Tag Archives: women

I am a minority in academia

5 Jul

I started trying to write this post and ended up looking at SO MANY articles and thinkpieces related to academia, minorities, affirmative action, high school, independent/charter schools, microaggressions, and interventions.  This topic is way too complicated for my humble little corner of the internet to take on to any kind of depth, so I’ll just talk about my experiences instead and maybe put in a few links.

I’ve written a lot about being a woman in mathematics (see first post, second post, nth post), and a little bit about race and a bit about the intersection (but really that link is nationality and gender).  But I haven’t written too much about being a Vietnamese person in mathematics.  Part of it is that Vietnam is in Asia, so I’m Asian-American, and the stereotype is that we’re good at math and doing great in academia since you can see a bunch of Asian professors in math.  Most of those Asian professors are Asians-from-Asia which is different than Asian-Americans.  Asians-from-Asia face a whole different experience and set of difficulties than Asian-Americans.  A quote from Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, somewhat hits this:

The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.

So that’s point 1: Asians-from-Asia and Asian-Americans are different.  For instance, Asian-Americans are part of a system of structural racism, while Asians-from-Asia can encounter this system but not have the same understanding and possibilities for complicity/empowerment/action as Asian-Americans.  There’s even a term in Vietnamese for us, Viet Kieu: “Foreign but not foreign, Vietnamese but not Vietnamese.” College friend’s blog post on being Viet Kieu.

Point 2: “Asian-American” is also an unnecessarily general term and erases the difficulties that communities of people from very different nations and backgrounds have with their relationships with the US.  I saw a link recently that I can’t find saying that “Asian-American” as a term is going out with the next census and it’ll actually break us down into parts of Asia instead of, you know, people with ancestry from the world’s largest continent.  Anyway, because of a variety of historical factors (stuff like the Chinese Exclusion Act and racism and xenophobia), lots of [East and South] Asians who have immigrated to the US are highly skilled H1-B visa holders.

Heard of the “model minority” thing?  Maybe it’s because children of doctors, lawyers, and engineers are more likely to know about how to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers.  Versus, say, if you take a swath of the general population of a country and plop them in a new country, you’ll probably get the same percentage of highly skilled workers in that swath as you do in the new country.  Probably less because the certifications of the old country aren’t valid in the new country.  You guessed it, I’m talking about Vietnamese-Americans!  There are many successful Southeast Asian-Americans, but numbers wise, we’re worse off than lots of other ethnic groups.  For instance, we drop out of high school!  Even within Asian-Americans you can compare numbers: Vietnamese poverty rate around 15%, and Filipinos around 6% (national average about 14%).

Point 3: Data time!  Especially in light of the Yale thing last year and all the stuff about diversity in academia, let’s just look at some research about diversity in academia.  There’s a Consortium on Race, Gender, and Ethnicity collecting and organizing great work on how to diversify academia.  This table is from their FAQ page:

Table 1. Distribution of Full Time U.S. Faculty, by Race/Ethnicity (1988-2010)

I’m not a big data head, but we can compare the numbers above with the census numbers in 2010:  5% Asian, 13% black, 1% Native American/Alaskan Native, 16% Hispanic, 72% white.  It doesn’t add up right because the census counts Hispanic as ethnicity, not race, but the table above doesn’t or something (also I rounded).  It looks like Asians are doing okay!  And then you remember my point 1, and the data doesn’t differentiate between Asia-Asians and Asian-Americans.  So it’s unclear what’s happening, but it’s pretty clear that programs like SACNAS are necessary (and other programs that target, for instance, African Americans and not-science).  I’ll mention here that I’m a Mellon Fellow and so have benefited from a program that specifically targets these issues.  And that leads us to…

Point 4: what to do.  The American Psychological Association put together a HUGE pamphlet on “Surviving and Thriving in Academia.”  That’s great!  There was an article in Science in 2011 about a simple intervention that helped minority students succeed in college: basically it fought off stereotype threat by saying that everyone struggles with feeling like they belong in the first year of college, and then it fought off victim-ing (I don’t know the word for telling people that they are victims and need help) by having the students make videos for future students telling them that everyone struggles with feeling like they belong in the first year of college.  It’s pretty cool!  I loved this blog post about a psych Ph.D’s experiences with racism here in Austin.  Quote from it:

Being black isn’t hard; being black is awesome. It’s being the subject of discrimination that is hard, and that is a fight we can all fight together.

Okay I lied and only wrote commentary on a whole bunch of links instead of a memoir of my own experiences.  I feel much more engaged with the issue of being a woman in math than with the issue of being a racial minority in math, but I also think both of these things are very important to my identity.  So there’s that!  I’ll maybe say more about intersectionality in another blog post.

Barely related to the content of this post: here’s a video that I watched a few months ago and LOVED.  Get past the cheesy weird preview screen and production by MTV and there’s a surprising about of history, data, and analysis in this.

I am the get, or on role models/pressure

31 May

Awhile back I did a post on various podcast recommendations, and I pointed out a recent favorite of mine by an old classmate and her best friend, the get.  Their most recent episode really resonated with me and echoed some issues that I haven’t talked about in years (part 2), so I thought I’d revisit them and talk about why I love this podcast so much.

Two and a half years ago, I wrote this in an email to a professor, referencing an earlier meeting:

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.

Part of Rhiana talks about in ep14 is the pressure she feels as a high-achieving minority, to continuously highly achieve on behalf of that minority group.  Whenever you’re in a group, be it a classroom, a meeting, or a collection of role models (you may not even know you’re in this group!), if you’re a super-minority then you represent that minority to people looking at that group.  Relevant comic:

how_it_works

XKCD: link here

And that sort of pressure can be dangerous-I won’t tell you Rhiana’s story; you can listen for yourself and I’ll tell you my stories instead.  I’ve been incredibly lucky in my path to where I am now, with support since childhood with extra programs essentially designed to get me where I am today.  Rhiana and Ivy had it even “worse” with a Rhodes and a Ford (fancy graduate fellowships).  What do I mean by “worse”?  I mean when you have all this support and have used up all of these resources to lead you to success, you feel even more pressure to succeed.  Success begets success.  Which is often a good thing, but the pressure can be crippling.  Related digression: this movie (that I love and is directed by the Fast and the Furious director Justin Lin) is based on a real life murder that happened at my rival high school, which was also an extremely high achieving high pressure environment.

I’m planning on finishing my Ph.D. next year (spring 2017), so my thoughts have been leading to what’s coming next: do I try to succeed in mathademia, or turn my back on all of these supporters and do something else?  Here are some mission statements of programs that have helped me:

  • MMUF is the centerpiece of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s initiatives to increase diversity in the faculty ranks of institutions of higher learning.
  • The EDGE Program is administered by Morehouse andPomona Colleges with the goal of strengthening the ability of women students to successfully complete PhD programs in the mathematical sciences and place more women in visible leadership roles in the mathematics community.
  • Dedicated to furthering the success of underrepresented students, USTARS seeks to broaden the participation in the mathematical sciences

So those mission statements imply that they gave me funding/programming/mentorship/networks because they want me to become a math professor.  Also, having role models who look like you is extremely important for young people, especially underrepresented groups, to even begin to ideate what success could look like.  This belief, coupled with my experiences, makes me personally feel pressure to become a research mathematician and exist as an example and role model for others: look!  A woman mathematician!  They exist!  I recently saw this sweet video on upworthy and it’s from this program that sends professionals to grade schools:

So being a role model is great!  But defining success for yourself is a key part of being successful, and going with something without examining it is not, in my opinion, drinking life to the lees [which is a goal of my life].

I spoke with Evelyn Lamb, a friend and personal hero, about this tension between living up to expectations and figuring out your own path.  She pointed out, rightly, that she’s far, far more visible now as a math writer than she was as an assistant professor.  So if the goal is to show people that women can do math, she’s reaching the goal much more effectively by going her own way.  I’d be remiss not to mention Erica Klarreich here and promo my math field with her incredible article.

