Mathematics in Fiction Class Visit

Today I attended a colleague‘s “Mathematics in Fiction” course. This course is designed as a First-Year Seminar course, not necessarily for math majors, and has a large writing component. I was invited to attend the class as a “guest participant” so I could be part of a dialogue on the broader issues about gender & mathematics, and how women are portrayed as mathematicians in works of fiction.

Overall, I really enjoyed the discussion we had. I’m hoping the students continue to ponder the issues and questions that were raised. In our conversation, I realized I wanted to make two distinctions that the students perhaps didn’t see.

Mathematician, Math Professor, and Math Teacher
Several students said they were unsure that there are still problems about gender in mathematics, citing that they had mostly female math teachers in high school. There seems to be a cultural conflation of mathematician, math professor, and math teacher. When I tell people I have had very few female math professors, a common response is, “Well all of my high school math teachers were female.” In my mind, these three titles have different connotations. I don’t consider high school math teachers to be “mathematicians” necessarily. To me, a mathematician is someone with advanced training and who has engaged in mathematical research (and, in most cases, who is continuing to do so). The research component separates math professor from math teacher.

As far as the distinction between “mathematician” and “math professor,” I used to think the overlap between these groups was so large that we might as well call these terms synonyms. But “math professor” is an academic job title — one cannot be a math professor if one isn’t employed. Meanwhile, “mathematician” has something more to do with educational background, training, and hobbies and isn’t job related.

One Question Becomes Two
One student brought up that perhaps the gender imbalance in mathematics has more to do with interest than anything else: Could it be that girls are just less interested in math, and that’s why there are fewer female mathematicians? (I don’t believe this to be true.) Our conversation made me want to point out the following distinction, which I think is important: There is a question of whether women like math less than men like math, and then there is a question of whether women like mathematical careers less than men like mathematical careers. In my mind, these are two very different questions.

My experiences & my gut instinct make me think that the bigger issue is that women are less interested in becoming math professors, not that women are less interested in mathematics. Indeed, there has been a lot of discussion about the so-called “leaky pipeline”: While more and more women are finishing both undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics, there seems to be a slow-down when it comes to who is being hired into academic mathematics.

Other Sources, Same Ideas

Two interesting links crossed my digital landscape today. One contained the link to the infographic below, found originally at TItle: Under the Microscope: Women in Science: The challenges and opportunities for women interested in scientific careers. At the bottom of the infographic, the question “How can we continue to attract more women to science careers?” They highlight three key points, two of which I pointed out in my post yesterday on Gender & Mathematics:

  • Create tenure policies that provide flexibility for parental leave. I would extend this to all of the college and university instructorship, not just the tenure-track lines. There are lots of female scientists who, like me, have devoted their careers to postsecondary teaching and scholarship who are not in tenure-track jobs and who are not looking for a tenure-track appointment.
  • Provide support for the work-life balance. One response I’ve received about my post yesterday is that it isn’t just mathematics or science or academia that needs better accountability for the work-life balance problem. This is clearly true and it was never my argument that every other career path is daffodils for working parents. Nevertheless, this argument amounts to, “Well, other careers can also be miserable for parents and families, so there’s really no reason for us to work to have better policies in academia.” It seems obvious that everyone should have family-friendly, people-friendly, parent-friendly policies at their workplace, no?

The second link that caught my attention was an article posted by the Center for Excellence in Education. Their stated goal is as follows:

The Center’s mission is to nurture high school and university scholars to careers of excellence and leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and to encourage collaboration between and among leaders in the global community.

The article they posted today was titled “How to Create an Undergraduate Physics Program in Which Women Can Excel.” It was written by Janice Hudgings, Physics Department Chair and Associate Dean of Faculty, Mount Holyoke College. The entire article is certainly worth reading to anyone invested in undergraduate degree programs in science and who wonders about how to attract more women to STEM careers. The following is one of Hudgings’s suggestions [emphasis mine]:

All faculty in the department should be committed teachers, using active teaching and learning techniques.  Replace the dry, boring lectures with classrooms full of students who are arguing in small groups, gesturing, laughing, and actively engaging with physics.

This is precisely the point I made yesterday: Our lecture-based classrooms select for students who are great at learning from a lecture. Those students become our majors, and the best of those we mold into the future crop of graduate students, and then some of those go on to become our professorship. And we end up with generation after generation of professors who learned via lecture, who teach via lecture, and who wonder why there’s a need to do anything differently. I’m an active proponent of a classroom that looks different from that tradition, not just because I think it would benefit a particular subgroup of students, but because I think it would benefit all of our students. We need students who are actively engaged with the material — both in and outside of the classroom.

I’ve heard the argument made, by people who have very good intentions, that they would love to have more female and minority math majors, but those types of people just aren’t as interested in the subject. As Hudgings points out,

It can be very difficult for underrepresented groups of students, including women, students of color, community college transfer students, and low income students among others, to hear even heartfelt messages of belonging against a broader societal backdrop that is saying the opposite.

This has certainly been my experience. While in many, many cases I’ve felt nothing but welcomed, I do notice that I’m in a minority group. In departmental meetings, it’s easy to count that there are over 30 attendees (but only six women). The small percentage of female math professors has been obvious in every math department I’ve visited, over many years, in many places. Since I know that women can and do excel in mathematics, the lack of women among the math professoriate makes me wonder where they all went. In 2007-2008, 27% of new doctorates in mathematics and computer science went to women. Yet I don’t think I’ve come across a math department where 27% of the tenured faculty members are women. (And I don’t think this is all explained by the “trickle upward” time.)

Where are the women going? When I noticed this discrepancy as an undergraduate student and as a graduate student, I wondered why there weren’t more female tenured math professors. The “brain drain of women from STEM careers”  has been a hot topic of recent research. See “Technical fault: The worrying brain drain of women from science and technology” or the Harvard Business Review’s “The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology” or 24000 other scholarly articles. As Hudgings concludes,

But strong academics must be combined with a student-friendly department environment that reinforces a message of “you are welcome here.”  That message can be difficult for women to hear against a broader cultural backdrop of discouragement, so it must be repeated over and over.

Hudgings offers a number of suggestions for specific things a department could do, apart from the obvious one of making sure the faculty is diverse. I’d love to see my own department implement several of her suggestions.

Women in Science: Under the Microscope

Courtesy of:

Gender and Mathematics

This morning’s New York Times had a headline reading: “Girls Lead in Science Exam, but Not in the United States.” The article started with a rather fascinating graph showing country-by-country performance on the OECD test with a display of the percentage gap between male and female students. In the United States, the average scores were 509 for males and 495 for females; thus the males outperformed females by 14 points, or around 2.7%. Compare this with Japan’s data: Average scores of 534 for males and 545 for females gave the girls about a 2% lead.

Both the graph and accompany article interested me enough that a printed copy can now be found on my office door, along with my own editorial remark at the top. (See photographic proof.)

I found the Times article through my Twitter feed. Other interesting articles that hit my feed were a blog post by Hariett Hall (“Gender Differences and Why They Don’t Matter So Much“) and a 2005 article from Time magazine on “The Iceland Exception: A Land Where Girls Rule in Math.” [Michael Shermer linked to Hall’s article, and I shared the link about to the Iceland article.]

After I posted the Iceland article, John Wilson (@jwilson1812) asked for my opinions “about what this report from Iceland might suggest, what’s generalizable, what isn’t, and so on.” In this post I’m hoping to capture a longer response than what 140-characters would allow.

1. The United States has a gender discrepancy problem in mathematics.
To me, this point seems somewhat obvious. But given the headline from Hall’s article, and other comments, conversations, and feedback I’ve received over the last decade or two, it also seems clear that it isn’t obvious to everyone. I mean “problem” in the above statement as in, “Something we ought to be concerned with pondering and understanding, and (if possible) fixing.

2. A partial fix could be fixing the educational and employment climate.
As the Times article points out,

Researchers say cultural forces keeping girls away from scientific careers are strong in the United States, Britain and Canada.

Hall’s article points out that men and women are different, and that their skills, interests, and aptitudes are shaped both by biology and by culture. Talking about how biological differences may (or may not) influence mathematical aptitude gets murky very quickly, and I am certainly not qualified to say anything one way or the other. On the other hand, talking about how cultural differences influence mathematical aptitude is a conversation we ought to have frequently.

3. How can we fix the problem?
The real answer to this question is, “I don’t know.” But I have a lot of hunches.

Hunch #1: We need more collaborative classrooms.
Somewhere a long time ago I read about a study done on middle school aged children playing soccer during recess or physical education classes. The students were separated by gender. In each group, researchers looked at what happened if a soccer player were injured during the game. With the boys’ game, an injury momentarily paused play; a spectator was swapped for the missing team member; the game quickly resumed. With the girls’ game, an injury stopped play. The girls (on both teams) decided they’d rather not play without their injured friend on the field, and so they took up to doing another activity altogether.

