Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


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.


  1. Right on. Can I forward this on?

    - Theo — 10/5/2004 @ 4:10 pm

  2. Forward away; glad you liked it.

    - Moebius Stripper — 10/5/2004 @ 4:35 pm

  3. How exactly do you think high-school level math ought to be reformed? Awesome post, of course. That there’s some Righteous Indignation.

    - Joshua H. — 10/5/2004 @ 5:21 pm

  4. Hi. Great post. I have a lot to say about it, but because your piece is so well-constructed and closely reasoned, to make my points (which mostly complement yours, but contrast with yours in one case, and branch off in somewhat tangential, but important, directions in a few cases) I’d have to write something really long, and I’m not sure whether I feel like writing, or whether anyone really wants to see, something that long from me here in the comments section. Maybe I’ll send you an e-mail later on. Anyway, way cool job on that “essay.”

    Also — and this thought has probably been growing in your mind, too — I think it’s a distinct possibility that the silence of the people at the magazine stems from an expectation that you would shoot them something supporting exactly the kind of position that your writing strongly debunks, that is, the position that we should “actively [try] to recruit adult women into math programs and positions,” et cetera, instead of working to implant those ideas and drives in girls early on as they grow up (among other things). If that’s really the reason for their wilting interest, it would be kind of funny, wouldn’t it? It would mean that they expected you to sprout some version of a template of their own thoughts, the more authentic for being rooted in the mind of an authentic woman.

    - wes — 10/5/2004 @ 10:20 pm

  5. Seed Magazine is great - I’ve only read it twice, but it’s got a whole lot of interesting things on all sorts of issues in science, and more importantly science in society. I hope they do something with your response.

    Anyway, I think I’ll post a response to this at Cardinal Collective within the next day or so - I think I’ve got some things to say that I want to say in a more public place.

    - Kenny Easwaran — 10/5/2004 @ 11:05 pm

  6. Yeah, I teach math and skills to other people, too, and don’t mind sharing my knowledge. But now I’ve got a higher math goal: to make money! Lots of it! And you won’t get that in academia.

    Actually, I’m not sure that it’s sexism that turns off most girls from math in the earlier grades. From what I remember, it was pretty uncool to like and excel in math for both boys and girls, starting around middle school. It was okay to be in the more advanced classes if you were mediocre at it and found it boring, but if you really understood and asked the teacher questions, if you participated on the math team, you were a geek. This is sexist only to the extent that the guys tended not to care that they had no friends outside the other geeks. I certainly didn’t care if I had any friends at school at all. But it was different for my sisters.

    What’s interesting is that Amy really sucked in her high school math classes, and now she’s a CPA, and does pretty well at it, too. It ain’t algebraic geometry, but it’s something. Part of the whole math & science problem is that they look askance on older students and starting late. Many people =can= get to higher math skills and knowledge, but if academia requires that you’ve been plugging away since you were 10, you’re just going to get geeks. In the actuarial world, lots of people start “late”. I know many people for whom this is a second (hi!) or third career - we’ve got actuarial students at my company who are almost 40. But, of course, we’re attracted by the pay in addition to using the math skills. And we’re making good money while we learn.

    No one is going to be attracted to grad school in theoretical math for the money.

    My own guess, if you want sexist generalizations, is that women are less tangled up in the ego business that is the academy and more attuned to practical matters in the world (i.e. reality). There are simply lots more attractive careers out there that will remunerate one for one’s superior math skills. And you definitely get respect and inclusion. Interesting that the unenlightened corporations get this better than universities… but then, there’s no such thing as tenure in corporations.

    - meep — 10/6/2004 @ 1:44 am

  7. I don’t know that women are “less tangled up in the ego business that is the academy”. For me, most of the skewness was introduced in later high school, long before I or any of my fellow students began contemplating our future careers in detail.

    To the degree that ’sexist generalizations’ are possible, I think it’s just an issue of social stigma. Either girls try harder to avoid becoming geeks, or geek girls go do other things.

    - saforrest — 10/6/2004 @ 11:38 am

  8. Well, there are lots of math-related careers out there. And yes, =girls= might be pushed away from geeky math, but I’ve noticed that =women= seem to find an interest in stuff like being an actuary, as that’s a math-related subject one can study and master as an adult, and doesn’t require years of schooling and being a peon to profs. I’m thinking those who wonder why women aren’t math faculty might want to look at where women who have math-related careers end up. It may be that their goals are different than the current faculty - some really like teaching, and notice that’s not valued in the academy…some really like having a large family, and that’s definitely a drawback in the academy…and some would really like to make a lot of money. It could be that some of these differences may explain some disparities - and as B says, no amount of incentives at the college level are going to change these particular differences.

    - meep — 10/6/2004 @ 2:55 pm

  9. p.s. Screed/creed/seed :^)

    - wes — 10/6/2004 @ 4:26 pm

  10. A few years back I was in Poland, and our host was the director of a math/science program that sends a few exchange students each year to a selective US summer program for high school students. We asked him why his program never sent any girls to our program. He said that no girls in Poland were interested in math/science and that Polish women would rather raise a family than be mathematicians/scientists. He said that it is their culture and that we just didn’t understand. And he refused to discuss the matter further. (I guess Manya Sklodowska was an anomoly?) Bah.

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 10/6/2004 @ 8:11 pm

  11. Hi, I am a woman in math who passed the gauntlet of grad school, and just got a faculty position. My understanding of this “phenomenon” has really changed from the time when I was the lone girl on the mathteam to going through the hiring processes at universities.

    First, I should say that a higher number of woman at higher levels is widely felt, even at the elementary school level. My (future) kids’ friends and my friend’s kids all know a female mathematician, married, with a normal life– hey it’s not so weird! And when I sit down and play fractal games with them, hey math is cool! and genderless.

    There is such an enormous trickle down effect. You are an excellent role model for your students, and the fact that you have a masters degree gives you a lot of math cred. Even if you don’t “go all the way” the more women higher on the academic chain there are, the higher any individual is likely to rise.

    Until they hit that glass ceiling, of course. When I entered the hiring process, I was a little shocked. I think the biggest problem in math is that the wonder-genius-boy ideal still prevails. If you had to take 6 months off to nurse a baby or take care of a dying relative (a task more often done by women children than men), no one wants to know about it. They will however, be very conscious of the inevitable gap in your cv. Hiring is so tight, that that kind of thing makes the difference.

    (NSERC by the way, is very generous on this account and *does* have room on their grant and fellowship applications for one to explain exactly such things. They are slowly getting better about being more open to other models of researchers than just the man with a housewife)

    I think it is changing though. I really noticed that in the past few years the number of high school math contest girl superstars, has really increased. That is the kind of thing that makes me think that change is in the air.

    Sorry if this is too long!! I have many many opinions on this subject.

    - marni — 10/8/2004 @ 5:28 am

  12. […] ciences — Moebius Stripper @ 10:26 am

    I started posting a big response to the women in math screed, but it got big enough to merit its own big post. Joshua H. asks, How ex […]

  13. […] whatever anyone wants it to mean.” This is reminiscent of the many times I asked my sensitive male colleagues why we should try to increase the number of women studying math. In both […]

  14. […] matical and physical sciences, but then I realized that I’d already posted about it. Three months ago: …no meaningful or productive discussion of [low ratio of males to females […]

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