Profiles in Invisibility

When people ask me “who is your favorite superhero?”, I usually say Invisible Boy (played by the awesome Kel Mitchell) from the 90’s movie Mystery Men. Invisible Boy’s superpower is, you guessed it, invisibility, but there’s a catch: he can only become invisible when no one is looking. He says this is a power he developed after many years of being ignored. For a woman in math, it’s really not that hard to identify with this. (Also, it’s not a coincidence that he is also the only substantial black character in the movie.)

This feeling of invisibility is a feeling that I find hard to describe to people without triggering defensiveness or sounding like I am “whiny”. I have been on both sides of this (the defensive and the “whiny” sides), and I have had to do a LOT of work to try to listen instead of defending my actions/inactions. One of the things I have tried to do seems really simple, but really isn’t: if you have not experienced something, don’t assume that the person telling you about it somehow is wrong or “exaggerating” in their response. I was once riding in a cab in Ghana, and the driver was asking me about my home country, Venezuela. He found it hard to believe, at first, that I would feel safer traveling by myself in Ghana than in Venezuela; he didn’t know how dangerous Venezuela had become, especially for women. But he listened, and in the end he said: “Well, if a fish tells you that there are sharks in the water, you believe it.” Of course, the “fish” could be wrong, confused, etc., but why would you, the person outside of the water, automatically assume that you know better? This is called the “benefit of the doubt” for a reason. When we can’t be sure who’s right, let’s default to the person who has more experience.

Revenge of the invisible woman.

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Posted in implicit bias, racism, sexism, women in math | Leave a comment

A different kind of problem

Sometimes I think that what makes me successful in math makes me kind of terrible in some aspects of “real life.” A few years ago, I wrote a post for PhD+epsilon about how close I came to having a car accident for putting off car maintenance from being “too busy.”  In a way, my “success” (which we all have to admit, is an obnoxious word that just means “success as the successful people have defined it”) was related to my dedication to my job, and could have led to a terrible (or at least scary) accident. More recently, I discovered a new, more insidious problem: I was dealing with depression.

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Posted in ableism, cultural pressure in academia, mental health | 6 Comments

Equity in Review: Reflections on Equity Research Perspectives at the 2017 RUME Conference


The Special Interest Group of the Mathematical Association of America on Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education (SIGMAA on RUME) was established for the advancement of quality research in undergraduate mathematics education (RUME) and its implications for teaching practices. One of the annual SIGMAA on RUME initiatives is the RUME Conference. The conference is intended to serve as an exchange of research findings from projects addressing issues related to the learning and teaching of undergraduate mathematics through plenary addresses, contributed and preliminary research paper sessions, and poster presentations. This year’s RUME Conference, jointly hosted by San Diego State University and the University of California – San Diego, was held at the Kona Kai Resort in San Diego, CA from Thursday, February 23 through Saturday, February 25 with a record-high attendance of over 350 registered conference participants.

Discussions about issues of diversity, equity, and social justice have certainly been gaining momentum in the SIGMAA on RUME community, including the 2017 RUME Conference. It has been both an honor and pleasure to participate in these important conversations over the past year. This was my second year attending the RUME Conference and serving as a co-facilitator for the Equity in Undergraduate Mathematics Education pre-conference working group with Aditya (Adi) Adiredja (The University of Arizona). I also had the honor to serve as a plenary speaker on equity research perspectives during the RUME with a View working conference funded by the National Science Foundation (Division of Undergraduate Education Grant No. 1646996) and organized by Milos Savic (The University of Oklahoma) and Gulden Karakok (University of Northern Colorado). Held on October 2016 in The University of Oklahoma, RUME with a View was a two-day working conference that focused on offering opportunities for faculty and graduate students to develop research agendas in undergraduate mathematics education. Topics spanned student learning, pre-calculus and calculus courses, proofs and problem solving, equity, and statistics and quantitative literacy.

A Framework on Equity Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education

For the rest of this blog entry, I will use a framework from my plenary presentation as well as written notes and conversations from RUME with a View to synthesize insights across various equity-oriented research report presentations that I attended during the 2017 RUME Conference. This reflective analysis is intended to explore how equity in undergraduate mathematics education is currently discussed and addressed in the RUME community, and to identify possible areas and approaches for future research. The blog entry concludes with a discussion of “problems of practice” in undergraduate mathematics education identified during the Equity in Undergraduate Mathematics Education pre-conference working group and how research implications from my reflective analysis of equity-oriented presentations at the 2017 RUME Conference can serve as possible starting points to address them.  

