Association for Women in Mathematics Panel Discussion, “Promoting Inclusion in Stem”

Talia Fernós started off this great panel with lively introductions of Autumn Kent, subject of a Q&A by Evelyn Lamb, Piper Harron, provocateur postdoc (I hope she allows me to call her that) and author of a straight fire thesis who also writes for inclusion/exclusion, another AMS blog, Pamela Barnett, an English professor at Lasalle University, and Harrison Bray, a postdoc at University of Michigan.  She started us off with axioms from Federico d’Ardila-Mantilla’s  fantastic Notices article about mathematics and a description of underrepresented groups, along with another that she added that I missed: something like inequality exists and is a result of structural things we’ve done?

I went with first names for this live-blogging because I know three of the people on the stage. Sorry for the forced camaraderie, Pamela and Harrison! I hope to meet you two sometime! Also apologies for all the stuff that you said that I missed. I didn’t record, I’m just typing while y’all talk.

Q: What are some things faculty members can do to retain students from underrepresented groups at the  undergraduate and graduate level?

Autumn: As a tenured professor, I sort of see how the sausage gets made in the math department. When I was asking graduate students for blurbs about why people should come here, they didn’t want to tell me anything. We started talking about the bias in the system and how women do worse on the qualifying exams than women, and we had a lot of contentious arguments over how to fix the qualifying exam system. There’s a lot of friction against each class of people, and if you’re in more classes you get more friction.

For instance, I’m the only queer person a lot of our students have seen in a leadership position, and some people have come out and said it was so helpful seeing someone like you exist.  So representation is important.

Pamela: Do our students feel a sense of belonging? Do they have role models? I look at strict metrics like what does diversity look like in our student body, and in the faculty, and in academic leadership?

How you write an ad matters. You can signal that you find diversity important in a search ad, and you want to avoid the “I know it when I see it” biases against the fullness of a candidate.  You should also do implicit bias training with committee members.

The five things no one will tell you about why colleges don’t hire more faculty of color.”

Autumn: Back to the qualifying exams, this is an obstacle course. You have to pass through the node of the qualifying exams to make it through the Ph.D. program. I think that I went through a system like that, but maybe it’s not the best way to do it.

I saw an article that said something like 30% of graduate students across the board suffer from clinical depression. It might be less than that, but periodically you’ll have a student with a mental health crisis or a professor who says something inappropriate. One thing you can do is make this a priority in your department. We now have a Mental Health Liaison, so people can come bring their problems to me. Someone at University Health Services told me:

You don’t have to solve someone’s problem, you just have to be a link in the chain for the solution.

This is part of my whole philosophy to make our department a welcoming place.

Talia: One of the things we implemented this semester was a harassment policy to be included in course syllabi.  The AWM is working actively on that to have some sort of verbage that people can add to their syllabi to address harassment. Mentorship is a really important way to track what is happening as people progress through their academic careers.

Pamela: We talked about retaining students, but it’s also good to build community to retain people at the faculty level. We started a monthly group of faculty who are committed to diversity and inclusivity at the school. They’ve met every month for eight years. There’s a place for people who share those concerns. You can do a lot to support each other.

Q: How do we measure success? 

Piper: I get invited to these things, but I don’t like them, because we have this group of people who aren’t the problem working together. We might as well be trying to figure out how to get Trump to do something.

We’re in this messed-up system and we’re asking how can we get more people to join this messed-up system with us?

How do we measure success? I would like to pick an arbitrary faculty member and mention something racist or sexist that happened to me, or something that a marginalized person experiences, and think they’re going to believe me. These are everyday frictions that you go through that slowly push you out. It’s not just numbers, it’s who is in power and things I don’t have numbers for.

Talia: Some people I asked to be on this panel said no because they said there’s no evidence that LGBTQ people are underrepresented in STEM. But the fact that we have no statistics I think could be a sign that we are underrepresented, and we know that LGBTQ people are overrepresented in the homeless population. Representation is important.

Q: How do you react to someone saying something sexist, racist, homophobic, etc.?

Piper: I would not ask a woman to speak up to someone saying something sexist. I think allies should step up and use their privilege.

Autumn: I think people can be trained. I was the first trans woman in our department. Now I’m surprised by the people who correct others who misgender me in a meeting, when I might’ve thought those would be the very people who would misgender me themselves.

