Tag Archives: women in science

The turd and the bean, or: the strange life of male nerddom under patriarchy

Everybody’s talking about Laurie Penny’s awesome essay responding to Scott Aaronson’s courageously candid blog comment, all touched off by the canceling of Walter Lewin’s online course after he sexually harrassed one of the students.

Scott is frustrated that shy, nerdy men are seen as “privileged.”  He thinks they’re the opposite of privileged.  I don’t see things the way Scott does, but I’m glad he wrote what he wrote.  It must have been pretty hard to do.

Scott feels a certain distance from feminism because of stuff like this:

Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.

But here’s the thing.  Were those workshops, and the feminist writers he read in college, trying to tell him it was a monstrous thing for a man to try to date a woman?  Here’s one clue:  most feminists, like most women generally, are straight, and date men.  Many of the people leading his sexual-assault prevention workshops probably had boyfriends.  Many of the feminist writers he read were married to men.

So where, if not from feminists, was he getting the idea that a romantic approach was inherently a kind of assault?  That’s patriarchy talking.  It’s patriarchy that gets between your ear and your mind and turns “Be sensitive to the cues of the person you’re approaching and wait for consent” to “You’d better not even try,” because it’s patriarchy that presents conquest and seizure as the only allowable model for a man’s sexuality.

Now here my imaginary Scott Aaronson protests, “but I didn’t think all expression of het interest was assault, only that my own wasn’t guaranteed not to be, and nobody would tell me how to get that guarantee.”  To which I can only say:  yep.  When you take driver’s ed they don’t tell you any formula that absolutely positively guarantees you won’t crash your car, hurt yourself, hurt someone else, ruin your life.  If you demand such a guarantee they’ll tell you “All I can say is never drive, it’s the only way to be sure.”  But if this leads you to never drive, because the risk is too great to be borne?  That’s a problem with your risk assessment, not a problem with driver’s ed.

It’s sad and kind of crushing to read what happened to Scott.  He says he wanted to be a woman, or a sexless being.  He thinks that’s because feminism made it seem intolerable to be a man.  But it wasn’t.  Partly it was because he attached vastly more anxiety to the difficulty of dating than most people, even than most shy, nerdy, romantically inexperienced people (hi, teenaged me!) do.  And partly it was because patriarchy gave him a false and vicious idea of what a man was.

That first line again:

Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified.

He was both!  You can be — in fact, it’s hard for a man not to be — both beneficiary and victim of sexism.  Those two things don’t cancel each other out like positive and negative terms in an equation.  They are both there, and they both count.

Turd and bean soup is a terrible soup.  But:  when your friend, who has only turds, says, “I’m hungry, I wish my soup had some beans in it,” it is no reply at all to say “but my soup is filled with turds and the beans kind of taste like turd.”  They are still beans.  Even as your mouth fills with the rich flavor of turd and you feel like puking, the beans nourish and enrich you.

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Is philosophy worse for women than math is?

My philosopher friends today are all talking about the resignation/firing of Colin McGinn, a pretty well-known philosopher as I understand it, who as it turns out has been sending e-mails to his graduate students describing…. well, there’s no real reason for me to describe it, I leave that kind of filth for the Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Philosophy and math have roughly the same male-female ratio, but philosophy has blogs like What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy? and math, as far as I know, does not.  Is that because math has actually created a culture friendlier to women than philosophy has?  Or is it because philosophy is closer to the social criticism tradition and philosophers are more likely to want to talk about these things openly?

I have one small data point.  I once heard a philosopher give a talk in which there was a weird joke about you have to be careful not to sleep with your graduate students because [some philosophy joke I didn’t get and don’t remember.]

Or rather, it read as weird to me, because I think it’s highly unlikely that someone would say something like that in front of a roomful of mathematicians under any circumstances.  Or if they did, there would be a burst of murmurs and everyone would be looking back and forth with the “Did he say that?” look.  On this occasion, only I was looking back and forth.  Nobody seemed to think it was weird, not the women, not the men.  It was an informal, jokey kind of talk.  But still.



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Mean beef stroganoff

You know, my mom is a distinguished scientist, and she, too, made a mean beef stroganoff when I was a kid.  Of course, it was “skid road stroganoff” from Peg Bracken’s classic I Hate To Cook Book, friend to working scientists of all genders with small kids and twenty minutes to get dinner on the table.  Wouldn’t it be great if that’s what Yvonne Brill made, too?  I truly love this dish and I make it for my own family every once in a while, but the sad truth is that only AB and I actually like it, and AB is not picky.  

Skid Road Stroganoff

8 ounces uncooked noodles (about 4 1/2 cups)
1 beef bouillon cube
1 garlic clove, minced
1/3 cup onion, chopped
2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 pound ground beef
2 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon paprika
Two 3-ounce cans mushrooms
1 can condensed cream of chicken soup, undiluted
1 cup sour cream
Chopped parsley

Start cooking those noodles, first dropping a bouillon cube into the noodle water. Brown the garlic, onion and crumbled beef in the oil. Ad the flour, salt, paprika, mushrooms and tomato paste, stir, and let it cook five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink. Then add the soup and simmer it – in other words, cook on low flame under boiling point – 10 minutes. Now stir in the sour cream – keeping the heat low, so it won’t curdle – and let it all heat through. To serve it, pile the noodles on a platter, pile the stroganoff mix on top of the noodles, and sprinkle chopped parsley around with a lavish hand.

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The NSF should fund conference daycare

I was pleased to see that this year’s Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Diego offers subsidized on-site childcare for participants in the meeting.  But even after the subsidy, it isn’t exactly cheap; at $14/hour, a mathematician who wanted to attend the conference full-time would easily spend over $300 on childcare.

Can you use your NSF grant to cover this $300?  Nope:

Can NSF award funds be used for travel and associated dependent-care expenses for dependents of individuals funded on an NSF award?

NSF award funds may not be used for domestic travel costs or associated dependent-care expenses for individuals traveling on NSF award funds. Travel costs associated with dependents may be allowable for International travel in accordance with Award and Administration Guide Chapter V.B.4, which contains several stipulations, including that travel must be continuous for a period of six months or more.

What about organizers of NSF-funded conferences?  Can we offer to use NSF money to cover childcare costs for attending mathematicians?  That’s another nope:

Can conference/workshop awards or travel funds from research awards be used to support child care at conferences and workshops?

NSF award funds may not be used to pay for travel costs or expenses related to onsite care (e.g., daycare) for dependents of participants at NSF-sponsored conferences and workshops. NSF-sponsored conferences and workshops are encouraged to consider child-care services to ease the burden on attendees, but the costs of such services are the responsibility of those that choose to utilize the accommodations.

For me to go to a conference requires me to buy a plane ticket and book a hotel room.  NSF wants me to go to conferences, so they allow me to charge these unavoidable expenses to my grant.  If I’m a single parent of a 1-year-old child, going to a conference requires me to have childcare available at the conference location.  No childcare means I don’t go to the conference.  If NSF is willing to pay two hundred bucks a night for my hotel room, why not a hundred bucks a day for childcare?

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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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In which John Tierney annoys me regarding women in science, part — wait, I’ve lost count

Here’s Tierney in the New York Times:

Similarly, Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, was ostracized in 2005 for wondering publicly whether the preponderance of male professors in some top math and science departments might be due partly to the larger variance in I.Q. scores among men (meaning there are more men at the very high and very low ends). “This was not a permissible hypothesis,” Dr. Haidt said. “It blamed the victims rather than the powerful. The outrage ultimately led to his resignation. We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage. We should have defended his right to think freely.”

Instead, the taboo against discussing sex differences was reinforced, so universities and the National Science Foundation went on spending tens of millions of dollars on research and programs based on the assumption that female scientists faced discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias.

Here’s a Google Scholar search for “gender differences in cognition.” The first page of results includes the 1995 paper “Magnitude of sex differences in spatial abilities: A meta-analysis and consideration of critical variables,” by Voyer, Voyer, and Bryden, which has been cited 791 times.

Camilla Benbow’s paper Sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability in intellectually talented preadolescents: Their nature, effects, and possible causes” has been cited over 300 times:  the abstract concludes “It is therefore proposed that the sex difference in SAT-M scores among intellectually talented students, which may be related to greater male variability, results from both environmental and biological factors.”

Here’s a selection of papers from the Organization for the Study of Sex Differences, including “Evidence for sex-specific shifting of neural processes underlying learning and memory following stress,” about cognitive differences between men and women under conditions of stress.  The OSSD’s 2010 annual meeting was funded by the National Science Foundation.

All I can say is, this is some really crappy taboo enforcement.  Politically correct mandarins of academia, get on the stick!

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Men: bad at anthropology?

The blog is simmering with gender controversy anyway, so here, via Crooked Timber, is a  chart of the percentage of women earning PhDs in various disciplines:

To my eye, this isn’t very compatible with a biologically deterministic view of the professions.  What feature of life on the savannah explains why so many more women get Ph.Ds in statistics than in religion?  Are men chromosomally undercapable at anthropology?

To forestall one obvious comment — of course it is plain from the chart that there is some loose correlation in these numbers between the “mathiness” of a field and its “maleness.”  But surely  it’s just as plain that this isn’t the only thing going on.


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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?


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In which John Tierney continues to annoy me: featuring reader survey!

John Tierney has annoyed me before on the subject of women in science.  And now he’s back, this time recapping the conventional wisdom that math departments like mine are 90% male because of the inborn boyish math power we men possess.  He styles this as “daring.”  The chutzpah!

Anyway, this time around he presses some perfectly respectable social science into service.  Here’s a fact:  more boys than girls get perfect scores on the math SAT.  And a recent study by Jonathan Wai, et al found that that among students who scored over 700 on the math SAT in 7th grade — just 1/10,000 of their sample — boys outnumbered girls by about 13 to 1 in the 1980s, a figure which dropped to 4:1 by the early 1990s and has stayed roughly constant since.