My plenary presentation during RUME with a View entitled “Pipelines, Pedagogy, and Participation” (Leyva, 2016c) took stock on developments in equity research in undergraduate mathematics education using a framework with three categories to organize the extant literature: outcome-based, institution-oriented, and student-oriented. Outcome-based research largely focuses on quantitative analyses of major choice and retention across the pipeline in undergraduate mathematics or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Institution-oriented research is comprised of studies that qualitatively and/or qualitatively examine ways in which institutional players and structures, including faculty members, course designs, and student support programs, promote inclusion and responsiveness to marginalized communities’ needs in undergraduate mathematics. Student-oriented research centers marginalized students’ experiences in undergraduate mathematics to detail how mathematics can serve as a socially exclusionary space that impacts participation and identities.

It should be noted that my reflective analysis presented here is limited to presentations that I was able to attend during the 2017 RUME Conference while capturing different theoretical and methodological approaches used in pursuing equity-oriented research. There were several other important works presented at the conference that raise the need for equity considerations in undergraduate mathematics education. This includes but not limited to:

  • Gail Tang and colleagues’ theoretical paper presentation on the alignment between Rochelle Gutiérrez (2009)’s conceptualization of teaching for equity and principles of inquiry-based learning,
  • Ulrike Genschel and Hien Nguyen’s (Iowa State University) statistical analysis of gendered trends in mathematical self-efficacy and academic outcomes between math intensive and non-math intensive STEM majors, and
  • Janet Omitoyin’s (University of Illinois – Chicago) analysis of changes in pre-service mathematics teachers’ participation and mathematics identities in a mathematics content course for teaching.

In addition to these presentations, there were various conference-wide initiatives with a commitment to equity in undergraduate mathematics education including:

Outcome-Based Research

In relation to issues of retention and persistence in undergraduate mathematics, Martha Makowski (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) presented findings in a preliminary research report from a study that documentedchanges in students’ mathematics attitudes and rates of completion in a developmental mathematics course at a community college. This analysis adopted a pre- and post-survey methodology with 150 undergraduate students enrolled in the course that centered problem solving and peer collaboration in its design. Makowski observed a 63.3% retention rate in the sample wit
h males, Black students, and younger students being less likely to complete the course. The study’s analysis also demonstrated statistically significant gains in enjoyment of mathematics and acknowledgment of multiple entry points in mathematical problem solving. Makowski’s focus on a developmental mathematics course that adopted a reform approach to instruction resonated with Philip (Uri) Treisman’s (The University of Texas-
Austin) remarks during a special RUME Conference session on the “changing landscape of undergraduate mathematics education.” In Treisman’s presentation, he alluded to the value of reform efforts toward more equitable undergraduate mathematics learning opportunities, especially in light of the gatekeeping effects of developmental courses.

Findings on student retention in Makowski’s study brought me to wonder about the impact of how outcome-based studies define starting and end points for measuring student populations’ mathematical persistence. How might findings on student attitudes and academic outcomes (e.g., course completion, mathematics degree retention) be further nuanced by considering different time points in students’ trajectories as mathematics learners? I also wonder about what insights could be gained in outcome-based research that seeks to unpack the contributing factors to students’ points of departure with undergraduate mathematics. For example, how might following up with male, Black, and younger students in Makowski’s study who did not complete the developmental mathematics course offer perspective toward more equitable course design and instructional practices?