We had one professor say something very inappropriate and everyone went berserk, and he said he wished he had a list of things he couldn’t say. So I made a list and sent it out at the beginning of the semester, and he responded with a thanks! That’s humorous and depressing but it’s a little thing that you can do.

Pamela: I don’t expect everyone to show up knowing all of this. It’s a learning institution for students and faculty and staff. People of privilege are afraid they’ll say the wrong thing, people of marginalized identities are worried they’ll have to take on the emotional burden of explaining everything over and over again.

We can’t offset diversity as a side thing- it needs to be a central part of your institution.

Back to what Piper said, there’s a lot of research that the person who call people out aren’t liked. You can’t put it off on students or grad students or untenured members of the department who are already carrying a lot of the weight.

Talia: I want to make a comment about power. I’m able bodied, so if someone belittles someone who isn’t, I have the power to say something.  And that holds for anyone in this room who might not be marginalized, or only have one marginalized identity instead of five.

Q: How can you get someone to be receptive to information that they’re being problematic?

Piper: You can try to include them in the conversation and get them at a remove so you don’t trigger them into defensiveness. For instance, if I try to criticize my seven-year-old from saying something mean, he’ll cover his ears.  But if I present information like “did you know that saying something mean is just as bad as hitting?” then he won’t cover his ears. He can be receptive to it because it doesn’t feel like it’s about him.

Autumn: Another thing about the Golden Rule is that you have to be able to empathize with the other person’s situation. So try to transfer the empathy.

Piper: A lot of times people don’t realize that someone was hurt if something is racist. They think we looked at a list of rules and you broke the rules and I’ll tell you about that and you’re a bad person. They don’t realize that these things can hurt. The pain that is caused is completely lost on the person. Trying to talk about the emotional side of receiving these bad things, that it does hurt, can help.

Talia: Some people are reasonable and some people are not reasonable, so choose wisely.

Harrison: After I transitioned, I found these conversations man-to-man could be a spirited intellectual debate. For them, they could learn and grow from these interactions, even if I felt mixed about this. Young men in math really respond to axioms and consequences.  These were not conversations that were possible before I transitioned.  I could talk about trans issues and the fact that I was a man was enough for them to not be defensive. Male privilege is very real, and I feel a personal obligation as a white man to have these conversations. Sometimes I rehearse saying “That’s not appropriate, and that’s why we don’t do that here” or “This makes people feel this way.”

Pamela: I would add that you can ask people questions. “Where does that idea come from?” “Where did you learn that?” It’s a way to get people thinking themselves about why they think something, or if they have evidence for that.

Q: How do you measure issues going on in the department?

Autumn: We have Town Halls to talk about issues that matter to the department. We have substantive discussions and find out about things we didn’t know.

Piper: Is this faculty? Or who is it?

Autumn: It’s a group of faculty, a lot of graduate students go even if they don’t have questions.

Talia: I want to echo that mentorship is really important, because if you have an ongoing relationship with students they’ll open themselves up to you.

Someone was saying why are 30% of these majors women? Maybe, they suggest, it’s because only 30% of women are interested. But until we have an unbiased society, we can’t conclude anything from any study because we don’t have a control group.

Autumn: One of the original founders of the AWM said that 30% would be a good goal. But we’re one of the highest proportions and we’re at 18%. Why not have more? This connects to that Ruth Bader Ginsburg quote, that she’ll be happy when there are nine women on the Supreme Court.

If you did something like having 80% women, 50% people of color, you’d be an incredible department because people would want to go there.

Q: As an early career person, what are things you can do to promote inclusion and still get a job?

Pamela: Don’t say yes to all of those committees. Yes we want marginalized people on committees, but it doesn’t help your tenure file- only research and teaching do.  I know someone who said she wouldn’t let people take her picture for brochures and such until she got tenure.

Harrison: I put on my website that I’m openly transgender. For some reason in academia we’re obsessed with ourselves and think we’re the best, and I think academia treats marginalized people particularly bad.  I don’t want to go somewhere that I won’t be treated well as an openly transgender person.  This is how I manage my mental health. Do what you like, do these activities, advertise them or not, that’s how I cope.

I realized how powerful it was to be open and honest and visible. When I came out I came into contact with all these people who changed my worldview.


Here’s the poster for the LG&TBQ geometry, topology and dynamical systems conference that Autumn is co-organizing this summer:

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