Category Archives: women in math

Still not on MathOverflow

It’s been almost 2 years now since I wrote my MathOverflow post, but it still gets plenty of clicks, a comment now and then, and other feedback by email or otherwise. The subject has in fact come up again on MO recently, here and here.

I’d like to correct the chronology that the commenter fedja suggests in the first discussion above. I wrote my post in response to a discussion that was already well under way on MO, after my blog got linked there. Generally, I don’t go out of my way to write long posts on why I’m not interested in something or other. I’d rather write about the many things that do interest me. Also, I posted it before the discussion on MO started attracting comments like this one:

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Filed under women in math

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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Filed under academia, feminism, women in math


This new study in PNAS on gender bias in science hiring is already making rounds everywhere, but in case haven’t seen it yet, here’s part of the abstract:

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.

The article is open-access, so you should be able to read it from home; if not, then the summaries here and here have the numbers.

The applicant’s resume was the same in all cases, except for the name (Jennifer or John, two names that were judged by the researchers to be equally “likeable”) and gendered pronouns. (It is available on the PNAS site as part of the “supporting information”.) It is fairly generic, calibrated to show a candidate who looks potentially promising, but not stellar. The candidate mentions research experience with two faculty mentors and a co-authored journal paper, and has plans to apply to graduate school in the future. A few details were added that, depending on the evaluator, might or might not matter: dropped out of a course, slacked off a bit early in college but then got serious and made up for it. (If you asked me, none of these would raise concerns.) Faculty responses were broken down by the respondents’ gender.

On a competence scale from 1 to 7, John received mean scores of 4.01 and 4.1 from male and female faculty respectively. Jennifer’s scores were 3.33 and 3.32, about 0.7 less than John’s. Similar differences were observed in the “hireability” and “mentoring” categories (the latter refers to the faculty member’s willingness to mentor Jennifer or John). The difference in mean salaries recommended for the candidate was also significant: 30,520 and 29,333 for John vs. 27,111 and 25,000 for Jennifer.

There are several important points here. One is that the subjects were actual scientists, doing what we normally do in the course of our work. The resume did not look fake or contrived – it would fit right in with the paperwork I receive all the time as a potential supervisor or member of selection committees. The authors do not study gender bias by proxy, trying to draw a straight line from girls and boys playing with dolls and trucks to faculty composition in top science departments. They test us on behaviours that have direct and immediate impact on women in science, and find us biased.

The “mediation” part is crucial. The scientists were not actively seeking to discriminate against women. They offered similar salaries to candidates that they perceived as equally competent, suggesting that, in their minds, they were evaluating the candidate purely on merit. The problem is that the female candidate was judged to be less competent, evidently for no reason other than gender, given that the resumes were exactly identical except for the name. The unconscious bias was “mediated” into different perceptions of the candidate’s competence.

I’m sure that most of the participants, believing themselves unbiased, would be shocked to see the results. In fact, I’d like to see a web test based on this experiment that deans, department heads, hiring committee members, journal editors, conference organizers and other decision makers would be required to take before assuming their responsibilities. I suspect it could be an eye-opener for many of us.

That the bias is unconscious and involuntary is confirmed by another finding: the female candidate was rated higher on a “likeability” scale. In other words, faculty respondents reported “liking” the female applicant better than the male one, even as they judged her to be less competent, were less willing to hire or mentor her, and recommended a lower salary. It confirms something I’ve believed for years now: it’s a blind alley for women to worry too much about being “liked”.

There’s much more to unpack here, from the responses all over the internet, to the better practices we could adopt in hiring (and elsewhere), to the myriad ways in which we interpret resumes and supplement them with other information, to possible explanations of why female scientists recommended lower salaries overall. It’s good that I’m on sabbatical, because that’s enough material for several posts. They should be forthcoming soon.


Filed under academia, feminism, women in math

What’s science got to do with this?

Someone please tell me that this didn’t happen:

Apparently, being a female scientist is awesome because… you get to look like a model! And do a Charlie’s Angels routine with co-workers! And dance in a chemistry lab in high heels! And do that little head shake from hair product commercials!

Christ. I don’t even know where to begin. I’m tempted to write a long post about the objectification of women in the media and popular culture, and especially the incessant focus on their bodies instead of their accomplishments. I would have liked to see some women actually engaged in doing science and rocking it, not just dancing around a lab and noticing how a test tube looks like a lipstick. I resent the idea that, in addition to working more than full time already, we also have to be eye candy for our male colleagues. If nothing else, the producers should have at least known that maintaining the perfect look is basically a full-time job for their models – not something that most busy professionals can pull off.

In my capacity as a scientist, however, I have to prepare for a conference that starts this weekend, and I also have a paper to referee that I’d like to finish reading before I leave. So, you only get a short quiz instead.

You’re welcome to take a really long time on this one.

Update: the video I embedded no longer works, but you can still see it here along with additional comments from female scientists, including one who is also a former professional model.


Filed under science, women in math

Women in math, and the overhaul of the publishing system

If you have not yet heard of the Elsevier boycott, you have a lot of reading to catch up on. I’ll wait. I’m not likely to miss traditional commercial publishers when they’re gone, which could well happen within the next decade or so, especially if they and their agents keep asking for it. Think whatever you want about the Cost of Knowledge website, but open access journals have already gained a lot of ground, we have taken charge of the dissemination and advertising of our own research on the internet, and good luck to any journal that tries to stop authors from placing their articles on publicly available webpages and preprint servers.

