mathematicians. We inevitably talk shop at private gatherings. It can’t be helped, seeing how “the shop” is a big part of who we are. But then there’s, for example, this extra funding opportunity that everyone in the department knew about well in advance, except for the two women who did not go to the barbecue parties. There’s this new set of regulations that will be presented to the department and put up for a vote in a meeting. The vote will be a mere formality, because the regulations have already been discussed in private with everyone, except of course for the two women… etc.

It’s not that we’re so eager to attend those all-male barbecue parties. Especially if those parties revolve around watching baseball and drinking beer.

What we do find objectionable is that, if we don’t hang out with the boys in our personal lives, then a whole lot of professional opportunities will pass us by.

The solution? It’s neither possible nor desirable to regulate people’s social lives. Instead, perhaps that funding opportunity should have been announced through formal channels. A draft of that new set of regulations should have been circulated to everyone by email and the committee in charge should invite – and take into account – input from all faculty. It’s only a partial fix, but it’s better than nothing.

So what about a blog? Is that a private party or a professional opportunity?

My own blog is very clearly a private party. (Number of Tindersticks videos embedded to date: 2. Number of math expositions posted: 0, though this should change soon.)

Group blogs might be somewhere in between. If a blogging group were to be funded or otherwise helped by the department, then I would certainly want to ask some questions, and not only about gender balance. (How come you all guys are algebraists?) But if a few people just get together and set up a blog? Good for them.

And hey, if I don’t like that, then I have my own 100% female blog and I can write what I want.

Gloria Steinem on the gender divide

Gloria Steinem writes about Clinton and Obama in a New York Times op-ed. Read the whole thing if you can, it’s worth it. She starts by pointing out that a female candidate with Obama’s biography would never have any chance:

Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power, from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible exception of obedient family members in the latter).

[…] there is still no “right” way to be a woman in public power without being considered a you-know-what.

[…] what worries me is that he is seen as unifying by his race while she is seen as divisive by her sex.

What worries me is that she is accused of “playing the gender card” when citing the old boys’ club, while he is seen as unifying by citing civil rights confrontations.

What worries me is that male Iowa voters were seen as gender-free when supporting their own, while female voters were seen as biased if they did and disloyal if they didn’t. […]

What worries me is that some women, perhaps especially younger ones, hope to deny or escape the sexual caste system; thus Iowa women over 50 and 60, who disproportionately supported Senator Clinton, proved once again that women are the one group that grows more radical with age.

Oh yes we do.

As if to illustrate the point, the same New York Times follows up with the article Women’s Support for Clinton Rises in Wake of Perceived Sexism. Given that the incidents mentioned in the article are obvious enough (if you’ve missed the most recent one, this Tom Toles cartoon explains it well enough), do we really have to call it “perceived” sexism? Better yet, could we say that women are angered over the sexist treatment of Senator Clinton, but the actual reason why they support her is that they think that she would make a good President?

Women in Math, or Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves

Several times over the last few weeks I found myself opposing certain initiatives intended to promote women in mathematics. Most of these discussions were not meant to be public and so I won’t quote them here. I’ll just say that, yes, there is a gender bias in science (and I’ve experienced it), but scoring easy points by improving gender statistics is not always the right answer. Specifically, promoting women does not always mean hiring more of them or appointing them to every committee. There are other considerations that should be obvious but often get overlooked in this particular context.

Research-track faculty – male or female – are independent researchers. We are expected to have our own research programs. We choose our own research directions and pursue them according to our own best judgement. It’s a basic part of our mandate as university researchers. That’s why we spend so many years in formal training, that’s why we’re put through sequences of temporary appointments before landing a permanent job. By the time we get tenure, we are expected to be able to plan and carry out an independent research program not just for ourselves, but also for the benefit of the junior people (postdocs, graduate students) that we are supervising. We engage in collaboration, but we don’t just give up our own research programs to join someone else’s.

That said, it’s very hard – impossible, in some ways – for us to work in isolation.

It’s not just a matter of having a collaborator next door. It’s nice to have one, and better yet to have several, but nowadays many of us have long-distance collaborations via email and periodic visits and this can work very well. However, we can’t -for example- supervise graduate students by email and periodic visits.

There are good reasons why professors don’t run private graduate programs out of their basements. To paraphrase Hillary Clinton, it takes a department to raise a graduate student. It takes basic and advanced courses, seminars, exposure to a research community in general and to current research in their area of specialization in particular. A strong group in a given area will attract good graduate students, offer advanced courses and seminars on a regular basis, organize programs and conferences. The isolated researcher has a much harder time doing any of this.

I’ve focused on graduate supervision because this is an explicit job requirement. At UBC and other universities, an insufficient record of graduate supervision can be a problem when we come up for promotion. There are many other ways, though, in which a researcher benefits from being part of a community.

This is why hiring decisions are usually based on two things. One is the excellence of the candidate and this should require no explanation. The other is the candidate’s “fit” with the department – a generic term referring to various strategic considerations, such as whether this person will be supported in what he is doing, who he will interact with, what he will bring to the department and how the department will take advantage of having him as a faculty member.

I’ve used the male pronoun “he” for a reason.

Too often, administrators and departments ignore the “fit” considerations when it comes to hiring women. They see women as somehow more pliable, able to fit in places where a man wouldn’t, more willing to adjust by giving up on their own goals and to settle for playing the second fiddle to other faculty.

This does result in hiring more women faculty, especially when there are special policies and grant programs to that effect. Unfortunately, the same women can find it very hard to succeed in their new positions. Basically, the departments that hired them were never interested in their actual research program – at least not interested enough to put their money where their mouth was. The women find themselves isolated, overworked, cut off from departmental funding opportunities and “career-enhancing” assignments. And no woman has ever endeared herself to anybody by making demands.

I know because that’s what happened in my own case. I was hired at UBC through the University Faculty Awards program in 2000. I did not work in any of the department’s Official Priority Areas. Soon I found out that there were plenty of faculty who would have liked me to support their research programs, but none who would join me in what I wanted to do. I noticed other things, too. The basic graduate courses in analysis were taught at an embarrassingly low level and completely disconnected from any active research topics. As for advanced courses, there were 3 of them between 2000 and 2008. (For comparison, there were over 25 advanced courses in probability over the same period of time, including summer schools. By “advanced” I mean “not cross-listed as undergraduate.”)

Obviously I had a hard time with the graduate supervision thing. And the career-enhancing assignments thing. And the opportunities thing. I’ve had to work much harder and wait much longer than my colleagues, and even that wasn’t always enough.

I was completely isolated for six years. I don’t particularly care to go into further details.  UBC finally hired a second analyst in 2006; last winter, an external department review committee recommended further hiring in analysis. The department is currently advertising in the area. We’ll see.

I’m mentioning all this because my name has been used as an example of a success story, against my wishes, including by the same people who had made my area of research a non-priority. Sorry, but you’re whitewashing it. You have no bragging rights as far as I’m concerned. Next time you want to hire a woman, great, but first make sure that you think of her as an independent researcher just like yourself. With her own goals and priorities. Once she’s been hired, she deserves the same support as everyone else in the department. For instance, instead of hiring yet another female assistant professor and then leaving her to her own devices, hire a male candidate who will support the women you already have. That’s what I would call “gender equality.”