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Aunt Pythia’s amazing advice

July 26, 2014

Well hello there, cutie, and welcome. Aunt Pythia loves you today, even more than usual!

For some reason she can’t pinpoint, but probably has to do with a general feeling of happiness and fulfillment, Aunt Pythia is even more excited than usual to be here and to toss off unreasonably smug and affectionate opinions and advice. Buckle up and get ready for the kisses and the muffins.

The kisses are harder to picture but they are even more delicious.

The kisses are harder to picture but they are even more delicious.

Everyone set? OK, fabulous, let’s get going. Oh and by the way, at the bottom of the column please please

think of something to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

I am almost out of questions!!!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

How should one deal with sexism and harassment at conferences?

As a white heterosexual male mathematician, I don’t experience much bias against me in my professional life, but I’ve seen (and heard of) a lot of bad stuff happening against anyone not conforming to this norm, which I think is not only bad for the people who experience this, but also bad for mathematics as a whole, for various reasons.

At a recent specialized conference, one of participants (a grad student) was very obviously sexually interested in one of the other grad students (one of only 2 female participants, my field has some serious problems in this regard), who was clearly not interested (and married).

I didn’t know these persons before the conference, and beyond me saying to the the harassing person that she was married and that he shouldn’t annoy her (which didn’t have any impact of course), I didn’t do anything. I would have liked to somehow help the harassed party feel welcome, and communicate that besides that one jerk people were interested in her mathematical ideas, but I didn’t know how to communicate this to her without making it seem inappropriate. So instead, I kept silent, which feels bad. Is there anything I could do next time I was in this type of situation, besides trying not to be a jerk?

Dr. Nonheroic Observer

Dear Dr. NO,

I gotta say, I love your question, but it’s kind of spare on details. What did the guy do? How much did it annoy the married party? It really matters, and my advice to you depends on those facts.

When I think about it, though, I don’t see why the fact that she’s married matters. Speaking as a 17-year married person (as of today!), married people like to flirt sometimes, so it’s not as if it’s intrinsically harassing for someone to express interest in a married person, or for that matter a single person.

But as soon as someone responds with a “not interested” signal, it is of course the responsibility of the interested party to tone it down.

Let me go into three scenarios here, and tell you what I think your response should be in each.

First, the guy likes her. You said it was obvious he was interested and it was also obvious she wasn’t. Depending on how that played out, it could be totally fine and not at all your responsibility to do anything. So, if he was like, hey would you like to go on a walk? and then she said, no thanks I’m going to get some work done and that was that, then whatevs. Again, not holding anything against someone for interest per se.

Now on to the second scenario, which seems more likely, since you mentioned that he annoyed her in spite of your advice to him. So that means he followed her around a lot and generally speaking glommed on her, which probably means he obstructed her normal interaction with other mathematicians at the conference. This is a big problem, because conferences are when the “mathematical socializing” happens, which very often results in collaboration and papers. The fact that men glom onto women prevents that, and might be a reason women don’t join your field.

Your responsibility, beyond telling the guy to lay off, which you did, is to first of all talk math with her explicitly, so she gets some mathematical socializing done. Also be proactive in introducing her to other people who are good math socializers.

Beyond that, I think you need to tell the guy to stop a second time. Ask the guy to think about why she came to the conference, and what she wants and doesn’t want out of the experience. In other words, make him try to think about her perspective rather than his own dick’s perspective. Who knows, it might help, he might just be super nerdy and not actually an asshat.

If that doesn’t work, and if he is in fact an asshat, I suggest you go to her and ask her if he is bothering you. Pretending not to notice isn’t helping her, and she probably has nobody to appeal to and could use an ally. If she says yes, then with her permission, go back to the guy and tell him he is officially bothering her. I guess that would actually work.

Third scenario is when even that doesn’t work, in which case I would go to the organizer of the conference and suggest that the harasser be asked to leave the conference.

I’d be super interested to hear your thoughts, and in particular what you think would happen if you had actually gone to the organizers. Of course, if you were one of the organizers yourself, I’d say you should have threatened the guy with expulsion earlier on.

Write back and tell me more details and tell me whether this advice was helpful!

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

Why EW? What is wrong with “He went on way too many dates too quickly”? What makes you the judge of what constitutes too many, when you yourself admit that you “have taken myself out of the sex game altogether – or at least the traditional sex game” so your opinion on traditional sex game (which is exactly what this guy is doing) is clearly biased. He is a modern empowered man who is exploring his options before settling down. What you wrote is nothing different than “slut-shaming” just reversing the gender. I hope you will exercise greater sensitivity in the future posts.

NY_NUMBERS

Dear NY_NUMBERS,

I think you must be referring to my response to Huh in this past column in reference to the alleged math genius who “hacked” OK Cupid. And I think you misunderstand me.

I am all for slutty behavior. In fact I am super sex positive. If the guy were just trying to get lots of great sex with lots of amazing women, then more power to him. I’d tell him about Tinder and I’d even direct him to critiquemydickpic for useful and amusing advice.

But actually he was having one or two dates per day looking for love. What?! That’s way too much emotional drainage. How can anyone remain emotionally receptive if they can’t even remember people’s names? I’d be much much happier for him, and I wouldn’t be judgmental, if he had been bringing home a different woman every night for mind-blowing sex. Youth!!

So, if you want to complain about my “ew”, then I think you’d need to say that, if someone can fuck anything that moves, they should also be able to love anything that moves. I’m not sure there’s a name for this but maybe “love-shaming?”.

In any case, I stand by my “ew”: I don’t think loving one or two people per day is possible. And the woman he ended up with found him, which was different and broke his cycle, kind of proving my point.

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a statistician with four-or-so years of work experience, but currently in the last half year or so of a applied bayesian stats PhD. I have seen the rise of R and Statistics as a hot, talked about subject. And for some reason, I am getting nervous about all the new cool kids that play around on Kaggle; that they will take ALL THE JOBS, and that there will be no space for slightly less cool, more classically trained statisticians such as myself. After all, all we’re doing is a bit of running a glm, or a cluster analysis, or some plotting. A monkey could learn that in three months. Sometimes I wish everyone would stay away and let me have all the datasets for myself.

Am I being unreasonably nervous about the future?

Have Stats Want to Analyze

Dear HSWA,

First, I wanna say, I had high hopes for your sign off until I wrote it out. Then I was like, wtf?! I even googled it but all I came back with was the Hampton Shaler Water Authority. And I am pretty sure that’s not what you meant. And keeping the “t” in didn’t help.

Second, I’ve got really good advice for you. Next time you’re in an interview, or even if you’re just on a bus somewhere with someone sitting next to you who allows you to talk, mention that Kaggle competitions are shitty bars for actual data scientists, because most of the work of the data scientist is figuring out what the actual question is, and of course how to measure success.

Those things are backed into each Kaggle competition, so hiring people who are good at Kaggle competitions is like hiring the chef who has been supplied with a menu, a bunch of recipes, and all the ingredients to run your new restaurant. Bad idea, because that’s the job of the chef if he’s actually good. In other words, it’s not actually all that impressive to be able to follow directions, you need to be creative and thoughtful.

Make sure you say that to your interviewer, and then follow it up with a story where you worked on a problem and solved it but then realized you’d answered the wrong question and so you asked the right question and then solved that one too.

I’m not nervous for you, thoughtful statisticians are in high demand. Plus you love data, so yeah you’re good.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

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Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’ve been working as faculty in a new department this year and I have repeatedly had the feeling that the support staff is not treating me the way they would if I were 50 and male instead of young and female (although with the rank of professor).

It’s small things like roundly scolding me for using a coffee mug from the wrong cupboard, or hinting I should make sure the kitchen cleaning is easy for staff (I’m not messy!), or the conference support staff ceasing to help with basic support on a conference (and complaining about me to other people), or wanting me to walk some mail to another building.

I realize this is all small potatoes. But I have started to feel like by just taking it passively (e.g. smiling and nodding) I might be saving myself time and anger now but I’m helping to perpetuate the system. I rigorously avoid confrontation and I think I’m typically regarded as a very friendly and helpful team player by my peers. (How could I prove bias anyway, and would confrontation help?). But I’m not sure I can spend my whole life putting up with small potatoes along with the bigger potatoes I encounter from time to time.

Spud Farmer Considering Pesticides

Dear SFCP,

First of all, again, disappointed your sign-off didn’t spell anything. But will let it pass.

Second of all, my guess is that they are sexist. I have a prior on this because I’ve encountered so much sexism in this exact way.

Third of all, I’m also guessing they are administrative people in academia, which means they are also just barely able and/or willing to do their jobs. Again, experience, and since I am administration now in academia, I am allowed to call it. Some people are great, most people are not.

Fourth, I don’t know why you are “rigorously avoiding confrontation” here. The very first thing you should do is choose your tiny battles wisely and create small but useful confrontation. Examples:

  • Someone asks you to mail a letter. You say, “oh who usually mails letters? I will be sure to bring it to them.”
  • Someone doesn’t want to do their part in helping with basic support on conferences. You say, “Oh that’s not your job? I am so sorry. Who should I be asking for help on this?”
  • Someone scolds you for using the wrong coffee cup or some such nonsense. You say, “I am new here and I don’t know the rules but I will be sure to remember this one! I am one of those people with a strong work ethic, and it’s great to see how people around here pull together and make things happen.” You know, be aspirational.

Fifth, if it comes to it, get a faculty ally to explain which staff are bitter and why, and which of them are juts plain nuts, and which ones do everyone else’s job. Useful information. Make sure it’s an ally! Complaining about this stuff to the wrong person could give you a reputation as a complainer.

Sixth, do not let this stuff build up inside you! Make it an amusing part of your day to see how people wiggle out of their responsibilities and blame other people for their mistakes. And keep in mind that the faculty are probably the biggest and best examples of such behavior.

Love,

Auntie P

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Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. Christina Sormani
    July 26, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    Dear Dr. No,

    Thanks for bringing up this issue. Many young women have been unhappy about conference flirtation and complaining to the AWM. Even if occasionally some women find this fun, the overwhelming majority are pissed off. As one women said to me recently, she was finally invited to speak at an AMS sectional, then had to battle her chair for funding to go, had to find someone to watch her kids for a weekend which cost her literally hundreds of dollars (don’t ask why their Dad couldn’t manage it). When she finally arrived, she gave her talk and afterwards was asked on a date. No one discussed mathematics with her at all.

    So please shut these jerks up and talk mathematics with the women who attend conferences and involve them in math conversations which include more senior people as well.

    Also make it very clear to the other guys he’s being a jerk. Particularly the students. I have actually overheard grad students talking enviously with each other about how successful one such jerk was with the women. Successful?

    Even more disturbing is when the guy doing this is senior to the woman involved. Women are harassed by senior men more often than their peers. Try to speak to the woman on the side right away. And remember who does this and keep an eye on him.

  2. July 26, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    DANG, those are some berry-bursting, scrumpt-deli-iiiicious lookin’ blueberry muffins… please post the recipe.

  3. alex
    July 26, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Happy Anniversary!!

  4. July 27, 2014 at 6:22 am

    Happy Anniversary!

  5. Paul
    July 27, 2014 at 11:09 am

    Happy Anniversary!

    Thanx for this continuing classic of not so doeze and ewes on parade. As an outsider to the world of professional math geekdom I am left to wonder if such conferences, along with all the other fun and games are designed to operate in the way described by NY_Numbers as another form of what MD’S call mentorship in residency… Regardless, the situations described over time here and elsewhere are all too common in many high powered professions. With consistent,long term examples such as the ones on parade it’s no small wonder there are so few willing to undertake the processes that are seemingly required to fully participate in professional geekdom and opt instead for structured finance and related fields.

  1. July 27, 2014 at 8:18 am
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