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What the fucking shit, Barbie?

I’m back from Haiti! It was amazing and awesome, and please stand by for more about that, with cultural observations and possibly a slide show if you’re all well behaved.

Today, thanks to my math camp buddy Lenore Cowen, I am going to share with you an amazing blog post by Pamela Ribon. Her post is called Barbie Fucks It Up Again and it describes a Barbie book entitled Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer

The other book is called "I Can Be an Actress"

The other book is called “I Can Be an Actress”

Just to give you an idea of the plot, Barbie’s sister finds Barbie engaged on a project on her computer, and after asking her about it, Barbie responds:

“I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”

To which blogger Pamela Ribon comments:
What the fucking shit, Barbie?
Update: Please check out the amazing Amazon reviews of this book (hat tip Chris Wiggins).
BEST UPDATE EVER (hat tip Marko): BARBIE CAN CODE REMIXED

StemFeminist

I found the website StemFeminist.com via Jordan Ellenberg this morning and I honestly can’t stop reading it. It consists of a bunch of anonymously contributed stories, most but not all by women, about everyday sexism that happens in the STEM fields. Many of them resonate either with stuff I’ve lived through or stuff my friends have, some of them don’t seem so bad, some of them are outrageous and actionable.

It’s a great idea to have this, if just for women to be able to point to when men question the level of sexism in STEM fields. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s 2014.

Categories: women in math

Interview with a high school principal on the math Common Core

In my third effort to understand the Common Core State Standards (CC) for math, I interviewed an old college friend Kiri Soares, who is the principal and co-founder of the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women. Here’s a transcript of the interview which took place earlier this month. My words are in italics below.

——

How are high school math teachers in New York City currently evaluated?

Teachers are now evaluated on 2 things:

  1. First, measures of teacher practice, which are based on observations, in turn based on some rubric. Right now it’s the Danielson Rubric. This is a qualitative measure. In fact it is essentially an old method with a new name.
  2. Second, measures of student learning, that is supposed to be “objective”. Overall it is worth 40% of the teacher’s score but it is separated into two 20% parts, where teachers choose the methodology of one part and principals choose the other. Some stuff is chosen for principals by the city. Any time there is a state test we have to choose it. In terms of the teachers’ choices, there are two ways to get evaluated: goals or growth. Goals are based on a given kid, and the teachers can guess they will get a certain slightly lower score or higher score for whatever reason. Otherwise, it’s a growth-based score. Teachers can also choose from an array of assessments (state tests, performance tests, and third party exams). They can also choose the cohort (their own kids/ the grade/the school). The city also chose performance tasks in some instances.

Can you give me a concrete example of what a teacher would choose as a goal?

At the beginning of year you give diagnostic tests to students in your subject. Based on what a given kid scored in September, you extrapolate a guess for their performance in the June test. So if a kid has a disrupted homelife you might guess lower. Teacher’s goal setting is based on these teachers’ guesses.

So in other words, this is really just a measurement of how well teachers guess?

Well they are given a baseline and teachers set goals relative to that, but yes. And they are expected to make those guesses in November, possibly well before homelife is disrupted. It definitely makes things more complicated. And things are pretty complicated. Let me say a bit more.

The first three weeks of school are all testing. We test math, social studies, science, and English in every grade, and overall it depending on teacher/principal selections it can take up to 6 weeks, although not in a given subject. Foreign language and gym teachers also getting measured, by the way, based on those other tests. These early tests are diagnostic tests.

Moreover, they are new types of tests, which are called performance-based assessments, and they are based on writing samples with prompts. They are theoretically better quality because they go deeper, the aren’t just bubble standardized tests, but of course they had no pre-existing baseline (like the state tests) and thus had to be administered as diagnostic. Even so, we are still trying to predict growth based on them, which is confusing since we don’t know how to predict performance on new tests. Also don’t even know how we can consistently grade such essay-based tests- despite “norming protocols”, which is yet another source of uncertainty.

How many weeks per year is there testing of students?

The last half of June is gone, a week in January, and 2-3 weeks in the high school in the beginning per subject. That’s a minimum of 5 weeks per subject per year, out of a total of 40 weeks. So one eighth of teacher time is spent administering tests. But if you think about it, for the teachers, it’s even more. They have to grade these tests too.

I’ve been studying the rhetoric around the CC. So far I’ve listened to Diane Ravitch stuff, and to Bill McCallum, the lead writer of the math CC. They have very different views. McCallum distinguished three things, which when they are separated like that, Ravitch doesn’t make sense.

Namely, he separates standards, curriculum, and testing. People complain about testing and say that CC standards make testing easier, and we already have too much testing, so CC is a bad thing. But McCallum makes this point: good standards also make good testing easier.

What do you think? Do teachers see those as three different things? Or is it a package deal, where all three things rolled into one in terms of how they’re presented?

It’s much easier to think of those three things as vertices of a triangle. We cannot make them completely isolated, because they are interrelated.

So, we cannot make the CC good without curriculum and assessment, since there’s a feedback loop. Similarly, we cannot have aligned curriculum without good standards and assessment, and we cannot have good tests without good standards and curriculum. The standards have existed forever. The common core is an attempt to create a set of nationwide standards. For example, without a coherent national curriculum it might seem OK to teach creationism in place of evolution in some states. Should that be OK?

CC is attempting to address this, in our global economy, but it hasn’t even approached science for clear political reasons. Math and English are the least political subjects so they started with those. This is a long time coming, and people often think CC refers to everything but so far it’s really only 40% of a kid’s day. Social studies CC standards are actually out right now, but they are very new.

Next, the massive machine of curriculum starts getting into play, as does the testing. I have CC standards and the CC-aligned test, but not curriculum.

Next, you’re throwing into the picture teacher evaluation aligned to CC tests. Teachers are freaking out now – they’re thinking, my curriculum hasn’t been CC-aligned for many years, what do I do now? By the way, importantly, none of the high school curriculum in NY State is actually CC-aligned now. DOE recommendations for the middle school happened last year, and DOE people will probably recommend this year for high school, since they went into talks with publication houses last year to negotiate CC curriculum materials.

The real problem is this: we’ve created these new standards to make things more difficult and more challenging without recognizing where kids are in the present moment. If I’m a former 5th grader, and the old standards were expecting something from me that I got used to, and it wasn’t very much, and now I’m in 6th grade, and there are all these raised expectations, and there’s no gap attention.

Bottomline, everybody is freaking out – teachers, students, and parents.

Last year was the first CC-aligned ELA and math tests. Everybody failed. They rolled out the test before any CC curriculum.

From the point of view of NYC teachers, this seems like a terrorizing regime, doesn’t it?

Yes, because the CC roll-out is rigidly tied to the tests, which are in turn rigidly tied to evaluations of teachers. So the teachers are worried they are automatically going to get a “failure” on that vector.

Another way of saying this is that, if teacher evaluations were taken out of the mix, we’d have a very different roll-out environment. But as it is, teachers are hugely anxious about the possibility that their kids might fail both the city and state tests, and that would give the teacher an automatic “failure” no matter how good their teacher observations are.

So if I’m a special ed teacher of a bunch of kids reading at 4th and 5th grade level even through they’re in 7th grade, I’m particularly worried with the introduction of the new and unknown CC-aligned tests.

So is that really what will happen? Will all these teachers get failing evaluation scores?

That’s the big question mark. I doubt it there will be massive failure though. I think given that the scores were so clustered in the middle/low muddle last year, they are going to add a curve and not allow so many students to fail.

So what you’re pointing out is that they can just redefine failure?

Exactly. It doesn’t actually make sense to fail everyone. Probably 75% of the kids got 2’s or 1’s out of a 4 point scale. What does failure mean when everyone fails? It just means the test was too hard, or that what the kids were being taught was not relevant to the test.

Let’s dig down to the the three topics. As far as you’ve heard from the teachers, what’s good and bad about CC?