Now here’s how the standard — oops, sorry, I mean “daring” — argument goes:  mathematicians surely possess a math aptitude among the top 1 in 10,000 of the population.  That segment of the population is mostly men, as proven by science.  Ergo, most mathematicians should be men.

A mistake here, or at least a potential mistake, is thinking of success in mathematics as something driven by a variable called “aptitude”, which can be measured on a scale — as if getting tenured at Harvard were something like getting a 10 million on the math SAT.  Wai et al find that girls make up a substantial majority of extremely high 7th grade scorers in the English and writing sections of the exam.  Should one conclude on aptitudinal grounds women should be a majority among English professors?  It’s easy to mistake your operationalizations for reality, as when Wai et al write:

Giving the SAT-M in the 7th grade allows individual differences in the extreme right tail of the distribution (i.e., the top 1% which includes over one third of the ability range) to be captured adequately

I can think of lots of things they might mean by “one third of the ability range” but none which have any content.

Not that I’m saying it’s meaningless to ace the SAT before getting your driver’s license.  It’s a vanishingly small proportion of people who get a 700 on the math SAT at 13.  But I’d think it would be a very small proportion of mathematicians too!  If 10% of mathematicians were extreme child math prodigies, and those extreme child math prodigies are 80% boys, one hasn’t gone far towards explaining why US math research faculties are overwhelmingly male.

There’s actually an empirical question here which I know nothing about.  So let’s contribute to my know-nothingness by undertaking a brutally unscientific survey.  If you’re a working mathematician — say, a Ph.D. student in good standing or a faculty member at a university — did you score above 700M on the SAT when you were 13 or younger?  Since I think it’s a fairly small proportion of the world that takes the exam that early, let’s ask a more widely applicable question as well:  if you took the SAT as a senior in high school, did you get 800 on the math section?  (If you answer this, you might mention whether you took the exam before or after the 1995 recentering.)

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In which John Tierney annoys me: women in science edition

John Tierney writes in yesterday’s New York Times — correctly, I think — that science departments don’t need federally mandated quotas, a la Title IX, in order to improve the situation of women in science.

So what’s so annoying? Stuff like this:

The members of Congress and women’s groups who have pushed for science to be “Title Nined” say there is evidence that women face discrimination in certain sciences, but the quality of that evidence is disputed. Critics say there is far better research showing that on average, women’s interest in some fields isn’t the same as men’s.

Are these really the only two choices? Couldn’t we — without “Title Nining” away our autonomy — push our profession to be as open and as attractive to all mathematically talented people as we can? Is it possible that an effort of that kind could drastically increase the number of women who enjoy successful careers in research mathematics? Of course — because that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for years, and a drastic increase is exactly what happened. Not that you’d know it from Tierney’s article. There, any disparity between men and women is understood by all reasonable people to be the result of immutable personality differences. In which case our choice is: freedom, or an assault on human nature by the full coercive power of the state?


On his blog, Tierney writes

Why, now that women students are approaching a 3-to-2 majority on campus and predominate in so many disciplines (including many science departments), is Washington singling out a few male-dominated departments in engineering and physical sciences? The answer from advocates of this policy is that science must be “Titled Nined” for women to get “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” to borrow the title of the 2007 report from the National Academy of Sciences on women in science. The answer from their critics — call them the Anti-Title-Niners — is that this bias exists largely in the imagination of well-organized activists, and that women on average just aren’t as interested as men are in these disciplines.

I just want to draw your attention to a rhetorical trick in that last sentence. Have you ever noticed that when you want to forbid people from thinking critically about what you’re saying, you can stick in a “just” and make your assertion seem like an eternal fact about the universe? Read the last sentence again without the “just.” Sounds different, doesn’t it? I learned this trick from listening to a lot of sports talk radio in my car, where you routinely encounter arguments of the form “Brett Favre is one of the five best players in the history of the National Football League. He just is.” If women report being less interested in going into mathematics, you might ask: why is that? But if they just are less interested, well, what is there to say?

If you want to see some different views about women in science (which do not, I guarantee, suggest that evil men are conspiring to hold the sisters down, that unequal representation is proof of discrimination, or that math departments should be federally bludgeoned into numerical parity) have a look at Amanda Schaffer’s six-part series in Slate or the work of Virginia Valian.

And now I will make fun of Tierney’s “about my blog” blurb. He writes:

With your help, he’s using TierneyLab to check out new research and rethink conventional wisdom about science and society. The Lab’s work is guided by two founding principles:

  • 1. Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
  • 2. But that’s a good working theory.

Cute! But let us not forget the idea “girls don’t care for math, and left to their own devices they wouldn’t be interested in boring boy stuff like scientific careers” does appeal to a lot of people, and it kind of is the conventional wisdom. Dare I say Tierney just isn’t taking a particularly bold or contrarian stance on this issue?

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