Inspiration for this post: this tweet.
So I’ve written before about being a woman in math, and this will not be my last post on the subject either. First, some background. One really, really awesome thing about my field (geometric group theory) is its webpage. Some time ago, a great professor at UCSB made this website which includes a list of all active geometric group theorists in the world (self-reported), a list of all departments in the world with said people, lists of publishers and interesting links/software, and most importantly for me, a list of all conferences in the area.
Long aside: said professor once gave me some great advice which I have since forgotten/warped in my memory to mean: do what you want to do. This is probably not what he said, but he did use this amazing website as an example: at the time, people said that making the site was a waste of his time, and now its a treasured resource for researchers around the world. Everyone in GGT knows this site (because they or their advisor is on it!) So that’s part of the reason I have this blog, and started that women in math conference- it’s maybe a “waste” of my time, but it’s something I want to do and now people are starting to know me for it. At both the Cornell and the MSRI programs I went to these past two months, a graduate student has come up to me and told me she reads my blog, so yay! I love you, readers! Also, side note in this aside: the video lectures from the summer graduate school in geometric group theory are already posted (in the schedule part of this link), so if you like videos and GGT I’d recommend them. Lots of first and second year graduate students in the audience, so they’re relatively approachable.
Back to topic: I went through the list of conferences that had occurred so far this year and “ran some numbers,” by which I mean I divided. I did this because I noticed that at the past few conferences I’ve attended, there seem to be disproportionately many female speakers (in a good way). For instance, at this summer school I counted 12/60 female students (though later someone said there are 14 of us so don’t rely on my counting) and 1/4 female speakers. But the numbers at that level are so low that the data is essentially meaningless: 25% vs. 20% isn’t that meaningful when the other choices are 0, 50, 75, or 100% female speakers. But if you collect enough data, it probably becomes meaningful. See my table below.*
If I were a sociologist or ethnographer, I would do this for all the conferences and interview a random sample of attendees and organizers in order to come to some data-backed conclusions about the phenomena here. I’m not, so I’ll just make some guesses. It looks like American conferences artificially inject more gender diversity into their invited speakers lists, while foreign ones don’t (YGGT in Spa a notable exception). I’d also guess that conferences that target graduate students have more women speakers than conferences that don’t.
Three things that support my “artificial diversity” theory: to attend an MSRI summer school, graduate students are nominated by their schools. Schools can nominate two students, and a third if she is a woman or an underrepresented minority. The NSF, which is a huge source of funding for American conferences, is really into “Broadening Participation”, which means including participants who are women, African-American, Native American, Hispanic, or disabled. And, as seen in table above, the percentage of female domestic speakers is twice that of foreign speakers.
I think this is great! It’s much easier to do something if you see someone who looks like you/has gone through similar struggles doing so.
A response to myself from a few years ago, when I felt feelings about the burden of representing all women at a table full of men: I felt bad recently for wanting to ask a Hispanic female graduate student what she thought about increasing numbers of Hispanic women in math, because I thought I was placing this exact burden on her. I was expecting her to speak for all Hispanic women. But another graduate student solved this conundrum for me- her experience is invaluable in trying to understand the plight of her demographic, but we shouldn’t be too hasty to generalize from it. And more importantly, someone needs to ask these questions. My discomfort is relatively stupid and small compared to the issue at hand- we should try to solve these problems together and respectfully, but there’s bound to be missteps along the way, and that’s OK.
I don’t have solutions, and I’ve barely stated the problem or why we should care about it, but at least I’m trying to ask questions.