Institution-Oriented Research

Like Makowski’s study in a community collee, Christopher Jett’s study captures the value in attending to variation on enhancing equitable mathematics teacher and learning opportunities across different types of institutions (e.g., predominantly white universities, two-year colleges, historically black colleges and universities [HBCU]). Jett’s preliminary research report presented findings on the roles that mathematics faculty members played in shaping the experiences of 16 African
American male mathematics majors at an all-male, private HBCU. This institution-oriented study elaborated on the importance of faculty members pr
oviding the African American males with access to challenging undergraduate coursework, mentorship outside of the classroom, and racially-affirming learning opportunities in mathematics.
Such racially-conscious forms of blending academic and social support, critical to the African American males’ development as mathematics majors, was similarly observed in my ethnographic research on undergraduate Latin@ engineering majors’ mathematics success at a large, predominantly white university (Leyva, 2016b). [I use the term, Latin@, to decenter the patriarchal nature of the Spanish language that traditionally groups Latin American individuals into a single descriptor, Latino, denoting only men (Gutiérrez, 2013). The @ symbol allows for gender inclusivity among Latin Americans compared to the either-or form Latina/o, implying a gender binary.] This raises considerations of how the nature of faculty support for historically marginalized student populations, including African Americans and Latin@s, comes to be shaped by the varying ways in which institutions of higher education operate as racialized contexts (Battey & Leyva, 2006; Martin, 2013). Despite such variation across institutions, much can be learned about the transferability (as opposed to the generalizability) of meaningful forms of faculty support to promote more equitable undergraduate mathematics education among students of color across different colleges and universities

Gender in relation to mathematical self-efficacy and sense of belonging was taken up in Susan Nickerson, Katie Bjorkman, Sei Jin Ko, and David Marx’s (San Diego State University) analysis on the influence of peer role model interventions in first-semester calculus courses at a large, southwestern university in the United States. These interventions consisted of two in-class peer role model presentations by a Hispanic or non-Hispanic White female majoring in STEM consisting of a self-introduction to establish common ground in mathematics, presentation of a mathematical topic related to course content, and encouraging remarks for STEM persistence. This study’s statistical analyses found increases in both constructs among high math-identified females and low math-identified females in the sampled calculus course sections. (I use the terms, “females” and “males,” here to remain consistent with the authors’ language adopted to describe findings from the sex-based analysis of mathematical self-efficacy and sense of belonging.)

While this study speaks to the value of diversifying undergraduate classroom spaces to allow for underrepresented students’ improved attitudes towards mathematics (in this case, among students identifying with the female sex), I wonder what can be gained from situated analyses in the sampled calculus classrooms to complement Nickerson and colleagues’ findings. For example, how could observations before, during, and after peer role interventions provide a glimpse into gendered interactions between high and low math-identified students to unpack the statistical findings of self-efficacy and sense of belonging? Considering how mathematics has been documented as a masculinized domain and thus limiting opportunities for women and gender-nonconforming individuals (Leyva, in press; Mendick, 2006, Solomon, 2012), situated perspectives of underrepresented students’ experiences in Nickerson and colleagues’ as well as Jett’s study would offer insight into the social construction of masculinities in doing undergraduate mathematics. This could also explore how the masculinized landscape shapes the nature of classroom interactions and faculty support and thus further explain influences on the sample populations’ experiences in and identifications with mathematics.

Furthermore, I am curious about how a more explicit focus on intersections of race and gender (as opposed to sex) across both studies could illuminate insightful variation among participants in their findings. Jett’s research report, for example, describes the study as intended to unpack how “complexities about the constructs of race and/or gender” shape the African American male participants’ development as mathematics majors. Considering the lack of intersectional analyses in extant mathematics education research adopting critical race theory (Leyva, 2016a), I view Jett’s study as a promising call for future research to detail the construction of Black masculinities in undergraduate mathematics across different types of higher education institutions, including how mathematics faculty members may contribute to such constructions through their instruction and student support. Similarly, Nickerson and colleagues’ presentation left me interested in learning more about possible variation in documented changes for mathematical self-efficacy and sense of belonging when the peer role model was a white female or a Hispanic female. In what ways might mutual forms of racial and gender identification between the calculus students and peer role models contribute to changes (or lack thereof) in participants’ mathematical self-efficacy and sense of belonging?

Student-Oriented Research

More localized and intersectional analyses were adopted in actor-oriented studies shared during Fady El Chidiac’s (University of California-Berkeley) and Adi Adiredja and Michelle Zandieh’s (Arizona State University)’s contributed research report presentations. El Chidiac discussed the limitations of video records and unmediated interviews that leave in-the-moment power and socioemotional dynamics unexplored. In light of such limitations, El Chidiac introduced the Stimulated Construction of Narratives about Interactions (SCNI) data collection technique to examine such dynamics during small-group learning interactions in an undergraduate number theory course. The SCNI technique provides participants with the space to generate original narratives about social interactions during videotaped small-group learning activities re-visited during individual interviews. These narratives are conceptualized as negotiations of narrative discourses that participants use to make sense of themselves, others, and their everyday lives as well as pragmatic forces that shape their small-group learning interactions in the classroom. El Chidiac presented three cases from the SCNI interview data analysis that illuminate how the technique allows for (i) exploring variation in individual group members’ interpretations of small-group interactions, (ii) providing contextual insights about small-group interactions through interview reflections otherwise missing in the video data, and (iii) characterizing different profiles of student engagement during small-group learning.

