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Aunt Pythia’s advice

December 13, 2014

Aunt Pythia has something in the works for you dear people, but it’s not quite ready yet, and you’ll have to wait another week. Rest assured, it will be worth it. And apologies to mathbabe.org subscribers who received an errant test post this week.

In the meantime, Aunt Pythia is going to write a quick column today from a Montreal hotel room after an amazing workshop yesterday which she will comment on later in the week.

So quick, get some tea and some flannel-lined flannel, because damn it’s wintery outside, all snowy and shit. Aunt Pythia’s about to spew her usual unreasonable nonsense!

This week in Montreal. From http://montrealgazette.com/news/local-news/city-slickers-take-your-time-on-slippery-snowy-roads

From earlier this week in Montreal. 

LET’S DO THIS PEOPLES!!! And please, even if you’ve got nothing interesting to say for yourself, feel free to make something up or get inspired by Google auto complete and then go ahead and:

ask Aunt Pythia your question 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,

This may not really be an “Aunt Pythia” question. But could either you or Mathbabe comment on this article on sexism in academic science?

I can imagine many ways they could be misrepresenting the statistics, but I don’t know which.

No Bias, Really?

Dear No Bias,

I was also struck by the inflammatory tone and questionable conclusions of this article. But you know, controversy sells.

So, here are a couple of lines I’ll pull out. First:

Our country desperately needs more talented people in these fields; recruiting more women could address this issue. But the unwelcoming image of the sexist academy isn’t helping. Fortunately, as we have found in a thorough analysis of recent data on women in the academic workplace, it isn’t accurate, either.

And second:

Many of the common, negative depictions of the plight of academic women are based on experiences of older women and data from before the 2000s, and often before the 1990s. That’s not to say that mistreatment doesn’t still occur — but when it does, it is largely anecdotal, or else overgeneralized from small studies.

I guess right off the bat I’d ask, how are you collecting data? The data I have personally about sexist treatment at the hands of my colleagues hasn’t, to my knowledge, been put in any database. The sexist treatment I’ve witnessed for pretty much all of my female mathematics colleagues has, equally, never been installed in a database to my knowledge. So yeah, not convinced these people know what they are talking about. It’s famously hard to prove something doesn’t exist, especially when you don’t have a search algorithm.

One possibility for the data they seem to have: they interviewed people after the fact, perhaps decades after the fact. If that’s the case, then you’d expect more and better data on older women, and that’s what we are currently seeing. There is a lag on this data collection, in other words. That’s not the same as “it doesn’t exist.” A common mistake researchers make. They take the data as “objective truth” and forget that it’s a human process to collect it (or not collect it!). Think police shootings.

The article then goes on to talk about how the data for women in math and other science fields isn’t so bad in terms of retention, promotion, and other issues. For there I’d say, the women have already gone through a mighty selection process, so in general you’d expect them to be smarter than their colleagues, so in general their promotion rates should be higher, but they aren’t. So that’s also a sign of sexism.

I mean, whatever. That’s not actually what I claim is true, so much as another interpretation of this data. My overall point is that, they have some data, and they are making strong and somewhat outrageous claims which I can dismiss without much work.

I hope that helps!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

In his November “Launchings” column, David Bressoud has presents some interesting data on differences between male and female college calculus students. As much as I’ve appreciated all of Bressoud’s careful explorations of mathematics education, I find I’m a bit irritated by his title, “MAA Calculus Study: Women Are Different,” because it appears to take the male experience as the norm.

Perhaps I was already annoyed because of a NYTimes op-ed, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist”, in which Wendy Williams and Steven Ceci claim that “[w]e are not your father’s academy anymore,” and that the underrepresentation of women in math-intensive fields is “rooted in women’s earlier educational choices, and in women’s occupational and lifestyle preferences.” Here, too, the message seems to be “don’t worry about changing the academy — women are different from the norm, which is (naturally) that which works for men.”

My question for you, Aunt Pythia, is this: am I overreacting here?

I received my PhD in mathematics in 1984, and I’ve seen significant change for the better in the academy since then. Child care at AMS meetings? A crowd in the women’s rest room at same? Unthinkable when I started. But if women are still disproportionately “choosing” to go into other fields, might we look a little more closely at the environments in which girls and women are making their educational and “lifestyle” choices?

I welcome your thoughts. If you’re eager for more data analysis, I’d also love to hear your take on the paper by Williams, Ceci, and their colleagues.

Still One of the Underrepresented After All These Years


Without even reading that article, I can say without hesitation that yes, it’s a ridiculous title, and it’s infuriating and YOU ARE NOT OVERREACTING. To be clear, that is bold-faced, italicized, and all caps. I mean it.

The word “different” forces us to compare something to a baseline, and given that there is no baseline even mentioned, we are forced to guess at it, and that imposes the “man as default” mindset. Fuck that. I mean, if the title had been, “There are differences between male and female calculus students,” I would not have been annoyed, because even though “male” comes first, I’m not a stickler. I just want to acknowledge that if we mention one category, we mention the other as well.

To illustrate this a bit more, we don’t entitle a blog post “Whites are different” and leave it at that, because we’d be like, different from whom? From blacks? From Asians? From Asian-Americans? See how that works? You need to say different from some assumed baseline, and the assumed baseline has to be a cultural norm. And right now it’s white male. Which is arguable one reason that calculus students act differently when they are men (har!).

As for the other article, I already shit on that in the previous answer but I’m happy to do it once again. It’s bullshit, and I’m disappointed that the Times published it.

As for the article, I don’t have time now but I’ll take a look, thanks!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am twenty years old, near the halfway point in my senior year of a mathematics BS at a large, well-regarded public university in the Northeast. I’ve been aiming my energies at graduate school, and I am now looking at PhD program applications. Most apps ask for two or three letters of recommendation from a faculty member who is familiar with your work. This poses a very big problem, because all of my professors hate me.

Okay, maybe it’s not quite like that. But I’ve had a really lousy time in the math department at LWRPUN. My fellow students are dispassionate, unresponsive, and unfriendly. My professors are dry, uncommitted to their students, and the ones who aren’t mathematically incompetent are lousy teachers. On top of all this, a crippling bureaucracy has prevented me countless times from taking classes I’m interested in (few as they are in this catalog), substituting instead ANOTHER REQUIRED SEMESTER OF ANALYSIS.

So I haven’t made any personal connections of the sort that might benefit me in the form of a letter of rec. My work hasn’t even been that good; my depression and anxiety (in general as well as re all this) have increasingly prevented me from completing even easy homework assignments. Nobody here has seen my best mathematical work, and for that matter, nobody anywhere else has either*.

And for four years, everyone I’ve come to with this gathering creeping progressively life-eating concern has given me the same old BS about You should really put yourself out there! and It’s just so important to go to your professor’s office hours! without considering maybe — I’ve tried, I really have.

What can I do, Aunt Pythia? I’m really passionate about mathematics, but I’m worried I won’t be able to pursue my studies without these magic papers.

Reports Embargoed by Crummy Lecturers, Earnestly Seeking Solace

*I thankfully have a professor from an outside experience willing to write about my teaching credentials, but that one letter is surely not sufficient to show my potential as a graduate student and researcher.


I am afraid I will have to call bullshit on you, RECLESS. Plus your sign-off doesn’t actually spell anything.

Here’s the thing, there are no mathematically incompetent lecturers at large, well-regarded public universities. There are, in fact, mathematically very competent people who can’t get jobs at such places. Such is the pyramid-shaped job market of mathematics. So whereas I believe you when you say your lecturers have been uninspired, and uncommitted to their students, the fact that you added “mathematically incompetent” just makes me not believe you at all, in anything.

Here’s what I think is happening. You think you’re really into math, but you’ve never really understood your classes, nor have you understood that you’ve never understood your classes, because your self-image is that you’re already a mathematician, and that people have just not acknowledged your brilliance.

