Gendered conference campaign

A group of philosophers runs a gendered conference campaign, whose goal is to get conference organizers not to plan all-male rosters of speakers.

Does math need a campaign like this?


Tagged , ,

63 thoughts on “Gendered conference campaign

  1. Rod Carvalho says:

    Does math need a campaign like this?

    Absolutely not. Such affirmative action idiocy should be left to the liberal arts crowd.

  2. Stewie Orf says:

    I absolutely agree with Rod, speaker’s merit should be based on the academic achievements, not on the gender!

  3. Dear Jordan,

    My experience (somewhat limited) is that there are sporadic attempts among organizers of math conferences to avoid having all-male speaker lists, and that
    it is often noted (e.g. by the audience) if there are no female speakers.

    I think it would be good if more attention were paid to this issue; whether a deliberate campaign is required I’m not sure.

    Best wishes,


  4. Frank says:

    The tone in the link is pretty harsh. Do you have any idea if there is actual sexism in the planning of philosophy (or mathematics) conferences? It seems doubtful, to me, although I could be wrong.

    I disagree that people who hold all-male conferences are necessarily doing something wrong, at least if the gender ratio in philosophy is similar to math, but I think that aiming for diversity is a good thing.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I am aware of an analogous letter having been received by the organizers of a math conference with no female speaker. So it’s not clear to me that there isn’t such a campaign. This was a few years ago, though.

  6. Noah Snyder says:

    I think that bars that should be really easy to clear (like having *one* female speaker, I mean it’s not like they’re asking for parity) can be quite effective in making a point. I know just being aware of the Bechdel Test ( had a big effect on my thinking over the years.

    I think it’s a bit naive to think that there’s an absolute notion of “merit” and that speakers are chosen based directly based on that absolute notion. For example, surely people are more likely to invite their friends. Having a good rule of thumb in the back of your mind like “if I haven’t asked a woman I may not have brainstormed enough about who I might be forgetting” is probably a good thing.

  7. Rod Carvalho says:

    … I think that aiming for diversity is a good thing.

    With all due respect, but I don’t see why “diversity” is such a wonderful thing. It seems to be a rather vacuous word that everyone uses out of fear of being labeled a bigot.

    Generally speaking, a conference on XYZ is attended by experts on XYZ. Within a given field of knowledge, there are different schools of thought. The kind of “diversity” I want to see at a conference is a diversity of ideas. Otherwise, the event becomes an echo chamber. I honestly don’t see how the number of X chromosomes is of any relevance whatsoever.

  8. Michelle says:

    What Noah said. (And thanks for being a guy and saying that stuff, so it doesn’t always have to be me.)

    For Frank: What is “actual sexism”? Do you mean a bunch of guys sitting around planning a speaker list and saying, “Hey, I know! Let’s not invite any chicks! That’ll be awesome!”

    Perhaps what you mean is “overt sexism.” And I think you’re right, there’s probably not overt sexism that goes into conference planning. But there probably is subtle sexism of the kind Noah describes.

    Organizers are guys… their collaborators are guys… (most of) the big names in the field are guys… everyone they’ve seen speak at recent conferences are guys… so unless someone says, “Hey, are there any women who should be invited to speak?” it must might not occur to anyone. But then it perpetuates, because the next set of organizers remember all these great speakers who were guys, and so on.

    Female Science Professor has had this discussion a time or three in the past:

    I have often enough been the only woman at a conference (and often not a speaker) to think that a simple email asking if there really aren’t any women at all qualified to speak might not be such a bad idea.

    BTW, there’s lots of data showing that when women organize math conferences, there are more women speakers invited. But I’m too sleepy to look it up.

  9. Richard Séguin says:

    “surely people are more likely to invite their friends.” Excellent point. Conferences are not merely vehicles of transmittance of ideas. There is also a large social component. And if there is a pro-male social bias within a certain field, then few if any females may be invited as speakers, and if so, those excluded would be viewed as low achievers because … well, obviously they’re not significant because no one has heard them as speakers. Hmmm.