To sum up: despite massive amounts of pressure from your own underrepresented group/your supporters/your funders/your family/anyone, you have to make your own decisions for your own success and happiness.  Maybe you’re incredibly motivated by the idea of being a role model for others, and that’s enough to launch you into whatever career.  I don’t personally feel that way, and I want my kids to see their mother loving her job and actively choosing it.  The goal of being a role model and showing people that women can do math is to encourage young women who might not realize they can become mathematicians that it’s a path available for them.  It’s not to pressure capable young women into some path that I’ve pre-determined as correct or better than whatever choices they’ll make.  Empowerment is not restricting choices, it’s expanding choices.

Last bit: what do I mean when I say “I am the get”?  It’s from the first episode of Ivy and Rhiana’s podcast.  I can’t say it as well as Rhiana can, so here’s her words:

One thing that always stuck out is that she told me that when I walk in there, like, I have to remember that I am the get. I am the thing that they need to have, I’m the thing that they want, and that I am…not a prize, but something to be gotten. I am an asset. […]we want our listeners to always remember that they are the get, that you are an asset, a thing to be gotten! You’re the thing that people want—and it’s so easy to forget that, especially if you’re a woman, especially if you’re a woman of color, especially if you’re a member of the number of marginalized groups in the US. So, we just wanted that to always be a reminder of self-love and of just how fucking awesome you are, all the time.

I’m out!  Maybe baking next week; it’s been a while!

International Day of the Girl was October 11th- late is better than never?

27 Oct

This Day of the Girl thing started two years ago.  I remember that Google Chicago was having an event for it, but I did not attend.  I feel like I remember very clearly the things I choose not to do, but I have a remarkably bad memory for the things that I actually do.  For instance, I have a friend I visit every time I go to San Francisco, but I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen him.  At least once, but I probably didn’t nap and sleep and have coffee and have dinner and have breakfast all at the same time.  He remembers each interaction quite clearly though.  So I’m an asshole.

Anyways, this post isn’t supposed to be about me.  I’m a woman now, suckers!  I think I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been incredibly lucky in the educational opportunities I’ve been given: Project PRIME which no longer exists, but is similar to this program for 4th-7th grade girls interested in mathematics in the Twin Cities (I learned about spherical geometry when I was 10, at a Saturday workshop!), UMTYMP where I took the standard high school math curriculum during middle school and was subsidized by the state of Minnesota, great calculus courses at my high school where we got college credit, and the opportunity to take several more college courses across the street at CSUF while I was still in high school (for $3.50 each course, if I remember right).  And of course I won the lottery that is getting into Yale, and I studied abroad for math, and did some undergraduate research, and taught some math, and got into grad school, and was encouraged to go, and the point is that I’ve been very lucky throughout my life.  And very few people are this lucky.  And very, very few girls are this lucky.  That’s my take on Day of the Girl.

Here’s a company’s take on Day of the Girl:

Currently, 36 percent of high school students within the United States are not ready for college-level sciences. Misha Malyshev, CEO of Teza Technologies works with nonprofits to curb that number. International Day of the Girl is a great time to celebrate the women in this field, and every field, and recognize the opportunities allowed to girls.

Day of Girl

I’ll try to follow the suggestions of the infographic (this company randomly emailed me and asked if I wanted to see it, and I said yes, and that’s how it’s on the blog now).  In that whole educational bio paragraph up there I embedded all the math programs I was part of.  Here in Austin, girlstart is pretty amazing and in this department we have a Saturday Morning Math Group as well as an occasional Sunday Math Circle.

So yeah.  Girls are cool.

A few nights ago I went to dinner with a few postdocs and another graduate student.  This was remarkable because we were all women!  We traded war stories and discussed our experiences as women in math, and it was so so nice to interact with people who had similar experiences to mine.  Every school I’ve been to has a women in math-type group which usually is open to men joining in as well.  This sort of supportive community helps lots (not all) women grit our teeth and stick to it.  And we’re women!  When we were girls we were so much less confident and self-assured, and (some of us) needed a guiding hand or supportive push to keep us in math.  I really really appreciate all the help I’ve been given/earned throughout my life, and I think everyone deserves at least a chance to do what they love/figure out what they love.

Related old post.

