Why Laba is not on Math Overflow

A thoughtful post from harmonic analyst Izabella Laba about why she isn’t participating in Math Overflow (and, by extension, why other women in math might not be.)  The comments are good too.

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31 thoughts on “Why Laba is not on Math Overflow

  1. Rod Carvalho says:

    Dear Prof. Ellenberg,

    A most humble suggestion: how about more posts on actual Math, and less posts on gender-related poshlost?

    Gender imbalances in academia is a non-problem. If women decide not to go to grad school or if they decide to quit Math after their PhD, it’s their choice. They are merely reacting to the incentives.

    Instead of accepting and adapting to this reality, self-important and pseudo-altruistic ideologues want reality to adapt to them. “Oh, if we had more marketing campaigns and cute brochures explaining how much fun (!!) it is to be a grad student / post-doc / non-tenured faculty, women would see the light and stay in Academia!!”

    Women are not children. Generally speaking, they are realistic (more than men, actually) and rational. Let people choose the path that leads them to happiness and fulfilment. Interfering with other people’s choices merely to satisfy one’s feel-good worldview is profoundly unethical.

  2. cl says:

    Dear Professor Ellenberg,

    Thank you for your posts on gender imbalances in the field. While I appreciate and enjoy your mathematical posts, I also enjoy your observations about the field at large. Since we are never working in isolation, and often always in collaboration, the discussions and observations about the mathematical community and the ways in which its members interact with one another are as relevant as your mathematical posts. Moreover, I believe it to be unethical to not discuss these issues. After all, we want people to make informed choices about the community they enter when they choose the path that they believe to lead them to “happiness and fulfillment”.

  3. Melissa Tacy says:

    I’m not 100% sure this comment is worth dignifying with a serious responce. You cannot simply talk about women choosing to leave academic math without considering the real discrimination and harassement they face. If you are pressured out of a career track by a hostile environment you are not making a free choice. Every time I have doubted that I wished to remain in academia the cause has been related to being female (as opposed to doubting that I enjoyed the job itself).

    As a community it is important that we talk about such ethical problems. It is particularly important that such conversations take place as a normal part of mathematical life (such as general math blogs) and are not left only to forums specifically for women in math.

  4. Yemon Choi says:

    An unhumble suggestion: if you don’t like reading about this sort of thing, don’t read this sort of thing, and don’t leave comments saying “how about you stop talking about this sort of thing”.

    I personally have no interest in baseball, but I don’t leave comments on JSE’s posts about the sport slagging off other people’s interest in it.

  5. Yemon Choi says:

    Gender imbalances in academia is a non-problem.

    For you, perhaps. For many others, I think not.

  6. Yemon Choi says:

    Instead of accepting and adapting to this reality, self-important and pseudo-altruistic ideologues want reality to adapt to them.

    The ideology that one should look at the status quo, declare it to be “the natural order of things”, decide that one should not go against the natural order, and hence feel proud of Keeping Things As They Are, comes across like Nietszche’s unflattering portrayal of the Stoics. More importantly, it strikes me as a very facile way of looking at the world, and of acting as a human being.

  7. T.T. says:

    Believing, against overwhelming evidence (some of it given in this very blog, sometimes in direct reply to your comments), that sexism doesn’t exist would seem to be the very definition of a feel-good worldview. And your fantasy of hyperrational-women-who-are-too-smart-to-be-mathematicians doesn’t improve with age.

  8. Dear Yemon,

    Off topic, but I enjoyed your use of “slagging off”, a phrase I haven’t heard for many years (since leaving the old country).

    Best wishes,

    Matt

  9. Dear Prof. Carvalho,

    There are lots of reasons to encourage more women to stay in mathematics, just as there are lots of reasons to encourage other kinds of diversity in mathematics. One reason (important to me, and maybe to others) is that I would like as many people as possible thinking about difficult problems in different ways, with the hope that some of them will be solved. Having different kinds of people in the field is one way to encourage this.

    I don’t see any particular virtue in adapting to reality. It’s not at all clear to me that it reflects most or even many women’s desires, or many men’s desires either for that matter, and I certainly know of specific instances of women leaving math because of an unpleasant environment.

    Regards,

    Mattthew Emerton

  10. Rod Carvalho says:

    You entirely missed the point.

