Surprisingly emotional reaction to being a woman in math

28 Oct

I wrote this a few weeks ago, just after that quick link post.  I was pretty emotional at the time, and I’ll just leave it unedited to give a sense of how I felt:

I just had a meeting with two professors and four graduate students, all male, in which we discussed that nytimes article.  I’ve spoken about this article and my personal experiences plenty over the past week, but I got choked up and found it hard to talk without tearing up when I tried to say something about how women need that bit of encouragement (I wrote in my last post the thought on internalizing vs. externalizing) and how much more it means to women.  It wasn’t a hostile environment; I know all the guys there personally and they’re all pro-feminism/obviously care about teaching, but I still had this psychosomatic reaction to representing the experiences of all women to this group of men who never got this particular little monster plugged into their psyches.  

This particular little monster is the one that says boys save the day and overcome obstacles and girls get rescued, even when they try to save the day.  Or the one that sees the handwriting on the exam and braces itself for a bad proof.  The one that thinks you’re more like Amy and not like Penny at all (from Big Bang Theory, a show I actively hate for reasons I’ll go into later if ever), but that wants to be “normal.”  It’s the monster that says you don’t know what you’re talking about and you don’t know what’s going on so why even try.

OK so that’s what I wrote a few weeks ago and it’s just been sitting here since then.  Shortly thereafter I received a kind email from one of the professors:

Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts and feelings in the ESP meeting today. I recognize that the subject and the issues mean a lot to you. 🙂

And, with a bit of time, I recognized what had happened and I emailed him back:

Thanks for the note.  I’ve actually been talking about the issue a lot since the article came out in many different situations, so I was rather surprised when I got a bit choked up in the ESP meeting as I’m quite opinionated/vocal generally about it.  Upon reflection I believe that I felt like I was speaking on behalf of all women in a room full of men, a responsibility that I wasn’t prepared for.  It’s like having a discussion about race in a room with one person of color.  It’s a little weird.

So that’s the state of things.  When I’m a super-minority (as in the only person with a particular characteristic in an otherwise homogenous situation), I feel a burden of responsibility to represent whatever that minority is: woman, mathematician, non-white person.  One way to deal with this is to shut it down and not deal with it, but that’s impossible if, for instance, you find yourself in the situation I was in.  Another way is to embrace stereotypes: in undergraduate, I was the one of two math people in my residential college (~400 people) for my years there [one guy graduated and then a girl came in the next year], and I would often joke about being the math nerd and push up my glasses in an effort to make those around me more comfortable (my friends would often joke about being dumb at math or hopeless etc.  See previous post.)

Anyway that’s a thing that happened.  I did do something productive out of it, which was go through all of the graduate students in my department and figure out how many women were in pure/applied math out of the total number of students per incoming year.  And by I did this I mean I did my year and this year’s students, and asked my generous friends to spend 15 minutes doing it for their years-information is hard to find and parse!  There’s some ambiguity because when students leave they disappear from our website so we can’t tell if they’re in math or stats (our departments are together).

Here are our numbers:

Entering class   # women/ total # PM-AM  Percentage%
2013   2/17   12%
2012   3/19   16%
2011   3/23   13%
2010   3-6/25-28  12%-21%
2009   4/10-12  30%-40%
I sent these to the grad studies people (so our director of graduate studies, the assistant, the associate head of instruction, and the department head) and received many good responses on the line of good let’s think about this and focus on it!
I’ll leave you with more images that come up if you google “women in math”
This thing is ridiculous.  I don't know the original source

This thing is ridiculous. I don’t know the original source

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8 Responses to “Surprisingly emotional reaction to being a woman in math”

  1. Evelyn Lamb (@evelynjlamb) October 28, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

    Thanks for sharing your reaction. I also found myself talking about this with groups in which I was the only woman, and it is strange to feel like you’re representing your entire group when you are just one weird person who is probably completely non-representative and whose experiences are based on much more than one characteristic.

    I know your grad school data isn’t a scientific study or anything, but do you know the percentage of women admitted (whether they came to your school or not)? That is probably also an important data point. I think at the school I’m at right now, they have a very small number of 1st year women grad students, but their admitted numbers are much more balanced. Of course, figuring out why women don’t come to your school is also important, and whether the recent years are aberrations or an indication of something possibly amiss.

    Thanks for the post!

    • yenergy October 28, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

      Thank you! That encapsulates what I feel very well- I am just one weird person!

      Getting admitted women to accept is the bigger problem right now than accepting more women- our offers last year went to 9 women, which was 29% of the offers. 2 accepted and 1 deferred, whereas about half the men accepted. I didn’t count the deferred woman in my count because I didn’t know about her, which ups the stat from 12% to 15% (because 3 men also deferred). I don’t have the data for previous years, but I know that my DGS is thinking about this issue (and he’s new with this most recent recruitment cycle, which probably means things will change).

      My advisor asked me why I think women don’t accept- some of it is that there are obvious ones that won’t accept as they’ll go to some other fancier pants school or to a city they have personal reasons for being in, but I really don’t know why the others choose other schools. I asked a bunch of female graduate students here and found a common thread that we all talked to female graduate students once admitted, but I think the same is true of the women who were admitted and didn’t accept. My hypothesis is that a school with more visibility of its female graduate students will tend to attract more female graduate students- because no one really wants to be that weird person, even though we all are.

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