Aunt Pythia’s advice
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:
Who’s with me?! WHO CAN GET BEHIND HAIR THIS MORNING!?
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!
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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
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.
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:
- the cheaters,
- Ashley Madison,
- the hackers who stole and released the raw data,
- the people who processed the raw data to make it searchable,
- the people who searched through the data,
- 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:
- not looking at the data,
- not caring what you find in the data even if you look,
- 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.
Dear Aunt Pythia,
This article, entitled Passions Supplant Reason in Dialogue on Women in Science, was interesting and I wanted to get your take.
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.
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.
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