My teachers are used to the CC. We’ve rolled out standards-based grading three years ago, so our math and ELA teachers were well adjusted, and our other subject teachers were familiar. The biggest change is what used to be 9th grade math is now expected of the 8th grade. And the biggest complaint I’ve heard is that it’s too much stuff – nobody can teach all that. But that’s always been true about every set of standards.

Did they get rid of anything?

Not sure, because I don’t know what the elementary level CC standards did. There was lots of shuffling in the middle school, and lots of emphasis on algebra and algebraic thinking. Maybe they moved data and stats to earlier grades.

So I believe that my teachers in particular were more prepared. In other schools, where teachers weren’t explicitly being asked to align themselves to standards, it was a huge shock. For them, it used to be solely about Regents, and also Regents exams are very predictable and consistent, so it was pretty smooth sailing.

Let’s move on to curriculum. You mentioned there is no CC-aligned curriculum in NY. I also heard NY state has recently come out against the CC, did you hear that?

Well what I heard is that they previously said they this year’s 9th graders (class of 2017) would be held accountable but now the class of 2022 will be. So they’ve shifted accountability to the future.

What does accountability mean in this context?

It means graduation requirements. You need to pass 5 Regents exams to graduate, and right now there are two versions of some of those exams: one CC-aligned, one old-school. The question is who has to pass the CC-aligned versions to graduate. Now the current 9th grade could take either the CC-aligned or “regular” Regents in math.

I’m going to ask my 9th grade students to take both so we can gather information, even though it means giving them 3 extra hours of tests. Most of my kids pass 2 Regents in 9th grade, 2 in 10th, and 3 in 11th, and then they’re supposed to be done. They only take those Regents tests in senior year that they didn’t pass earlier.

What are the good and bad things about testing?

What’s bad is how much time is lost, as we’ve already said. And also, it’s incredibly stressful. You and I went to school and we had one big college test that was stressful, namely the SAT. In terms of us finishing high school, that was it. For these kids it’s test, test, test, test. I don’t think it’s actually improved the quality of college students across the country. 20 years ago NY was the only one that had extra tests except California achievement tests, which I guess we sometimes took as well.

Another way to say it is that we did take some tests but it didn’t take 5 weeks.

And it wasn’t high stakes for the teacher!

Let’s go straight there: what are the good/bad things for the teachers with all these tests?

Well it definitely makes the teachers more accountable. Even teachers think this: there is a cadre of protected teachers in the city, and the principals didn’t want to take the time to get rid of them, so they’d excess them out of the schools, and they would stay in the system.

Now with testing it has become much more the principal’s responsibility to get rid of bad teachers. The number of floating teachers is going down.

How did they get rid of the floaters?

A lot of different ways. They made them go into the schools, take interviews, they made their quality of life not great, and a lot if them left or retired or found jobs. Principals took up the mantle as well, and they started to do due diligence.

Sounds like the incentive system for over-worked principals was wrong.

Yes, although the reason it became easier for the principals is because now we have data. So if you’re coming in as ineffective and I also have attendance data and observation data, I can add my observational data (subjective albeit rubric based) and do something.

If I may be more skeptical, it sounds like this data gathering was used as a weapon against teachers. There were probably lots of good teachers that have bad numbers attached to them that could get fired if someone wanted them to be fired.

Correct, except those good teachers generally have principals who protect them.

You could give everyone a bad number and then fire the people you want, right?

Correct.

Is that the goal?

Under Bloomberg it was.

Is there anything else you want to mention? 

I think testing needs to be dialed down but not disappear. Education is a bi-polar pendulum and it never stops in the middle. We’re on an extreme but let’s not get rid of everything. There is a place for testing.

Let’s get our CC standards, curriculum, and testing reasonable and college-aligned and let’s keep it reasonable. Let’s do it with standards across states and let’s make sure it makes sense.

Also, there are some new tests coming out, called PARCC assessments, that are adaptive tests aligned to the CC. They are supposed to replace Regents down the line and be national.

Here’s what bothers me about that. It’s even harder to investigate the experience of the student with adaptive tests.

I’m not sure there’s enough technology to actually do this anyway very soon. For example, we were given $10,000 for 500 student. That’s not going to go far unless it takes 2 weeks to administer the test. But we are investing in our technology this year. For example, I’m looking forward  to buying textbooks and get my updates pushed instead of having to buy new books every year.

Last question. They are redoing the SAT because rich kids are doing so much better. Are they just trying to get in on the test prep game? Because, here’s the thing, there’s no test that can’t be gamed that’s also easy to grade. It’s gotta depend on the letters and grades. We keep trying to shortcut that.

Listen, this is what I tell the kids. What’s going to matter to you is the letter of recommendation, so don’t be an jerk to your fellow students or to the teachers. Next, are you going to be able to meet the minimum requirements? That’s what the SAT is good for. It defines a lower bound.

Is it a good lower bound though?

Well, I define the lower bound as 1000 in total. My kids can target that. It’s a reasonable low bar.

To what extent do your students – mostly inner-city, black girls interested in math and science – suffer under the wholly gamed SAT system?

It serves to give them a point of self-reference with the rest of the country. You have to understand, they, like most kids in the nation, don’t have a conception of themselves outside of their own experience. The SAT serves that purpose. My kids, like many others, have the dream of Ivy League minus the understanding of where they actually stand.

So you’re saying their estimates of their chances are too high?

Yes, oftentimes. They are the big fish in a well-defined pond. At the very least, The SAT helps give them perspective.

Thanks so much for your time Kiri.

Upcoming talks

A few months ago I gave a talk entitled “Start Your Own Netflix” talk that was part of the MAA Distinguished Lecture Series, the slides for which are available here and a short video version here.

Today I’m planning to modify that talk so I can give a longer and more technical version of it on Friday morning at the Department of Mathematical Science of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where I’ve been invited to speak by Suzy Weekes.

In about a month I’m going to Berkeley for a week to give a so-called MSRI-Evans talk on Monday, February 24th, at 4pm, thanks to the kind invitation of Lauren Williams. I still haven’t decided whether to give a “The World Is Going To Hell” talk, which would be kind of the technical version of my book (and which I gave at Harvard’s IQSS recently), or whether I should give yet another version of the Netflix talk, which is cool and technical but not as doomsday. If you’re planning to attend please voice your opinion!

Finally, I’m hoping to join in a meeting of some manifestation of the Noetherian Ring while I’m at Berkeley. This is a women in math group that was started when I was an undergrad there, back in the middle ages, in something like 1992. It’s where I gave my first and second math talks and there was always free pizza. It really was a great example of how to create a supportive environment for collaborative math.

Categories: math, women in math

I’m already fat so I may as well be smart

I seem to be in a mood this week for provocative posts about body image and appearance (maybe this is what happens when I skip an Aunt Pythia column). Apologies to people who came for math talk.

I just wanted to mention something positive about the experience of being fat all my life, but especially as a school kid. Because just to be clear, this isn’t a phase. I’ve been pudgy since I was 2 weeks old. And overall it kind of works for me, and I’ll say why.

Namely, being a fat school kid meant that I was so uncool, so outside of normal social activity with boys and the like, that I was freed up to be as smart and as nerdy as I wanted, with very little stress about how that would “look”. You’re already fat, so why not be smart too? You’re not doing anything else, nobody’s paying attention to you, and there’s nothing to gossip about, so might as well join the math team.

It’s really a testament to both the pressure to be thin and the pressure to conform intellectually, i.e. not be a nerd, when you’re a young girl: they are both intense and super unpleasant. The happy truth is, one can be cover for the other. More than that, really: being fat (or “overweight” for people who are squeamish about the word “fat”) has opened up many doors that I honestly think would have, or at least could have, remained shut had I been more socially acceptable.

Going back to dress code at work for a moment: while people claim that corporate dress codes are meant to keep our minds off of sex, that is clearly a huge lie when it comes to many categories of women’s work clothes. Who are we kidding? The mere fact that many women wear high heels to work kind of says it all. And that’s fine, but let’s freaking acknowledge it.

On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to look sexy in a plus-sized suit (although not impossible), and the idea of high heels at work is just nuts. This ends up being a weirdly good thing for me, though: people take me more seriously because I have taken myself out of the sex game altogether – or at least the traditional sex game.

By the way, I’m not saying all fat women have the same perspective on it. I’m lucky enough to have figured out pretty early on how to separate other people’s projected feelings about my body from my own feelings. I am an observer of fat hatred, in other words. That doesn’t make me entirely insulated but it does give me one critical advantage: I have a lot of time on my hands to do stuff that I might otherwise spend fretting about my body.

It also might help partly explain why some girls get on the math team and others don’t. Being fat is something you don’t have control over (the continuing and damaging myth that each person does have control over it notwithstanding) but joining the math team is something you do have control over. And if you aren’t already excluded for some other reason (being fat is one but by no means the only way this could happen of course), you might not want to start that whole thing intentionally. Just a theory.

Categories: rant, women in math

On being a mom and a mathematician: interview by Lillian Pierce

This is a guest post by Lillian Pierce, who is currently a faculty member of the Hausdorff Center for Mathematics in Bonn, and will next year join the faculty at Duke University.

I’m a mathematician. I also happen to be a mother. I turned in my Ph.D. thesis one week before the due date of my first child, and defended it five weeks after she was born. Two and a half years into my postdoc years, I had my second child.

Now after a few years of practice, I can pretty much handle daily life as a young academic and a parent, at least most of the time, but it still seems like a startlingly strenuous existence compared to what I remember of life as just a young academic, not a parent.

Last year I was asked by the Association for Women in Mathematics to write a piece for the AWM Newsletter about my impressions of being a young mother and getting a mathematical career off the ground at the same time. I suggested that instead I interview a lot of other mathematical mothers, because it’s risky to present just one view as “the way” to tackle mathematics and motherhood.

Besides, what I really wanted to know was: how is everyone else doing this? I wanted to pick up some pointers.

I met Mathbabe about ten years ago when I was a visiting prospective graduate student and she was a postdoc. She made a deep impression on me at the time, and I am very happy that I now have the chance to interview her for the series Mathematics+Motherhood, and to now share with you our conversation.

LP: Tell me about your current work.

CO: I am a data scientist working at a small start-up. We’re trying to combine consulting engagements with a new vision for data science training and education and possibly some companies to spin off. In the meantime, we’re trying not to be creepy.

LP: That sounds like a good goal. And tell me a bit about your family.

CO: I have three kids. I got pregnant with my first son, who’s 13 now, soon after my PhD. Then I had a second child 2 years later, also while I was a postdoc. I also have a 4 year old, whom I had when I was working in finance.

LP: Did you have any notions or worries in advance about how the growth of your family would intersect with the growth of your career?

CO: I absolutely did worry about it, and I was right to worry about it, but I did not hesitate about whether to have children because it was just not a question to me about how I wanted my life to proceed. And I did not want to wait until I was tenured because I didn’t want to risk being infertile, which is a real risk. So for me it was not an option not to do it as a woman, forget as a mathematician.

LP: What was it like as a postdoc with two very young children?

CO: On the one hand I was hopeful about it, and on the other hand I was incredibly disappointed about it. The hopeful part was that the chair of my department was incredibly open to negotiating a maternity leave for postdocs, and it really was the best maternity policy that I knew about: a semester off of teaching for each baby and in total an extra year of the postdoc, since I had 2 babies. So I ended up with four years of postdoc, which was really quite generous on the one hand, but on the other hand it really didn’t matter at all. Not “not at all”—it mattered somewhat but it simply wasn’t enough to feel like I was actually competing with my contemporaries who didn’t have children. That’s on the one hand completely obvious and natural and it makes sense, because when you have small children you need to pay attention to them because they need you—and at the same time it was incredibly frustrating.

LP: It’s interesting because it’s not that you were saying “I won’t be able to compete with my contemporaries over the course of my life,” but more “I can’t compete right now.”

CO: Exactly, “I can’t compete right now” with postdocs without children. I realize—and this is not a new idea—that mathematics as a culture frontloads entirely into those 3 or 4 years after you get your PhD. Ultimately it’s not my fault, it’s not women’s fault, it’s the fault of the academic system.

LP: What metrics could departments use to be thinking more about future potential?

CO: I actually think it’s hard. It’s not just for women that it should change. It’s for the actual culture of mathematics. Essentially, the system is too rigid. And it’s not only women who get lost. The same thing that winnows the pool down right after getting a PhD—it’s a whittling process, to get rid of people, get rid of people, get rid of people until you only have the elite left—that process is incredibly punishing to women, but it’s also incredibly punishing to everybody. And moreover because of the way you get tenure and then stay in your field for the rest of your life, my feeling is that mathematics actually suffers. The reason I say this is because I work in industry now, which is a very different system, and people can reinvent themselves in a way that simply does not happen in mathematics.

LP: Do you think industry, in terms of the young career phase, gets it closer to “right” than academia currently does?

CO: Much closer to right. It’s a brutal place, don’t get me wrong, it’s brutal. I’m not saying it’s a perfect system by any stretch of the imagination. But the truth is in industry you can have a 3 year stint somewhere that is a mistake. Forget having kids, you can have a 3 year stint that was just a mistake for you. You can say “I had a bad boss and I left that place and I got a new job” and people will say “Ok.” They don’t care. One thing that I like about it is the ability to reinvent yourself. And I don’t think you see that in math. In math, your progress is charted by your publication record at a granular level. And if you’re up for tenure and there’s a 3 year gap where you didn’t publish, even if in the other years you published a lot, you still have to explain that gap. It’s like a moral responsibility to keep publishing all the time.

LP: How are you measured in industry?

CO: In industry it’s the question “what have you done for me,” and “what have you done for me lately.” It’s a shorter-term question, and there are good elements to that. One of the good elements is that as a woman you can have a baby or a couple babies and then you can pick up the slack, work your ass off, and you can be more productive after something happens. If someone gets sick, people lower their expectations for that person for some amount of time until they recover, and then expectations are higher. Mathematics by contrast has frontloaded all of the stress, especially for the elite institutions, into the 3 or 4 years to get the tenure track offer and then the next 6 years to get tenure. And then all the stress is gone. I understand why people with tenure like that. But ultimately I don’t think mathematics gets done better because of it. And certainly when the question arises “why don’t women stay in math,” I can answer that very easily: because it’s not a very good place for women, at least if they want kids.

LP: You mention on your blog that your mother is an unapologetic nerd and computer scientist; the conclusion you drew from that was that it was natural for you not to doubt that your contributions to nerd-dom and science and knowledge would be welcomed. How do you think this experience of having a mother like that inoculated you?

CO: One of the great gifts that my mother gave me as a Mother Nerd was the gift of privacy—in the sense that I did not scrutinize myself. First of all she was role-modeling something for me, so if I had any expectations it would be to be like my mom. But second of all she wasn’t asking me to think about that. I think that was one of the rarest things I had, the most unusual aspect of my upbringing as a girl. Very few of the girls that I know are not scrutinized. My mother was too busy to pay attention to my music or my art or my math. And I was left alone to decide what I wanted to do—it wasn’t about what I was good at or what other people thought of my progress. It was all about answering the question, what did I want to do. Privacy for me is having elbow space to self-define.

LP: Do you think it’s harder for parents to give that space to girls than to boys?

CO: Yes I do, I absolutely do. It’s harder and for some reason it’s not even thought about. My mother also gave me the gift of not feeling at all guilty about putting me into daycare. And that’s one of my strongest lessons, is that I don’t feel at all guilty about sending my kids to daycare. In fact I recently had the daycare providers for my 4-year-old all over for dinner, and I was telling them in all honesty that sometimes I wish I could be there too, that I could just stay there all day, because it’s just a wonderful place to be. I’m jealous of my kids. And that’s the best of all worlds. Instead of saying “oh my kid is in daycare all day, I feel bad about that,” it’s “my kid gets to go to daycare.”

LP: Where did this ability not to scrutinize come from? Where did your mother get this?

CO: I don’t know. My mother has never given me advice, she just doesn’t give advice. And when I ask her to, she says “you know more about your life than I do.”

LP: How do you deal with scrutiny now?

CO: It’s transformed as I’ve gotten older. I’ve gotten a thicker skin, partly from working in finance. I’ve gotten to the point now where I can appreciate good feedback and ignore negative feedback. And that’s a really nice place to be. But it started out, I believe, because I was raised in an environment where I wasn’t scrutinized. And I had that space to self-define.

LP: The idea of pushing back against scrutiny to clear space for self-definition is inspiring for adults as well.

CO: Women in math, especially with kids, give yourself a break. You’re under an immense amount of pressure, of scrutiny. You should think of it as being on the front lines, you’re a warrior! And if you’re exhausted, there’s a reason for it. Please go read Radhika Nagpal’s Scientific American blog post (“The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc Ever”) for tips on how to deal with the pressure. She’s awesome. And the last thing I want to say is that I never stopped loving math. Cardinal Rule Number 1: Before all else, don’t become bitter. Cardinal Rule Number 2: Remember that math is beautiful.

Categories: math, women in math

Survivorship bias for women in men’s fields

I like this essay written by Annie Gosfield, a self-described “composeress”, which is her word to mean a female composer. She finds it slightly absurd to be singled out for her femaleness. Her overall take on being a woman in a man’s world is refreshing, and resonates with me as a woman in math and technology.

From her essay:

I’ve never considered myself a “woman composer,” but I suspect that over the years being female has helped more than it’s hurt. Being a woman (and having high hair) has made me easier to recognize, easier to remember and has spared me from fitting into the generic description of a composer: “medium build, dark hair, glasses, beard.” I will admit to liking the invented honorific term “composeress.” (It sounds archaic, grand, and slightly ridiculous, just as a gender-specific title for a composer should.)

So, great for her, and wonderful that from her perspective she feels propelled rather than suffocated by her otherness status. To some extent I agree from my own experience.

But having said that, it doesn’t mean that other women, possibly many other women, haven’t been squeezed out, or have selected out, because of their female status. After all, we hear way more from the people who stay and “succeed”, which tends to give us massive survivorship bias.

Indeed, and to be nerdy and true to form, we can almost think about measuring the extent to which there is a weeding-out effect of women by asking the survivors the extent to which they identify as “women” versus the population at large. I think we’d find that the women who survive in nearly all-male environments have developed, or were born with, coping mechanisms which allow them to ignore their own otherness.

I know that was true of me – when I was in grad school at Harvard, I went through a distinct phase of wanting to wear men’s clothing, or at least gender neutral clothing – so jeans, t-shirts, leather shoes, never dresses – to be externally more consistent with how I felt inside. Not that I was sexually identified with men, but that I didn’t want to be seen as primarily feminine. Instead I wanted to be seen as primarily a mathematician.

Does it make me a freak, to wear men’s clothing and (sometimes) wish I could grow a beard? Possibly, although over time it’s changed, and nowadays I take pride in my femininity, and in fact I think much of my power emanates from it.

But it does give me pause when I hear successful women in men’s fields talking about how great it is to be a woman and how surprising all the attention is. We still seem to be contorting ourselves in an effort to not seem too womanly, and this makes me think it’s entirely un-coincidental, and possibly a crucial part of what allows us to succeed. Besides talent and hard work, of course. And I don’t think it’s undue attention at all – I think it’s just something we train ourselves not to consider because focusing on it too much could be paralyzing.

By the way, I’m not doing justice to Annie Gosfield’s essay, which you should read in its entirety and has nuanced things to say about otherness in the field of composing.

Categories: women in math
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