    I have to put up with the neurotic environment of U.S. academia. JSE is endorsing religious beliefs that only aggravate the problem. Therefore, I have skin in this game.

    There’s absolutely no reason why there should be gender balance anywhere. This is a religious belief that stems from a distortion of the ideals of the European Enlightenment.

    Humans (men and women) will always manipulate, discriminate, and bully others men and women. In academia and elsewhere. Whoever thinks that these unpleasant human traits can be eliminated via legislation is living in a fantasy world.

  11. Rod Carvalho says:

    1) I never claimed that sexism does not exist. Thanks for misrepresenting my argument.

    2) Sexism, just like racism / ageism / chauvinism (and all other -isms), can’t be eliminated. Hence, stop trying. No amount of affirmative action, lawsuits, or PC campaigning will change the way people think.

    3) Do you honestly believe that there would be no bullying / discrimination / manipulation / oppression in an all-women Math department? I rest my case.

    4) Politics is inherent to all human socialization. The whining weaklings who can’t deal with it, men or women, can avoid all politics by dropping out of society and living like hermits.

  12. Richard Séguin says:

    Rod,

    No, none of these things can be eliminated, just as we can’t completely eliminate the likes of Hitler, Pol Pot, and Bin Laden, but we would be fools if we didn’t try! In fact, we did get rid of all these specific people, and the world is better for it.

    I honestly think that there would be significantly less “bullying / discrimination / manipulation / oppression in an all-women Math department.”

    Yes, politics is pervasive in human society, and there is a lot of whining. You yourself are a big whiner, as you have amply demonstrated on this blog! Please drop out of society and live like a hermit!

  13. JSE says:

    Please don’t call other commenters names. Calling me names is A-OK.

  14. Rod Carvalho says:

    A constructive proto-proposal:

    In academia, as everywhere else, there are imbalances of power. Whenever person A has power over person B, there’s an opportunity for misbehavior to occur. While the imbalances of power cannot (and should not?) be eliminated, it is in the interest of all to ensure that misbehavior is punished and good behavior enforced.

    Since A and B can be either male or female, one can have four scenarios of abuse of power: i) male abuses male, ii) male abuses female, iii) female abuses male, iv) female abuses female.

    Our zeitgeist is such that only abuses of type ii) seem to get any attention. Abuses of type i) and iii) only create controversy if the victim commits suicide or goes postal. Focusing on one type of abuse and ignoring all others is insufficient as one will alleviate the symptoms rather than cure the illness.

    Given that academia has become a cesspool of petty politics (math much less than others), what is needed is a well-designed social system that rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior. Since introducing a human arbiter is equivalent to introducing a vulnerability, designing a system that can’t be gamed is perhaps important. In less civilized times, disputes would be solved with duels, but Galois and Bolyai are 19th Century relics…

    For simple problems, such as when the organizers of a conference discriminate against women or students of a certain research group (this also happens, but no one seems to care), what options does the academic community have to retaliate? Ostracization and public shaming are bad ideas, as rogue lynch mobs can easily form.

    This proposal was a failure. I see no solutions. The result is that academia will continue losing talented people due to its inability to police itself, people will continue complaining about it and suggesting pseudo-remedies, JSE will write some more brief posts on the topic, and nothing will ever change.

  15. Yemon Choi says:

    Given that Rod Carvalho’s beef seems to be with attitudes set out in the post that JSE links to, and JSE’s post is only three lines linking to something he seems to approve of, I have to wonder why RC is not commenting on Laba’s actual post. There seems to be some hyper-sensitivity here.

    “Politics is inherent to all human socialization. The whining weaklings who can’t deal with it, men or women, can avoid all politics by dropping out of society and living like hermits.”

    Ah, how brave to defend might against right. As someone who natural selection would have weeded out if I’d been born a few hundred years ago, you’ll perhaps forgive me if I find the kind of attitude you display less than convincing, in the same way that the Titanic turned out to be not exactly unsinkable. One might as well say that since unpleasant/uncivilized impulses are inherent in human nature, and cannot be eradicated by legislation, one might as well not have rules to enforce civilized norms.

    I am not sure I have any further comments to add. (At least, not ones that adhere to the courtesy our host requires. There is a *lot* of swearing that is being edited out of this response.)

  16. Yemon Choi says:

    You entirely missed the point.

    I have to put up with the neurotic environment of U.S. academia. JSE is endorsing religious beliefs that only aggravate the problem. Therefore, I have skin in this game.

    JSE wrote three lines linking to a post by Izabella Laba, describing it as “thoughtful” and saying “the comments are good”. These would be appear to be his opinions, which you do not share. Fair enough; free world, and all that. However, your opening comment asks JSE not to blog so much about these things. Since JSE does not actually blog about these things too often, as far as I can tell, your request seems not only overly sensitive, but seems to imply an odd kind of “please don’t say things I disagree with” attitude.

    There’s absolutely no reason why there should be gender balance anywhere. This is a religious belief that stems from a distortion of the ideals of the European Enlightenment.

    What about having a gender balance that is closer to 50-50 than the present one? There is certainly no prescriptive (as opposed to historical) reason why the gender balance in mathematics should be as it is. Perhaps you are suffering under the yoke of female oppression in EE, but I”d be a little surprised if that were the case. (This is the British use of “a little”, by the way.)

    Humans (men and women) will always manipulate, discriminate, and bully others men and women. In academia and elsewhere. Whoever thinks that these unpleasant human traits can be eliminated via legislation is living in a fantasy world.

    They can be held in check, and ameliorated, by legislation. While I broadly support the ideals of such legislation, you evidently hold it to be misguided in its aims as well as its execution. OK, disagreement, fair enough. But can you point me to somewhere in JSE’s post or Laba’s post where such legislation is being supported? Or is this a case of seeing “the politically correct police under every bed”?

    Your complaint appears to be about “equal opportunities legislation”, which you regard as intrinsically misguided. I think that

  17. Dan Fox says:

    There are institutional factors that affect women differently than men in a way that is prejudicial to their success in the academic system. Anyone (man or woman) who has children before securing a permanent position in the university creates for him or her self serious difficulties. The responsibilities of raising children are not compatible with the work hours necessary. Although now far more men participate fully in raising children than in the past, the burden, on average, still falls more fully on mothers than fathers. Moreover, there are aspects of having children that inherently impact mothers more than fathers – some obvious ones are pregnancy and breastfeeding. These sorts of things create a serious difficulty for women who want to have children and want to be successul in the academic world – the crucial years for both occur in the late 20′s and 30′s.

    There are other institutional factors of this sort that mean that even in a well-intentioned institution staffed with well-intenioned people there are difficulties that impact disproportionately on the professional advancement of women. On top of this, there certainly are still plenty of male faculty who do not treat women as equals, and who do not think of women as equally capable in the professional context. When they go out of their way to also deny that women face any difficulties, it just further complicates the matter. The notion that nothing can be done about these matters is just wrong. Some societies handle them better than others. Institutional setups can be changed to make them more flexible and responsive. Problematic old men can be disciplined.

  18. [...] “women in math” threads: a request 14May11 The comments on yesterday’s post turned into another boring “feminism sux / feminism roolz” thread.  I get it — [...]

  19. majordomo says:

    Rod, you remind me a bit of Lubos Motl

  20. Actually, historically there have been “isms” that have pretty much been eliminated. For instance, there was a huge amount of prejudice and discrimination against Irish immigrants in the US in the 19th through early 20th centuries. Job adds often read “no Irish need apply” and a political movement (the “Know Nothings”) tried to oust all Catholic public office holders. But I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t an issue anymore.

    In contrast, sexism is still very much a problem, and, contrary to your assertion, there is abundant evidence that we can do something about it. For instance, half of all law and medical degrees go to women; 50 years ago, those numbers were pretty much zero.

  21. Melissa Tacy says:

    In an attempt to honour JSE’s request and get the comments back to the subject of the thread I wonder how easy it is to seperate reasons for non participation in things like MO. I don’t participate although I look at the site every once in a while. At the simpliest level I don’t participate because there isn’t much analysis on MO. However early in the game I was turned off MO by the fights over so called soft questions. In particular comments on the forums suggesting that some people thought such questions ‘beneath them’. This kind of attitude which is unfortunately common in math in general (MO is just the mirror reflecting it) always annoys me. Now the question is, what part of that is because I have been socialised female and what part is just me? I find it hard to discern that myself.

  22. majordomo says:

    Rod said:
    “Humans (men and women) will always manipulate, discriminate, and bully others men and women. In academia and elsewhere. Whoever thinks that these unpleasant human traits can be eliminated via legislation is living in a fantasy world.”

    Wow, you could NOT be more wrong on that one. Why do you think we have laws ? Laws were invented to curb undesirable human tendencies. You know, one could actually use your flawed logic to defend any crime, e.g. “humans will always steal from, kill, and carry out genocides on other humans, and whoever thinks that these unpleasant human traits can be eliminated via legislation is living in a fantasy world”. Wrong. Every culture that has ever existed had some rules of law/legislation – a code of ethics if you will – meant to deter and punish the exercise of these “unpleasant human traits”. Grow up.

  23. chanson says:

    Too funny — Just a couple of weeks ago, I mused about exactly this type of helpful comments.

  24. Rod Carvalho says:

    Conflict may be unpleasant to you, but it’s sometimes necessary to filter out bad ideas. The problem is when unnecessary conflict takes place for frivolous reasons, such as “soft questions” being beneath some pedant’s giant-sized ego. Fortunately, MO has a reputation system that rewards / punishes good / bad behavior…

    Frankly, Laba’s post seems to boil down to this: men like conflict, women don’t like it as much. Thus, women will avoid (unnecessary) conflict. And then men get self-conscious and start wondering: “what did we do wrong???”

    The whole thing reminds me of kindergarten. The boys behave like boys, constantly fighting and bullying each other for fun, and then are shocked that the girls don’t want to hang out with them.

  25. Peter says:

    @JSE thanks for reminding everyone of the interesting discussion at Laba’s blog.

    @everyone else: Don’t feed the trolls…

  26. Peter says:

    @Melissa, to add my 2ct to your comment. I feel the same way. MO has a very odd kind of community.

    From what I’ve come to understand this is due to the fear in the early days that the platform might “deteriorate” into what is now math.stackexchange or even down to reddit. The group behind it wanted to establish something for research questions only and they defended it heavily.

    I think some problems I see on MO will be temporary. For example, the small number of high-reputation undergrads who often act inappropriately will end in at most 2 years; no undergrads will be able to get an influential amount of reputation points now that the community is as strong as it is.

    Another example would be the fast closing of questions without any chance for the OP to reply. I think the MO community might relax as time goes by and realize that some “weaker” questions don’t have to be shot down aggressively because the community will simply ignore them anyway.

    A third example: it seems that many users on MO have little or no experience with online communities and hence do not know how to act appropriately. This, too, will go away as more MO-users gain experience in such things. If not, then I’m sure that people will start a new community — after all MO has shown that this is possible.

  27. Rod Carvalho says:

    It seems that many users on MO have little or no experience with online communities and hence do not know how to act appropriately.

    I have to admit that I find that comment intriguing. MO is arguably the most polite and civilized online community. By contrast, Reddit is a jungle. Which online community should MO learn some rules of etiquette from? I am genuinely curious.

  28. Rod Carvalho says:

    Problematic old men can be disciplined.

    If those “problematic old men” happen to review your papers and organize workshops / conferences you would like to attend, are you willing to discipline them? Will you risk your career for your beliefs? If that is the case, I applaud you. If not, you’re just talking platitudes to make yourself feel better.

  29. Richard Séguin says:

    Sorry! I’ll watch it the next time I’m commenting after having had a glass of wine. I also have to say that I endorse Yemon Choi’s very thoughtful comments.

  30. cl says:

    I’m teaching a class for elementary ed majors so I’m often looking through online forums for good questions, and trying to understand where the misconceptions may occur for my students. There was something about the Dr. Math forum that made me feel comfortable. The responses were thoughtful and the question posed treated seriously. I don’t find that with the MO responses. I often find a tone of arrogance with the responses, with suggestions for the person who originally asked the question to look it up, or to try to prove it themselves because it’s a relatively easy proof. In their attempt to make sure only serious math questions are asked on MO, I feel like they haven’t done enough to make sure that nobody feels like they could ask a stupid question. The rating system makes me uncomfortable, and I agree with Laba that should I post, I feel that I should find myself a gender neutral user name.

  31. [...] seemed to be a lot of posts (and exhibits) about feminism this past week. Topics included women’s bodies and what they choose to wear on them. Also, power dynamics [...]

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