The SNCI technique, thus, serves as a methodological tool and perspective to potentially better understand how classroom learning interactions perpetuate or disrupt discourses that privilege or oppress individuals in undergraduate mathematics education. In light of the previous studies’ focus on racialized and gendered dynamics in undergraduate mathematics, I am curious to learn more about the ways in which participants in El Chidiac’s study interpreted small-group learning behaviors as being more or less likely to be engaged by certain peers and how this shapes (in)equitable participation opportunities in the small group and mathematics classroom more broadly. Such insights can inform ways in which undergraduate mathematics instructors adopt small-group learning and other classroom structures in ways that disrupt the production of status often aligned with a racialized and gendered hierarchy of mathematical ability [e.g., Martin, (2009)], thus broadening opportunities for classroom participation that challenges status-quo conceptions of doing college mathematics.

In the same vein of re-thinking undergraduate mathematics teaching and learning, Adiredja and Zandieh presented findings from a study on eight undergraduate women of color’s use of everyday contexts to explain the linear algebra concept of basis and how these contexts reflected characteristics and roles of basis vectors. Adiredja and Zandieh adopted the “anti-deficit achievement framework” (Harper, 2010) to approach an interview data analysis that challenges narratives of women of color as underachieving in mathematics and thus leverages women of color participants’ intuitive perspectives as productive entry points for building mathematical knowledge. The students used a broad range of everyday contexts to make meaning of a “basis,” such as cooking, fashion, and religious teachings. Adiredja and Zandieh’s adopted coding scheme detailed how the women of color’s proposed everyday examples mapped onto characteristics (e.g., representation, non-redundant) and roles of basis vectors in the larger space (e.g., generating, describing).

The intersectional sampling of women of color and analytical foregrounding of their mathematical thinking, as Adiredja and Zandieh highlighted in their presentation, allow for the centering of women of color’s voices that are largely absent in undergraduate mathematics education research. This study raises implications for curricular design in undergraduate mathematics that builds on students’ everyday lives and intuitive understandings to increase access to mathematical ideas, particularly among women of color and other student populations historically marginalized in mathematics. Such implications resonate with David Stinson’s (Georgia State University) remarks during his plenary address at last year’s RUME Conference on what culturally responsive pedagogy in undergraduate mathematics would look like and the (im)possibilities of it being used to allow for more equitable learning opportunities across undergraduate mathematics classrooms.

Considering that women of color participants in Adiredja and Zandieh’s study were enrolled in a linear algebra course, I am prompted to think about the urgency of carving more culturally-responsive and gender-affirming opportunities earlier in the undergraduate mathematics pipeline, especially in light of the racialized and gendered retention rates such as those raised in Makowski’s research. Furthermore, I wonder about the possibilities of leveraging methodological approaches of centering students’ voices about navigating systems of power in mathematics, like those in Jett’s and El Chidiac’s studies, to understand how such socially-validating pedagogy informs ways that better attend to the intersectionality of women of color and other marginalized groups’ lived experiences as undergraduate mathematics students. [Intersectionality is a concept from Black feminist thought coined and adopted by Kimberle Crenshaw (1989, 1991) to detail intersectional forms of marginalization legally and politically experienced by historically marginalized women of color in the United States. It refers to unique forms of intersecting oppression that emerge from gender, race, and other social categories that “function as parallel and interlocking systems” (Collins, 1993, p. 29) of domination and subordination.]

Concluding Thoughts

Before the official start of the 2017 RUME Conference, Adiredja and I co-facilitated the Equity in Undergraduate Mathematics Education working group as an opportunity for exchanging conceptual and methodological insights from ongoing equity-oriented research at varying stages of development. This year’s working group nearly doubled in size since last year with over 40 registered participants. Discussions and presentations centered around topics such as the role of educational equity across inquiry-based mathematics classrooms, service learning opportunities in curricular design, and multi-institutional partnerships for broadening access in STEM. This increase in the working group size was just one of the many ways that illustrates the vested interest and rising analytical attention to equity issues in the RUME community.

