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Aunt Pythia’s advice

April 13, 2013

A couple of sad updates on Aunt Pythia.

First, someone hacked my Aunt Pythia spreadsheet and added hundreds of bizarre and offensive questions (at least they seemed intended to offend, but luckily Aunt Pythia doesn’t offend easily), which I then erased in huge blocks. This means if you actually had a valid question in the last week it has been, sadly, removed.

Second, possibly because of all the removed stuff, Aunt Pythia has no smutty sex questions to answer and has resorted to answering sober and serious leftover questions. But don’t fear! Aunt Pythia will do her best to sex up the answers anyway.

If you don’t know what you’re in for, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia. Most importantly,

Please submit your smutty sex (or otherwise) questions at the bottom of this column!


Aunt Pythia,

What do you think of Sheryl Sandberg and Malissa Mayer as role models/advice givers to young women? I ask you because I am confident you will give a measured response, not the reflexively pro or reflexively con reactions they seem to get.

Female enduring mostly masculine explanations

Dear Femme,

I’m going to preface my remarks by admitting I still haven’t read Sandberg’s book. But I have read enough reviews to get a feeling for what she’s going for. I have a bunch of comments:

  • Do women sometimes undermine themselves by not going for things whole-heartedly and holding back? Yes, yes they do. So do men, of course. There are lots of people in this world who have missed opportunities by not giving things a real chance. Maybe this happens more often for women – I’d not be too surprised to hear that (but I also think I have an explanation, see below).
  • On the other hand, I fundamentally question how bad we should feel when highly educated women choose not to try for a promotion that will require them to travel half the time and work 80 hours a week. Why would someone want that lifestyle? Why would that be their route to happiness? This is a death bed consideration, and if you ask me I’d rather not have death bed regrets about missing out on all of my personal interests, hobbies, adventures, friends, and family because I was so sure that promotion was important.
  • In fact, I think highly educated women like Mayer and Sandberg, and myself for that matter, are luckier than the men they compete with. The truth is women actually have more options than men because society’s expectations are so much narrower for men. Want to leave the corporate scene after your second kid and start writing children’s books? Ok fine. That would be really weird for a man to do.
  • In fact, where are the academic papers which assume that women leave the rat race by choice, to maximize their utility functions? Why don’t we assume that women have different options than men and that the fact that only 15% of women run large companies is a result of most qualified women deciding “I’d rather not, thank you”? I’m not saying that’s the only underlying effect but I honestly think it’s part of it. Plus, if we looked at it that way then the culture inside the corporation could be analysed a bit more, and we might start to understand what’s so unappealing about it. If we made it more appealing to women, they might decide to stay longer.
  • Or for that matter, that women have different utility functions altogether, and that they leave the rat-race or stay in a job which doesn’t require 80 hours a week because they are (locally) maximizing their utility?
  • It wouldn’t surprise me, if such a study were done, to figure out that (highly educated) women are actually happier than (highly educated) men in general, at least the women who have quality daycare.

In other words, I get some of their advice but I question their narrow perspective and narrow definition of success.

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m almost finished with my masters in pure math. But now I’m doubting about becoming a high school teacher or do something in companies. I like children and I dislike most aspects of corporate culture, but the burn out rate for teachers is very high. Can you give me pros and cons about either career path?


Dear D,

It’s a tough time for teachers out there. Read this resignation letter (h/t Chris Wiggins) if you haven’t already. An excerpt:

With regard to my profession, I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that  “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” This type of total immersion is what I have always referred to as teaching “heavy,” working hard, spending time, researching, attending to details and never feeling satisfied that I knew enough on any topic. I now find that this approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. STEM rules the day and “data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education and particularly not at Westhill.

On the other hand, there’s definitely a severe need for good math teachers. So I don’t want to utterly discourage you. One possibility is to try out teaching for a couple of years and then decide whether to stick with it or not (although the learning curve for teaching is steep, so keep in mind it gets easier over time). Have you talked to people at Math for America?

Also, do some research about where you want to teach, and make sure you land in a school which values their teachers and gives lots of clear feedback and doesn’t just submit blindly to the testing borg. Talk to the principal about that stuff beforehand.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Aunt P,

My wife and I have been enjoying a politico/sci-fi drama called Continuum, which features model and actress Rachel Nichols, a Columbia University grad with a double major in math and economics. What’s more, the show has serious undertones implying the Occupy movement is spot-on. Now I have this fantasy of a series of action movies centered around a demure blogger by day and a sexy fighter for the people by night who uses her succubi powers to enervate and destroy evil banksters. Isn’t this something we should get on Kickstarter right away?

Distinguished Opinion Maker

Dear DOM,

I haven’t seen the show, but I dig the idea of a superhero blogger, bien sûr!

Just one quibble about the use of “succubi” though:

succubi  plural of suc·cu·bus

A female demon believed to have sexual intercourse with sleeping men.

Are you suggesting that the main character flies around at night sleeping with banksters for the good of society (note I threw in the ability to fly because that’s what awesome superheroes do)? I’m a bit confused on that point, because I don’t think it makes for good TV. Not to mention I’m not sure how that shows the banksters the error of their ways. Here’s the image I found when I google image searched “banksters”:


I mean they’re healthy enough but I’m not sure they’re porn star material. It’s all about taste though. Whatever floats your boat.

Tell me if and when you’ve started the Kickstarter campaign, please! I want to keep tabs on how much money people will contribute towards this fetching concept.

Auntie P


Aunt Pythia,

I’m defending my dissertation soon! Woohoo! I’m curious to know what Aunt Pythia thinks about the following things: (a) board vs. slide talk, (b) how to pitch a talk about your research to mathematicians who aren’t specialists in your field, and (c) what to wear. It seems to me like (c) can’t possibly be separated from the issue of gender, so let’s pretend I’m female. (The underlying question is: how do I impress a room full of people in 40 minutes without spewing jargon or dressing like PhD Barbie?)

Nervous in Nebraska

Dear NiN,

This one’s easy. The answer is that it doesn’t matter one bit because we all know this is a formality and you’re all done! You’re getting your degree! YEAH!! Congratulations.

If I were you I’d wear something bright and celebratory, like the peacock you must feel yourself to be. And I’d say slide so you don’t get your bright clothes chalky.


Aunt Pythia


Please please please submit questions!

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. JSE
    April 13, 2013 at 9:13 am

    “I fundamentally question how bad we should feel when highly educated women choose not to try for a promotion that will require them to travel half the time and work 80 hours a week.” I think the point is not (or not primarily) about that kind of job, which is very rare and available to only a very few people even among the highly educated.

    Rather one is to feel bad when women choose not to ask for a promotion that would give them more money, power, and responsibility without extra hours. Or or to say “Task X is time-consuming and doesn’t achieve my goals so somebody other than me is going to do it.”

    I have more to say about this but have to run!


  2. kt
    April 13, 2013 at 9:57 am

    What to wear:

    * won’t show you sweat
    * passes the “reach test” when you do have to write something on the board
    * otherwise whatever you want 🙂

    Slides. They give a good crutch when you forget something.

    First 5 minutes full of math history: what’s your field, who has thought about your stuff through history, why do those other mathematicians care mathematically, why your stuff is cool. A thesis defense is gonna be technical, so don’t shy away from that in the end (it’s not a colloquium).


  3. D.O.M.
    April 13, 2013 at 10:18 am

    Remember what happened to Nelson Rockefeller? That’s what our heroine would be doing to the banksters. Of course, for soft-core TV purposes they would be Chris Noth types…


  4. SamChevre
    April 17, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    In fact, where are the academic papers which assume that women leave the rat race by choice

    Dr. Kelly Chaston’s papers would be a good place to start. (Kelly Ann Chaston Ameri, but Dr Chaston.) She was one of my professors and I know this was one of her research areas, and that was her basic conclusion. (I don’t have academic journal access, and she died of cancer so I don’t have a faculty page to point to.)


    • April 17, 2013 at 1:36 pm

      ooh! gimme a link!


      • SamChevre
        April 17, 2013 at 2:29 pm

        Unfortunately, I don’t have a link–since her teacher page is not up, and I don’t have access to JSTOR/Lexis-Nexis. If you have access to a an academic library, or Nexis, searching for “Chaston economcis gender” will proably get you some cites. (I remember talking with her about it, and taking a class in which she taught about it, but I didn’t read the papers then.)


  5. Dr. Bitboy
    April 24, 2013 at 8:24 am

    ‘STEM rules the day and “data driven” education [followed by lament about lack of creativity in schools]’

    If I were in charge of math education, it would start with counting, then addition and multiplication tables, rote learning, and continue in that vein with no one advancing to the next step without mastery of the previous. Here’s why:

    I was in a retail store during a power outage, so the cash register was not available, and Iwatched an ad hoc, 3-person teen/young adult cashier committee discuss – at length – how to calculate the 8% sales tax for my purchase

    [Sidebar: double thrice and shift two decimal places. Trivial to someone with a fundamental understanding of addition, multiplication and proportion; but apparently that understanding is rare. All math is based on a single basic operation: counting; start there and work your way up.]

    You cannot be creative if you don’t have the fundamental skills. You can’t spot the charlatans if you don’t have the fundamental skills (a later mathbabe blog post laments scientists collaborating with mathematicians without adequate understanding of their contribution).

    My STEM/Chemical Engineering background has taken me from refineries to programming TV broadcasting to collecting and interpreting vacuum telemetry in dairy barns to analyzing trajectories, uplinks and downlinked data for inter-planetary spacecraft. But it all started with a solid base in addition and multiplication tables; those little historical sidebars in the textbook about Euclid and Euler, and application elsewhere in life, took care of the creativity.

    Dare I wonder if those three incompetent cashiers were at some point done a huge disservice by being encouraged to boost, without any rational basis, their self-esteem in math?

    I’m not saying everyone is going to be an Isaac Newton, but it would be nice if they were not intimidated every month when it comes time to balance their checkbook.


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