Women in math: accountability

I’ve talked about women in math a lot on this blog and maybe you think of me as someone who is aware of and resistant to sexism in our profession.  But what if we look at some actual numbers?

My Ph.D. students:  2 out of 15 are women.

Coauthors, last 5 years: 2 out of 23 are women.

Letters posted on MathJobs, last 2 years:  3 out of 24 are women.

That is sobering.  I’m hesitant about posting this, but I think it’s a good idea for senior people to look at their own numbers and get some sense of how much they’re actually doing to support early-career women in the profession.

Update:  I removed the numbers for tenure/promotion letters.  A correspondent pointed out that these, unlike the other items, are supposed to be confidential, and given the small numbers are at least partially de-anonymizable.


20 thoughts on “Women in math: accountability

  1. Tom Church says:

    I think sharing this information is worthwhile — in fact simply compiling the data for oneself is informative! Here’s what I found:

    coauthors in last 5 years: 1/6 is a woman
    MathJobs letters in last 2 years: 2/10 are women
    postdocs mentored: 1/1 is a woman
    Ph.D. students: 0/0
    grad reading courses: 0/1 are women
    undergrad math advisees: 7/10 are women
    undergrad reading courses: 3/4 are women
    MathPrograms letters in last 2 years: 5/7 are women

    I draw two conclusions:

    1. It is important to include both the numerator and denominator here. Percentages can be misleading with such small sizes (100% of postdocs! 0% of grad reading courses!) and the overall pattern is of uniformly low numerators, regardless of the fluctuation in the denominators.

    2. I am doing MUCH better at the undergraduate level than the grad/postdoc/faculty level. I actually feel OK taking credit for this because it is the result of extended effort on my part to:

    (a) make my classes a place where students can enjoy learning math, including struggling or failing — and where students who put in a lot of effort will get a lot out of the course. [e.g. all my undergrad advisees picked me after taking a course with me, often because I was the first professor to encourage them]

    (b) identify strong students and encourage them to {take more math classes, be a math major, apply to REUs, take grad classes, do reading courses, apply to grad school, …}
    [e.g. almost all my MathPrograms letters are REU recommendations, and every one happened because I contacted the student to say they should consider REUs]

  2. Tom Church says:

    For others: MathJobs only retains the most recent recommendations you wrote, so the easiest thing is to search your email for
       MathJobs uploading confirmation
       MathPrograms uploading confirmation

  3. Anon says:

    I think it’s great that you did this and I hope other senior mathematicians will follow your lead! As Tom said, it’s valuable to do it for oneself, even if the data is not made public.

    The coauthor statistic is a nice one as well, because that’s not just about early-career women. As Izabella Łaba has talked about often on her blog, it’s important to continue to support women throughout their career. And it is easier to maintain an active research program when you are plugged into a wider research network. I believe addressing this issue was one of the driving factors in starting the Women in Numbers workshops and in choosing the original format.

  4. Melissa Tacy says:

    It’s great that you are actually look at this! Too often you hear you hear people (usually guys) give some sort of fuzzy support for women in maths without ever doing anything or considering if they can. It’s old but this Yes Minister clip always comes to mind to me

  5. Michelle says:

    Just please tell me that none of your letters for women describe them as “the best female student in the class.” Because yes I have read such letters. More than once. (Usually this is for grad school applications and not for postdocs or faculty.)

    My numbers:
    completed PhD students: 2/2
    current PhD students: 1/2
    coauthors: 8/18 (I would have guessed higher)
    tenure / promotion letters: 0/2

  6. Michelle says:

    Oh, I forgot my master’s students!
    completed: 1/1
    current: 0/1

  7. bf says:

    PhD students: 4/12 (my math genealogy page isn’t updated), expected worse in the near future.
    Coauthors: 1/10, expected better in the near future.
    Postdocs: 2/7.

    BTW, I didn’t answer your “let me count the ties” post, but I would like to mention that when I was elected to our university’s senate I was given a scarf instead of a tie with our logo – despite clearly stating I wanted a tie like (almost) all of my colleagues. Yes, I would have worn it.

  8. Michael Lacey says:

    In the last twenty years, 12 women hired when I have been on the selection/hiring committee at the tenure track level. Number of women hired when I am not on said committee is 2.

    The only thing I have found to be effective is being very outspoken—that is when the real hiring for diversity took place.

  9. allenknutson says:

    coauthors in last 5 years: 1/7 is a woman
    MathJobs letters in last 2 years: 3/6 are women
    Ph.D. students: 6/10 graduated, 2/8 current, are women

  10. Connie bedrock says:

    Any chance of treating women like people and not statistics?

  11. math_lambda says:

    To Connie: I kind of see what you mean, but at the same time such stats are indeed important. The rationale, I think, is that given the low numbers of women in most pure math areas, having stats around 50% implies some degree of will to even things out. Of course, given that low amount of women, not everybody can have such stats (or else who mentors or co-publish with men) and that’s clearly a reason for not being too focused on 50% but more on 0%, especially when denominators are large.

  12. Noah Snyder says:

    One advantage of sometimes looking at the statistics (in addition to a more person-by-person approach), is that it’s easy to fail to notice the pattern if you just think about individual people. Prior to this question I thought of myself as someone who collaborates with women relatively often (two of my first four collaborators were women, and my 2nd most frequent collaborator is a woman). But looking at the raw stats that JSE asked about, I’m at 1 out of 10 for collaborators in the past 5 years. So this question has caused me to step back a bit and think about how I’m finding collaborators and if I should be doing anything differently, whereas a more person-focused way of thinking about this situation wouldn’t have caused that rethinking.

  13. Connie bedrock says:

    I agree that stats are important and privately comparing what one does to those stats is a useful exercise, but these are small numbers and smalll numbers are not statistics.

  14. @Connie

    Yes, they are anecdata, but useful to start a conversation about what we can do to improve the number, and treatment, of women in mathematics.

  15. John Franks says:

    I think these statistics and introspection are important (my own PhD numbers are 6/23, higher than I expected). However we need to keep in mind that in the current political environment the other aspects of the problem we want to address are an order of magnitude more threatening.

    Here is an image of an Elsevier ad accompanying what must be one of the most misogynistic images I have ever seen:


  16. anon says:

    Not that I want to defend elsevier, but don’t the ads get placed by google or something automatically.

  17. DR says:

    @anon I believe that companies can specify websites on which they do not want their ads. Some have (eg Kelloggs, but also apparently others)

  18. Diana Gillooly says:

    This kind of relatively neutral documentation can motivate improvement. At the department level, I’d recommend that every mathematics department that has a distinguished lecture series compile a full list of speakers and then ponder whether the result is a good reflection of the department’s aspirations.

  19. aaaatos says:

    So by what standards do you judge all these numbers? Are we aiming for equality of outcome or equality of opportunity?

  20. Anonymous says:

    I am sure this is well-intentioned but I find it a bit offensive. Young female (or male) mathematicians don’t need you as their saviour, and nor am I a poor citizen because of my low score. I see a lot of pointless games being played with this issue and the metrics you suggest will just lead to more of the same.

    I agree that undergraduate classes are a better venue for such a discussion.

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