Home > women in math > Survivorship bias for women in men’s fields

Survivorship bias for women in men’s fields

August 8, 2013

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
  1. rob
    August 8, 2013 at 11:15 am

    “take pride in my femininity” What is “feminity”?


    • August 8, 2013 at 11:39 am

      wait, what?


      • rob
        August 8, 2013 at 11:50 am

        Sorry, “femininity.” I was asking…


  2. Tara
    August 8, 2013 at 11:46 am

    I also dressed in a very masculine way for most of grad school (except for the foofy skirts when square dancing). So much so that when I was visiting a friend, she had her lesbian neighbors to dinner, and apparently when I was in the bathroom, they started quizzing her on my obvious lesbian tendencies. She had to work hard to convince them that I was not in fact a lesbian, that I was just a mathematician. 🙂


  3. Josie
    August 8, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    I, too, dressed very gender-neutral in grad school and early on in my career. I also play sports, like ice hockey. For a while, I went so far as to follow pro sports just so that I participate in the water-cooler discussions. There were a lot of guys who were greatly put at ease to know that they could treat me “like one of the guys”, and I think that helped develop a working relationship. However, my otherness definitely also helped. People I met at conferences always remembered me. Now that I older and more secure in my abilities, I feel like I can dress more femininely (though still very professionally), yet still be seen as an expert in my field. I really do think that girly-girls (especially when they are young) have a very hard time being taken seriously in male-domainated fields.


  4. Savanarola
    August 9, 2013 at 6:15 am

    I’ve been thinking, actually, about what helped me survive in a male-dominated field for as long as I did. I think in part it was being from the South, where women are allowed/expected to be feminine, even if they are tearing you limb from limb in a competitive environment. My female nature got me in the end, however: I had three kids, and when the third one turned up with serious health problems, I couldn’t – simply couldn’t – do both the uberjob and the home front. There are really only so many conference calls you can take from the hospital lobby. But my husband? Certainly didn’t feel compelled to be in that hospital room. We’re not avatars of humanity, of course, we’re individual people who made individual choices for circumstances we didn’t especially expect to have.

    But I do find it interesting that we have to ascribe female success to something. I wish it were so common as to be self-evident.


  5. August 10, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    An eye-opener for me was VIDA’s showing that the higher you go in high culture, the fewer the women (cf http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/05/29/essay-vida-count-and-gender-balance-book-reviewing ). I understand the historical contingency and the conservative tendency (manning the canons) and all but, really

    similarly but differently
    (and pendantly Gillian Tett in FT:


  1. No trackbacks yet.
Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: