Building Gender and Sexuality Allyship in the Mathematics Community

Guest Authors:

Student Authors: Alexander Asemota, Kevin Harris, Quiyana Murphy

Organizer Authors: Alexander Diaz-Lopez, Pamela E. Harris, Vanessa Rivera Quiñones, Luis Sordo Vieira, Bianca Thompson, Shelby Wilson, Aris Winger, Michael Young

This summer, we participated in Math SWAGGER, a virtual workshop for underrepresented graduate students who are pursuing PhDs in the mathematical sciences. During the Gender and Sexuality session, we built a framework to reflect on how gender and sexuality intersect with our mathematical identity and our experiences within the mathematical community. To this end, we were split into subgroups by the gender participants identified the most with and talked about the spectrum of gender and sexuality, the privilege and barriers you may face depending on your identity, and ways to create inclusive environments through proactive allyship. In this article, we will share some of the lessons learned.

One of the main themes during our conversations was the differences in how women and men are perceived and treated, in particular, when they belong to an underrepresented group in mathematics. Historically, women and people of color have not been viewed as the quintessential representation of a mathematician. During the session, we discussed how women are viewed as less knowledgeable than their male counterparts and how these experiences further alienate women from feeling like they belong in mathematics. We also discussed the experience of women and people of color feeling like we have to work/study twice as hard to be thought of as half as good as our male/white counterparts. These experiences have led to some believing that they are not good enough to be and stay in mathematics. This can lead to being pressured into studying and working more frequently (with an already demanding course load/job) to avoid being seen as “slacking off” or thought to be lazy, leading to burnout and feelings of inadequacy.

We also reflected on the experience of being non-binary and/or LGBTQAIP+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, asexual and sometimes ally, polyamorous, and the + encompasses other orientations and identities) in mathematics. Our students, colleagues, and peers may not identify publicly as such in fear of the consequences of disclosing that information. It could be fear of reputational and physical harm, or that it would come at the expense of their professional growth [1]. For example, being disproportionately passed over for jobs, tenured positions, awards, and speaking engagements because they are not perceived as a ‘good fit’.

Also, in many contexts within the mathematics community, gender and sexuality are approached as binary. However, as illustrated by The Genderbread Person below, gender and sexuality lie in a continuum [2]. Gender encompasses multiple aspects such as identity (i.e. how we view ourselves), expression (i.e. how we express ourselves), and our biological sex. And, while attraction is not a component of gender, it is often categorized in the same way or treated as a gendered experience. Similar to gender, how we experience romantic and sexual attraction (which may or may not overlap with each other) lies in a spectrum.

These perceptions play out in our classrooms, within our departments, at conferences, and in mathematical spaces in general. Disentangling our individual and collective experiences in terms of solely gender or solely sexuality is especially a challenge when you have a multitude of identities at play.

Intersectionality within Mathematics: Intersectionality helps us understand that an individual’s experience may not reflect the general experiences of a single group they are a part of. Using Dr. Eugenia Cheng’s mathematical framework for understanding privilege, we view the cube below as an example of the idea of intersectionality [3]. This cube sits on three axes: sexuality, gender identity, and race. The vertices are different sets of identities, each of which comes with unique privileges and challenges.

We often reduce privilege to a one-dimensional subspace, but in reality, people lie at the intersections of identities creating a multi-faceted experience. These intersections bring nuance to our experiences and privileges (or lack thereof) within the mathematical spaces we occupy. Understanding our own privilege and that of others may be further complicated by sexuality, gender expression, socioeconomic status, and other such identities.

Queer theory asks us to question the norms we’ve created in society. We can go further by questioning the norms we’ve created in mathematics. For example, the norm of who can do mathematics? What does it mean to prove something in mathematics? Do we all need to adhere to the created norms? Is there room for other methods of proof? [4] Being white and male or cis-gender and heterosexual can be seen as the default in the mathematics community. By assuming this default, we erase individuals’ identities. This is particularly challenging for LGBTQAIP+ people who have chosen not to disclose their identities. Even in seemingly safe environments, queer people may still hide to avoid misconceptions, stereotypes, or persistent questioning. This is one of the ways privilege expresses itself; cisgender and heterosexual people don’t have to hide their gender identity or sexuality out of fear or self-preservation. In contrast, for those of us with more melanin, it is not an option to hide that aspect of our identity.

