January 30, 2011

Gender Bias in mathematics (with an assist from baseball)

Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematics prof at my twice-over alma mater, put up a post on his blog yesterday inviting discussion over gender bias in conference speakers. I had high hopes that it would spark an interesting conversation but it has ended up being pretty frustrating and depressing, mostly driven by a few privilege-blinded men who don't think there's a problem at all, as well as a more overly sexist anonymous coward or two.

Anyway, I just want to braindump a few of my own thoughts on the issue, as well as a few of those comments (Jordan's blog has eaten the comments I've tried to post over there). Of course, these are going to be colored with my own biases and experiences as a white male from a middle class background, and someone who does not actively explore or think about gender/racial issues all that much. However, I was raised by a feminist (and am married to one!) and hope that at least some of that rubbed off on me.

Jordan puts forth a simple question - does math need a campaign similar to the one linked in his post, which acts as a watchdog on conferences with all-male speaker lists. My answer would be - of course! There's nothing wrong in and of itself with all-male speaker lists. Subject-wise, mathematics can be such an esoteric field that simple probability says that sometimes the list of folks qualified to talk about it are all men. Of course, there are many other reasons why the availability of women mathematicians are so low that don't have anything to do with conference invitations, but let's get back to that for a moment.

Not surprisingly, the conversation turned into a discussion as to whether gender bias exists in mathematics at all. Denying that any such thing exists is ridiculous, in my opinion. But the problem is that, from a casual observer such as myself, it's tough to pin down. I've never run into anyone within mathematics who says that women aren't as good at math as men, nor that they are worse conference speakers (not that it means anything, but by FAR the two worst speakers I've seen were both men). However, even my shy, asocial self has heard about bad experiences by fellow female graduate students. I also think that few would argue that bias against women in mathematics/sciences exists in our culture at large, which is one of the reasons that there are relatively few women who major in things like math and computer sciences (my undergrad majors). But suddenly when they become grad students/postdocs/faculty members we're supposed to believe that these biases disappear?

Again, I'm not a scholar in this stuff but I think it's clear there is an implicit bias against women in mathematics. The problem with these biases is that it's really hard to point out without invoking strong reactions in those who benefit from it. I can't speak to gender very well but this has been a drum that we've been beating at Another Cubs Blog for a long, long time with respect to sports reporting (and, by proxy, sports fans) and racism. Just look at how different players are treated by the media - how many times have you heard a black or latino player described as "scrappy" or "gritty", compared to the long line of David Ecksteins and Ryan Theriots of the world? Sammy Sosa was one of the greatest and most popular Cubs of all time and he was run out of town on a rail with little protest by Cubs fans. Milton Bradley, abusive asshat that he is, was never given a chance by the Chicago media. Soriano and Ramirez are repeatedly blasted as lazy, despite the mountain of injuries they've been carrying in their Cubs tenure. Jacque Jones and Dusty Baker were subjected to racist taunting. But if you put a typical Cubs fan to question about it, they'll just say that they just have problems with those individual players, and hey look, Cubs fans all love Ernie Banks so we're not racist, see? (Ernie Banks is our Black Friend!) Bringing this back to math, I don't think that it's enough to say that since there are women in your field/women in conferences you've been to, the problem doesn't exist.

What it boils down to is equal opportunity - and that means for everyone. Simply saying "work harder" isn't enough. Talent will rise to the top, and the female mathematicians many of us could point to demonstrate that fact. But 'everyone' doesn't just mean the most talented. Again, returning to baseball look at how rosters are constructed. Of course you're going to want your biggest stars playing every day, and teams pursue them without any regard for race. But what about the average to replacement level players? There's a lot more of them, and this is where bias comes into play. It's not too surprising that a lot of those 'scrappy' players are both backups and white. Anyway, there isn't really an appropriate analogy for this in mathematics, but simply saying that anyone can be a star, as one of the anonymous cowards on Jordan's blog put it, isn't enough. Not everyone can win a Fields Medal if they just Try Hard.

Anyway, my last point is this. I'm a white male, not a woman, or any other minority, and it's not my place to discount what they express about their experiences and how they differ from mine. I haven't read extensive research or blogs on racial or gender issues, nor do I sign petitions or participate in protests, and I don't really see myself making these things a big part of my life in the future. But I can keep an open mind, treat people fairly, and make sure I question myself every once in awhile whether I'm doing a good job at those things. And that's just what such a campaign would do.


Mercurial Outfielder said...

This movement has actually begun to generate results in philosophy, but resistance to it is palpable. To wit:

Although that post is from a place very sympathetic to the campaign, following that story around the philosophy blogosphere does not yield promising returns, unless one remembers that mountains are best climbed slowly.

Jeff Liu said...

What do you think about the equivalent of a Rooney rule for filling positions? It seems to have worked for the NFL.

Berselius said...


I agree that the Rooney Rule has worked in the NFL, for the most part. It wouldn't be a bad idea in mathematics but the problem is that hiring processes in general are much more vague and don't have the central authority that the NFL has over its franchises. An awareness campaign similar to the one mentioned for conferences wouldn't work as well because lists of candidates aren't published. I wouldn't be opposed to the NSF adding some sort of stipulation on hires with their grant money, but the problem is that with how granular academia can be, the availability bias that's also a part of the system it could make things very difficult. It would be difficult to quantify a search for qualified candidates when you're specifically looking for someone to work on topic X and only 3 or 4 people in the world know anything about it.