Through a blend of small- and whole-group discussions throughout the working group, participants raised several “problems of practice” in order to identify future next steps toward the advancement of equity through the RUME community, our respective home institutions, and the field of undergraduate mathematics education at large. This included discussions about different ways in which equity is addressed across different departments and institutions, how to increase collaborations between mathematicians and mathematics educators, and how to shape policies across mathematics and mathematics education organizations in ways that center issues of equity.

Keeping these “problems of practice” in undergraduate mathematics research and teaching in mind, I want to take stock on the intellectual contributions from the reviewed RUME Conference presentations in this blog entry to synthesize implications for future research that address these areas of concern and thus broaden equitable opportunities in undergraduate mathematics education. First, these studies highlight the need to examine the extent to which institutional factors such as teaching, curricula, and support structures perpetuate values of mathematics as a discipline that oppress some and privilege others. Second, these RUME presentations capture the promise of employing theoretical perspectives and methodologies from different fields (e.g., learning sciences, critical legal studies) to develop more nuanced understandings of equitable learning and support opportunities in undergraduate mathematics education at different intersections of students’ social identities. Finally, these reviewed presentations illustrate the multi-faceted nature of equity in undergraduate mathematics education as a complex endeavor. This captures the need for research that considers the interplay of institutional contexts and local communities operating as unique cultural spaces, different actors (including students, peers, faculty, departmental administrators), and metrics and discourses of success in mathematics from educational organizations, policy statements, and society.

If you are interested in attending the 2018 RUME conference, be sure to check out the SIGMAA on RUME website in coming months for additional information about registering and submitting proposals. You can also use this website to access information about past RUME conferences, published proceedings, and journals for research in undergraduate mathematics education.

Thank you for your time in reading my blog entry. Feel free to share your thoughts in the “Leave a Reply” section down below.


Battey, D., & Leyva, L. A. (2016).  A framework for understanding whiteness in mathematics education. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education, 9(2), 49-80.

Collins, P. H. (1993). Toward a new vision: Race, class, and gender as categories of analysis and connection. Race, Sex & Class, 1(1), 25–45.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1(8), 139–167.

Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241–1299.

Gutiérrez, R. (2009). Framing equity: Helping students “play the game” and “change the game.” Teaching for Excellence and Equity in Mathematics, 1(1), 5-7.

Gutiérrez, R. (2013). The sociopolitical turn in mathematics education. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 44(1), 37–68.

Harper, S. R. (2010). An anti-deficit achievement framework for research on students of color in STEM. In S. R. Harper & C. B. Newman (Eds.), Students of color in STEM: Engineering a new research agenda. New Directions for Institutional Research (pp. 63-74). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Leyva, L. A. (in press). Unpacking the male superiority myth and masculinization of mathematics at the intersections. A review of research on gender in mathematics education. To appear in the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education.

Leyva, L. A. (2016a).  An intersectional analysis of Latin@ college women’s counter-stories in mathematics. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education, 9(2), 81-121.

Leyva, L. A. (2016b).  Blending academic and social support through apoyo and consejos for undergraduate mathematics success among Latin@s.  To appear in the Proceedings of the 13th International Congress on Mathematical Education, Hamburg, Germany.

Leyva, L. A. (2016c).  Pipelines, pedagogy, and participation: Three strands of equity research in undergraduate mathematics education. Plenary presentation at the RUME with a View: Cultivating New Researchers on the Frontier of Research on Undergraduate Mathematics Education (RUME) Conference (Supported by the National Science Foundation Division of Undergraduate Education Grant No. 1646996).  Norman, OK:  The University of Oklahoma.

Martin, D. B. (2009). Researching race in mathematics education. Teachers College Record, 111(2), 295–338.

Martin, D. B. (2013). Race, racial projects, and mathematics education. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 44(1), 316–333.

Mendick, H. (2006). Masculinities in mathematics. New York, NY: Open University Press.

Solomon, Y. (2012). Finding a voice? Narrating the female self in mathematics. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 80(1-2), 171-183.

Posted in conferences, equity, mathematics experiences, participation, retention | 1 Comment

Inquiry and Equity

Education is, at its heart, about justice. It is the institution that empowers individuals to improve the conditions around them, to be intentional and involved citizens, to live meaningful and fulfilling lives. Or at least it should.

