Mathematics has a diversity problem. This problem is far larger than just one of gender representation, but let’s start the conversation there. Only two of the thirty-five tenure-track professors in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Oregon are women. This is not an accident—the structure of the department, those empowered to make decisions, cultural factors (both as a discipline and the backgrounds of our faculty) and out-moded ideas of social gender roles have made our department the image of one from the 1960s (or earlier)!

I have heard tales of women students being told by male UO math professors that they were “good at math, for a girl”. Graduate students often ask faculty for advice, but the advice that “women should not have children during graduate school” is neither appropriate, welcoming, nor welcome. Off-hand musings that “the department was better when the wives [of faculty] organized and hosted social events” while questionably appropriate in 1960, are grossly inappropriate now. These are not hypothetical utterances—all have been said by UO math professors out loud, and in the presence of students.

Policies dictating the matriculation of graduate students through our program have been waived for male students—allowing them to continue unimpeded, having benefited from violating policy—while women in similar situations are summarily dismissed from the program in spite of comparable academic performance, and in spite of them following our policies to the letter. These decisions have been upheld by departmental leadership, even after the obvious structural bias has been pointed out.

In recent years, when reporting incidents of bias to departmental leadership—ostensibly empowered to uphold the institutional commitment to diversity—I have often been asked to ‘tone down’ my rhetoric, and steered toward the word ‘bias’ and away from ‘harassment’ or ‘discrimination.’ There are, apparently, different standards for reporting bias and discrimination, and it was more important to protect faculty from diversity trainings (which was explained to me by the same administrator as a waste of time and incapable of changing behavior) than to attempt to address the problem head-on. I have no doubt that the incidents I brought forward were not reported by those administrators to the appropriate offices on campus, though on several occasions I reported the incidents directly myself.

In faculty searches, committees routinely produce short-lists of candidates for interviews which are less diverse than the pools of applicants. Imagine a pool of 750 applicants (the approximate number we get for any tenure-track search) being winnowed down to 25—only three of which are women. (To be fair, faculty do not have easy access to demographics of individual applicants, so my assessment of these numbers is based on names and pronouns in application materials—not a good way to make such determinations but the best I can do with the information provided me).

If the department wanted to, out of 750 candidates for tenure-track positions, it could easily put forth 25 excellent woman for consideration. But the department does not want to. Indeed, it doesn’t even feel compelled to match the diversity of the candidate pools.

I should be clear, not everyone in the department (or the field) is a problem in this regard. There are excellent, inclusive, well-meaning individuals in the department who are supportive of all of our students and colleagues. There are individuals in the department who are working hard on initiatives that support diversity and students/colleagues from different backgrounds. The department has funded, and continues to support a local chapter of the Association of Women in Mathematics. Our graduate students by-and-large, are thoroughly modern when it comes to diversity and engage in more diversity work in total than our tenure-track faculty. To all those individuals, I say “Thank you”.

The problem is cultural. There is an ethos in mathematics that puts disproportionate weight on the opinions of those that are good at math. Somehow the expectation is that mathematical production is connected to good decision-making. It is not. All mathematicians have at least one bad decision in common, and alacrity in mathematical thinking does not translate to good decision-making on topics that involve tricky, non-idealized social considerations.

When it comes to diversity, the decorated but old-fashioned, stodgy and biased full professor should not be listened to disproportionately, or even at all. Tenure protects the opinions of those individuals, but we do not have to listen to them. Nor should we. Let’s hound them ceaselessly until they relent or we drive them to the dust bin of history.

Tenure is a platform from which to change the world. It is a privileged position that allows people to make unpopular or controversial statements. In a way, it’s an amped-up First Amendment that protects faculty not only from government interference in their speech, but also protects them from university interference in their speech. However, like the First Amendment, tenure does not protect professors from public outrage, nor does it keep the rest of the academic (and general) community from pointing out obvious moral failings in their arguments. If tenure is to survive in the modern academic world, then it is incumbent on us to ensure that those with the privilege are using it to change the world for good. We do this by loudly and vociferously speaking out against those holding us back from an excellent, diverse faculty representing the backgrounds and interests of our students.

2 thoughts on “Women & Men in Mathematics

  1. Thank you for shedding light on this problem. Finally, finally, finally we’re seeing some progress on illuminating big and small gender disparities in academia. And as a former faculty wife in this very department, I laughed at the nostalgia for the days when wives organized and hosted social events. May I suggest to those individuals to take a look at themselves and ask if they’re the kind of guests one would want to invite into one’s home. (Cheat sheet: no.)

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