Home > Uncategorized > Aunt Pythia’s advice

Aunt Pythia’s advice

October 10, 2015

Readers, today I’m celebrating hair.

I think people under-appreciate hair, especially in this climate of shaving everywhere and everything, and I think we need a good old 1970’s style comeback of hair. Big hair, bushy hair, facial hair, leg hair, pubes, and armpit hair. This guy knows what I’m talking about:

Holy crap that's creative.

Holy crap that’s creative.


If you’re still in doubt, read this and get back to me. I thought so.

OK, now that we’re all in hair agreement, it’s time for really terrible advice from yours truly. Please enjoy! And afterwards, please:

ask Aunt Pythia any question at all 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,

Is it perverse that one of my initial reactions to something bad happening in my life was “this ought to make good Aunt Pythia material”?!

To set the scene, I’m a young female maths PhD student, who attended a graduate school/conference a few months ago. Initially I didn’t know anyone at this conference (it was the wrong side of the atlantic) so it was great to find lots of really cool people to talk to. In particular I talked a couple of postdocs, whose research directly connects with mine. One of them, “Smith”, sent me preprint, which I exitedly read over the weekend (it was a 2 week event).

Aunt Pythia, is it wrong that our conversations at these events are not just mathematical?

Smith started paying me too much attention. Well, there are lots of other people at this conference so I can just talk to other people (I accept evasion was rather weak of me). Then during a break between lectures, in which I had elected to get on with work, he proceeded to ask me on a date. The humiliation was not even private, there were many other people remaining quietly in the room like myself.

This deeply upset me. I still like to think of myself as a serious mathematician sometimes, and so the rude awakening from my naive collaboration ambitions may account for much of that pain. Or perhaps it was the way he seemed so sure of a yes, or his remark “I can concentrate on the lectures now”.

I thought of several defiant responses to give to his question, but, alas, only hours later. My parting remark to him was “never do that to someone again”. He was misguided and somewhat upset too… I don’t think he will embarrass himself like that again anyway.

Aunt Pythia, I still can’t move on from this. I still feel the injustice when I think of it. How can I move on? Am I making too much of this?? I feel like I really want people to understand why this was upsetting for me.

Moreover, I wonder at my responsibility in this. There have been other situations in which I felt I may have won more favour than I deserved perhaps by being the female. Am I obligated to be sensitive to this bias, and reduce my level of warmth ‘just in case’? Smith is giving a seminar to my group in the near future. I’m not sure how I should behave around him, hence why moving on would be really great…

Woman not at a bar

Dear Woman,

First of all, I appreciate that certain situations are “Aunt Pythia material.” That is in fact a goal of mine, which I can now check off as “achieved.”

Second of all, I’m not really sure I understand why you are so upset. And I’m sorry for that, because as you stated, it’s important to you that other people understand this point. I am going to make some guesses because I think if I miss it, my advice will probably be totally useless. Here I go:

  1. You wish he had asked you in private, because it’s just a private matter and asking you in public put you on the spot too much.
  2. You hate him for acting like he was definitely going to get a “yes” from you, because it made you look and feel like you should be grateful for the attention and flattery, which you are not.
  3. You think questions of romance in the context of mathematical conferences degrade you as a mathematician, and you want to keep the two things absolutely separate.
  4. You think that his romantic attention, in front of other people, made them think he wasn’t taking you seriously as a mathematician, but only as a romantic or sexual interest, which might possibly make them also not take you seriously as a mathematician.

Now, just as an exercise, I want to imagine what this guy’s perspective on the whole thing was. Various versions as well:

  1. He met this amazing, brilliant math nerd and he thought things were going really well – they were talking about all kinds of things, not just math – but when he asked her on a proper date, she got really mad and told him never to “do that” to someone again, which confused him. Do what? He ended up sad.
  2. He met this amazing, brilliant math nerd and he thought things were going really well – they were talking about all kinds of things, not just math – but when he asked her on a proper date, she got really mad and told him never to “do that” to someone again. After thinking about it a while, he realized that he had put her on the spot and hadn’t judged the situation properly. He wants to apologize to her and remain friends (and he still has a crush on her, but whatever) but he’s not sure how to do it. He vows to be more careful and more private in the future.
  3. He met this amazing, brilliant math nerd and was really into other people seeing him score with her, so he asked her out in front of them, but it didn’t work out because she was onto him and called him out on it. He’s going to have to revise his plan in the future.
  4. He pretended to be interested in a female mathematician’s work so he could get down her pants. Plan failed with that one but he moved on to the next in line.

OK, so I am not sure which scenario you think this guy fits into – if any – but personal guess, bases on what I know, is he’s a #1. The thing about men (and women) is that nobody knows what they’re doing, but mostly they’re not trying to be bad people.

I’m not saying there aren’t people like #4, but I don’t want to assume anyone, ever, is actually like that unless I have really large piles of evidence. So I am advising you to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was just crushing out on you and had no idea that you’d be uncomfortable with the situation.

I also don’t see why you can’t collaborate with this guy. Honestly. Having a crush on you is his problem, not yours. I’d even say that crushing out on your collaborators might help the work. Certainly keeps it interesting, and it doesn’t have to lead anywhere or even mean anything. Honestly I don’t know if I can work with someone without developing something of a crush on them.

I don’t actually think we can separate our mathematical selves from our self selves, and sexual/romantic parts of us emerge no matter how hard we try to restrict them. That’s not to say the guy should have put you on the spot – I agree with you that it was an awkward if not somewhat hostile move – but I don’t think it makes sense to assume that working on math with someone isn’t an intimate thing to do.

In any case, if and when this happens again, feel free to have a response memorized along the lines of, “I really don’t want to date people within my field, it’s just not my style. But thanks anyway.” That way it’s not about them, and the answer is final.

The one thing I feel I should object to is the use of “injustice.” I think that’s going too far. The guy didn’t impugn your honor, integrity, or mathematical talent. He simply asked you out in the wrong time and place. Put it this way: you’re going to need a thicker skin to be a woman warrior in mathematics. Sad but true. Save the word “injustice” for when it’s really needed.

Here’s my advice about his upcoming visit. Go to his seminar, ask really good questions. Be a mathematician. Be warm because that’s who you are. Be attractive because that’s who you are. Don’t worry about people being falsely attracted to you because it’s real. And it’s not anyone’s fault and it’s actually awesome. Oh, and everyone has it to some extent, tall men especially, and they don’t feel weird about the attention they receive. Feel free to turn your attention to others when someone is being weird.

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Dear AP,

In my youth, I really enjoyed hagiographic and/or fictionalized biographies like Men of Mathematics and the Feynman autobiographies. Now, when I think of giving them to my own children…there are a lot of values I don’t want them to pick up. But also ones I do.

My Own Curious Karacter

Dear MOCK,

I think of myself as someone who doesn’t idolize or hero-worship anyone, at any time. Not to say I don’t have role models, I do, but only in limited ways. Nobody’s a saint, everyone has flaws, Erdos asked my mom to fix his buttons because she’s a woman and he treated women like servants, blah blah blah. I’ve always been like this.

Or have I? Now that you mention it, maybe I became like this from all the fucking mathematical hagiographies of dead white men that were so unlike me that I simply turned it off inside me in order to be able to imagine myself as a successful mathematician.

And it continues (turns out I have a rant about this, who knew)! Every time I turn on NPR, it seems like, I am hearing yet another piece about the genius mind of a mathematician – always a man – and how mysterious and how fucking genius it is. When is NPR going to realize that mathematicians are just people who like puzzles?

Fuck that idolatry. I would never give my kids that crap to read.

Aunt Pythia

p.s. what I do like is mathematical ideas. And I don’t really care if there’s a name attached to them, I think of those names as labels.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Recognize anyone you know among the Ashley Madison customer list?

But seriously… who is morally culpable for the damaged marriages that will result? I’ll make it multiple choice:

  1. the cheaters,
  2. Ashley Madison,
  3. the hackers who stole and released the raw data,
  4. the people who processed the raw data to make it searchable,
  5. the people who searched through the data,
  6. write in your own answer.

Ashley Madison Is Simple A Disaster


Is this a moral issue? I’m not sure. I mean, call me nuts, but it seems to me that nobody is being forced to ruin their marriage over this stuff. There are all sorts of reasons I can think of not to ruin your marriage in fact, including:

  1. not looking at the data,
  2. not caring what you find in the data even if you look,
  3. caring what you find but realizing that maybe your marriage needs more communication, and maybe even different ground rules, rather than a divorce. Hell, it could help.

I mean, right? I figure many of the marriages that are going to be “ruined” because of Ashley Madison were kind of sucky anyway. Personally, I’m going with #1.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

This article, entitled Passions Supplant Reason in Dialogue on Women in Science, was interesting and I wanted to get your take.


Dear K,

It was kind of TL;DR for me, but I’ll pull out the most salient issue. Namely, there was an empirical study that women in science are favored in certain conditions for tenure-track hires. The push-back on this study was enormous, with a bunch of people calling it unscientific etc. etc.

So, here’s the thing. We don’t suspect that sexism is gone from science. We don’t suspect that girls are equally nurtured as budding scientists. We don’t see women getting hired as tenured professors at top colleges.

What we might see is better practices at one spot, namely at the tenure-track spot. That’s not to say they hire equal numbers of men and women at this position, because so many women have already been squeezed out. Just to be clear, this is exactly one spot along a huge line of decision points where it seems like women aren’t being fucked.

Do I believe it? Yes, I do. I know for a fact that colleges have specifically been pushing for more qualified women candidates, and there are all sorts of “woman-designated” spots created university-wide, for example at Columbia, specifically for this purpose.

So, great! It’s data, and it’s good news, and it doesn’t mean any of the other worse news is automatically gone. What we’ve done, if this study is upheld, is successfully removed one of many bottlenecks for women in science.

And I agree with the authors that if their study had found the opposite, there would have been very little scrutiny, at least from the people clamoring for their heads.

My take: we should all just stay calm and try to figure this stuff out so it can get better as we learn what works and what doesn’t.

Aunt Pythia


Readers? Aunt Pythia loves you so much. She wants to hear from you – she needs to hear from you – and then tell you what for in a most indulgent way. Will you help her do that?

Please, pleeeeease ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form for later or just do it now:

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. bf
    October 10, 2015 at 8:40 am

    I did once ask another grad student out, in front of others, at a conference where we had met a couple of days earlier, and I did sound sure that he would say yes. He did. That was 24 years ago: we have three teenagers and four joint papers.

    I think you were unduly harsh to Woman not at a bar. We weren’t there; she was. In my (long LONG ago) experience, some people hitting on you in a professional context are ok, others are not, and it all depends on the attitude.

    I’d tell this young lady that she doesn’t need a thicker skin but a sharper tongue – scratch that, she needs to defeat the patriarchy – take away the power differential between the sexes and we \footnote{“we” is poetic licence, I’m so done with this.} can all flirt aimlessly at our hearts’ content.


    • Lauren
      October 10, 2015 at 9:39 am

      In some situations I actually love to pretend to be even more socially clueless than I am. To Woman Not At a Bar, I think a decent response would be to put on a (or let show your) confused face and stammer, “uh, what? a what? uh… no. No, thanks.” And then return to your work.


  2. October 10, 2015 at 11:09 am

    Aunt Pythia — I have mixed feeling about your advice to MOCK. On the one hand, as I wrote in my review of Michael Harris’ recent book, I certainly agree that the self-approbation and popular worship of mathematicians (and physicists, musicians, etc.) gets out of hand.

    On the other hand, I am hesitant to recommend against reading, particularly without suggesting an alternative. I read a lot of biography myself — a lot of what I know comes out of biographies, one way and another — and unavoidably, a lot of biographies have a rosy-colored view of their subjects. Over time, one learns to correct for this.

    Also, biography is the easiest entry way into history; and history is a thing that people can hardly know too much about. Much better that MOCK’s kids should have glamorized views of Euler, Feynman, and the rest, than they should think that everything before the advent of the World-Wide Web was too primitive to be worth remembering.


  3. Christina Sormani
    October 10, 2015 at 12:09 pm

    Dear Woman not at the bar,

    Maybe your story isn’t Aunt Pythia material considering that in the past she has not completely discouraged men from asking women mathematicians out and she doesn’t understand why these situations are so upsetting to some of us. Rest assured that I have spoken to many many young women who were as upset as you were by situations exactly like yours. I myself dressed overweight and dumpy for most of my grad and postdoc years just to avoid this kind of situation (which is rather sad). Yes, many of us feel an invite to date or just have sex means that a collaboration we have been hoping for is now off limits. We feel we wasted the time we spent preparing for that collaboration (your weekend reading his paper). There is also the awkwardness of seeing theguy again over and over at future confeences.

    I am very impressed you told him never to do that to someone again and that this was said publicly!!!!! Kudos to you! I always said the lame “I’ve got a boyfriend/fiance/husband”. My response teaches the guy nothing about the overall hurtfulness of the practice of asking a woman out at a conference. It also lead to the same guys asking again at future conferences as if I might become available for a one night stand in the future. Very annoying. Now I’m old enough those are the only guys who still bother me “divorced yet?”. It was so creepy when a guy said this to me in front of a hotel clerk that the hotel clerk pulled me aside and switched my room to one far from his on his own initiative.

    Guys please don’t ask women out at math conferences! It makes many of us completely miserable and uncomfortable. Even if Aunt Pythia doesn’t see the problem with it.

    Christina Sormani


    • October 10, 2015 at 12:26 pm


      Thanks so much for writing, I’m glad that Woman at the bar has supporters that back her up. And you’re right, I don’t get it. But I want to. Is there any way you can explain what it is about the situation specifically that bothers you? Is it an unspoken power dynamic? Are any of the four guesses I had at all close to the problem?

      Aunt P


    • LJCBoston
      October 12, 2015 at 2:55 pm

      I completely agree with Christina Sormani. Here’s the problem: it’s a bait and switch. If you are at a math conference, and you are talking to people, you are at one of the few places where you might find people to collaborate with on mathematics; finding good collaborators can be incredibly important to your ability to do good mathematics; you have only limited time to meet people, learn about their work, and figure out if you are intellectually compatible. Anyone who seems to be playing this game, and then turns around and asks you on a date, is actually saying: well actually, the reason I spent time talking to you was for a completely different reason; I am interested in you romantically. I am either not interested in whether we are compatible as intellectual collaborators (though you thought I was) OR I am, but I am also already willing to hugely complicate any possible relationship we might have as intellectual collaborators, depending on how the romantic interest stuff goes. Can someone manage to convey the correct amount of open-ness/closed-ness to math encounters they are feeling simultaneously with the right open-ness/closed-ness to romantic encounters they are feeling in the same set of conversations so that everyone feels comfortable, happy, and not blindsided?? In theory I suppose it is doable, but it requires advanced levels of social savvy, and most of us math geeks and math nerds just are not known for that skill set.

      If you are smart enough to doubt your ability to pull off the ambiguity gracefully, then the nicest thing to do at a math conference is to assume that the other person is talking to you because they want a math collaboration, not because they want a romantic relationship. Then you can concentrate on math, without worrying about flirting and they can be enthusiastic, without worrying that you might think they are leading you on romantically. If you meet someone at a conference who you want to date, then think through the following: do I already have a math/intellectual relationship or a potential math/intellectual with them that I will potentially be comprimising? If so, this is a complicating step. Be aware of it, and try to mitigate the consequences of them turning you down. If not, then go ask them on a date! But maybe do it in private, or at a social event after the conference, etc.

      Hope this helps!!


  4. My Two Cents
    October 10, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    It seems pretty easy to understand to me. Some (many? most?) people prefer to have certain times and places to be free of all the extra social layers which go along with the possibility of romantic relationships. If I’m at a math conference, the DMV, H&R Block, etc. I’m interested in the business at hand and have no interest in worrying about subtext. It seems reasonable to me to expect everyone at a math conference should be viewed as a fellow mathematician. Full stop.

    Now of course we’re human and may privately have opinions about someone’s attractiveness, political views, love of puns, sartorial sense, etc. but it doesn’t seem too much to ask that in professional settings we act, well, professional.

    It’s not so black and white, and all of the above may affect whether I get to know you socially. If we’ve had drinks a few times at the Joint Meetings and hit it off, sure maybe we’ll become friend friends and not just math friends. But it doesn’t seem so hard to see the difference between reasonable behavior at a math conference vs. at a bar or at a friend’s dinner party.

    Anyway, when I’m at a conference I’m a mathematician first and foremost and imagine most people feel (and would like to be treated) the same way.


  5. Malcolm
    October 10, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    Andrew Hodges’ bio of (yeah, white guy) Alan Turing is one of my faves. For me it transcends hagiography because it celebrates the beauty and invention of Turing’s mathematical and scientific work while connecting you to his life and personal experiences.

    It’s not a short book, the mathematical content probably goes beyond high school level, and a reader without life experience might not connect with personal aspects. But it shows it can be done!


  6. Allan Greenleaf
    October 11, 2015 at 10:45 am

    Re: Woman Not at a Bar

    The AMS has a Policy on a Welcoming Environment which applies to all AMS activities,
    which states

    “Harassment is a form of misconduct that undermines the integrity of AMS activities and mission.”

    What WNAAB describes is harassment and is wildly inappropriate in a conference setting (whether or not it’s an AMS meeting).

    For the full policy, see


    Allan Greenleaf
    [member, AMS Committee on the Profession, but just speaking for myself]


    • October 11, 2015 at 11:37 am

      What is the definition of harassment? Who decides? What if it had been a woman asking out a man? What if the woman had eagerly agreed to a date? What would have happened if Woman not at a bar had reported this event to the AMS authorities?


      • Allan Greenleaf
        October 11, 2015 at 11:59 am


        I should also have included a link to the AMS Statement on Sexual Harassment:


        It is a bit dated and we hope to have a revision approved in the near future, but it is the current AMS policy.

        Even a policy like this of course needs to be interpreted, but my personal view is that a professional meeting is not the place to try to start a personal relationship, even between `peers’ and regardless of the gender (identity) of the initiating party.

        – Allan


  7. October 11, 2015 at 1:41 pm

    Alan —
    The policy you linked to states the following:


    It is the policy of this institution that no member of the academic community may sexually harass another. Sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when:

    1. Any such proposals are made under circumstances implying that one’s response might affect such academic or personnel decisions as are subject to the influence of the person making such proposals; or

    2. Such conduct is repeated or is so offensive that it substantially contributes to an unprofessional academic or work environment or interferes with required tasks, career opportunities, or learning; or

    3. Such conduct is abusive of others and creates or implies a discriminatory hostility toward their personal or professional interest because of their sex.[2]


    I don’t at all see how the behavior complained of fits in any of those categories; so I don’t see how the AMS policy on sexual harassment is at all relevant.

    Now, of course, the behavior could be considered objectionable without being harassment. Personally, I agree with Cathy on this; but never having been in this position, on either side, I’m not in a good position to judge.


  8. October 11, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    So, MOCK, you’re allowed to talk to your kids about the books you give them. You can also seek out other books– I’m sure you can find some biographies of female scientists if you try, or casually leave some articles about Mirzakhani lying around.


  9. October 11, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    I’m having fun pondering what a popular science article about mathematicians more to Aunt Pythia’s liking would be like. Something following the formula of “This team of people, including at least one woman, solved this cool problem”? Anyone have a team and a problem they’d like to see on NPR?


  10. October 12, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    Mathbabe, can you elaborate on your comment about Erdos? I have a list of great-scientists-I-would-not-respect-peronalitywise, which includes Feynman. I am wondering if I should add Erdos to the list.


    • October 12, 2015 at 4:05 pm

      Look, I mean, he was a really amazing person and mathematician. And he’s dead and incapable of defending himself. But he was born in a different time, was super coddled by his mother, and after she passed he would stay in people’s homes and basically act entirely childish and dependent. That included asking my mother (when he was staying with my parents) to mend his shirt for him. I think she told me it was more like, here’s my shirt, the button came off, please have it ready in the morning. It was an assumption. This is my mom with a Ph.D. in math and two small kids at the time, not that it matters all that much.


  11. Kevin
    October 12, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    The problem here is one of scarcity and of how much people prefer to separate their personal and professional lives. A woman, likely and rightly, feels there are many men whom she could date, but few who work in her field with which she can professionally collaborate. A man, likely and rightly, feels there are many people with whom he can professionally collaborate, but few women who understand his intellect and with which he can have a discussion as peers about the things he’s most passionate about.

    To save time, I will now appropriate the well-written opening viewpoint by LJCBoston’s as the sensible woman’s point of view:

    “If you are at a math conference, and you are talking to people, you are at one of the few places where you might find people to collaborate with on mathematics; finding good collaborators can be incredibly important to your ability to do good mathematics; you have only limited time to meet people, learn about their work, and figure out if you are intellectually compatible. Anyone who seems to be playing this game, and then turns around and asks you on a date, is actually saying: well actually, the reason I spent time talking to you was for a completely different reason; I am interested in you romantically. I am either not interested in whether we are compatible as intellectual collaborators (though you thought I was) OR I am, but I am also already willing to hugely complicate any possible relationship we might have as intellectual collaborators, depending on how the romantic interest stuff goes.”

    And I will change the words (shown in parentheses) to create the man’s likely first-person account of the same events:

    “If you are at a math conference, and you are talking to people, you are at one of the few places where you might find people (who truly “get” who you are as a person – not only your likes and dislikes, but your work which you spend so much of your time on but which is totally incomprehensible to almost everyone on the planet); finding good (partners in all aspects of your life) can be incredibly important to your ability to (not only) do good mathematics (but be happy and fulfilled in other areas as well); you have only limited time to meet people, learn about their work, and figure out if you are intellectually (and personally) compatible. Anyone who seems to be (so easy to talk with, not just about mathematics but about other topics as well), and then turns around and (tells you “never tell me you’re interested in me as more than a mathematician” in such stark terms and a public setting), is actually saying: well actually, the reason I spent time talking to you was for a completely different reason; I am interested in you (merely as a means to further my own career). I am either not interested in whether we are compatible as (people along a broad range of interests) though you thought I was OR I am, but I am also (not remotely) willing to (possibly) complicate any possible relationship we might have as intellectual collaborators, (because you’re much more valuable to me as a math collaborator that I must exclude the rest of you as a person, if necessary, to successfully develop my career).”

    Did the guy move too soon and perhaps presume too much? For sure. But he probably doesn’t have a lot of experience/success in meeting people he’s interested in, or asking them out. And she did say this was a multi-week conference of which you’d had several pleasurable discussions about many different topics. She likely saw this as “one conference”, while he saw it as “several very pleasurable conversations over time”.

    Perhaps with that counter-perspective, we might see that the man in this situation was not seeking to devalue the woman, but to recognize her awesomeness; someone who was valued *because* of her mathematical abilities, not in spite of them. And if so we can consider whether telling someone off in a public setting was a good way to build a relationship with one of the few people she had met to collaborate with in her specific area(s) of interest, or whether going all feminist-warlord on them ruined any opportunity for future collaboration.

    After all, it doesn’t seem like this story had a happy ending for either of them.


    • LJCBoston
      October 13, 2015 at 7:46 am

      In some ways I agree with that you are saying: Most people do not limit the set of potential romantic partners to people they meet “at work”. However, I agree that there is a set of mathematicians (both male and female!!) who because of their range of social activities and/or comfort, professional settings are the only place they can also find potential romantic partners (think Sheldon and Amy on the Big Bang Theory!) . And yes, if you limit your potential romantic partners to people you meet and talk to at math conferences, and you are a heterosexual male (or for that matter a lesbian female) then potential romantic partners are as rare as potential intellectual collaborators, so you might not want to pass up a potential lead, as you point out, simply because of the gender imbalance in the field. Many mathematicians end up happily married to other mathematicians, and sometimes they meet at conferences! So my preferred solution (go do your romancing elsewhere) is not fair or reasonable to everyone.

      But I claim that the following is not too much to ask: treat math conferences as a “work” setting. Dating people at work *is complicated* and awkward, and can lead to longterm consequences (having to see people repeatedly at conferences when things go sour, for example– having people stay insulted when you turn them down, and so on). So this idea that Woman not at the bar should not be upset and that mathbabe should not understand that a line was crossed is hard for me to understand. To say “it is not ok to pretend to be interested in my research and then turn around and publically ask me on a date at work” is hardly “a femminist-warlord response.” !!


      • hilbertthm90
        October 13, 2015 at 8:59 am

        I think the “feminist-warlord” part comes mostly from the fact that the only way to make the man look bad in this situation is to assume he is the scum of the earth and has only “pretended to be interested in my research” in order to trick a woman into some altered state and take advantage of her.

        Why would you assume that? This “assume the worst about all men until proven otherwise” is the type of thing that turns a lot of people off of feminism. Kevin gave a perfectly reasonable account where the guy was genuinely interested in her research yet still wanted to date her. This assumption that he wasn’t is exactly a feminist skewing of the story.

        If you gave the man the same benefit of the doubt that you gave the woman, you too would have a hard time seeing why a line was crossed.

        P.S. I’m not sure why you were so explicit about “heterosexual male (or for that matter a lesbian female)” but left out gay male. It’s not exactly easy to find us everywhere either.


        • LJCBoston
          October 13, 2015 at 9:27 am

          I left out gay males because I am assuming the only way the math world differs demographically from the typical world is the gender imbalance. Men are not scarce at math conferences, women are; so if you are romantically interested in women at math conferences, you are looking at an environment where they are more scarce than elswhere, supporting Kevin’s point.

          I am not doubting the motives of Kevin’s hypothetical male– I believe that he was genuinely interested in both her math and in dating her. I just want Kevin’s hypothetical male to understand that being interested in both creates complications for her if she is interested in only one, or if she is interested in neither. And the sensitive/right/professional thing to do in a work situation when that is the case, is to realize that is the case, and find every possible opportunity to make it socially safe for her to say any of “I am interested in you mathematically (but not romantically)” or “I am interested in you romantically (but not mathematically)” or “sorry, I am not interested in either”. The ideal world is one when it is safe for him to ask, it is safe for her to say yes or no, and there are no bad consequences and everyone can move on. But even people who are more socially savvy than typical math nerds have problems navigating this stuff.

          Or we can just solve the gender balance problem at math conferences by encouraging more women to become mathematicians, and those who like to date fellow mathematicians will be living in a more comfortable, normal world that still has all the pitfalls of workplace romance, but somehow feels less fraught than such dramas in workplaces where there is extreme gender imbalance.


        • October 13, 2015 at 9:32 am


          Thanks for your thoughtful comments, they are super clear and convincing. I have come to the conclusion that I am wrong and you are right. I will write about this tomorrow morning on my blog because I think it’s super interesting and I think I’m kind of a weirdo in this regard.



      • hilbertthm90
        October 13, 2015 at 12:34 pm

        For the record, I agree that there are social and ethical issues to navigate and we should consider conferences as “work zones” for these purposes. I mostly wanted to play devil’s advocate, because the summary at the end was such a disingenuous portrayal of the guy’s motives.


  12. October 12, 2015 at 9:43 pm
  13. captain obvious
    October 12, 2015 at 10:40 pm

    ” Every time I turn on NPR, it seems like, I am hearing yet another piece about the genius mind of a mathematician – always a man ”

    If popular media like to run stories of “geniuses” (e.g child prodigies) and “genius” breakthroughs, wouldn’t that usually be a man given the demographics of math prodigies math breakthrough makers, math prizewinners, and math tycoons (Wolfram, Brin, Viterbi, Simons, etc)?

    Mathematicians tend not to get media attention until they earn easily explained accolades.
    Ruth Lawrence (Oxford #1 at age 13), Maryam Mirzakhani (fields medal), Lisa Sauermann (IMO #1), Ioana Dumitriu (first female Putnam Fellow), Melanie Wood (first US-born IMO/Putnam winner) all had huge publicity. Looking over the list of MacArthur fellows in pure mathematics, all or nearly all of the females were the subject of profiles in national media.

    Chess is similar. There was no lack of media interest in the Polgar sisters or the top US female (and black) masters, in fact they got a lot more publicity and opportunities than higher rated players from the chess majority group, white males. It is true, though, that the media coverage of female players puts a large emphasis on their feminine characteristics, physical appearance (when attractive), marriage and children.


  14. October 13, 2015 at 1:04 am

    Simple rule: You can only ask people out when you’re at a bar, not in any other environment. People who don’t booze it up get to be celibate their whole life.


    • Moeen
      October 13, 2015 at 2:54 pm

      Hah! Is this what most Americans think? In a world like that my wife and I would never have met since neither of us drinks. I think online dating is the way to go. Everyone can be upfront about who they are and what they want and as long as they’re honest everyone can get what they want. That way you can also avoid the awkwardness that can come with dating colleagues/coworkers.


  15. Christina Sormani
    October 15, 2015 at 12:12 am

    Someone brought up Sheldon and Any from Big Bang Theory as an example somehow in support of mathematicians asking each other out at conferences. Yet they met through online dating and, although they work at the same university, they are in entirely different fields. In fact they are a clear example of how nerds can get together with nerds without jeaperdizing their careers and collaborations.


  16. Colin
    October 15, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    Regarding the possibilities 1-4 for what the man was thinking, there’s a sampling issue here. It’s probably true that most men are not intentionally sleazy, maybe even most men who ask people out at conferences. But the average sleazy man will try asking people out in a professional environment much more often than the average man (like scenario 4 indicates, he’s probably a serial offender). So from a Bayesian perspective, the fact of him asking you out (in the absence of other evidence) is a reason to adjust your estimate upwards of how sleazy he is.


    • October 16, 2015 at 6:09 am

      Yeah I thought of that. But I think #4 is really unlikely anyway. I hope I am right.


  1. October 14, 2015 at 7:48 am
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