Allyship:  Many barriers might keep us from showing support or speaking up for women and members of the LGBTQAIP+. People can be hesitant about showing their support in fear of being judged by their friends or colleagues or receiving the same discrimination that their LGBTQAIP+ peers face. The first step in overcoming this barrier is to learn to be comfortable with our own identity. It is not until then that one can actively show support without feeling insecure about their own sexuality/sexual identity or be negatively affected by the questioning of others.

We agreed that visibility and allyship are intertwined. For example, queer people are more likely to be visible when they know others with shared identities and have allies [5]. On the other hand, visible allyship makes it easier for other allies to be vocal, similarly to how bystander intervention builds on itself. This can create a positive feedback loop that makes spaces safer for members of the LGBTQAIP+ community over time. We must be vocal in our support of women and members of the LGBTQAIP+ community.

Together we came up with the following list of ways to show our support and build more inclusive environments.

  • Educating ourselves. We can attend safe zone training and encourage members of our departments to do the same. It is an ongoing process. A single training session will not teach us everything to know about how to be a good ally. It is work we will need to undertake for life. We can make the commitment now and stick to it throughout our careers.
  • Creating a learning environment and workplace that is inclusive of everyone by using appropriate language. This may require us to be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. Shying from doing the hard work of learning how to be inclusive, or worse, thinking it is the responsibility others to educate us, is not only problematic, but it continues to overburden those who are marginalized within the mathematical community and society at large.
  • Not assuming that we know someone’s pronoun based solely on their appearance. Asking and correctly using an individual’s pronoun is one of the basic ways that we can show respect for an individual’s identity. Send a document that asks students to give their preferred name, pronunciation, and pronoun [6].
  • Using more inclusive language in our presentation of mathematical content. Specifically, in regards to a diverse presentation of names, pronouns, and relationships in word problems. We can avoid the unnecessary gendering of names of mathematical objects. For example, calling the nodes/vertices of a graph by “guys” should be avoided.
  • Speaking out against discrimination. For example, we must actively question and interrupt generalized or derogatory statements made about members of marginalized groups. When someone shares their experience of discrimination, we should believe and, support them while also respecting confidentiality. In some situations it will be best to address it publicly and others privately.
  • Advocating for legislation and policies that favor the equal rights of women and members of the LGBTQAIP+ community. This holds at all levels, in our classroom, our department, our institution, and our community. Every environment can be made better and more inclusive by changes in policy.
  • Visibility is important. We can join and support organizations and events such as Spectra: the Association for LGBT Mathematicians, LBGTG+Math Day, the Association for Women in Mathematics, and 500 Queer Scientists.

Becoming an ally requires commitment, persistence, and hard work. It is not enough to simply not make overt discriminatory statements related to gender or sex. We need to actively fight discrimination and inequities by speaking out, being open to learning, and by advocating for policies that favor equality. We will all make mistakes and hold prejudices. Yet, this is not an excuse not to act. The ones who try and stumble are not barriers towards change. It is those who accept the status quo at face value who perpetuate inequality and discrimination by their inaction. The flourishing of the mathematics community will require significant effort to lift and empower all people in our community. Nevertheless, the value of an inclusive and diverse workplace and community are well documented. We welcome you to join us as we strive for a more equal and just mathematical society.

 

References:

[1]  A WORD FROM… by Alexander Hoover and Alexander Wiedemann.

[2] Genderbread Person: A teaching tool for breaking the big concept of gender down into bite-sized, digestible pieces.

[3] How abstract mathematics can help us understand the world by Dr. Eugenia Cheng.

[4] Mathematical Inqueery: Queering the Theory, Praxis, and Politics of Mathematics Pedagogy by Kai Rands.

[5] Living Proof Stories of Resilience along the Mathematical Journey (Story 13): Cold, Austere, or Queer by Autumn Kent.

[6] Preferred Gender Pronouns: For Faculty by Mateo Medina.

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Acknowledgements: We acknowledge funding support for Math SWAGGER through the National Science Foundation Award #1744463 and Dr. Bianca Thompson for leading the session.

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