Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Notes: The Gender Gap in Math

"The Gender Gap in Math" presented by the Harvard Undergraduate Mathematics Association

Panel: Gigliola Staffilani (Professor, MIT Math), Rediet Adebe '13 (PhD, Harvard SEAS), Hilary Finucane '09 (PhD, MIT), Alison Miller '08 (Postdoc, Harvard Math)
Moderator: Sarah Richardson (Professor, Harvard Social Studies)

Notes legibility estimate: HIGH

Notes completeness estimate: Incomplete; important, scattered quotes only.

Please assume that everything is at best a loose paraphrasing of what the panelists actually said; in the place where it got really bad, I've noted [paraphrased], but the others aren't always close quotations, either. Many good answers were left off because I'm seriously not that fast at taking notes.

HUMS: Some Numbers

The Harvard Undergraduate Math Survey (May 2014) was organized by Meena Boppana, Kate Donahue, Domniki Georgopoulou, and Caitlin Stanton, with contributions by Rahul Dalal, Ellen Robo, and Isabel Vogt, and advised by Prof. Benedict Gross. It had 130 responses, 55 from math concentrators (1/3 of math undergrads); here are a few of the findings.

Are you made uncomfortable by the gender gap in math?

  • 3% of male responents
  • 54% of female respondents

How many professors do you believe you can ask for a letter of recommendation?

  • Female respondents: 1.0
  • Male respondents: 1.6

Did you compete in math competitions in high school?

  • 80% of male respondents
  • 75% of female respondents

Are you planning on writing a thesis in pure mathematics?

  • 25% of female respondents
  • 50% of male respondents

Are you planning on grad school in mathematics?

  • 65% of male respondents
  • 25% of female respondents

Panel Discussion

Moderated by: Professor Sarah Richardson, Professor of popular gen-ed "Gender and Science: From Marie Curie to Gamergate"

Richardson: Let's get a little introduction to our panelists -- can each one of you tell us a little 'opening statement'?

Professor Gigliola Staffilani, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Mathematics at MIT

What beliefs lead to the impression that there's nothing we can do?

See: Leslie et al. 2015: Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Abstract:

The gender imbalance in STEM subjects dominates current debates about women’s underrepresentation in academia. However, women are well represented at the Ph.D. level in some sciences and poorly represented in some humanities (e.g., in 2011, 54% of U.S. Ph.D.’s in molecular biology were women versus only 31% in philosophy). We hypothesize that, across the academic spectrum, women are underrepresented in fields whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success, because women are stereotyped as not possessing such talent. This hypothesis extends to African Americans’ underrepresentation as well, as this group is subject to similar stereotypes. Results from a nationwide survey of academics support our hypothesis (termed the field-specific ability beliefs hypothesis) over three competing hypotheses.

Note: Michael Tontchev, commenting on Facebook, reminds me that Leslie et al. has been challenged for methodological difficulties.

How do you open up fields to under-represented minorities? (Lessons from history)

  • You have to invite people in, rather than letting them come to you.
  • You have to help them persist in the face of difficulty.

Rediet Adebe, PhD student at Harvard SEAS, Harvard Math '13

"I looked at the list of concentrations, and they fell into two categories: either I didn't want to do it, or I wasn't any good at it. So in the end, I was forced into math..."

Hilary Finucane, MIT PhD student, Harvard Math '09

I've had a lot of awesome role models, both in college and afterwards, and a lot of them have been women, and a lot of them have not.

When I think about my exeperience being a woman in math, some things haven't been very subtle, like when you notice that you're the only woman in the room. But there's another, more insidious effect, when people expect a little less of you than if you were a guy.

I came to Harvard with a friend, and we both were going to take Math 55. But we spent >50 hours on the first problem set, so we decided to drop it. My roommates said "Good decision; we were worried about you!" -- his said "No way you're going to drop it!".

Alison Miller, Benjamin Peirce Fellow and NSF, Postdoctoral Fellow in Harvard Math Department, Harvard Math '08

[The Math Olympiad Summer Program] was intimidating in a lot of the same ways that Harvard is intimidating...but also awesome, since there are a lot of people who know a lot more than you

And I kept doing math competitions because I wanted to go back to that camp. And then lots of my friends came to Harvard, and so obviously I wanted to come here, too!

I was a freshman when the Larry Summers thing happened, and I remember my Math 55 professor saying to me "I'm so glad you're doing well and proving Larry wrong."

ed: Is this the right thing for him to have said? What's the right way to be supportive of female students in math without feeding stereotype threat[?]? It's almost certainly context-specific, but it sounds like something that's so easy to say inadvertently, but ultimately contributes to the "insidious effect" Hilary mentioned above.

Staffilani: Look, I'm a woman in math; I'm not an expert in women in math!

Staffilani: I don't want to be known as the champion of women in math, since once you get known for that, people think that you've stopped doing research. On the other hand, if everyone helps, then we all share a little bit of the burden, and no one's stamped with the label of doing that, and not the other thing.

Richardson: A question for the men in the room: How many of you commit to do something in the next month for women in math?

precommitment: I raised my hand. So now I've got to do something. I don't think that publishing these notes count.

Adebe: I was talking to a friend and he said "Well...I'm not that interested in [the gender gap]; it doesn't really affect me." But that's not true. People who want to be part of the community are pushed out and made to feel unwelcome, and the whole community suffers for it. If people are pushed out because of their gender, there is less math, and that does hurt you. [paraphrased slightly]

There are a lot of big and small ways that guys can support women in math. On the 'big' side, I recently attended a Women in Theoretical Computer Science conference, which I realized was organized by a group of men, which is pretty cool.

But there are small things, too...if you're a guy in a room with 40 men and 2 women, make sure the jokes you tell aren't making the women uncomfortable.

Richardson: ...being a good bystander; if you hear a joke that's unwelcoming to women in math, call it out.

C. McMullen, audience: Is there evidence about whether discussion-based math classes are more welcoming to women than lecture-and-notes-based classes?

Richardson: Sure, can we talk about pedgagogical experiences in math?

Staffilani: I don't think that I have learn differently than other students in the class... But it could be possible that a more interactive classroom, where students are encouraged to tell what they know. [In social settings,] there's a lot of show-off [especially among male math students], but in the classroom, where you're forced to prove yourself, it's easier to see that other people are struggling, too.

Adebe: Bamberg, 122: "How do you expect to be a math concentrator if you don't know what rings are?" I wonder how many women stopped being a math concentrator because they didn't know what rings were after the summer of their freshman year.

The Math 123 professor that year was known for cold-calling people, and I thought..."If I get this wrong, I'm letting my whole gender down." So I decided to take the class at MIT where there was no cold-calling.

For me, what's worked, I discovered that I really loved combinatorics, so I emailed a professor at MIT, and he gave me a pile of books, and said "read this, and come back and let's talk about it." And it was great, because I could read a chapter and come in and talk to him. And I could get things wrong, and nothing bad happened, and I could get things right, and I didn't get a cookie or anything...but it was just about learning the math.

You want to make women feel more welcome, but you also don't want to put on them the burden of being here and representing women; I think that that's a reason why women might leave.

Finucane: Participatory classes are tricky, because if you can do it well, many people learn more that way, but it is hard to be a woman in one of those classes, since they amplify stereotype threat a lot more than if you're just taking notes.

ed: At this point, my computer died and I switched to handwritten notes, later transcribed back to digital format, but my notetaking speed (and completeness) definitely decreased. Also, I missed about half of Alison's comment immediately below.

Miller: ...a study that shows people call on men more often than they think. ...but also men raise their hands more than women, so maybe that's an argument for cold-calling? [paraphrased]

Richardson: One thing that's interesting is the point of entry, when the student decides to take the next step in math. For each of you, when you had that moment, what kind of cues were you looking for? What kind of cues did you receive?

Finucane: I remember a [female] friend being told "I don't think you should do math...I think you should teach it." And I don't think that the recommendation that she not pursue math would have seemed gendered at all in context...except for the second half of that sentence.

A lot of my friends who left math didn't so much get pushed out, as pulled away by other things they wanted to do more.

Adebe: There's a mentality that "You shouldn't do math unless you're going to be really good at it." And this attitude is persuasive, and is a big piece of discouraging women from trying. Ultimately, it's the combination of an extremely high perceived bar to entry and implicit biases that push a lot of women out of math.

Staffilani: Yeah, I agree. Unfortunately, you always compare yourself to your extraordinary peers, but one thing I stress a lot to undergrads in my own department [at MIT] is that you don't need a transcript with A's in 15 grad courses to go to grad school.

I'm stepping down as Associate-Head [of Math at MIT] next year, and I really want to spend more time with the undergrads, trying to communicate to more people that you don't have to be an absolute genius to do math.

Question from the audience: What are some good resources for undergraduate women in math?

Finucane: Well, first there are all of the resources that are available to guys in math...I'm serious! The more important thing, I've found, is to not think of yourself as someone who needs extra resources until you actually do. As much as you can think of yourself as a mathematician first, you are your own best resources.

For gender-specific issues, though, the thing I most recommend is upperclassmen women in math, who I found to be great sources of advice.

C. McMullen, audience: There's something that members of the department can do right now to help: The advising department is willing to pair off faculty from the department as freshman advisors for ambitious students in mathematics -- last year, I signed up and received four students enrolled in Math 55, and when one of them said that he was thinking about taking two 200-level courses as well, I said that it sounded like a good idea. A law professor? Probably wouldn't have.

But if we can get more people in the math department to sign up as freshman advisors, we can hopefully do a better job of getting good math advising to our female undergrads, so that we don't lose them before they even really come in the door.

Question, from the audience: What do you think about female-only programs?

Adebe: Like Alison, [RY: who's response I didn't get down] I think that female-only programs can be really great -- it's just a relieving experience, not to feel like you're representing all women in math...

But I think we need to think of these as...I don't want to say "temporary measures, but we shouldn't think of them as general solutions for society overall.

Staffilani: I'm often worried about fellowships and grants and programs specifically for women... I once had a colleague say, when I told him about my background at Chicago, "Oh yeah, that's one of those women things", and so you start to question: am I here because I'm doing good math, or am I here because the NSF won't fund this conference unless they put more women on the panel?

But my advice is, if you find yourself in one of those situations...my philosophy is, "Well, I have this advantage now; I'm not going to give it back; I'll make the most of it!" For example, I had a larger-than-average startup package when I was hired at MIT, because there are a few fellowships set up to support female faculty in mathematics, and I took it and used it to invite more people, do more math, and prove more theorems!

Question, from the audience: How important is it to have tenured female faculty to look up to?

Adebe: It definitely helps to see female tenured faculty -- it's proof by example that you're not going to hit the point where you'll have to drop out of mathematics because you're a woman.

Finucare: When I was here [at Harvard], I really didn't miss there being senior female faculty. But then I went to MIT, where there's a really tight-knit community of female faculty, and it was pretty great, and I realized that I didn't really know what I'd been missing.

Miller: In the long term, everyone has doubts, everyone gets to the point where you feel dumb because there's a lot of math out there and not enough you to understand all of it.

Finucare: But I think it's important that we all support one another. We all have branches of math that we're not good at, but I think women are more likely to admit it, and to be self-conscious about it. [paraphrased]

Relatedly, I found this writeup of some research about women in Computer Science at CMU interesting, which I stumbled upon while chasing down a link for a side-conversation I ended up in.

As a second epilogue, I think this panel benefited a great deal by the ability to compare panelists' experiences at Harvard with their experiences at MIT, and I think the attendees today were lucky to have an opportunity afforded by two strong, but distinct mathematics programs in such close proximity.