  10. I think Noah’s comment is very much to the point here.

    I read a bit of what’s on the Feminist Philosophers blog, and I thought that this post was pretty informative. In particular, the example of Behavioural Ecology where they switched to double-blind refereeing and the acceptance rate went up for women and down for men is very striking.

    I also think the following snippet is true if you replace “philosophy” with “mathematics”:

    There’s been very little research done on the workings of bias within philosophy. But there’s been a huge amount of research done on other male-dominated fields, and I have yet to see any convincing reason to think that philosophers would be different (more on this shortly)

  11. Greg Martin says:

    Yes. Definitely. And not understanding this is where Rod #1 is simply uneducated (at least as far as that one comment is concerned). Stewie #2 makes an accurate “should” statement, but one that is not in fact followed in practice because of these unconscious biases and old-boy networks.

  12. Frank says:

    Wow. That stopped me dead in my tracks.

  13. Frank says:

    I certainly agree that diversity of ideas is by far the most important thing. But to my mind, there is something pleasant about conferences (or any other gatherings) where there is diversity not only of gender, but of stage in career, nationality, and personality and background in general.

  14. Frank: A very similar thing happened in the 1980s when symphony orchestras in the US switched to blind auditions where the job candidate is hidden by a curtain from the judges: the number of women hired by orchestras increased dramatically. In particular, Goldin and Rouse found that the probability that women violinists advanced from the preliminary rounds of auditions increased by 50% when blind auditions were used. From 1970 to the mid 1990s, the portion of orchestra members who were women rose from 10% to 35%; the study attributes 30% of that increase to the switch to blind auditions.

  15. cl says:

    Yes to what Noah said. Thanks to Noah for saying it, and given the topic of conversation, thanks to Noah for being a man so that other men take your opinion more seriously.

    A few years back our own department had trouble inviting female speakers to the colloquiums. An active campaign that went along the lines of “hey, let’s put a female speaker on the colloquium series, any suggestions?” resulted in the faculty coming up with a list of 20 some female speakers.

    When I spent a few weeks at IAS for the women’s program, the director asked why we thought that there’s been no female hires at IAS. He described the hiring process of basically asking the current faculty (all male) who the best person in a particular field is. Then they go down the list until someone takes the job. I pointed this out to the director of IAS when I was there, that asking a group of men who the best mathematician in a field was would probably result in a male dominated list. Not necessarily because they are overtly biased toward women, but probably because of an availability bias. I’m pretty sure he brushed off my comment.

  16. Noah Snyder says:

    I’ve always found the example of symphony orchestra’s (that Nathan brought up) to be especially compelling because most of the plausible arguments for why math might be different seem to apply just as well to concert musicians. For example, concert music requires unhealthy levels of obsessiveness, and only takes people from the very extreme end of the distribution. Nonetheless, in concert music (unlike in math) there’s an easy way to actually do the relevant experiment and the answer there was clearly that gender bias was a major factor.

  17. Adam Shear says:

    Not the main issue, but math has always been considered one of the “liberal arts.” In fact, for much of the history of this concept, 4 of the 7 key fields were understood as mathematical.

  18. Adam Shear says:

    My comment on the main issue: Noah et al do a nice job explaining why this is not “idiocy.” It is not only an issue in math but in many academic fields (I am in history and religious studies and this comes up). The actual way that conferences are put together make any abstract appeals to “merit” almost meaningless.

  19. Frank says:

    By “actual sexism” I don’t mean “overt sexism”. I mean actual bias against women, for whatever reason it occurs.

    Unfortunately it is the case that a substantial majority of research mathematicians are men. If you hold a conference and ask fifteen people to speak, and all or virtually all of them are men, I don’t think that is necessarily evidence of sexism. It seems possible (again unfortunately) that the fifteen best mathematicians in any one field might be male. Happily that is not the case in my field!

