Being a woman in math and academia

A few months ago one of the strongest research universities in Australia advertised a continuing (like tenure-track) position in mathematics for female applicants only. Shortly thereafter, two other first-tier universities followed suit. I wasn’t privy to the politics behind the decisions, but I heard gossip that at my university there wasn’t much of an opposition. It seemed people treated it as an experiment: posting a job ad doesn’t mean that you are committed to hire someone. As for legal issues, in Australia you can positively discriminate an under-represented group with the goal of balancing the scales.

On social media I have seen people express opinions that either no self-respecting woman would apply for such a position, or that if they do, everyone at their new institution would hate them because of how they got their job. That is not what happened: the interviewees whose job talks I heard were all fantastic, and everyone on the faculty that I have talked to felt that the experiment was a great success. The applicant pool was so strong that many people thought there should be more than one hire. It seemed that women saw the posting as a good opportunity, not as an insult. Many of them had two-body problems, to which the position presented a possible solution. Some were originally from Australia and looking to move back. Had I not signed a continuing offer only a few months before, I might very well have applied as well.

This was one in a long sequence of professional, political and personal events which made me think more about being a woman. As a result I’ve been writing two blog posts: one about being female in general, and one about working in a male-dominated field of science. You are currently reading the latter.

I don’t usually ponder this issue much: in recent years I have been quite comfortable in my skin as a woman, and when I’m not happy with my research I don’t typically see my womanhood as relevant to my problems. I do struggle with impostor syndrome sometimes, which is often named as a predominantly feminine issue, but I live with a male who has it a hundred times worse than me. (That is Pink, not Pixie.) I am a competent self-deprecator: for example, coming back from the interview that eventually landed me a job, I told a friend “to the extent that I might have had chances I probably haven’t ruined them”. That is a ringing self-endorsement in my book. But if I am competent, then Pink is a Grand Master; his failures and achievements seem to cause him anguish in equal measures. As a result, my impression of what parts of my psychology are estrogen-driven may be slightly skewed.

I was hesitant to write this post because I am not sufficiently well-versed in the body of research on professional advancement of under-represented groups to draw meaningful insights from my experiences and from the trials and tribulations of my friends. Nonetheless, I’ve decided to share a few stories here, of events and issues which had an impact on my career, and which I see as directly related to my being a woman. I’m not aiming for any grand conclusion, perhaps I’m writing only for your entertainment, or my own. But I do witness conversations where people who simply don’t share each other’s experience of the world think they disagree about deep principles, and maybe I can contribute to a better understanding by saying a few honest words.

Ambiguous expectations

I have written before about my parents’ high expectations of me as I was growing up. Whatever academic goal I set for myself, I was never short on support and encouragement. My mom’s bar for success was ‘top ten student in the country’, and my dad used to say “you should choose one or two subjects you want to be good at; in everything else an A+ is enough.” Being a girl never meant that I should aim lower, or stick to “girly” interests: my own mother was an engineer, after all. It should be no surprise, then, that I ended up with a competitive, demanding career.

There were some small cracks in my parents’ equal opportunity philosophy though, which opened wider as I got older. Once, when I was a teenager, my mom told me that if one of her kids were to do badly in school, she’d rather it be a daughter: a boy would have to support his family but a girl could still “marry well”. Later, as my mid-twenties came and went and I had yet to produce grand-babies, my parents started to express concern. My ex-husband and I split as I turned 30, and this had my mom yo-yoing between resignedly writing me off as a lonely old woman, and spiraling into panic about my diminished chances of child-bearing. When Pink and I were in the early stages of dating, she liked to remind me that my time was running out. Needless to say, as I had wanted a family all my life more than anything else, these comments were highly valuable in helping me maintain a healthy approach to my budding relationship. (That was sarcasm there, in case someone missed it.)

Now that Pixie is around and adored, having a family and a career gives rise to a new set of problems. My parents are horrified that Pixie will have to attend day care from the tender age of 18 months. In their opinion this practically constitutes child abuse. I get the impression that I was supposed to be a star student, an ambitious young scientist up to the age of 25, and then promptly sacrifice that on the altar of being a world champion mother. After all, once you are a mother, caring about anything but your child – including the job which feeds that child – is at best selfish, at worst criminal. To be fair, my parents lived by this point of view: they both left the careers of their dreams to better accommodate our needs, and for decades they spent all their free time and energy on being amazing parents. They were beyond involved.

