A conversation with The Accidental Mathematician

Izabella Laba is a fantastic blogger. She is also a professor at the University of British Columbia. She is widely published in harmonic analysis, geoemtric measure theory and additive combinatorics. And most recently, she is one of the founding editors of the new ArXiv overlay journal, Discrete Analysis. But her blog, The Accidental Mathematician, was how I first became familiar with Laba, and it was the reason that I called her for a conversation last week. I was curious how she found her niche in the math blogosphere, and to hear her thoughts on the state of the art.

photo courtesy of Izabella Laba.

photo courtesy of Izabella Laba.

One of the pillars of Laba’s blog is the issue of gender imbalance in mathematics. I spoke with Laba about tackling this topic, “It’s never just gender inequality by itself. It’s not separated from everything else that happens to us. Gender inequality does not exist in a vacuum. It manifests itself in specific ways. And both depends on the rest of who we are and what we do.” It’s important to put things in a rich context, “if I were to just write a post about ‘men think that women are worse at math but they really aren’t,’ then there’s like one sentence I can write about that. And that’s where I have to stop,” Laba says, “it’s not a terribly interesting thing to either read or write.”

The context tells the story, and accordingly, the post of Laba’s that has stuck with me the most is “Gender, conferences, confrontations, and conversations.” For anyone considering organizing a conference, attending a conference, existing as a woman in math, existing as a man in math, seeking equality, recongnizing inequality in all its shadowy forms, or just generally getting it, Laba takes you there.

As a full professor at a top research university, Laba is able to scope out the gender terrain from a unique vantage point. Although it’s 2016, she says, “people get the impression that this progress is happening really quickly and this problem is going to be all fixed in a few years, and I don’t think that’s going to happen.” Laba cites the high numbers of women who fall through the so-called leaky pipeline, an idea that is confirmed by the AMS Annual Survey of the Mathematical Sciences. While 32% (which has held relatively stead over the past 10 years) of the mathematics PhD recipients in 2014 were female, when you compare the number who eventually get tenure track jobs at large research universities, that number is much smaller.

Sometimes it can be hard to see the big picture when we are so focused on our home institutions, Laba says, “blogging is important that it allows people to make those connections, by reading a lot of blogs and communicating with people you get a bigger picture than you would have on your own.”

Blogging, Laba says, is an important tool to shed light on all aspects of the profession, particularly for those who exist outside of the narrow confines of academia. “I don’t really think that I write to humanize mathematicians, maybe it has that effect to some people, but that’s not something that I aim for,” rather, Laba says, “if I decide to write a post it’s about a specific issue that I’ve been thinking about or discussing with people.” Laba has written about the duties of an academic mathematician, the way we choose speak as mathematicians, and the pervasive kookification of mathematicians in the media.

It took Laba some time to find her voice as a blogger, always an outspoken person, she says “I’m actually really embarrassed to look at some of my earlier posts. I’m sometimes tempted to delete all of that. Leaving that there for other people, especially other women who think that they might want to start blogging but they don’t write so well. Ok. Look at what I did!”

But the medium of blogging, Laba claims, is a good and important one. “It was a long time ago I came across personal blogs, political blogs, academic blogs, and it was just amazing how much people could do with that form,” she says, “you could speak your own voice, you could speak for yourself.” Even better, she says, “you could develop your voice gradually, you did not have to write a book, or do something big right away. You could start with small posts and work towards something bigger.”

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2 Responses to A conversation with The Accidental Mathematician

  1. Philip Holman says:

    The gender imbalance in mathematics can’t be fixed until the gender imbalance in society is fixed. The former is definitely a dependent variable of the latter. I see this in the students I tutor, whereby it manifests itself as a lack of confidence or even a lower expectation of what can be achieved.

  2. Marion Deutsche Cohen says:

    I’m glad to read about Laba’s blog, and I’d just like to call to your attention two things:

    (JoAnne Growney’s blog, Intersections: Poetry with Mathematics (She’d also very concerned about the issue with “women in mathematics”.)

    a post on my site, www.marioncohen.net — “Limericks about Women Mathematicians” (written by me) (Some of those limericks appear in JoAnne’s blog.)

    I’ll check out Laba’s blog a lot more than I already have! — Marion D. Cohen

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