The better question is: do we still need journals, be it commercial or any other kind, and if not then what will replace them? Among other possibilities, open web-based evaluation systems have been proposed.

This post suggests that a web-based evaluation system would be good for women, the idea being that “women don’t ask” and therefore they are less likely to, say, submit a paper to Annals. I see it exactly the other way around. I’ve talked about some aspects of it already, but not all, and in any case it never hurts to say something more than once, especially when you’re female.

This is not to say that I’m against discussion boards for mathematicians on the internet. I’ll be very happy to have them, as long as they’re not mandatory for everyone and don’t drive out those parts of the current system that function reasonably well. We need more options, not fewer. For instance, I rather like the idea of “evaluation boards” to which authors could submit arXiv papers for validation, without the boards ever pretending to “publish” or “disseminate” the papers. That, if done right, would preserve the advantages of the current system while losing most of its disadvantages. (And it should work just fine for women, I think.)

Now, the details. (This is another one of those long posts. Sorry.)

Proxies. It would be really, really nice if we just evaluated everyone based on the actual merit of their work:

To fix the academic publishing mess, researchers need to stop sending their work to barrier-based journals. And for that to happen, we need funding bodies and job-search committees to judge candidates on the quality of their work, not on which brand name it’s associated with.

Happily, there are signs of movement in this direction: for example, The Wellcome Trust says “it is the intrinsic merit of the work, and not the title of the journal in which an author’s work is published, that should be considered in making funding decisions.” We need more funding and hiring bodies to make such declarations.

If we all did that, there would never be any need ever to worry about either publishing or gender bias. We’d love to be judged purely on merit. Also, everyone should get a pony.

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Filed under academia, mathematics: general, women in math

Why I’m not on MathOverflow

There was a discussion on Meta MathOverflow recently about why female mathematicians have so little visible presence on MO. According to Ben Webster, among the top 300 highest reputation users there’s only one that he believes to be female. The exact number is not known, as there may be other female users posting under gender-neutral pseudonyms, but that again raises the question of why women feel they need to hide their identity and men do not. My blog got linked (thanks!), and that’s how I started to think about my own non-participation.

I don’t have a MathOverflow account. I check the front page every now and then, and I’ll probably sign up eventually, but I’ve never been tempted to post on a regular basis. The obvious and immediate reason is that I don’t have the time. I’m not terribly active in other online communities, either, so it’s not like I’ve singled out MO for a boycott.

That said, there are plenty of reasons for women to thread carefully in new communities, online and offline. You may have heard of FatUglyOrSlutty already, but if not, please do take a look. It’s a website where female gamers post screenshots of insults directed at them on gaming websites. Created just a couple of months ago as of this writing, it has already made waves, see here for example:

I first hit that question [“how they could not have known?”] many years ago as a teenager on IRC. One of my male friends logged in on his mother’s account, and was horrified to discover the messages that “Sheila” was getting from complete strangers and mentioned so on our channel. The women of the channel shrugged: it was always like that for us. The men were horrified to know that under the surface, we’d been quietly ignoring pick up lines and harassment and just not mentioning it all this time. It’s not like we were intentionally hiding it, it’s more that it happened so often that it wasn’t worth mentioning.

And here:

“The first rule is: try to avoid pronouns.” A tall order, especially when it comes to the basic act of writing. And taller still given that Brittany (whose full name and publication she wishes to remain anonymous) has worked in editorial media for several years. “I mean, of course you end up using them. But if it’s on Reddit or The Guardian online-anything with comments or feedback-it’s the same: you’re going to get shit if readers figure out you’re female.”

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Filed under women in math

Truth, images and consequences

If you haven’t checked out the link in my last post, I will have to spoil the surprise for you. The link goes to a Weierstrass Institute webpage promoting its successful bid to host the permanent office of the International Mathematical Union; the item of interest is the photo gallery of 12 distinguished mathematicians who supported the bid. All 12 are male, white, probably in their 50s or 60s.

My point was that such imagery could have alienated part of the constituency that the institute was addressing. The IMU Executive Committee for 2007-2010 includes two women (Cheryl Praeger and Ragni Piene), Ingrid Daubechies has just been elected President for the 2011-2014 term, and Christine Rousseau has been elected one of the two Vice-Presidents. As for race, it must be said that Germany is an overwhelmingly white country and Berlin an overwhelmingly white city, but then it might be added that the IMU mandate specifically includes reaching out to developing countries and its office will have to be able to support that mandate. I wonder if anyone at IMU flagged that photo gallery. Maybe they did, but other considerations prevailed in the end.

I would have left it at that. It was a PR misstep, easy fodder for a quick blog post but ultimately not that consequential. But then the commenters came up with reasons why, perhaps, the pictures should have been all male. They argued for “truth in PR”: if the reality were all male, it would have been wrong to falsify the image by including women who clearly didn’t belong. This, I believe, deserves a longer response. It’s not merely a question of “lying is bad”. You have to think a bit harder, consider the context, look past the easy templates to find alternatives.
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Filed under feminism, politics, women in math