If someone decides to leave or change their career because their circumstances or preferences change after they have children, that’s great. I especially admire long term full-time parents: they are doing an intense, extremely valuable – and very difficult – job. But as an expectation I find this both incredibly unfair to women, and also misguided: there is no one-size-fits-all best way to raise a family. My parents are not alone in their expectations though. Sometimes you get the unfiltered views of a slice of society through someone who has lost their grip on what is socially appropriate: an old professor once came up to me after a research lecture I gave to ask when I was planning to have children, because “I wasn’t getting any younger”. Which brings us to…

Backhanded compliments

Here is a small selection of compliments I have received on my research talks:

  • I like that you chose to wear a skirt, it feels like the world has turned upside down with all the ladies walking around in pants. (This one came from the “not getting younger” professor, so perhaps it doesn’t count.)
  • Your handwriting is beautiful.
  • It’s so nice to see someone give a talk with a smile on their face.
  • You have such a calming voice.
  • That was a great talk, but the best thing about it was your dress.

Not long ago I brought this up in a conversation on social media with the person who made the dress comment; he told me that if someone were to compliment his shirt after a talk, he would find that genuinely flattering and amusing. I believe him, and I believe that all these comments were made honestly and in good faith, by people who liked my skirt, my handwriting, my smile, my voice, my dress.

However, when the person who enjoyed my dress talks about his research, 95% of the time the audience’s response concerns his mathematics. As an isolated incident, someone complimenting his appearance would simply be flattering. But when these comments make up half of people’s reaction to my research, it makes it difficult for me to take myself seriously as a mathematician. It sometimes makes me feel like I’m a mediocre researcher but I’m at least… a smiley one? Granted, my colleagues are not required to be experts on the intricacies of my psychology, but nonetheless I suspect that had I been male, this would have been a non-issue.

Romantic professional relationships

As a young heterosexual woman starting out in a male-dominated field, I found myself entering a maze of relationships with men, many of which involved intense emotions. You might feel admiration for a teacher, excitement when discovering something with a collaborator, dependence on your thesis advisor (maybe dependence is not an emotion though?), curiosity when you meet interesting people at a conference, gratitude when someone leads you to an insight, you might feel flattered when praised. Any of these are easy to conflate with romantic feelings, and as an emotionally immature young adult I had trouble distinguishing. This presented excellent opportunities to make a mess out of both my personal and professional life, and the fact that both worked out in the end required some luck. In the process I have hurt some people who deserved much better, which I still regret. I eventually learned that it is possible to admire someone’s mathematics, enjoy their company and yet not want to bear their children, and I have found this epiphany extremely helpful in my career.

On the flip side of this coin, every once in a while I receive sexual advances from colleagues. I have no a priori objection to dating mathematicians – I have married two of them after all – but these situations can be very delicate when seniority is involved. Early on virtually everyone was my senior to various degrees: TAs, current and potential professors, more experienced collaborators, mentors, possible recommendation letter writers. There are many problems in turning an inherently asymmetric professional relationship into a consensual romantic one; and while perhaps none of these are insurmountable, in my experience they are rarely handled with the maturity and care that they deserve. I will only mention one specific issue which ties into the previous subject: when someone I professionally look up to expresses a romantic or sexual interest in me, I start to wonder whether that was their primary motivation to be mathematically involved with me in the first place- regardless of whether our mathematical relationship spans minutes or years. I suspect that this aspect of flirting with younger or less powerful women is not obvious to the majority of senior men: although my sample is small, hardly anyone in it acknowledged the issue.

As I get older I encounter these problems less and less often. I have better emotional grounding and a stable, loving, warm relationship with Pink, so I no longer experience wild “transference crushes”. Being married with a small child is a fairly strong social cue that I am unavailable, so I also don’t have many suitors; the fact that more often than not I have dark circles under my eyes and baby puke stains on my clothes might have to do with that too. And even if I found myself in one of these situations again, I would be much better equipped to deal with them: I’m better at communicating in my relationship, at asserting myself and saying no; I can hold my own mathematically and my entire career doesn’t hinge on the goodwill and opinion of a select few people. It is unfortunate that the ground is most slippery at the beginning, exactly when one is most vulnerable to falling.

Most of the time though being a woman in math is just like being anyone else in academia: you do the best research you can and publish it, give the best talks you can, teach the best courses you can, apply for jobs and funding and hope for the best. At various times I had opportunities that I might not have had had I not been female. For example, I once gave a high-visibility lecture where half of the speakers were chosen to be female from a pool of qualified candidates that was about 90% male. At that lecture I met a colleague who later became a collaborator.

I have been extremely fortunate to get jobs where I could thrive and meet mentors who were so generous with their time and insights. Whether I would have been more or less successful had I been born with a Y chromosome is a meaningless question at this point, and I’m happy with the direction my life is headed, including being a woman and being a mathematician. Besides, had I been born a guy, I would never have experienced the wonderful miracle of giving birth to a new human being. (Pink was there and when reads this he’ll be positive I’m being sarcastic, but I don’t know anymore- maybe I mean it.)

There you go, no grand conclusions. Feel free to share stories about being women, men, or neither, in math, or not.

  4 comments for “Being a woman in math and academia

  1. Gili
    January 14, 2017 at 11:39 am

    Thank you for this. I’m still at the beginning of my career in academia (I’m a computer science master’s student), and I could empathize with a lot of the things you wrote, especially the ambiguous expectations. In most cases its not my parents- its teachers, or my husband’s parents, or even my own unrealistic ideals of what good parenting involves.

    • MC&C
      January 16, 2017 at 5:15 am

      Thank you for your comment and best of luck with your studies, career and family! I would say I’m glad you can relate, but I’m actually not :). Here is one thing I wish I knew when I was doing my Master’s: I felt very rushed then, and thought I was behind on everything from publishing to PhD to having children. There was no need, I had ten times the time than I thought I had. Life is long;). I hope everything works out for you at least as well as it did for me.

  2. Anonymous
    January 13, 2017 at 8:41 pm

    I’ll post this anonymously because I’m not as brave as you; this is one of the best posts I’ve read, on a very sensitive and taboo subject.

    My thinking on these matters is massively old-fashioned; I value children as a primary objective, so generally I end up on the non-liberal side of this argument (although I rarely verbalise it). Namely, if women have a demanding career they will marry later, have fewer children, and those children will have less connection to their mother (simply because they can spend less time with their mother), and I see that as negative in general. That said, people are individuals and different people are different…

    Your post touches on several major issues; one of them is how to combine a mathematical career with family (you discuss both romantic aspects- e.g. marriage- and children). How to balance- how to be a mathematician and also a spouse and also a parent and also to have one’s own life- is really difficult and I wish universities knew how to support such things better, e.g. by helping with 2-body problems, healthcare for families, childcare, education, financially, etc.

    I don’t know… no easy answers… I wish this weren’t such a taboo subject and could be discussed like this, without massive gender politics entering and on a frank and useful level.

    • MC&C
      January 15, 2017 at 5:17 pm

      I appreciate your comment and I actually disagree with you less than you might guess.
      First of all I believe women can be very happy in a traditional, patriarchal society. I once had a conversation on a plane with a young Saudi woman who had just spent a year in Canada, and I was shocked to discover she preferred the Saudi way. There must be something deeply satisfying about clear expectations, being raised to fill a well-defined role and being taught the necessary skills you need to do it well.
      On the other hand I don’t agree with some of the things you mention as negative consequences of women pursuing careers. Sure, they will marry later and have fewer kids, but with child mortality being very low in the developed world and the Earth becoming overpopulated anyway, is that really a bad thing? I might have three children eventually, but I’ll see the third one as kind of an indulgence. I’ve heard the argument that populations of any nation or ethnic group I belong to are decreasing, but I don’t subscribe to the notion of out-reproducing other groups as a solution to that problem (to the extent that it is a problem at all).
      I agree that children spending less time with their parents is a negative, and this should be addressed better, with more flexible leave policies and part-time work options for example. The choice many women are forced to make between going back to work after 6 weeks or quitting work forever is ridiculous. I also agree that one parent being with the kids full time is a wonderful way to raise a family, and probably best for the kids (all else being equal, though often all else is not equal).
      On the other hand, after the first half year to a year, I don’t see why there has to be an a priori distinction between the two parents’ roles. After I went back to work, Pink has stayed home with Pixie (he’s still the full-time parent), and I think that has been a wonderfully healthy for all of us. We also spent two months with my mom as primary caregiver and that was lovely too. I see day care and nannies for young children as a compromise that will eventually become necessary for us, but we’ll at least try to make sure Pixie gets high quality care/education when we’re not with him.
      I absolutely agree that it should be easier to talk about these issues. To stick with my poor mom as an example, she interprets anything I say or do as a judgment of how she raised me: everything hits too close to home. The entire subject is too personal, too emotional and too political at the same time. Still it’s worth trying:).

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