Cultural institutions like education can also be the mechanisms through which individuals are indoctrinated into a system that has power over them, in other words, school can be a tool of oppression. We, the community of mathematicians and mathematics educators, have been complicit in this oppression for years. We have taught students that experts are the source of mathematical knowledge/understanding/skill and that their mathematical thinking is valid only to the extent that it mimics our own. Our classrooms teach them that mathematical competence is rare, that this competence is a good proxy for intelligence, that this intelligence is determined at birth (and rarer by demographics), and that general power in our society comes from this intelligence and the financial compensation it can command. Our culture validates this rarity by suggesting that power should be concentrated in the hands of a few, that abdicating this power is normal and happier than the alternative.

In short, our discipline has denied almost every member of our society access to mathematical inquiry. In the words of Paulo Freire, “any situation in which some [people] prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;… to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed). I design my courses from a perspective of inquiry-based learning (IBL) because I think it offers a chance for students to take back this power, to stop and reverse some of this violence (see AMS T&LM and DAoM). Friends and colleagues, including Aditya Adiredja, Jess Ellis, and Christine Andrews-Larson, have articulated important critiques and qualifications on this sweeping claim that I will think, read, and write about soon.

Instead, I would like to turn the lens of equity onto the community of educators who teach with inquiry. Continue reading

Posted in inquiry, racism, sexism | Leave a comment

Hands Off My Confidence

I will be honest with you. I am so over people referring to women or black people or black women as if we are mysterious creatures, suffering from mysterious ailments, the causes of which can never possibly be understood. This is the white cis male narrative that surveys humanity with a detached fake-objectivity that erases all of our context and history and then scratches its head in genuine and judgmental wonder. The thing with dominant narratives is they are everywhere, infecting us all.

Right now I want to talk about the women-lack-confidence narrative. I can be at a panel on women in math, listening to important statistics and first-hand accounts, with each speaker quite on point about the situation we face. Then inevitably someone will bring up how they’ve noticed their female students don’t have the same confidence as their male students. Everyone nods, wearing their empathy faces. At this point anyone eavesdropping on my brain would notice that all my thoughts are on fire while my body goes into fight or flight mode and I vaguely consider interrupting with raging incredulity.

I haven’t interrupted (yet). I just sit there and watch all the young women in the audience receive the burden of confidence. Hey ladies, why don’t you just try being more confident. Oh, and smile more. You’d look confident if you smiled more.

Fascinating, isn’t it? How women are just never good enough to overcome sexism. Same for people of color and racism. Double for women of color. I WONDER WHY THAT IS.

I want us to rethink confidence for a bit. In my own life, people’s opinions of my confidence have been entirely based on whether I was willing to risk negative judgment. If I avoid the situation I think might go poorly, I don’t have enough confidence. If I do the thing of my own accord without cowering, even if I declare my intense discomfort and general pessimism, I am confident. Young children are naturally confident, maybe even too confident (I’m looking at you, naked toddler climbing over the couch). What causes children to lose their confidence?

I don’t have a great story about losing my confidence. I don’t have a story about mean children or uncaring adults. I did skip second grade which put me in a new situation with a lot of new people, but I don’t remember feeling unsafe or anything. It just happened that one day I finally understood all the messages all consumers of US media receive on a continual basis. I lost my confidence when I realized that, through no fault of my own, I was a wrong type of person. My thighs were too big, my stomach too round, my voice too soft. For that matter, my words were too infrequent. People categorized me. I got older and realized that my non-European face wasn’t feminine enough. My hair wasn’t well-behaved enough. My thighs were a persistent problem. My lack of small-talk required constant justification. It’s really important for people to know just what exactly is wrong with you, so that they can stop thinking about you, and get back to their normal lives with their normal people.

Keep in mind that not once growing up did I ever question my intelligence. One of the labels I was given early on was “smart” (which was also called “good at math”), and I knew it was true. Even in graduate school, where for the first time I felt intellectually worthless, I knew that I was still as smart as I’d ever been. I just happened to be surrounded by even smarter people (or…). I had all the confidence in the world in my brain, but I knew it was my body that determined my worth. I knew it was my body that I would be judged on, that I had to protect the world from, that would determine who would ever love me. I knew this because that’s what I was told every day of my life from magazines and television and movies and my classmates.

I can only know about myself, but I hypothesize that many people who lack confidence are people who make the rational assumption that individuals carry with them the same beliefs as mainstream society. I think you don’t want to see my face or my body because my face and my body are never shown (favorably) on TV. I think it’s not safe to make mistakes because I have had to justify everything I’ve ever done, even things that were beyond my control. Yet you look at me with compassionate eyes and think it’s a shame I won’t just take more risks. Don’t you see what I’ve risked already?

People who are confident are people who feel certain that they will not regret their actions. Is it any wonder that white cis gender heterosexual men seem to have more confidence? They have been rewarded their whole lives just for existing, while the rest of us are questioned and scrutinized completely unjustifiably. A black woman never acts alone. I have to contend with representing my whole race or gender. If I am wrong it has much bigger consequences for me than it would otherwise, because opportunities for me are always possibly just a favor, ready to be rescinded.

I’ll be honest. I am full of dread typing this post. I prefer to know, before I speak, how my words will be received. I prefer to have some control over the labels I receive. I dread finding out that everyone misunderstood the same paragraph. I dread having to respond (or not) to objections that completely miss the point. I also struggled to write this because it is my inclination to make declarative statements, but I’d hate for my point to be lost because I accidentally said something about human psychology that was verifiably untrue. (For instance, I don’t actually know whether women are less confident, or are just perceived to be, or if it’s just women in STEM, or women in STEM at a certain level, etc.) In fact, this whole endeavor of being a co-editor for a legit blog terrifies me. I don’t know what will be required of me, and I’m afraid I will end up “not pulling my weight” because I won’t “take initiative” or offer enough “input” if any decisions need to be made.

It may sound like I could stand to be more confident, but my concerns are founded because I’ve already lived through these things. Sometimes “not confident” is “thinks fielding oppressive crap is a waste of time.” Sometimes “not confident” is “has accepted the mainstream values which are supported everywhere she goes.”

I want us all to stop worrying about whether women are confident enough. You should know that I perceive the charge as a criticism. I understand, as I’m supposed to, that confidence correlates with success and that lacking confidence creates missed opportunities which often makes success more difficult. I understand, as I’m supposed to, that confidence is a personal trait and therefore lack of confidence is a personal flaw. When I hear women’s lack of confidence listed as a reason for under-representation, I feel scrutinized.

I do have confidence now. I no longer care about society’s views or how many people agree with them. I can be the first and only person on a dance floor; I can fly across the country to be the center of attention while I open up about my insecurities and answer personal questions; I can tell well-meaning white women I don’t accept their apologies as long as they’re standing by their belief that my experiences are invalid. I can survive being asked if I’m pregnant when I’m not. Each of these would have produced seemingly insurmountable levels of fear and shame several years ago, and I would have moved mountains to avoid them.

Before you declare the happy ending to my confidence journey, you should know that I still align myself with those students who aren’t confident, because my feelings about myself actually haven’t changed. I am still infected with society’s values, I just don’t respect them anymore. I no longer make decisions based on those values. I no longer sacrifice myself in the name of those beliefs, because I came to the realization that I could follow all those rules and still be blamed for my own rape or murder. When I give my “Liberated Mathematician” talk and students are impressed by my confidence, that is what they see in me now. Someone who does what she wants, what she thinks is right, without apologizing or asking permission first, because she realizes nothing will ever make her truly safe.

Women deserve to have confidence. They deserve to move freely, to act without undue scrutiny. Women should not have to justify every thought, passion, or choice. They deserve to expect to move freely, to expect to be able to act without undue scrutiny. Women should not expect to have to justify every thought, passion, or choice. When you think about women who lack confidence, think about the society that trained them to live up to higher standards than men. This goes for other marginalized groups and especially people of color who are also marginalized by gender and/or sexuality.

Stop telling women they need to be more confident. Stop telling us we aren’t (confident) enough. Start telling men to stop being sexist. Start telling society that you don’t agree with its objectification of women and its dehumanization of women of color. Let your marginalized students know that they have been more scrutinized than the white cis men they are in competition with. Let them know that the standards they hold themselves to are keeping them from certain opportunities, but that also these double standards are still real. Students who are afraid to make mistakes have learned from experience that it’s not safe to make mistakes. Let them know you hear them, and you support them. Let them know you are working to make it safe for them to make mistakes.

In the end, what we want is not women who stand taller in the face of sexism. We want sexism to go away.