Race, class, and math thoughts

3 Sep

Yesterday a student walked into a friend’s graduate student office and asked us “Does STEM encourage apathy toward social justice and diversity issues, specifically the lack of black and brown bodies?”  A few things were notable about the ensuing discussion: first, no one was ever interrupted!  There were five of us in the room!  Apparently I have forgotten how to have civil conversations.  I was astonished by the fact that no one ever butted in, and respectfully allowed each person to say their full thoughts, with pauses and everything.  Does this happen in your life?  I think most of my interactions are at the pace of Gilmore Girls or a news channel than, y’know, respect and calm.  Also it was maybe the most diverse in-depth conversation on diversity I’ve been part of: a Chinese man, a Vietnamese woman (that’s me), a white woman, a black man, and a black woman from various socioeconomic backgrounds.

So that’s the context behind this post.  The question she posed was rather overly broad and poorly defined, but we hit on a lot of points that I thought were interesting and unrelated to each other.  Bring in the bullet points and mildly academic-sounding language!  We’re mostly considering the dearth of POC in math graduate school and professorship.

  • Local culture/society: higher education isn’t regarded as important in every culture.  Parents who don’t encourage their kids to go to college probably won’t understand a child’s desire to go to graduate school.  The example given here was: “do you play sports?  …no?  Oh.  Okay.”  In this person’s hometown, athletics are more important than scholarship.  How do you change a culture?  Should you try to change a culture?  It’s incredibly important to go into a community and listen/learn first, then try to launch programs/solutions.  Personal notes here: my family is very supportive and basically let me do whatever I want, but they still all balked a bit at my choice to pursue a Ph.D. in math.  They also wanted me to go to UCSD (which would’ve been free + given me money) instead of Yale (which cost money).  My first year of graduate school, I was on the phone with a Yale alum who, after I told him I was a grad student, said “you know you just cut your earnings by a third, right?”  So we’re all from different cultures that have different values.
  • Socioeconomic class: graduate school pays very little.  We hover securely above the poverty line (which in 2015 is just under 12k) with about 16-35k stipends (a small survey here), which are generally enough (barely, sometimes) for us to pay for our living expenses.  Plus you often have to pay fees back to the school; mine are about 1.6k per year (just under half a monthly paycheck, twice a year).  If your parents or siblings need help, or if you have children or other dependents, the stipend won’t be enough.  So if you have any of these thoughts in mind, it makes complete sense to not go to graduate school.  For more thoughts on this, check out this blog post about being an academic coming from a poverty background.  I’m astonished at my friends who have a kid on two grad student stipends.  Babies are so expensive!  My baby went to daycare three days a week and it cost almost exactly as much as I made per month.
  • Intervention programs: they work.  Reaching out to communities who haven’t heard of/thought of college/graduate school works.  There’s a sad dearth of funding for such programs (often run by private organizations), but they led to some of us being in that room.  Fun fact about me: I’m a Mellon Mays Fellow, which means I had a lot of encouragement as an undergraduate to go into academia.  MMUF is great.  Also so is Upward Bound.
  • Pipeline: it’s leaky.  See previous bullet point.
  • Math itself is very abstract.  In your day-to-day life, you won’t be confronted by social justice/diversity issues like you might be if you were in, say, anthropology or ethnic studies.  The field doesn’t lend itself to thinking about these sorts of things, so that could explain where that apathy stems from.  I haven’t had a ton of conversations with mathematicians about racial diversity (yesterday’s makes it two or so), but I have had a ton of conversations about gender diversity (and every mathematician knows about the AWM).  That said, I also did EDGE before starting grad school, and I just learned about SACNAS over the summer.  So there are people thinking about these things.

And because I can’t resist slipping women and math into any post, here’s a great little article about increasing the number of girls in math.  And by “girls” here we actually do mean “female children” (I’ve gotten pretty good at not calling women “girls” but I still say “you guys” a lot).

There were more points but that’s all I remember.  I think I’ll bake something next week, so look forward to that!  Last week for husband’s birthday I said “I baked you a surprise!” and he said “is it pavlova?” and the answer was yes.  Mini-pavlovas!  Just bake for half an hour instead of an hour.20150825_190236

Not a sociologist or ethnographer, but I am a curious person (about gender and race)

2 Jul

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.*

data

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.

I’m sexist (and “so is everyone” isn’t an excuse)

10 Jun

Over the weekend we hung out for a few hours with some of my husband’s coworkers and their kids.  One wife is a very pregnant stay at home mom of two toddlers, and one husband is a stay at home dad of a toddling soon-to-be older brother.  I’ve hung out with the female coworker and her husband and child more, and their child is closer in age to our baby.  I am very impressed with him for staying at home with the kid.

When I first went back to work I had baby in day care three days a week and watched him for two, hoping that’d ease my transition back.  But those two days were SO HARD- it’s constant, mundane, brain-draining, frustrating physical work that’s incredibly, ridiculously rewarding.  (See photo)20150603_090204

And being alone with a little one all day with no adult interaction is rough- it was hard on me and it was hard on our marriage (which is awesome I highly recommend marriage by the way).  By the afternoons I was itching to work, but when I was at the office I was aching to be with my sweet little baby.

Aside: I have no thoughts on “having it all” except that the phrase doesn’t make any sense to me.  My hormones and heart want to be with my baby ALL THE TIME, and my mind and exercising body do not, and unfortunately all these things go together so it is impossible to have all my desires met.  Probably my wants will evolve as my child ages, and as I get more children, and I get older and my career moves, but right now it is impossible for me to have all the things I want.

So, my sexism.  When I’m with the SAHM, I take it for granted that she stays at home, watching two handfuls and running the household (she does EVERYTHING in that home) and even gardening and raising chickens.  We chatted about cooking and pregnancy and adapting to our new bodies and making friends.  Whenever I talk to the SAHD, I feel in awe that he stays at home, and we talk about the frustrations of hanging out with a little one all day and strategies to not go crazy.  Thus there are two sides to my sexism:

  1. I do not feel in awe that she stays at home.  I assume that she does not go crazy or feel frustrated or feel any sort of internal struggle with all the things I said above about having little ones.  This is totally unfair to her and speaks deeply of my cultural assumptions (women can stay at home and don’t feel all the things that I feel and also I am a woman so this really doesn’t make sense).  Also, she’s got two kids so she has it way harder than him.
  2. I do feel in awe that he stays at home.  This is unfair to him- it implies that I think staying at home is so hard on him, and further implies that maybe I think men can’t handle it. Also, it’s the only thing we talk about vs. a wide variety of things I can talk to her about.  I’ve now put him in a box with one interesting thing to discuss (his dadhood) vs. being a full human being with other thoughts.

I realized this on our way home from their place.  What do I do to fix this?  The clear answer is that I need to treat every person as an individual of individual circumstances, and treat each person with respect.  But while that abstraction is well and good, I need more concrete action items to get better.  When I talk to SAHDs, I won’t say things like “I’m so impressed that you stay at home” and instead I’ll talk to them like human beings.  When I talk to SAHMs, I’ll try to invite commiseration on how difficult raising kids is (you have to tiptoe here depending on how close you are with a person, b/c I’m not a SAHM but I could be if I chose to so anything coming out of my mouth could be seen as judgmental).  Hopefully these actions and saying these words will eventually change my internal attitudes too.

This all reminds me of a great essay I read two years ago, which I highly recommend.  Also, if you change one letter in the dude’s wife’s name, you get my name:

“Meanwhile, Jen is always wrong. At home with the kids, she’s an anachronistic housewife; at work, she’s ditching her kids to nurture selfish professional ambitions. Somewhere, lurking at the root of this all, is the tenacious idea that men should have a career, whereas women must choose between a career and being at home.”

Other thoughts that should make their own blog post but aren’t because the next posts will be on baking (hopefully) or math (that’s ok too): I was very eager to read the NYT op-ed titled “What Makes a Woman?” but it was a bit more defensive and less full of brainstorming of collaborative solutions between cis and trans women than I was hoping.  On a similar note, my friend recently posted about her friend’s blog about being a trans*dude , which I’ve started reading and I agree with what she said “I’ve learned so much reading it!”  I still have a lot to learn (like I don’t know why that asterisk is there in trans* but I’ll find out).

