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.

I will tell you about a moment in which I was on the “fisherman’s” side of the equation, something I am very much not proud of. I had a student who I assumed identified as female (their name and my assumptions about their looks was all I used, and I never asked whether they used other pronouns). I only realized this at the end of the semester (a whole semester of misgendering a student), when they wrote a note in their final exam explaining this, and suggesting that I ask people their pronouns at the beginning of class in the future. They never felt comfortable saying this to me during the semester, because they already felt marginalized. They even mentioned seeing an example in our textbook (an intro to proofs course) that talked about sets, and that they couldn’t pay attention for the rest of the week. The example said something like this: “If the set U is the set of all humans, and A is the set of all men, what is the complement of A? Clearly, it should be the set of all women.” In that moment, my student felt that their math class just stated that they didn’t exist! That was enough to disrupt their concentration. And here is the part I’m most embarrassed of: I felt that they were exaggerating. “It’s just a math problem” was my immediate response. But it wasn’t, it erased them with one simple sentence, and it took a little time for me to really understand that (by reading more and talking to my trans and non-binary friends, mostly). And all I needed to do was listen, and accept that they knew more about how they felt than I did (again, seems simple, but isn’t).

More recently, I myself felt invisible when the March issue of AMS Notices came out, simultaneously hailing Women’s History Month and showcasing Andrew Wiles (who is not a woman) on the cover. In fact, initially, this post was going to be about that, but after many conversations among co-editors it evolved into this post about invisibility. Piper Harron, liberated mathematician and co-editor, wrote some initial thoughts on this, and I will quote her heavily in what follows. As Piper put it,

“Hey, funny story! The March issue of the Notices has a little “Women’s History Month” banner on it, but the cover photo is of a man and all the featured articles are about men, and most of the contributors to the issue are men. Oh yes, there is an article about a woman on the inside, because that’s how you celebrate women, by not literally excluding them. Interestingly, a woman was on the cover last month, and Black History Month got no mention. This, in the age of Hidden Figures.”

Judging from my social media feeds, Piper and I were not alone in this reaction. To me, the most jarring thing was the juxtaposition of a little banner (only related to some small statistics and links on the inside, not an actual article) and the epitome of “white male mathematician” right next to it. It wouldn’t have bothered me as much if the banner hadn’t been in there, but it just served as a reminder of a lifetime of “little things” that make you feel invisible. Also, ironically, it takes attention away from the really great interview with Wiles inside. Defending the decision is also not something I’m interested in. I can understand the difficulties of putting a magazine like this together, and that content is often based on submissions (which I can believe is overwhelmingly male).  Also, I don’t want the opposite to happen: that women are ONLY on the March issue, black mathematicians are ONLY on the February issue, and the rest of the year is business as usual (i.e. white cis males). But I invite us all to think about how these decisions, seemingly trivial to some (like a problem about set theory), can be a lot less trivial for others. One way to get around this is to have more diversity in editorial boards — more eyes will inevitably catch more of these things.

Also, from Piper, “For those of you who think it isn’t sexist to put a man on the cover while claiming to celebrate Women’s History Month, consider that I looked at the cover and felt invisible. I was reminded that they don’t think they need me. I had a negative experience, just because I’m a woman. That’s how sexism works.”

Just a few days ago, another white man, Yves Meyer, was named the winner of the Abel Prize. His work on developing the theory of wavelets was cited as the reason, but anyone who knows anything about wavelets will immediately think of Ingrid Daubechies, not Meyer. I am not trying to discredit the winner, as he is very clearly an outstanding mathematician who has done important work. I read that perhaps Daubechies was not eligible because of her presidency of the IMU (so it is a conflict of interest since the IMU decides the committee that gives the awards). Matilde Marcolli responded to this claim best, in a comment on Terry Tao’s blog post on the topic (emphasis mine):

“If really Daubechies was not eligible this year due to a conflict with the IMU presidency, then assigning a prize that recognizes the very important topic of wavelets could have easily waited until a time when it could have been shared between Meyer (who certainly deserves the recognition for his major contributions) and Daubechies who is after all the most prominent figure in the field. This decision sends a very clear and loud message to the mathematical community that even when a woman is the most visible and prominent figure in a certain field of mathematics and that field is singled out for a major recognition the prize will inevitably go to the next available dude. With all due respect to Meyer, whose work I greatly admire, and whose books I loved to read, and who certainly deserved to be given a prominent recognition, I think the decision to go ahead with a prize in this field at a time when Daubechies would not be eligible casts a very dark shadow on the mathematical community as a whole.”

So the plead here is to listen to people when they tell you something has made them feel invisible, and to think carefully about the consequences of your actions. Think about what you could do differently in the future, and think about the work you need to do to change your own biases. This is hard, but we can do it.

So, dear readers, we offer no solutions here. It is hard to predict how people will feel, which is why I really don’t care about figuring out what happened in the past. However, once you have done something that has made someone feel ignored, invisible, or unwanted, now you have information you can use to predict the responses to your actions. And for those of us in positions of power, or in positions where we can change things, let’s pledge to do better, to be more careful, and again, to listen before we defend.

If you have other stories of how you have been on either side of this issue, we invite you to share them in the comments below. And please, listen to each other.

We leave you with this video. “It is worth watching. It is about representation and impact.” says Piper.

This entry was posted in implicit bias, racism, sexism, women in math. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Profiles in Invisibility

  1. Christina Sormani says:

    I take part of the blame for the AMS Notices Cover. I am a woman and an associate editor. I was not concerned about March being women’s history month. I suppose we could have delayed the February cover article about Maryna Viazovska until March. But I would have voted against this. I believe she should be showcased for her solution of the sphere packing not for being a woman.

    Every prize I’ve won and grant I’ve earned, I’ve been told by multiple colleagues that I got it only because I was a woman. This includes times I landed a tenure track job at a dept the resentful person hadn’t even applied to. It includes many a conference where an organizer decides he should inform me they “had to invite a woman”. I am not tired of being invisible. I’m tired of having every achievement lowered two notches. I’m tired of having to say, “well I am very proud then to have been chosen from the many highly qualified woman who could have been selected in my place”. We have prizes for women in math that lead to no new recognition at work: no promotion, no new job. Although the competition for AWM Noether Lecturer is far wider than for a Veblen Prize in geometry, it isn’t treated with the same respect.

    I see now I was thinking too much in terms of the woman whose achievement was recognized in February. Perhaps I should be thinking about the readers and their sense of being ostracized and alone. Maybe we should have moved that article to March.

    • Adriana Salerno says:

      Thanks for this comment, Christina. No need to “take blame”, I agree that there are so many factors into editing a magazine that it’s hard to see what could happen.

      Your second paragraph also really resonates with me. I think all people of color and women in math have experienced something similar at some point, and it is very important to keep that in mind when making these decisions (as you were no doubt doing).

      But finally, this is not about “we should have”, it is about what we can do in the future. Our default settings, like I said, are sometimes different from our audience’s, in ways that can actually hurt that audience. So more than one or the other being “right”, we just need to listen. Thanks for reading and commenting. This is a group effort, and you and your voice really matter in the process too.

      • Christina Sormani says:

        Thanks, any suggestions how to do things better in the future… post them here or at the AMS Notices site, because we are listening.

    • Michelle Manes says:

      I think this sentence in the post is important: “It wouldn’t have bothered me as much if the banner hadn’t been in there.”

      Clearly, women’s history month was thought about, since the banner was included on the cover. But somehow no one noticed the disconnect between including that banner and not having a story by or about a woman inside or profiled on the cover.

      I love Christina’s argument for the February cover. What I might have liked to see:

      (1) February cover & issue exactly as they were. Women shouldn’t have to wait until March each year to be recognized for their contributions.

      (2) March cover: a collage of women in mathematics throughout history (it is women’s *history* month after all), maybe with the last one being the same image from the February cover.

      The Wiles profile was great, and could still be in the issue. But if the banner was there on the cover, I don’t think Wiles should have been the cover pic.

      But no blame assigned… just voicing what I would have liked. And saying that I, too, felt really sad & invisible looking at the cover.

  2. Helen G. Grundman, AMS Director of Education and Diversity says:

    Hi Everyone,

    Thank you, Christina, for putting so well the frustrations of not being able to escape from the assumptions that others make. Your comments explain why I, for one, really do not want every March Notices cover to feature a woman, nor each January Notices to feature an African Americans, etc. I want the photos on the Notices to represent the diverse range of mathematicians, but not to do so by following some monthly designations or other formula.

    I was thrilled with the way last October’s Notices cover gave us a glimpse of the montage of faces on the (awesome!) Lathisms website! This was an example of the Notices recognizing, spreading the word about, and giving excerpts from a website doing work of broad mathematics interest. It was not simply someone thinking that we need to do something to observe Hispanic Heritage Month.

    On that topic, I would love to see well-constructed websites of this sort (or in an equally appealing format) featuring women mathematicians. And who knows? Just like Lathisms, it might lead to a montage on the cover of the Notices and, to me just as importantly, some more coverage of women mathematicians in the pages of the Notices.

    Back to the topic of feeling invisible, I think that the included video was very well made, I just wish that the offered solution to the problem were not that we need more cultural diversity in hyper-sexualized, frequently-misogynistic comic books. I’d like to think that we could come up with some better multicultural role-models to endorse. (But perhaps this is just me.)

    In any case, on the problem of feeling invisible: anything that anyone (for example, you the reader) can do to help educate the general population (mathematically inclined or not), showing them that women mathematicians really do exist and do important work would be greatly appreciated by a whole lot of us!

    Thank you, Adriana, for a thought-provoking article!

  3. Joe Silverman says:

    Beautifully written blog post (as always)! Regarding favorite “superhero” and Invisible Boy from Mystery Men, I’d also point to the song “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” from the show Next to Normal. I’d heard the song several times and thought, okay, nice enough song;

    Superboy and the Invisible Girl
    Son of Steel and Daughter of Air
    He’s a hero, a lover, a prince.
    She’s not there.

    and then I got to see the play and hear the song in context, and was blown away. I don’t want to include a spoiler for those who haven’t seen the show, but despite the fact that the book and lyrics are by a man, the show really gets this issue. [Why there are so few women with shows on Broadway is yet another issue.]

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