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 | 13 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