    I was genuinely surprised by what I read in Nathan Dunfield’s post. That said, now that I’ve read it, I am of course compelled to believe it.

    My comment seems to have provoked some anger. “Is there sexism in mathematics?” It’s a fair (and complicated) question. Indeed, the evidence that Nathan and others point to indicate that the answer is yes.

  20. Rod Carvalho says:

    Yeah, right. I am “uneducated” :-D

    You want to eliminate “discrimination” against women and other “minorities”? Go for double-blind refereeing, as suggested above. That would be a robust solution. Simply having a silly campaign whose aim is to “coerce” people not to plan all-male rosters of speakers is misguided, as it attacks the symptom rather than the cause.

    Maybe Noah should read Schelling instead of distasteful cartoons:

  21. Elisa says:

    If a math conference invites only male speakers, assuming it’s not intended to be an all-male math conference, that is “actual bias against women.” How how could it be defined otherwise? How do you define bias?

  22. Rod: In mathematics, conference speakers are usually chosen without knowing what it is they will be speak about. In particular, we don’t follow the CS model where prospective speakers must submit “extended abstracts” in advance which are then refereed and used to pick the final speakers. So here’s no way to double (or even single) blind the process without changing the process wholesale.

    Also, true double-blind refereeing isn’t really possible for mathematics journals. In at least some sciences, it’s typical not to discuss new results before they appear in print, or at least not publicly. (Indeed, I think some journal publishing contracts specifically forbid this.) In contrast, mathematicians typically give talks about new results well (e.g. months or even years) before the paper is written. Even after the paper is submitted, it usually takes 6-12 months for it to be refereed, and during that time the author usually posts it for all to see on the arXiv. Thus, when I get a referee’s request, I’ve typically already glanced at at least the abstract on the arXiv or maybe heard the talk, and thus would know who it was even if the authors names were hidden from me.

  23. cl says:

    The problem might be how “best” is defined. It’s a rather subjective notion. Moreover, as Richard suggested above, if number of conferences you’re invited to speak at, or number of papers published is how one defines “best”, it may just be a self fulfilling prophecy.

  24. Sonia Balagopalan says:

    @Noah: +1.

    While on the subject of gender and conferences,

  25. anon says:

    Ugh. If women spent half as much time working on math as they spend whining about how supposedly disadvantaged they are, then there would be a lot more good female mathematicians to give these talks.

    Women have every advantage. From the very beginning, in undergrad or even high school, they have an easier time with admissions, scholarships… a math grad school will snatch up any girls it can get, to balance the precious gender ratios. Then they are invited to special conferences. They have a huge advantage job-hunting after graduating, again because of those precious ratios.

    If any woman in mathematics, who had even modest results, actively sought out speaking opportunities in the same way male mathematicians do, she’d gain instant rockstar status.

    Ladies, our conferences are wide open to you. We’re awaiting your journal submissions with open arms. When will you deliver??

  26. Frank says:

    I was asked how I define bias. I would ask, are women underrepresented as conference speakers in proportion to their contributions to mathematics?

    I agree with Noah, Nathan, cl, and others. I would like to add that there is a question which we don’t seem to be directly addressing: is there, in fact, a gender bias in this regard?

    My personal intuition is that there is not. However, I could be wrong for any of several reasons. The conferences I attend might not be representative of all of mathematics. I might be overestimating the number of women speakers I hear, just because I can recall a variety of women speakers I’ve heard. And, even if women are invited to speak in proportion to their perceived contributions to math, perhaps there is also a bias in these perceptions.

    The links Nathan posted, as well as other studies along the same lines (I dare anyone who thinks this is BS to google and take the Implicit Attitudes test; it humbled me), convince me that my intuition is extremely suspect.

    It seems that one could attempt to test this empirically. For example, one could correlate the proportion of women speakers with the proportion of research articles in top-20 journals written by women. Of course, this still has a lot of problems (the biggest being, are women’s submissions evaluated fairly?) but it seems likely to be at least somewhat less arbitrary than who gets invited to talk at a conference.

    In any case, I think there is cause to make efforts to invite more women speakers. Perhaps we are treating women professional mathematicians fairly, perhaps not — but even if we are, nearly-all-male conferences seem like they could turn off a future generation of women (and perhaps more than a few men) from the profession.

  27. Anonymous says:

    For the sake of true equality, every discipline should pursue gender parity: including all the liberal arts, education majors, and even (gasp) women’s studies.

    Also, while we’re at it, let’s start some Men’s Conferences to balance the numerous Women’s Conferences in every field.

  28. Matt says:

    I think there are plenty of good female mathematicians to give talks. I don’t think the philosophers or the mathematicians are asking for anything more than the following:

    When organizing a conference, ask yourself “Do I know any women who would give a good talk that would fit at this conference?” If the answer is legitmately no, then ok. If the answer is yes, then…well,…don’t you want them to give a good talk at your conference?

  29. Rob H. says:

    Dear anon,

    Why don’t you “be a man” and put a name on your (absurd!) comments?



  30. Piper says:

    to the it is not my problem if there are no women in math crowd:

    nobody walks around informing you of all the ways in which you have benefited from being part of a favored group and it is unintelligent to presume that efforts from an unfavored group to even the playing field are inherently unfair or go against the notion of valuing merit. anyone who has an knee-jerk negative reaction to such efforts because they go against personal philosophy and then furthermore comments on it on the interwebs without showing any ability to consider the problem from another perspective deserves to be immediately subjected to an 80s movie style switcheroo where the naysayer is forced to live as a member of the unfavored group until he comes to his senses. and then he should be forced to watch said movie.

    to the there is no value in diversity crowd:

    i have no appropriate words for you but i can only assume that your life is less fulfilling as a result of your opinions and i am satisfied with that.

  31. Z says:

    Right – when the women’s group at UW went out and got funding to bring in women speakers, it was partly motivated by a severe lack of women represented in the colloquium. Once we had the money, and started asking around about who to invite, at first a lot of the suggestions seemed to be geared towards answering the question “who’s a good advocate for women in math?”. After not too long though, we started just hearing more names of women who were simply outstanding mathematicians (and who would be friendly to the idea of going out to lunch with a bunch of grad students). Then it was “I’ve invited this woman already, but if you want to co-host them, that would be great too!”

    I think awareness is the game. It’s not like I want to see organizers toiling over how they’re going to make their quotas. I just think it’s important that people be aware that they might have unconscious biases, or even just some blinders on, and then step back from their decisions on occasion and ask themselves if they can do better. We exist, us women who do math. Women who do outstanding math. Frankly, there are simply a lot of mathematicians out there, period, and few organizing committees can claim that only the best people will be speaking at their conference, and that there’s no one out there who does as good or better math who wasn’t invited. There’s subjectivity involved, and whether it’s that guy who’s the rising star postdoc or that woman who just posted the hot paper to the arXiv, when you organize a conference that has all male speakers, you left someone out. Likely, it was someone you just hadn’t happened to meet yet.

    I’m not bitter. My field and my department are doing just dandy on having a female presence. But I can say definitively that having a female presence reminded me at crucial times in my education that I wasn’t an outsider–just a mathematically awkward youngin’. That’s why diversity of gender, culture, etc., NOT just ideas, is important.

  32. ~ says:

    “If any woman in mathematics, who had even modest results, actively sought out speaking opportunities in the same way male mathematicians do, she’d gain instant rockstar status.”

    You say this like it doesn’t happen. I give you the benefit of the doubt that you may be just so unapproachable as to never have encountered a woman putting herself out there, and then see meager returns in status-boosting opportunities. So allow me to deliver to you, now, the information that the “if” half of this statement has occurred plenty of times without the instant rockstar status kicking in as you promise.

