Tag Archives: sad

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

Why is math inaccessible? Or, why should we do math?

29 Aug

The other night I saw some old friends from college. They had both taken Math 230, the super hard introductory class for math majors: it covered linear algebra and some real analysis, but apparently manifolds also made an appearance.   I mean they’d both tried to take it; one of them didn’t make it to the second semester.  It was taught by Yair Minsky, who incidentally did lots of incredibly ground breaking work on the curve complex I keep talking about.  At some point one of them said “[the difficulty] wasn’t Minsky’s fault; it just went over my head.”

This stuck with me because I’ve heard something similar before: a few months ago I gave an Ignite! style talk in a course full of scientists. My feedback afterwards was excellent, but at some point the professor said “your explanation was great; I just couldn’t keep up with it.”

The left is what we hope happens when explaining math, but the right is what actually happens

The left is what we hope happens when explaining math, but the right is what actually happens

Here’s the common thread, as far as I understand it: “if you don’t understand something a mathematician says, it’s not their fault for communicating poorly, but yours for being too stupid/slow/dense to get it”.

My friend and this professor are EXTREMELY far from being stupid/slow/dense. And I’m a pretty approachable person. In my mind, there was no reason for this professor to think that the math I was doing was above his head (as a test I explained the exact same topic to my friend)- if you don’t understand something, you can always ask a question. But to these two (and many others), math is an inaccessible topic maybe composed of magic. Like we probably sit in our offices with cauldrons a-simmer to come up with and understand these fantastic abstract ideas. And outsiders can’t do so because they haven’t taken the holy vows of mathematics.

I wonder if this phenomenon is specific to math: I very often hear mathematicians saying similar things, blaming themselves rather than the speaker/writer for not understanding something. I do the same thing.

If I explain something to you, blog reader, and it’s not clear/you don’t understand despite making your best or even reasonably good efforts, then I am doing a poor job. Math is hard, but if you can learn other academic-y things, and if you want to, you can do math too. I sincerely believe you don’t have to be a super genius to take some joy in say, Cantor’s diagonalization argument (will blog it sometime), or that Ramsey theory proof I wrote about earlier this summer.

I would/do love it when people tell me that something I wrote was unintelligible, and exactly where they got lost (my super excellent roommate does this all the time). And then I fix it/write more/use better wording. So if you read my math posts, please  comment or email me or tell me in person that this or that was hard to follow. There’s no need for self-effacement (“it was written well but I’m just too stupid at this to get —-“). I believe in you. You can understand this. I just need to explain it better.


I stole this from a website which I think also stole it from somewhere http://www.creatingadestiny.com/its-more-than-just-weight-loss/

I stole this from a website which I think also stole it from somewhere http://www.creatingadestiny.com/its-more-than-just-weight-loss/

OK that got sort of sentimental. Thinking more about the issue of accessibility in mathematics, and I think about girls and mentorship and STEM a lot, naturally leads to wondering if we should make this stuff more accessible. What’s the point of having more people understand math?  For that matter, what’s the point of us doing math?  I mean, what net good are we doing for the world by thinking about and solving these problems?

I strongly believe that basic research is important and essential. And it’s often (and I think should be) undertaken with no preconceived ideas of future applications. But I suspect that the vast majority of mathematical knowledge out there today will *never* have practical applications, or lead to mathematics that does so, or inspire mathematicians that do so.  Yes, definitely, someone (many people) should do math. But do we all/I need to be doing it? Would our problem-solving super-analytic brains be better spent attacking more immediate real-world problems?

You guys, I have zero answers here. The people I know do math for fun, for intellectual challenge, and to further human knowledge (ish). Sometimes it seems too hedonistic to me- I asked someone on a train what she thought, and she said “we live in a world where we have this luxury now.” It’s a luxury to be able to spend my days thinking about these hard, divorced-from-the-real-world problems.  It’s a luxury to play these games.  Sometimes I feel guilty for indulging in that luxury.

That’s it that’s where this post ends. I’m a little down now. Sorry if you are too.  I’ll include some puppy pictures from the internet to make us feel better.

awesome-cute-dog-fuckhard-puppy-Favim.com-135966_large awesome-dog-little-lovely-Favim.com-529853_large awesomepuppy

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