As you know, dear readers, the issue of women in math is very close to my heart. I have written about a few different programs for women that I find very encouraging (like the SK Days, the AWM mentoring travel grants, and the women in number theory conferences), and a couple of instances of clear discrimination (like my post on the IBM “Minds of modern mathematics” app). In a couple of instances, I have gotten some backlash in the comments, either arguing against “only-for-women” activities, or stating that there is no longer such a thing as discrimination against women. I must admit, in fact, that things have changed for the better in the last 50 years. Overt discrimination against women in mathematics is rare, and when it does rear its ugly head it is easily dismissed as a bigoted point of view. However, I think that there is still discrimination, and of the more complicated kind, the kind that is subconscious and hard to erase. In this blog post, I will tell two stories (anonymized to protect the identity of the protagonists and their institutions), that I think are examples of the subtle and subconscious discrimination we still have to deal with.
First, I would like to remind you all that none of this is new. A study from 2012 showed that, given identical resumes for a lab manager position, the resumes associated to a male name were regarded as belonging to more qualified applicants and these people were offered a higher salary. One of the main conclusions of the study was that even though there weren’t overt sexist reasons for these decisions, there was still a subtle gender bias which “could translate into large real-world disadvantages in the judgment and treatment of female science students.” What I offer here are two anecdotes of how this can manifest in real life. I want to state, however, that this is my opinion, and I have no proof or evidence that this is gender bias at work. It may be that I am biased in my own way. At any rate, these stories definitely resonated with me personally, and maybe be they will resonate with you, too, or at least get you thinking about the subtle biases we might all have.
- Buffy recently got tenure at an R1 institution, let’s call it UC Sunnydale. The UC*D Math Department decided to give four people a significant raise. The raises were allocated according to “merit”, but also, to preserve “equity”. In the end, three men got the raises, one was an Associate Professor, and two were Assistant Professors (tenure-track). A female Full Professor, let’s call her Prof. Walsh, also got the raise, but even after the raise she will still be significantly underpaid compared to the other Full Professors in the department. Buffy asked why she was overlooked, and they said that of the two people who were recently granted tenure, the guy, let’s call him Dr. Mears, had seniority. Mears had received tenure one year before Buffy, and he had obtained his Ph.D. earlier than she had, but they were hired at the same time. Also, they said, he is bringing in grant money, and publishing a lot. Buffy then pointed out that she has also received as much or more grant money, and that her research record is equivalent to Dr. M’s. Furthermore, why should she be punished for getting a tenure-track job at an R1 soon after finishing her Ph.D.? She didn’t get far with this line of argumentation, so she decided to change it. If it’s seniority they want to reward, then why would they skip her over and give raises to untenured people? Even more upsetting, since this is a public university and current salaries are information available to all, Buffy could tell that after their raise these untenured people would now be making more than she did, a tenured professor. The department’s reasoning was that they needed to spread this wealth “vertically”, and reward the same amount of people at each rank (hence one full, one associate, and two assistant raises). But if it’s equity they are concerned with, shouldn’t the only female to have gotten tenure recently at UC*D also be rewarded? After much arguing and questioning by Buffy, the only other female in the department with tenure, Dr. Walsh, broke down and confessed: “Here’s the thing: we KNOW you want to stay here, you like your job, you like living in Sunnydale, and we know your husband also likes it here. We wanted to make sure these other people don’t leave”. Now, this is what I find really messed up, that somehow she, the woman, would have this sense of loyalty that prevents her from leaving, so they can take her for granted and everything will be OK. The ones they need to woo are the men, who will be looking for bigger better things no doubt. Doesn’t that sound a little crazy to you? Am I exaggerating in my reaction to all this? In the end, Dr. Walsh applied to get Buffy a raise, which, by the way, ended up being almost exactly 80 cents on the dollar of the raise her male colleagues got. You be the judge.
- My second story is a less-obvious instance of bias, in my opinion, but I think there are things at work here that are worrisome. Annie recently applied for Full Professor at Greendale College (which for our fictional purposes will be a liberal arts school, not a community college). She received glowing letters regarding her teaching and her service, and was told her research was great. However, her research was found to be “oh so close but not quite what we want”, and she was denied promotion. She had several research papers under her belt, but in the end only one was found to be “acceptable” (even though, I should reiterate, her other publications were in peer-reviewed journals, and this is a liberal arts college). She never got a very good explanation about why her other papers were disqualified, and I believe she is still very frustrated about that (I don’t blame her). But the one thing Annie was most upset about is that, in part, her research had suffered because she kept saying yes to all this extra service, and she used up a lot of time in being a “good citizen of the college”. In the end, the service didn’t count for very much, and the lack of research sunk her. This is not a case of being denied promotion because she was a woman, but I do think that women volunteer for and feel they are expected to do a LOT of the service. Also, the people who volunteer more and do a good job get asked to do even more, and it is very hard to say no. Here is an excellent article from the American Association of University Professors that explains how (perceived) service responsibilities are a big part of what makes women in academia hit the proverbial “glass ceiling” after obtaining tenure. The worst part is that Annie was aware of the perils of doing too much service. She even tried to push back but was pressured into doing a lot of extra things for the department and the college, which, as she predicted, didn’t add up to very much when going up for promotion. In the end, Annie can apply again, and the good reviews seem to imply that if she bears down and makes good progress on her research she should be able to get the promotion. Unfortunately, all this heartache could have been avoided (and this is mentioned in the AAUP article) if the expectations for full professorship were clearer and if there were less pressure to “serve”.
Unfortunately, I offer no real solutions here, but I think it is important to be aware that these biases still exist. It is not enough to say “well, you are now allowed to attend college, so stop whining.” Yes, we have gained a lot in the last few decades, and yes, I think women feel more empowered to do mathematics and that they are capable of doing well in mathematics. Also, I have focused on women in math today, but a lot of this could have easily been about other underrepresented groups in mathematics. In fact, none of this is really specific to mathematics, and could apply to other areas where women are underrepresented (and where women were overtly discriminated against at some point in history). My main point is that these subtle biases are important and can still affect our careers deeply, and awareness of a problem is a good first step in solving it. Maybe if we know this when reading over promotion cases or while evaluating possible raises, we might stop and think about whether our decisions are based on fact or bias.
So, dear readers, what do you think? Have you observed any instances of “subtle bias” against women or other underrepresented groups? Do you think I am being too sensitive? Not sensitive enough? Please, share your thoughts and comments below.