I think this parable fits with how I picture what happens in math classrooms. While I’ve taken lots and lots of math classes, I was never able to take a class that would fit any description other than “traditional, chalk-talk, lecture-style, definition-theorem-proof.” The math classes I saw as a student were like the boys’ soccer game: If one student fell behind, or got confused, or failed at mastering a concept, the class would pause, remove the “injured” participant, and continue moving forward. The aim of the class was the soccer game itself and not who was playing and who wasn’t. In my experiences, math classrooms are places where students practice an individual sport (like tennis) concurrently. They are not places of collaboration or conversation or team work. The coach is interested in keeping the game moving forward (even if dropping players is necessary).

I think this is bad for a few reasons. But the top reason is that I think it gives everyone (both women and men) the false impression that mathematics is an individual sport where the performance of the athlete is a solo endeavor. But real mathematics is nothing like this. As mathematicians, collaboration is essential. We publish papers together. We give weekly colloquium addresses to teach each other new ideas and to solicit help on tough problems. We travel to conferences to have conversations with others and work through problems as a team. Why do our classrooms give the opposite impression of how mathematics is done?

Showing the world (and girls especially) that mathematics is not done in isolation is crucial. I believe that marketing mathematics as a collaborative, socially-based adventure would attract more girls to become mathematicians and scientists of all types.

Hunch #2: Attract, hire, and retain more female math professors.
I did my undergraduate work at U.C. San Diego where I was a “Pure Mathematics” major. At the time I was there (early 2000s), the department had about 55 full-time tenured math faculty members. Of those, 5 were female. [See their department directory today for comparison.] One of the women professors mentioned that, at the time, among the “Top 25” math departments, U.C.S.D. had the highest percentage of tenured female math professors. What percent is 5/55? About 9%. This statistic was quoted with pride: “We are so great to have so many women! Among the math professors, only 90% of them are male here! Fantastic job!”

I think our cultural conception of what “Mathematics Professor” looks like needs to change. Yes, there are plenty of math professors I know who fit the stereotype exactly. But then there are those who look like me. The way we shift the stereotype is to disprove it. We need more minority math professors, we need more female math professors, we need more math professors who aren’t 60-year-old white males with chalk dust on their pants.

On keeping women in science: One thing obviously in need of repair in academics is promoting careers that allow for a work-life balance. Right now, I am expecting my second child. When I complained recently to colleagues about the “Leave Policy for New Faculty Parents,” one responded, “Well, when each of my five children were born, I was back at work the next week.”

I wish I could say this were not the norm. But it reminded me of a conversation I had 10+ years ago, when one of the women faculty at U.C.S.D. told me about giving birth on Thursday and being back teaching classes the following Monday.

I love my job, I love my co-workers, I love my students, I love being in the classroom. But my employer’s Leave Policy, combined with the remarkable and surprising lack of empathy from colleagues about said Leave Policy, has certainly made me consider jumping ship. Academia needs to wake up and offer a family-friendly, parent-friendly work environment where people are valued for being people first (and professors second).

Hunch #3: We need to teach teachers differently.
As an educator, it’s difficult to structure one’s classroom in a way dramatically different from the one you were in as a student. You think back, “How was I taught this idea?” and that’s the easiest answer to, “How will I teach this idea to my own students?” You can see this all over the math community as the traditional, blackboard-based, definition-theorem-proof machine chugs chugs chugs along. Thankfully, there’s been a giant movement in recent years toward changing the idea of what a classroom should look like. (See my earlier ideas about collaboration.)

Given that we are all inclined to teach the way we were taught, and given that for a very long time it was accepted dogma that boys always outperform girls in mathematics, it’s easy to see how this idea could still linger. Not that I think any particular person goes into their calculus classroom and says, “Sorry ladies, everyone knows you don’t have the skills to be really good at this.” But I do think (and I have seen ways) that this underlying stereotype has affected the way people teach.

My Conclusions
1. The gender imbalance in mathematics has some cultural factors.
2. We ought to be concerned with what those factors are, and how to change them.
3. Changing them is a process that will definitely take a lot of time and probably take a lot of money.
4. My best strategy at overcoming this problem is this: Become a female math prof who posts blog articles about the gender imbalance in mathematics. Unfortunately, this strategy is probably not widely implementable. It definitely takes a lot of time. An easier thing to do is to support and encourage those who are doing this or things similar to it.
5. My next best strategy for overcoming the problem is:
Seek out like-minded people and work together to figure out how we can change the math culture. 

As I said at the beginning of this, I know there is a problem and I don’t know it’s solution. But I’d be happy to hear what you think it might be.