    What you may be missing is that minorities are often shorted the most important advantages, i.e. a sense of normalcy in their day-to-day lives, so that the small advantages granted by affirmative action pale in comparison over a lifelong career.

  33. Rod Carvalho says:

    The weakness of the proposed solution is that it relies on what people “should” do and, thus, it’s non-robust to malicious behavior. For example, If Prof. X hates Prof. Y, then Prof. X can claim that he / she forgot to invite Prof. Y. There’s no way to determine whether he’s telling the truth or not.

    A (perhaps) more interesting approach would be to have an algorithm that would rank candidate speakers according to the “impact factor” of their papers. Then, they would be invited. Some would decline, but some others would accept. The algorithm would be public, so the whole process would be entirely transparent.

  34. T.T. says:

    If you care about diversity of ideas, it should bother you when a subset of scientists is underrepresented.

    Try substituting “people whose last names start with the letters A through F” for “women”, and imagine that such people are curiously underrepresented at conferences. Wouldn’t that reduce the diversity of ideas?

  35. Noah Snyder says:

    I was actually thinking of bringing up “alphabetical” bias earlier, because it brings up many of the same issues (unconscious bias, evidence in other fields where experiments are easier to do than math) while being less politically charged. One would expect based on the evidence from economics research that math (as a field where names on publications are listed in alphabetical order) would show some bias towards people at the beginning of the alphabet. As such, it’s a good idea for people to be aware of this issue.

    I’m certainly not claiming that the amount of bias here is comparable in scope or degree to what women face, only that it does in fact illustrate some of the same points and is not the reduction ad absurdum that T.T. thinks it is.

  36. Elisa says:

    This is illogical. If women have a huge advantage, why are they so outnumbered?

  37. Terence Tao says:

    Gender representation at a conference does certainly correlate with the presence of any conscious or unconscious biases amongst the organising committee (by Bayes’ theorem, if nothing else), but there is a limit to the extent one can use it to control such biases (cf. Goodhart’s law). I think it would be worthwhile to keep and publicise statistics here to raise awareness of any unwarranted narrowing of the speaker pool, but it would be more difficult to try to effect change through a formal quota system.

    One tricky thing is that one does want to preserve the discretionary powers of the organising committee in other directions. For instance, most committees that I have served on have a subjective bias against speakers with a history of giving bad talks, but for various reasons it would not be a positive development to make such evaluations of potential speakers public.

  38. Melissa Tacy says:

    A campaign like this doesn’t really seek to imposed quotas of any kind. Rather such a letter could act as a reminder to organisers to think about their own biases. I think we all agree that there are few overt sexists left in mathematics and it is unlikely women are being left out on purpose. It’s worth noting that women also can carry implict bias. It is incredibly disconcerting as a female mathematician to realise that I still implicitly expect mathematicians to be male.

    While I agree committees should not publicly discuss why they picked each individual speaker it should be possible to talk generally about the criteria used to select speakers. It may of course be possible that the few women in the field were poor speakers so left out but in that case the male speakers better all be good speakers. There is a tendancy to not only hold women to a higher standard but to offer less excuses for her when she doesn’t measure up.

  39. T.T. says:

    Noah: Author ordering is one reason I chose the first part of the alphabet as being (hypothetically) underrepresented, rather than the last: if A-F are underrepresented something is clearly wrong because one would expect them to be overrepresented (to some degree). Your analogy may be more compelling, though.

  40. Gil Kalai says:

    “Does math needs proactive attention to participation of women as speakers in conferences?”

    My answer is absolutely yes .

  41. Piper says:

    “I think we all agree that there are few overt sexists left in mathematics and it is unlikely women are being left out on purpose.”

    i disagree. as a graduate student at princeton university you didn’t have to go far to hear sexist remarks from your peers. maybe they don’t count as “overt” because they weren’t remarks like “get back to the kitchen where you belong,” but they were specifically anti female mathematician comments. as far as i know all of these people are doing well and are on track to be in charge of such conferences and yes they will most likely continue to believe that the reason there aren’t many women speaking is because there aren’t any women worth inviting. as one prof (not at princeton) said “they aren’t real women, they aren’t real mathematicians.”

    of course my personal opinion on women in math is that the environment of math needs to change and that all people would benefit from this and that coincidentally there’d be more women. i find that math is often not worth the people you have to deal with.

  42. Richard Séguin says:


    As for your experience … yikes! Graduate school is stressful and difficult enough to navigate without constant nasty negative feedback of this sort. When I show up at the UW mathematics department for talks or whatever, I’m always delighted to see many more women graduate students than there were in the 1970s when I was there. However, I guess I don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes. I wish you the best moving forward — don’t look back.

  43. rmb says:

    It’s good not to have conferences with all-male speaker lists, but in math I think it’s more important to pay attention to the weekly seminar speakers. My impression is that humanities departments don’t really have weekly research talks, so conferences are more important to them in terms of giving people an idea of who is working on what kinds of interesting things.

    I think most of the conferences I’ve been to have had female speakers, but during my first two years of grad school, the algebraic geometry seminar had one female speaker (although they only had about one year’s worth of talks in those two years), and the number theory seminar had four. This year is better: I think we’ll have at least three women speak in the algebraic geometry seminar, and four (possibly five) in the number theory seminar. That’s still in the range of 10-15%, though.

    I believe my undergraduate institution’s algebraic geometry seminar has had one female speaker this year, and two in the two years before this one.

    Another fascinating tidbit about unreliable perceptions: I’ve read about studies which show that not only do men tend not to notice that there are very few women in the room, but once the proportion of women hits about a quarter or a third, they tend to think the women vastly outnumber them.

  44. Terence Tao says:

    Incidentally, in case of potential misunderstanding, I was not implying that female mathematicians are any more or less likely to be poor speakers than their male counterparts, but instead wanted to illustrate that there were (in my view, justifiable) criteria in determining speaker selection that were orthogonal to gender, but also subjective and subject to bias.

  45. Melissa Tacy says:

    I’m sorry you have had to put up with that, I have also had to deal with more than my fair share of sexist crap so I sympathise. I certainly agree with your last point about the environment, none of us should have to work in what often feels like a male locker room. It’s often true that improving the environment for women improves it in general. The line between overt sexism and implicit is fuzzy but while trying to improve the situation we shouldn’t lose sight of what we have gained.

    I didn’t think you were making any comparison between female/male speakers. I just wanted to point out that while it is justifiable to be biased against bad speakers that bias can often intersect with a sexist one. To often I’ve heard male speakers excused after giving a bad talk on the basis that their research is just to complicated (and therefore impressive) to communictate easily. Such justifications are rarely offered for women.

  46. Gil Kalai says:

    One reason that women are often not represented as conference speakers is that people dont think about it. When we (Noga Alon, Helene Barcelo, Anders Bjorner, Edna Wigderson and me) organized a conference in combinatorics eighteen years ago and did think about it we had no difficulty in finding excellent women as 16 out of 30 plenary speakers (and still quite a few could not accept our invitation and quite a few could have been invited but we had no space. )
    For more on that conference see and

  47. Nigel says:

    Davos is addressing this issue. One in five delegates sent by strategic partners must be female. See

  48. anonymous says:

    I’m a bit surprised by the discussion, since I regarded this as (largely, but not entirely) a fait accompli:

    In the majority of the organizing committees I’ve been involved with, there was an explicit emphasis on female speakers. This is true in all conferences at the the NSF-supported institutes (MSRI, AIM). It was not true of all other conferences, but
    it was in the higher profile ones (higher profile = less field-specific or more attendees).

  49. cl says:

    “However, I guess I don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes.”

    This. Thank you for saying this.

    Just because the presence of women is growing in math departments doesn’t necessarily mean we’re getting better treatment. Just because you’re not the guy who’s making sexist offensive comments to the women doesn’t mean that your office mate or you buddy isn’t. I find it somewhat offensive and insulting that men presume to understand what it’s like to be a woman in the field and that there isn’t a bias just because they see women around.

