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Aunt Pythia’s advice

December 21, 2013

Aunt Pythia had a late start today, because for some reason knowing she has two weeks of staying at home with the kids made her want to doze a bit longer.

But Aunt Pythia has not forgotten you! And she’s here to give you some pretty great questions and what she thinks are pretty great answers! She hopes you agree! And remember, as you enjoy today’s column:

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

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.

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’ve managed to achieve a modicum of notoriety in my career, which means I sometimes get interviewed. And in those interviews, I sometimes get asked questions which people who meet me in other professional and even most personal contexts don’t ask me, like, “Were you ever married” (“No”). “Were you ever asked/Did you ever think about it” (“No”).

Now the convention is for single women to at least profess an interest in being married, and not doing so reveals you to be seriously maladjusted. But honest answers to this line of questioning (or the related one, “Do you regret not having children?”) would reveal me to have seriously deviant attitudes and have the potential to undermine my hard-won professional credibility.

I regard this type of questioning as inappropriate, but somehow interviewers think it’s OK to probe the personal lives of women the way they never would men. Do you have any suggestions as to how to politely tell them this is off limits?

Nina from Argentina

Dear Nina,

By some amazing coincidence – or possibly not – this question came up recently in a Bloomberg article about Swedish CEO and “Banker of the Year” Annika Falkengren. In her case it was questions about what kind of mom she could possibly be considering her very busy job. From the article:

Gender bias is still a hurdle for women trying to reach the top, Falkengren said. Her own encounters with sexism came from unexpected places: When she became CEO with a baby at home, she said, reporters repeatedly asked how often she took her daughter to daycare and how much time she had for traditional mothering.

When Lars Nyberg, the former CEO of phone company TeliaSonera AB “had two kids below the age of 2, he was never asked that question,” Falkengren said. “I was still getting that question when my daughter was 8.” Former Volvo AB CEO Leif Johansson “was running Volvo with five kids, and he never got the question.”

Next, I wanted to mention this BBC article which describes how the new German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen was hyper-sexualized, depicted as a Lara Croft-type character on a German TV station.

Finally, take a look at this Wall Street Journal article on the reactions men have to the presence of women. Turns out when they are in a war-mongering environment they get more so, and when they’re in a peace-loving environment they perform exaggerated good deeds. And women, in the presence of men, don’t change their behavior.

My conclusions from the above as well as my personal experience in a “man’s world”:

  1. Some men are deeply threatened by women and want to put them into one of two boxes: sex object or mother.
  2. If you are neither it makes them very confused. They want that confusion to be your problem, not theirs.
  3. In general people want to make it your problem to explain your deviance from “normal”.
  4. In general it’s the people who deviate from normal that make life worth living. Abnormal people should be celebrated, not reprimanded.

In terms of advice for you, I’d try to turn it back on them (“them” refers to anyone asking you this kind of thing, not just journalists). This can be done with various levels of aggression and activism. If you’re really annoyed, ask the interviewer how often they’ve asked a male scientist that question. And then wait for an answer. If you’re feeling less aggressive, mention that many mathematicians you know don’t get married. In other words, make it deliberately ungendered. Also consider asking why they chose that question for you. Make them aware of how inappropriate it is.

In general, though, keep in mind that you don’t have to be polite with journalists. They have super thick skins. And don’t forget the magic phrase, “this is off the record”. It’s totally fine to respond with, “this is off the record, but your question is totally inappropriate and I won’t agree to finish this interview until you agree to remove it from this interview.” You can be sure that they’ve heard worse.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m a CS Babe that tends to end up involved with men who are also into some kind of technical nerdery. While they know how to stimulate me intellectually, they tend to lack expertise physically. I like to think of myself as having a healthy and full social life, and that’s involved a pretty good amount of sex with a number of different partners and situations.

Most of the men I end up with, however, have a lot less experience than me. I think they’ve mostly watched a lot of porn, and while they probably recognize that real life sex isn’t like that, they still have that as kind of a baseline model for a sexual encounter. They want to give me a satisfying experience, but that can be hard to do. Eventually, the fact that I’m not getting off eclipses any amount of interest I have in a guy. I’ve tried dating men where our physical compatibility outweighs our capability for interesting conversation, but that ends in frustration too.

I don’t mind helping them out and trying to teach them what I want, but I’m looking for an equal partner when it comes to sex, not a pupil. Do you have recommendations to help me get what I want from less-experienced partners without feeling like I’m TA-ing Orgasms 101? Any ideas of how to seek out and identify people that I can click on multiple levels with- or should I just find someone I like intellectually and invest my time into developing his sex skills?


Sex Life: Unending Training

Dear SLUT,

I’m going to go with the latter. Find an awesome guy and teach him how to pleasure you. Do it super deliberately and honestly, and really really often, and within about two weeks you will be getting seriously good sex if the guy is a diligent student. Who knows, you might be with that guy for a long time, and it’ll be worth the investment. In any case you’ll be improving the world for other future nerd girls.

The key point here is, if you’re going to be a TA, then you might as well make that explicit. Don’t pretend, ever, to enjoy something that isn’t actually good. Bad sexual habits can be learned within nanoseconds when it comes to inexperienced and insecure men. And then, once learned, they are much harder to break, because it immediately becomes a matter of ego. This requires you being super encouraging with all the requisite grunts and groans, so get used to doing that.

And if you want to go easy on the guy in becoming his sex teacher, then tell him you’ve got a special kind of clitoris, or something, and make it seem totally OK that he doesn’t know how to deal with this special thing. And then tell him exactly what to do.

Also, don’t forget to tell him how to talk dirty. I’m sure there must be some kind of online resource you can find that will give him advice on this front. In fact, after googling for one second I found a billion places he could go.

One last thing. It’s not clear that any man actually knows what they’re doing, so count your blessings that you get to start from scratch and get it right. It actually might be worse to start with someone who is 80% good and who thinks they don’t need any tutoring (but if you do find yourself in that situation, don’t forget the “special clitoris” approach).

Good luck, and may all of your students be bright!

Auntie P


Dearest Aunt Pythia,

I am studying algebra, specifically algebraic number theory, and my friends try really hard to be supportive of my work. But our conversations always go something like this:

Friend: What are you working on now?
Me: Investigating abelian extensions in generalized Dedekind domains (or whatever other really nerdy part of algebra I’m thinking about that day).
Friend: Is that more algebra?
Me: Yeah.
Friend: Didn’t I take algebra in like, 9th grade?

I understand my work is not very accessible to most non-math people, but do you have suggestions for fun/creative ways of describing abstract algebra versus high school “algebra”?

Friendly Algebraist Nerd (of you!)

Dear FAN,

Just say, yes, it’s the same field. But whereas in high school we learn how to think about abstracting away numbers to become variables, in my field we build up interesting structures with sets of abstract variables and see what kind of patterns we can detect. For example, we all know about addition on integers or real numbers, but it turns out that you can create sets of abstract things that have an “addition law”. They’re called “groups” and sometimes the sets are finite, like with clock arithmetic, and sometimes they pop out of nowhere, like the points on an elliptic curve. Oh and by the way, you can think of an elliptic curve topologically as a donut with sprinkles, and you’ve chosen one of those sprinkles as the “0” of the addition law.

Anyway, if you start with something like that you might end up with a new algebra fan. Or at least someone who kind of gets how algebra is both like high school algebra and much much cooler.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


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

Categories: Aunt Pythia
  1. December 21, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Wait, FAN, if you do algebraic number theory, why aren’t you talking to your friends about cryptography? I pull this out whenever people ask me how my own work relates to real-world questions, and I’m in *mirror symmetry*.


  2. Christina Sormani
    December 21, 2013 at 12:00 pm

    I am really impressed with the answers given here. But I want to add one thing to the first response about interviews including questions about children and spouses. I regularly meet with young women pursuing academic careers in mathematics and everyone is being asked this question even in the United States even in states where this is an illegal question (its not an illegal question in Right to Work States). Regardless of whether it is illegal, it is difficult to bring up legalities at an interview. I’ve asked senior people (men and women) why they ask this question. Asking about the spouse is supposedly because they want to help the spouse find a job (although I see no reason why this help has to come before they have even decided to hire the woman and I see no reason why women are asked this rather than men). Its pretty clear that a good answer is to say either no spouse, or an easily relocatable spouse who has a flexible career, or that your spouse is an amazingly good mathematician that the department would be eager to hire. If this isn’t the answer, being vague in the response and leading them to jump to the conclusion that the souse has no difficulty relocating might work well. “My husband does not envision difficulty finding a job near here.”

    Next the question about children or even pregnancy… again the answer they seem to want is that you don’t have children, don’t plan to have them soon, or that the kids are older and easily relocatable. I thought kids just being older (as in teenagers) would be enough but this question is then followed by whether they can leave high school or not. Incidentally mathematicians who are in states where these questions are illegal seem to feel no regrets about having a member of the faculty ask these questions outside of an interview setting. It has become a regular question asked of me at conferences after I give a good talk. Here’s a typical conversation: “Are you happy at your current job?” “Yes but I would consider other tenured positions especially one with more support for research.” “How old are your kids now?” Of course they all know I have kids because it is a small world and they all saw me bringing the kids along when they were babies over a decade ago I’m somewhat at a loss as to what to say. I’ve tried a few different answers (all including the fact that they are teenagers) but the conversations usually stop there. I’m hoping the answer “they are in college now” will finally be the right one since I can give that answer soon. Does anyone else have ideas about responding to these questions in a way which will actually land a job?


    • Michelle
      December 22, 2013 at 3:57 am

      I actually called my intviewers out on the illegality of the question. Repeatedly. I got the offer, but turned it down. Seriously, if you let them know that you know they’ve just broken they law, aren’t you now in the power position? Why wouldn’t you call it out?

      It’s different (and a lot more difficult) when it’s not an actual official interview, though…


      • December 22, 2013 at 2:19 pm

        I got this question only once (through being male, perhaps), called them out (mostly out of surprise), and got the job.


  3. DS
    December 21, 2013 at 4:31 pm

    One comment (trivial relative to Christina’s): I was given a bit of media training before a university event where press was going to be present, and one of the things they stressed is that “this is off the record” is an agreement between the journalist and the source. So if you just blurt out “This is off the record, but [X]”, then X was totally on the record. Instead you have to ask: “Can I say something to you off the record?” and get assent from the reporter first.


  1. February 1, 2014 at 8:56 am
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