Protagonists are male; I didn’t wear makeup as a kid

30 Jan

Apologies for a long delay in posting; we just came back from our meet-the-family/honeymoon vacation with baby. Here’s a quick post on neither baking nor math; both should return soon.

As a kid I played with my brothers all the time.  I distinctly remember playing with those little matchbox cars and having them talk like transformers to each other.  I always picked the pink car because she was the “girl” hot wheels.  This is ridiculous to me now, since we had 20 or so cars and they didn’t have faces or anything indicating their genders besides color.  And it’s not like 19 cars were blue and one was pink; they were all different colors, designs, etc.  But I was fixated on the pink one.  Looking back, did I just have a favorite car, or did I feel like the other cars weren’t for me?  If this post was just this anecdote, I’d say that I just had a favorite car which happened to be the pink one, and my brothers didn’t share the same obsession over any single car.  But.

We also played with legos.  We had two little hair clipons that you could put on your person to make them a girl, and we also had one head with lipstick and mascara.  I didn’t use that head because I didn’t (and still don’t) like makeup.  So every time I played, I’d put a hair on a person to make them female, which meant that our default Lego population were all male (comically statistically unlikely number of bald men in the Duong Legotown at any given time).  It also meant that girls couldn’t be firefighters, policemen, or pirates, since those all had separate hats and you could only wear one at a time.  This was zero percent a big deal to me as a kid, and is some percent a deal to me now.  I would be remiss not to link to Anita Sarkeesian’s video on this here.  And here’s part 2.

I was the youngest and did and liked everything my big brother did and liked, but I never got into Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Gargoyles as much as he did.  I loved Sonic the Hedgehog and Tails (a two tailed fox sidekick, I think?), but then the cartoon came out and it turned out Tails was a boy too, and my interest waned.  We played Secret of Mana often on our Super Nintendo, which was a super fun multiplayer RPG, and my brother would be the Boy main character and I would play Girl or Sprite.  I also loved Super Mario Bros 2 more than the other installations of the series, because I could play Princess Toadstool (and she could fly which was badass!)

As a child, I wanted characters who reflected me, or who I could aspire to be, or who I could relate to.  I didn’t want to be the sidekick all the time, but I was, mostly because I was younger but partially because I was a girl, and by default girls are sidekicks or trophies and boys are heroes.  Girls are heroes in girl-oriented products/games, but protagonists are male in general audience products/games.

I wondered whether this last statement is true, so I looked at my three month old baby’s books.  Turns out animal heroes are also by default male.  For instance, the Very Hungry Caterpillar is a he.  So is the Moose and the host in If You Give A Moose a Muffin, Spot the dog, Max in both “Max Explores Chicago” and “Where the Wild Things Are”, Duck in Dooby Dooby Moo (and the two other books in the series), the baby in I Love You Through and Through, Bear in Bear in Underwear, the dinosaur in Thesaurus Rex, and of course Bruce the bear bully in Big Bad Bruce.  I’ll note that the premise of the Dooby Dooby Moo series is that Farmer Brown (male) has a bunch of cows (female) who type, but the main actor of the series is Duck, who is a he.  I counted 12 of Ian’s books with male protagonists.

Girls are heroes in girl-oriented products/games, but protagonists are male in general audience products/games.

How about both?  Where is Baby’s Belly Button, the Tickle Book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Introductory Calculus for Infants, and Head to Toe all include both male and female leads characters.  The collection of Dr. Seuss Books, Count to Sleep Chicago, Hippos Go Berserk, Noneuclidean Geometry for Babies, and Possum Come a Knockin’ all don’t have male or female leads.  So that’s nine in the both or neither category.

What about female?  Nope.  None of his books have a female main character.

To be fair, a friend did gift us The Munschworks Grand Treasury of stories, which includes multiple female protagonists.  But that’s for when Ian is a bit older (also I haven’t read any of them yet).

My husband pointed out that this is what happens when we don’t have a gender neutral pronoun in English, implying that “he” is the default pronoun.  But that’s exactly my point.  “He” is the default.  So my son will get to be the hero, and use all the matchbox cars, and be Optimus Prime or Bumblebee or Rafael or Leonardo or Sonic or Tails or Ash Ketchum or a lego pirate or firefighter or policeman.  And if I ever have a daughter, I’ll have to figure out what to tell her so that she can be all these things too, and doesn’t feel like she can only be the pink car or the lego figures with hair or Princess Toadstool/Peach.  Or buy her a whole new set of toys catered just for girls, because boys and girls are apparently so fundamentally different that this face

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 10.51.54 AM

somehow only reflects half the population, at least when I was a little kid trying to play.

The Apology and why it bugs me

3 Aug

I want to remark at the beginning of this post that I love math people.  We’re a little weird, very friendly, and generally quite open-minded and supportive (at least, this is true of the math people I know, a.k.a. geometric group theorists and friend fields).  There’s one thing that really, really bugs me that many (definitely not all) math people do when talking math with each other.

Also, I’m really into lists right now.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m doing an exciting research program this summer involving four faculty, five graduate students, and three undergraduates doing at least five research projects.  With so many different experiences and different personalities interacting, there are lots of times when apologies are required:

  • Interrupting someone in the middle of a productive thought (actually people don’t apologize for this enough.  Reminds me of this post from the What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? blog)
  • Stealing someone’s notes/pen/paper/seat
  • Talking over someone (similar to the first thing here)
  • Probably more things I can’t think of right now

And I’m totally down with all of those.  They make complete sense- apologies are a nice lubricant for social and professional interactions.  But there’s one apology that really bothers me, which comes up in these situations:

  • Not knowing something that you’ve never been exposed to/had a reason to explore
  • Not being able to read the mind of someone who isn’t communicating clearly (related: this old post on teaching)
  • Having a different background than someone else, mathematical or otherwise
  • Being better at processing things in a visual rather than audial way, or vice-versa

These all come down to one thing: you’re a different mathematician than whoever you’re talking to.  And this is the thing that you might say in this situation:

Sorry, I’m slow.

I dislike this so much!  I’ve heard very many mathematicians say this over the past few weeks, whom no one would call “slow.”  One reason for my distaste ties in with the whole “women apologize more” bit, explored in a Pantene ad, dissected by Time, and perhaps most effectively explained in this spoken word video.

To be clear, this is not a women-only problem (while I’ve noticed more women do so than men, men also do this).  I dislike the phrase “sorry, I’m slow” because

  1. I’m apologizing for an adjective that I’m applying to myself- ->I’m apologizing for who I am.  [I am not a person who likes doing this.  I certainly apologize when I make mistakes/do bad actions, but to judge myself on my character, and invite you to pass that same judgment?  Not fun.]
  2. I’m devaluing my contributions to this conversation.  If I don’t take myself seriously, how can I expect you to?
  3. By saying these words aloud, whether I believe them now or not, I convince myself and you that I am, in fact, slow.  Just like if I looked in a mirror everyday and said “I’m ugly” I would eventually believe it.
  4. I’m perpetuating a system of these apologies- now whenever you’re in a conversation and struggling to understand what’s going on, you’ll be tempted to say “sorry, I’m slow” and cause 1-3 to happen to you.

Maybe the worst part of “sorry, I’m slow” is that there are good reasons to say it: when faculty/those further along say it, it encourages undergrads/younger folks that they aren’t the only ones who feel this way.  Similarly, if you say it in a group of peers, it builds camaraderie (in the way that teenage girls insult themselves in order to get compliments from each other).  When younger people say it to older people, mentorship instincts kick in and older people often share personal stories of some other time they felt slow.

Really what I’m saying is that “sorry I’m slow” is bad because it makes you believe that you’re slow, and it’s good because it tells everyone else that you also think you’re slow.  I just wish people didn’t pass these value judgments on themselves.  =(  I suppose this post is why I’m a mathematician, not a psychologist or sociologist.

From here: http://cheezburger.com/5218979584

From here: http://cheezburger.com/5218979584.  Also, I’m the puppy and the cat.

 

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

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