But that’s not how math actually works. Math is a social endeavor, where you have to communicate your ideas well enough for others to understand them, or else you aren’t doing math.

I’m not saying you haven’t had bad luck with teachers. It’s a real possibility. But there’s something else going on as well, and I don’t think you can honestly expect to go to the next level without sorting stuff out. In other words, even if you don’t love the teacher, if you loved the subject, got into it, and did the proofs, you’d still be getting adequate grades to ask for letters. The thing about writing letters, as a math prof, is that you don’t have to like the student personally to write a good letter, you just need to admire their skills. But since you can’t do that either, you won’t get good letters, and moreover I don’t think you’d deserve good letters. And therefore I don’t think you should go to grad school.

Suggestion: look carefully at your own behavior, figure out what it is you are doing that isn’t working. Maybe think of what you love about math, or about your own image of being a mathematician, and see if there’s something you really know you’re good at, and other people know it to, and develop that.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Dearest Aunt Pythia,

I have a sex question for you! Kind of. You have to get through the boring back story first…I’m a 19 year old female physics major. I’m quiet, rather mousy, and awkward. A lot of the time I feel like I have more to prove than the boys do, because I’m a girl, and because of the aforementioned shyness.

People seem to automatically assume I’m unintelligent. I think I’m just as intelligent as the boys in my program, but I don’t come off that way! Point is, I want to be this cool, strong, independent, successful, respectable girl who doesn’t take shit from misogynistic people who assume I’m inferior.

However, I feel extremely guilty about my sexual preferences. I’m pretty submissive. I’d like power exchange in my relationships…hair pulling, bondage, spanking, being bossed around, the whole bit. I like to be dominated by men. Older men. Smart older men. Hopefully I’ve successfully conveyed my dilemma. I want to be respected by the men (and women, and others) I’m surrounded by in my academic life, but taken control of as a girlfriend.

Why does what I despise happening to me in an academic setting please me so much in a romantic/sexual one? Agh, I feel like such a bad girl! (and not in the arousing way…)

Much Love,

Dear Conflicted,

This is such a relief – finally, a sex question! – and it’s honestly one of the best questions I’ve ever gotten, ever, in Aunt Pythia or elsewhere. I’m so glad I can answer this for you.

It is absolutely not in conflict to want something in a sexual context that is abhorrent to you in normal life. It is in fact a well-known pattern! You shouldn’t feel at all weird about it! Lots – LOTS – of the submissives I’ve met are, in their day jobs, the boss, literally. They have companies and are extremely fancy and in control. And then they love to be bossed around and spanked. Seriously. If anything, my feeling is that your sexual proclivities point to being alpha in real life, but maybe I’m going overboard.

So yeah, no problem here. You are killing it. And in 3 or 4 years I want you to write back and explain to me how you’ve found an amazing lover who gives you what you want in the bedroom and worships your physics prowess outside it. There will, in fact, be people lining up for this role.

And those people in your program? Do your best to ignore them. Men are just impossibly arrogant at that age, but time will humble them somewhat even as your confidence will rise as you learn more. I’m not saying it ever evens out entirely but it does improve.

Also: find other women (and super cool men) to study with. Surround yourself with supportive people. Take note of obnoxious people and avoid them. Trade up with friends whenever possible.

Love always,

Aunt Pythia


Well, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied! Please if you could, ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.

Click here for a form or just do it now:


  1. December 13, 2014 at 8:49 am

    To RECLESS: is this you final year (senior year is not always final year)? If it is not your final year, there may still be opportunities to make a connection with faculty in your department, or perhaps faculty in an REU. For instance, if you are at the stage of electives, you might consider asking a faculty member to lead an independent study course with you on some topic that is closer to your interests. Those courses often lead to a recommendation letter. Also, does your university offer a joint bachelors / masters degree in mathematics? Less common in the States (although growing in popularity), in many foreign universities it is common to pursue a masters degree before beginning a Ph.D. program in mathematics.