    So thank you for saying this.

  50. Frank says:

    Having asked for quantitative data, I decided to run some myself. Here is a (rather unscientific) study:

    Out of four conferences I have recently been involved with, 15 of 77 invited speakers were women.

    Out of the current faculty at the three universities I’ve been affiliated with, 16 of 141 are women.

    Out of recent submissions to the Annals, 3 of 50 authors were women.

    Out of the most recent posts to the arXiv in my subject area (number theory), 4 of 32 authors were women.

    My “study” was extremely unscientific — throughout, I guessed or skipped some names where I didn’t know the mathematician and couldn’t guess from the first name, and more significantly, it is far from sure that the conferences/universities I’m affiliated with are representative. (The mathematicians who influenced me the most did a great deal to ensure inclusion of women.) And of course my sample size is small.

    The proportion of conference speakers is depressingly low, but the other three proportions are even more so. Perhaps this is because the organizers of the conferences I looked at made an effort to make sure that women were included.

    I have no doubt that bias and sexism exist in mathematics, and I learned from some offline discussions that I gave the opposite impression. I regret this. And I don’t think Jordan’s original idea is necessarily a bad one. Still — I regard this as some evidence that we are doing mostly okay at this step of the process, and conversely, that there are other steps we might be badly screwing up.

  51. Ruthi says:

    re: “I think we all agree that there are few overt sexists left in mathematics and it is unlikely women are being left out on purpose.”

    One thing I’ve noticed is that, with a few exceptions, I’ve heard more “overt” sexism from younger mathematicians than older ones. Maybe this is simply because I am young or maybe it is because older mathematicians have learned to be PC. But I’ve never heard a professor say something like “Women aren’t good at math” and I have heard (very smart and successful) undergraduates say it (and then clarify that I “don’t count” as a woman).

    I believe discussions like this are very important – the fact that people are thinking about it and considering if maybe invited their friends to give talks is causing them to disproportionately invite men.

  52. Melissa Tacy says:

    Thats and interesting point. I have also noticed more overt sexism from younger mathematicians. This is true too in Australia where polictical correctness viewed with the same suspicion that the english originally gave to the introduction of the fork.

    I am optimistic that maturity plays a big role here. A lot of the sexism I have recieved from younger men, particularly undergrads, has been in defence of their ego. They often have gone through the school system unchallenged but encouraged to think of themselves as a genius. University is a shock to them. This doesn’t excuse the behaviour but does suggest that there is some hope they will out grow it, particularly if it is made clear that such behaviour is unacceptable. Maths departments need to work on it though because generally this behaviour is accepted.

  53. Gil Kalai says:

    It seems from reading Frank comment that the situation now is better compared to 20 years ago. In the early 90s I participated in a large conferece with many speakers and I noted to a woman colleague that it is nice to see that 20-25 percent of the audience are women. Yes, she said but did you notice that there is not a single woman speaker? I admmited not to have noticed it and when I asked the organizer he said he had not noticed it either. About a half year later we discussed it in the Mittag-Lefler institute and realized that there is a 0-1 law. No matter how large the conference is the number of women speakers is zero or one. (This is better than the zero-zero law some decades earlier.) This gave the motivation for the 93 conference I mentioned above. While many of the basic difficulties remain I think the situation now is indeed better.

  54. Michelle says:

    This comes close to my experience, numbers-wise.

    OTOH, not very long ago (maybe 3 years), I attended a conference were every single speaker, and every attendee but me, was male.

    I will ask the men here: have you ever, ever, ever been the only man in the room for an entire weeklong conference? Do you have any idea what that might be like? How conspicuous you feel? How you wonder why you were the only one to “make the cut” on the invite list? How any comments or questions by you will be perceived.

    This may not be how people see me. But it’s not far from how I worry that people see me. And spending a lot of mental energy on that detracts from doing math well. How good would you be if you worried a lot about every question you ask?

  55. Yemon Choi says:

    Seconded, oh so very much.

  56. Yemon Choi says:

    Are you inclined to substantiate your second paragraph with any evidence? or acknowledge that at best your comments are highly contingent to particular places, times, or settings?

    Speaking as a man working in research mathematics: the assertion in your third paragraph bears no great resemblance to anything I’ve ever observed.

  57. Ted says:

    It’s not totally obvious that such a result reflects gender bias in acceptance of papers. Here’s a possible alternative explanation – perhaps the gender bias exists already in hiring – and what is directly reflected by acceptance of papers is the prestige (in some nebulous sense) of the institution of the paper’s author. At any rate, I am suggesting that the following control might be interesting: compare acceptance rates when the author’s institution is known versus when it is unknown.

    Perhaps a better way of saying what I’m saying is that gender bias enters at many levels, which can reinforce one another. If women have less access to good jobs, all other things being equal, then perhaps they will have less access to other resources which are in part predicated on external assessments of a researcher’s quality, something which is sometimes partly judged by where the researcher is employed (if one sees two papers in a field one does not know, and one is written by someone from MIT and one by someone from Purdue, the reality is that (outside of Indiana) many readers will initially tend to favor the paper from the MIT author). For a more relevant example, perhaps conference speakers are more likely to be chosen from universities X, Y, and Z, and if fewer women are employed in X, Y, and Z than is merited, then there will be a contribution to the problem coming indirectly from hiring practics.

  58. Ted says:

    Actual sexism? This comment is exhibit A.

  59. Matt says:

    “I will ask the men here: have you ever, ever, ever been the only man in the room for an entire weeklong conference?”

    This. As a white straight male mathematician, I am sure I have never been the only anyone in the room, ever. This means there are things about that experience that I simply don’t understand, and I’m willing to defer some of my own judgment for that of the people who do.

  60. Anonymous says:

    Conferences with at least one woman organizer typically have many more female speakers and participants than those without. The AMS provides statistics about special sessions with at least one woman organizer and those with none: in 2009, the former had 26% female speakers, while the latter had 15% (somewhat lower than the percentage of female membership in the AMS). For more data, on related issues, the 2010 report is available at:

    Click to access rtx100901163p.pdf

    While merely alerting organizing committees to possible bias may not seem like it would have an impact, it does. The same issues apply to prize selection committees, nominating committees, and hiring committees. Unfortunately, we as a profession have done little to take on these issues.

  61. I had been following the discussion and I finally wanted to add my 2 cents. As much as I’m in favor of a gender conference campaign (let me see, my next conference has 52 men and 8 women participating, and that’s a conference exclusively for young researchers…) I think there’s need to think about the levels before that.

    I wanted to stress Pipers sad but true point “i find that math is often not worth the people you have to deal with”. As a student, during my PhD and now as a postdoc I have seen how this and similar issues have driven women (and minorities) out of mathematics. Not only did we loose a diversity in mathematical culture, but we simply lost some of the most talented people I have met.

    The dominant unconscious bias I encounter is ignorance. That is, many researchers seem unaware of the simple fact that people with different backgrounds require different measures to show them a way towards mathematical research. Yes, everybody has to work hard, but if nobody shows you what doing research is actually about, how can you consider investing your talent in research?

    The most brilliant argument in favor of an initiative seems to be success. Ivelisse Rubio recently gave a talk at the UofM about women and minorities in mathematics. She spend the second half of the talk to describe young researchers that were drawn into research through such initiatives and supervisors that were ready to think about the real problems that stand in the way of such a career.

    I think that’s the crucial factor. We should do whatever it takes to get the smartest people to do research in mathematics. Not just those white males that get a lot of good feedback from themselves.

  62. Richard Séguin says:

    Thanks, Anonymous, for pointing out this hard data. Very illuminating.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: