Tag Archives: feminism

Assorted stuff I’ve been reading

4 Mar
  • On the insecurity of manliness: Actual title is “Is there anything good about men?”  Interesting speech from 2007 with a couple of good points in it.  It’s a bit long, and parts of it have become outdated, but I still enjoyed the read (Thanks Chris!).  In fact, in 2007 I took an Intro Psych class and first learned about evolutionary psychology, which used evolution to explain differences in men/women and their sex drives.  Since then, I’ve read a few places about how evo psych depends too much on social constructs, and if you measure just physical outputs (e.g. blood flow to genital areas) and ignore what people say (which is constrained by what they’ve been taught growing up), sex drive becomes much more equal.  At one point in this 2007 article the author says

It’s official: men are hornier than women.

I just googled “are men hornier than women?” and came up with this 2013 book saying the opposite.  (Now I want to read this book!)

  • On challenging the status quo with lots of vocabulary words I don’t know: Actual title is “Feminism and Programming Languages.”  I’m not a usual Hacker News reader (believe it or not I don’t like spending a lot of time on the computer in general), but Jeremy Kun pointed me to this a few months ago and asked for my thoughts- the article itself has lots of vocab words, but the comments are interesting.  One summed up the article well:

This article raises the question: ‘where do our ideas about what programming languages should be like come from?

I’ve done some, but minimal programming in my life.  This isn’t really my field, but I find the above question intriguing because you can replace ‘programming language’ with ‘mathematics’ or really anything.  Or as Jeremy asked me:

Do you feel like the direction of mathematics, what questions are asked or believed to be important, what’s relevant and irrelevant, is shaped by male dominance of the field?

In other words, are there other paths in mathematical inquiry that you feel ought to be taken but aren’t, and that this could be linked to the fact that all the leading researchers are male?
Short answer to question one: yes, absolutely, completely.  Mathematics doesn’t care about us humans, but we certainly care about it.  The directions of research, grant money, what gets published in top journals: everything follows trends that we as a mathematical community create and enforce.  And we are dominated by males, so yes, the male perspective does shape where we’re going and what we’re doing.
Question two is more complicated and not the same as question one.  What “should” we be doing as mathematicians?  What is the goal of mathematics?  I can’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, or even if satisfactory answers exist.  We do what we do, we pursue what we find interesting and are either rewarded by our peers who also think it’s interesting, or not, and we have to find something else to keep the money and publications coming in.  If we were living in the world of Y: The Last Man, would mathematics be different?  Probably.  Better, worse?  Who can say?
That said, stereotypes aren’t so much about people totally projecting things that completely aren’t there but about people having a framework with which they interpret things that actually are there. It’s not that racism causes people to see (for example) belligerent teenage boys where there are none, but that a white belligerent teenage boy is just seen as himself while a black belligerent teenage boy is part of a pattern, a script, and when people blindly follow the scripts in their head that leads to discrimination and prejudice.

Look, we all know that there’s a trope in the movies where someone of a minority race is flattened out into just being “good at X” and that the white protagonist is the one we root for because unlike the guy who’s just “good at X” the protagonist has human depth, human relationships, a human point of view—and this somehow makes him more worthy of success than the antagonist who seems to exist just to be good at X.

So we root for Rocky against black guys who, by all appearances, really are better boxers than he is, because unlike them Rocky isn’t JUST a boxer, he has a girlfriend, he has hopes, he has dreams, etc. This comes up over and over again in movies where the athletic black competitor is set up as the “heel”—look at the black chick in Million Dollar Baby and how much we’re pushed to hate her. Look at all this “Great White Hope” stuff, historically, with Joe Louis.

So is it any surprise that this trope comes into play with Asians? That the Asian character in the movie is the robotic, heartless, genius mastermind who is only pure intellect and whom we’re crying out to be defeated by some white guy who may not be as brainy but has more pluck, more heart, more humanity? It’s not just Flash Gordon vs. Ming the Merciless, it’s stuff like how in the pilot episode of Girls Hannah gets fired in favor of an overachieving Asian girl who’s genuinely better at her job than she is (the Asian girl knows Photoshop and she doesn’t) and we’re supposed to sympathize with Hannah.

On the gendering of toys, or the free market.  Also videos here, which I highly recommend.  IF YOU CLICK A LINK IN THIS POST CLICK ON THIS ONE.  My fiance suggested there’s no malice in the Lego Corp., just a desire for more sales- gendering the legos may have caused an uptick in sales.  This is the hard part about the free market: of course Monsanto is going to trademark its crap, it wants more money.  Obviously Lego is going to divide the market and embrace stereotypes: they see what Barbie is doing and they want a piece of that money too.  At some level, corporations have a responsibility to society, but that seems totally unenforceable without governmental regulation (part of the point of government).  We just watched the Lego movie and loved it, but we’re also keenly aware of the Bechdel test and female characters in everything =(

I just want my kids to not feel like there’s a monster in them for being female, or half-Asian, or whatever.  Quoting myself

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.

Wow really long post!  In honor of my officemate, here are a bunch of red panda pics.

redpanda CHINA-ANIMAL-BEIJING ZOO

Click on photos for links to original sites

Click on photos for links to original sites

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

Re: women in science, part 2 of ???

7 Oct

So I’ve gotten a lot of feedback/had many good conversations from my last post and the article linked there.  One of the things I do as a TA in math is teach discussion sections, and I’m part of a pseudo-experimental program that emphasizes collaborative learning.  This afternoon we’re having a discussion on that very article, which is why I labeled this post part 2 of ??? because I suspect there’ll be more points this afternoon.  Plus I still need to read some related  articles that friends have sent me.

My fellow grad student Alex summarized/projected a great point from this article that I want to share because I liked it so much.  Here’s one school of thought: math/science graduate school is very hard and there’s no need to encourage people to pursue it, as Roger Howe says in the article; the idea is that only people who think they can do it/want to do it should do it.  But women may want to do so but think they can’t, as the author did, because women internalize failures (“you’re telling me this is hard?  That means you think I can’t do it.  I guess I’m just bad at this.  I can’t do this.”) whereas men externalize them (“you’re telling me this is hard?  Thanks for the warning, I’m still going to do it.”)  Obviously these are huge generalizations, but I liked this dichotomy a lot because it points out the flaw with using a unilateral approach for both genders.  We treat little girls and little boys differently, but somehow expect that we can say the exact same thing to 21 year old men and women and they won’t react differently.

Okay way too many other things to respond to but guys I should go back to math.  So here’s just one other thought, my reaction to this article http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science, sent to me by my friend Max.  Here’s his concluding paragraph:

Most people go to work primarily in order to earn a paycheck. Workers prefer a higher salary to a lower salary. Jobs in science pay far less than jobs in the professions and business held by women of similar ability. A lot of men are irrational, romantic, stubborn, and unwilling to admit that they’ve made a big mistake. With Occam’s Razor, we should not need to bring in the FBI to solve the mystery of why there are more men than women who have chosen to stick with the choice that they made at age 18 to become a professor of science or mathematics.

So this person’s explanation for why there are more men than women in sciences is that science is a bad job, and capable women make smart decisions and go into law, medicine, industry, anything that pays better.  There’s more to say on this article, but for now, here’s a blog post asking why there aren’t more women in law.  Essentially, the question now is, where are the women?

I’ve asked that question before.  It was in the summer of 2008, when I was doing an independent research project in Vietnam.  I was walking outside a lot and interviewing people in schools, cafes, and on the street, and I definitely noticed that while you’ll see plenty of men driving motorbikes, sitting at the outdoor coffeeshops, drinking beers at the pubs, or eating meals at the food-to-go stands, you’ll see very, very few women who aren’t working at those places/selling things at stores.  Where are the women?

Isn’t it weird that I ask the same question for these two different contexts?

Quick link: great read on women in science

3 Oct

Regular post is coming tomorrow (it’s peach shortcake), but a quick note before I head off to teach.  I just read and really, really enjoyed this article, and only partially because I know a few of the people interviewed in it (and it is a spot-on portrayal of those two professors).  It’s a long but worthwhile read.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/magazine/why-are-there-still-so-few-women-in-science.html?_r=0.

My advisor actually asked me a similar question a few weeks ago: why are there so few women in our graduate program?  We’ve got about 2-3 a year for 5-6 years, with each cohort having somewhere around 20 students.  So we’re at, what, 10-15%?  When I was at UCSB, we were around 20%.  At certain schools they have 50% (by which I mean North Carolina State University, last time I checked which was a few years ago).  What should we aim for?  I mean, is % of graduate students even a good metric (probably not because lots of people drop out)?

My first approach to his question was to ask the women in our program why they came- everyone said something about how people were friendly, and when I pushed further, every woman had talked to an older woman in the program.  Really I need to ask the people who were accepted and didn’t come why they didn’t, but that’s not possible.  I should also ask the men why they came and compare.  I’m not a sociologist, I’ve said before, but I am a feminist and I am interested in this stuff.

OK I really have to head to class (the students have a calculus exam tomorrow) but here’s a last note on this.  A comment on this piece, I quote:

Why do fewer men than women graduate from high school?

Why are many fewer men than women hired as school teachers?

Why do significantly fewer men than women receive college degrees?

Why are these data not evidence of gender bias against men?

Why are female achievement gaps systematically portrayed as gender bias against women, while male achievement gaps are systematically portrayed as innate male fecklessness?

Why are astronomically fewer articles published by the Times about these issues?

I’ll never claim to have answers for anything, just my thoughts, and stuff for you to think about.  Besides a substitute teacher in 5th grade, I had never been taught math by a woman until I finished undergraduate.

I am a woman in math

10 Jul

That should be pretty clear from the fact that I put together that women in mathematics symposium a few months ago.  And from all the photos of me with my baked goods.  I hope that the fact is not necessarily obvious from the fact that this is a baking and math blog as, I’m friends with plenty of men who bake and do math. (In fact, I’ve linked to this guy and his cookies before on this blog).

I’ll probably end up writing many things about the fact that I am a woman in math, but this is just a short post about my thoughts right this moment.

I spent some part of the afternoon reading this heartbreaking blog “What is it like to be a woman in philosophy?” where women and men write in with their stories of misogyny, sexism, and battling these things.  As I read I kept thinking to myself “phew!  Glad I have my adviser!”

Since I’m not a woman in philosophy I didn’t submit this story to them, but I do want to write it somewhere, so here goes.  One day there was a marvelous talk in our geometry, topology, and dynamics seminar, and a few days later I met with the professor I’d come to UIC to work with about various math, as well as a conference coming up.  He asked who was speaking at the conference, and I said something like “that girl who spoke on Tuesday here.”  He gave me a look, and then said, “You mean the woman.  You would never refer to a man who gave a talk as that boy.  Women have it hard enough in our field, we don’t need to make it harder by demeaning them.”

I was rightly chastised, and that was also the moment when I decided that I would ask him to be my adviser- we discuss math together well and he’s brilliant, but that’s true of many professors.  He values feminism as much as I do, and can also rebuke me when I need to be.  So he’s fallen into the category of my mom, my boyfriend, and my closest friends.  Fantastic!

As for using the word “girl”- my friends say things like “girls’ night”, and this is a common phrase in our culture (there’s about 975 million more of those, these are just the first things that came up when I googled “girls night”).  But my adviser’s right that I absolutely should not refer to a female mathematician as a girl.  Perhaps it’s unprofessional language?  Or perhaps we’ve just internalized our systematic infantalization (whoa calm down there Yen you’re not a sociology student you don’t even really know what those words mean).  So no conclusions on this (my friends didn’t have them either).


On a positive note, two of my math heroes are interviewed here, over at Roots of Unity, on being women in math.  They actually talk very little about being women in math, and more on just being them and being awesome in math, which is fantastic.  They do both mention the importance of role models, and I hope they both know that they’re huge role models to many, many graduate students at their respective universities.  Because they’re mathematicians, and women, and totally cool with both of those things, whereas a lot of us grad students sort of nervously juggle the two when we meet strangers.

I could just keep writing about being a woman in math but I will stop.  Look at this hilarious stock photo (I love stock photos)

http://www.thejanedough.com/researchers-blame-biological-clock-for-lack-of-women-in-math/

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