  2. Chris
    December 13, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Dear No Bias, Really?

    I looked at the article the NYTimes Op Ed was based upon and their own data does not seem to support their conclusions at least on the math and comp sci lines. http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/Women-Academic-Science.pdf?utm_source=nytimes&utm_medium=story&utm_campaign=pspitimes

    They have 20% of math/CS Phd to women in 2010. In 2005 they have recorded 25% of math/CS BA to women. So that is recording attrition. They also show a decrease of women in math/CS at the BA level in recent years.

    Finally they have no data about the status of women at various ranks of universities and colleges. The AMS has plenty of data about this pointing to women landing tenure at four year colleges at a higher proportion than at doctoral granting departments.

    Also note that they include psychology as a STEM field. The NSF has only listed psychology as a STEM field in the past few years. Even psych is seeing a decrease in percent of BAs in recent years according to their own data.

    I do agree that it is damaging to a field and discourages women to publish only bad news about pursuing a career in STEM. The exact same data could have been reported in a positive way without going so far as to claim no bias at all. They could have said there is less bias than before or that some fields are doing exceptionally well. Imagine a headline “Women making great strides in STEM. Lower levels of bias overall. Exceptional advances in Biology and Psychology”. Then we could celebrate. Instead the title is inflamatory and implies the women who have been complaining and publishing statistics about bias in STEM are either lying or doctoring their data.




  3. Min
    December 13, 2014 at 2:43 pm


    Galois thought that his examiners were idiots. Maybe he was right. 😉 And there are certainly lousy math instructors in well-regarded departments. OTOH, IMX I have found that most good mathematicians are open and receptive to people with ideas, even if they are not good classroom teachers. Do drop in on those whom you admire, during their office hours. Not to get a recommendation, but to ask questions and learn something. You do not even have to be in their classes.

    Also, to get a paper published in math you do not have to show any credentials. I know, I have done so. 🙂 If nothing else works, get some papers published and use your portfolio to get into a graduate program.

    Good luck!


  4. Auros
    December 13, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    Whoa. That FATML conference looks really nifty. Did anyone discuss the redistricting / gerrymandering problem? It’s long seemed to me that the best solution to gerrymandering is to come up with an algorithmic method either for cutting up districts, or at least for scoring district maps for their “fairness”. That way any partisan group that wants to argue over exactly what makes a map fair at least has to deal with the fact that most tricks they might want to pull that would let them eke out extra seats ina state where they have the majority, likely gives the same advantages to their opponents elsewhere. There’d probably still be some difficult areas (especially because of the way urban centers are not as uniformly liberals as rural areas are uniformly conservative), but it would be better. Having a “meta-algorithm” that could actually learn how to be “more fair” over time would be even cooler.


  5. Auros
    December 13, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    Conflicted might find that this book could help clarify her thinking about these issues: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0086QIBEC/


    • Auros
      December 13, 2014 at 3:13 pm

      Another good writer on this topic is Jillian Keenan.


  6. December 13, 2014 at 4:51 pm

    To “No Bias”: This is one of the better responses to the NYT piece (and to the article itself). My favorite quote (of many good ones), “I can certainly highlight their inability to align their own words with their own data, or even their own words with their other own words. Their editorial and their paper are riddled with self-contradictory observations and internal inconsistencies.”



  7. December 15, 2014 at 3:50 am

    The response to the Bressoud article seems potentially unfair. From the comment exchange on his post (from 4 november), he claims he did think about this issue for the title and chose it because he felt it emphasized that most calculus courses do have a gender bias. From here, there are several possibilities:
    (a) he is lying
    (b) he is telling the truth about his intention, but his extent of gender bias is so great and subtle that he still didn’t understand what he was saying
    (c) he is telling the truth about his intention, his implementation was overly subtle

    maybe there are more but, excluding possibility (a), it doesn’t appear that he intended to convey a message that calculus courses should assume male students as their baseline.

    On the NYT article, would they have gotten more clicks with an article Titled: “Academic Science: still pretty sexist” or the one they printed?


    • December 15, 2014 at 7:17 am

      I will go with b. People don’t usually mean to be sexist. Also for the other article.


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