Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

10/5/2004

The women in math screed

File under: Righteous Indignation, Sound And Fury, XX Marks the Spot, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 2:57 pm.

Last month, a writer from Seed Magazine wrote to me for my thoughts on women in math, and the barriers that women mathematicians face today. I haven’t heard back from her (LM - are you there?), so I don’t know if my comments will ever make their way into a real, live magazine, but there’s no reason I can’t toss ‘em up here. What follows is an adaptation of the email I wrote to her.

To begin: no meaningful or productive discussion of this topic can take place without acknowledging that there are far, far fewer women than men who are both interested in, and qualified to do, higher mathematics. Unfortunately, no discussion of that fact can take place - at least not in my presence - without someone pointing that the likely culprit is socialization, not biology - as though this is some profound insight that only those enlightened, self-proclaimed gender experts have ever considered - and one that renders any further discussion on the topic of women in mathematics completely moot. Social problem, not biological, the absence of women in math is a result of sexism, not hormones, nothing to see here.

Baloney. This fact - and it is a fact - is relevant in light of the reality that mathematics is a highly cumulative subject: if a student is lost or disinterested in mathematics in high school, they’re not going to be able to catch up in university without a lot of effort and a lot of motivation. If biology is responsible for the dearth of women in math, then there’s nothing to do; to the extent that it’s socialization, then by the time a girl is ready to apply for university - never mind grad school - then it’s between five and fifteen years too late to be thinking about how to get her interested in math and able to do it at a high level. Which is why, despite the abundance of scholarships and such available to women university and graduate math students, the numbers of both have remained nearly constant in many schools in years. (Compare this to the number of law degrees and such, in which women are neck-and-neck with men.) It’s also why I (cynically, perhaps) see the efforts geared at bringing university-level females into math programs as being little more than self-back-patting on the parts of those who support them: they’re certainly too late, if not too little. If any progress is going to be made countering the anti-math socialization that females experience, it needs to be done with children, not with adults.

Yet, “we must increase the numbers of women in math!” has become the dominant battle cry of mathematicians and feminists alike - the former of whom (mostly men, mostly older) typically have limited understanding of the life experiences of girls, and the latter of whom typically know next to nothing about math. The former accept the latter’s simplistic notion that the women-in-math problem would be solved if only we consciously countered our latent sexist beliefs and actively tried to recruit adult women into math programs and positions. I’ve been party to hiring committees and places of study in which this philosophy was applied. It’s almost always the same story: competent but sub-par female applies for position; hiring committee points out that she obviously has some skill and that we should really hire her, women-in-math thing and all; competent but sub-par female gets hired, and does competent but sub-par job.

When people express the belief that men are better than women at math, that’s not a conclusion they’ve drawn from unthinkingly assimilating stereotypes perpetuated by their teachers, their families, and The MediaTM. It’s a conclusion they’ve drawn from observing, with their own eyes, women who work alongside them or above them in math programs. And this in turn increases the pressure on the stronger female mathematicians to be better, faster, stronger than their peers, in order to prove that women can do math.

A number of times, I’ve asked people who accepted as axiomatic that we should try to get more women in math, why they held that belief. The conversations - which tend to catch people very much off guard - are illuminating. The fashionable talking point these days is one of diversity - women in math make the department more diverse. “Diverse how?” I’ll ask. Well, I’m told, women are more sensitive, more attuned to people’s emotions… Oh, yeah, I’ll comment. More sensitive, more emotional…less logical… Look, I didn’t say THAT…

Whatever. Due to the small number of mathematicians who are women, and the even smaller number of math/science people in gender-policy think-tanks, women in math are, for the most part, seen but not heard when it comes to dealing with the issue of women in math and related disciplines. The divide between the official policy of sensitivity toward women mathematicians’ concerns, and the actual involvement of said women in the issues that apparently affect them, is a sight to behold. It’s telling that the line that “women are sensitive!” is the one that comes up most often when I press people to tell me how women add diversity to the math department. Women are sensitive, see. Their male colleagues just plain aren’t emotionally attuned to their concerns; that’s women’s work. In other words, once women have been admitted to the math department, their male colleagues’ responsibility toward them has ended.

There was a male prof at my old school who routinely invited his postdocs and grad students - all men - to parties where they’d watch the Oscars or other somesuch and analyse in detail which of the young starlets were, and I quote, “the most fuckable.” I heard this from an attendee, who was quite outspoken against the sexism that excluded women from the department. It didn’t occur to him that the department had a responsibility to actually include its female students in its activities . To give what may seem at first a silly example on this subject: the only women’s washroom in one of the math buildings was frequently closed for repairs. When this happened, women were told to use the washrooms in another building. It never seemed to occur to anyone to temporarily designate one of the two men’s rooms in that building a women’s room, or even a co-ed room - thereby marginalizing the female students and faculty, who would have to leave discussions and classes to go to another building to pee. This has happened many times. Once I sent out an email asking one of the men’s washrooms to be temporarily reassigned. My email was ignored.

On the academic front: long hair aside, there are few ways in which I am conventionally feminine. One way, however, in which I adhere closely to my biological (or socialized?) fate is that I am interested in, and good at, distilling my subjects of interest to non-experts. This is something that study afer study has revealed that females of all species excel at, compared to males: teach a male a skill, and he uses it. Teach a female a skill, and she uses it, and teaches it to her mate, her kids, her friends. My interest in teaching and writing math books for a semi-general audience was summarily dismissed by all but one of my professors - no! you should do RESEARCH! If you’re not interested doing pure research, what are you doing pursuing a graduate degree in math? I understand that my alma mater is a research school, not a teaching one, but none of the faculty - save one - could even point me to schools or resources that would help me achieve my goal of writing about math. In other words, mathematicians want women to be women (be sensitive, and such), but when those women do something conventionally feminine, it’s dismissed. Teaching? Writing for an audience of non-experts? That’s stupid girly stuff. We want diversity, but we reserve the right to dismiss you for embodying it.

One of the most common arguments in support of affirmative action is the notion of “critical mass” : the more women there are around, the more comfortable people are with them, and the less of a boys’ club the math department becomes. This used to be an argument I (generally opposed to AA as typically applied to adults) found somewhat compelling, but over time I realized that it is just another side of the diversity coin, allowing its supporters (who aren’t sexist, of course!) to deflect responsibility onto the women they purport to help. Why should we need 25%, 30%, 50% female enrolment in order to the department to become less of a boys’ club - particularly since said boys are the ones talking about the value of sensitivity and such? And once we attain 25%, 30%, 50% enrolment, is it then our responsibility to organize our own Oscar parties? Or will the men’s parties end? Will the assholes stop being assholes? Or will it just matter less if they continue?

Bottom line - I’m unmoved by the bean-counting approach to measuring and dealing with discrimination in math and other male-dominated fields. It’s a policy that requires next to zero effort on the parts of the people who support it, and that achieves next to nothing in terms of dealing with any sexism that does exist - either the sexism that results in girls (high school and younger) losing interest in math and hence not pursuing it, or the sexism that sees male university students and professors generally being assholes and hence driving away their female colleagues. Men who publicly bemoan the dearth of women in math, and proclaim that we need to recruit, recruit, recruit, are always taken aback when I challenge them, or even ask them to elaborate or clarify. How could I not agree with them - I’m a woman, after all, and they’re expressing the Official Women’s Point of View. Shouldn’t I be grateful that they hold the right belief? Doesn’t that in itself make them virtuous? What gives?

In other words - shouldn’t I be sensitive to their feelings, and quietly listen to them without argument? After all, that’s the sort of diversity we’re aiming for, and it’s my responsibility to provide it.