Remember that the reason I act so confidently these days is because I know nothing will spare my body or my life in the face of racism or sexism. That’s what I carry with me, while I make bold choices, and subject myself to other people’s opinions. Sometimes “not confident” is “not ready to know how terrible the world is.”

I ask, always, that we support all marginalized and excluded groups. I ask that we create environments where mistakes and diverse perspectives are encouraged. I offer no concrete solutions. And now I’m going to send this to a few people, including my co-editors, before it goes live, because that is what I want to do.

Posted in racism, sexism, victim-blaming, women in math | 10 Comments

Hidden Figures: How and Why We Brought it to the 2017 JMM


from Wikipedia

By now, you’re heard of Hidden Figures, a 20th Century Fox biographical drama which follows three African-American women who worked for NASA in the early 1960’s. The movie is based on a book written by Margot Lee Shetterly.  With a complete title of Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, this incredibly-well researched book spans nearly half a century to chronicle the lives of African-Americans in Hampton, Virginia as the United States entered the Space Race.

But the main question I pose today is not “how did they overcome obvious adversity and discrimination to succeed?” but rather “why haven’t I heard about this until now?”

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Posted in conferences | 2 Comments

Inclusion/Exclusion Principle

What do you think of when someone is described as “professorial”? I was recently reading an article that used this adjective to describe a film director. Immediately, I thought that they were speaking about a bearded white male, probably straight, and on the older side. I looked this person up on Google images, and I was mostly correct (except the person was slightly younger than I imagined, and did NOT have a beard, but I digress). I was struck by how easy it was for the writer of the article to evoke an image of the person they were writing about, but by using a term that is not even remotely reserved for white cisgender heterosexual males. For example, I’m a professor, and so are all the editors of this blog! But we are not the people one thinks of when someone says “professorial”, unless it comes with other adjectives or descriptors. The same could be said about someone being described as a “mathematician” – who do you picture when you hear this word?

And in a sort of roundabout way (which you will soon realize is very much my style) this brings me to the point of this blog. The main mission of inclusion/exclusion (yes, in lowercase) is to bring attention to issues of diversity and inclusion in mathematics. The Inclusion/Exclusion Principle is a strategy from combinatorics used to count things in different sets, without over-counting things in the overlap. It’s a little bit of a stretch, but that is in essence what we intend to do: highlight and elevate the differences, the diversity of our field, and not just more of the same. We want to change what it means to be “professorial” or a “mathematician”.   Topics you can expect are:

  • Posts about people who are doing good things for diversity and inclusion in mathematics.
  • Tips and strategies for creating more inclusive classrooms and departments, research on pedagogy.
  • Articles and reports on diversity and representation in math and STEM.
  • Posts about and interviews with mathematicians from marginalized or under-represented groups, highlighting their achievements and work.
  • Reviews on math meetings we attend.
  • Reviews on websites and organizations focusing on supporting underrepresented people in math.
  • Posts with personal perspectives.
  • Posts about mentoring colleagues and students from underrepresented groups.

The idea for this blog was conceived more than a year ago. I had recently “retired” from the Ph.D. + epsilon blog and was looking for something else to write about. I realize that many people write about diversity and inclusion already – for example you can find great posts in my former blogging grounds, the AMS blog on teaching, the AMS mentoring blog, and the blog on math blogs. Beautiful writing from many others, like Francis Su, has been getting a lot of deserved attention. But I wanted a place where we talk about these things exclusively (see what I did there?), and intentionally. I also wanted a diverse team of writers to help (a blog about diversity and inclusion should not be written by just one person with just one point of view!). You will see that we have different styles, different voices, different interests, and in some cases I’m sure different opinions, but that is what I’m most excited about – true diversity! We will also have guest writers every once in a while, writing on topics that are their area of expertise, and not ours.

Finally, I want to point out that since the blog was conceived, the world has changed quite a bit. As group of editors that includes women, people of color, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community, we are particularly aware of the fact that having a place for our voices is not just a good thing – it is critical. We hope that everyone gets something out of this conversation, and we welcome all of our readers to share their own voices by participating in the comments. We look forward to sharing our posts, and ourselves, with you.

The editing team left to right: Piper, Adriana, Brian, and Edray. Not pictured: Luis.

Redefining “professorial”. The editing team left to right: Piper, Adriana, Brian, and Edray. Not pictured: Luis.

Posted in introduction | 2 Comments