Cultural Obstructions in Mathematics

Cultural obstructions to careers in mathematics are myriad and significant. The myth of meritocracy is long debunked in social theory and education research, however its legacy persists. This post goes out to those mathematicians who feel pressured out of mathematics because of the culture of mathematics. You are not alone.

Here’s a representative anecdote. When I began my PhD program, I learned of a recently
graduated student who was very successful, published in Inventiones while a
student, but left mathematics. Her story became part of the lore passed down from one generation of graduate students in the department to the next. She is reported to have explained to her advisor that she “liked mathematics, but didn’t like mathematicians (present company excluded).”

Navigating new subcultures is one of the most challenging (and often rewarding) of human endeavors. The subculture of academic mathematicians is strong and foreign to most. Unless you were raised in a particular academic environment, entering mathematics is like entering a foreign country. So, to be successful in mathematics, one needs more than raw mathematical talent and a next level work ethic. One also has to become familiar with nuances of the culture of contemporary mathematics. One must feel comfortable, or at least be able to tolerate, seminar dinners, hallway conversations, email exchanges, and all of the other social and work communications which can be terribly awkward — or much worse.

For example, last semester I was at a seminar dinner with a group of about 15 mathematicians, including one woman. There was an awkward traffic jam after dinner, as a dozen people attempted to retrieve their backpacks from an area in which no more than two or three people could stand. In an effort to be cordial, I handed one of the speakers a bag which I thought was his, leading to the following exchange.

Me: Is this you?
Speaker: No, but it’s my backpack.
Me: I love it when mathematicians pretend not to understand common expressions. It’s cute.
Speaker: We’re a very precise group.

Eschewing the vernacular does not make one more precise; it makes one a snob. (It is disingenuous to suggest I may have confused a backpack with a person.) Pretending to misunderstand expressions commonly used especially in groups underrepresented in mathematics has an exclusionary effect.

For those of you who regularly experience microaggressions, cringeworthy exchanges and cultural pushback, know that you are not alone, and others in the Network may have similar experiences. As participation in mathematics broadens, academia is joined by those who didn’t self-identify as math nerd from birth; who are more comfortable with N*E*R*D than nerds; who do not conflate snobbery and intelligence.

I shake off these episodes by talking to friends, or broadcasting my thoughts, as I’m doing here. The next time someone gets under your skin, remember that the Network is here for you! Reach others in the Network on FB or reach out to one of us directly.

Even though the culture of mathematics may seem regressive, it is slowly changing for the better. Meeting cool young mathematicians gives me hope for the future. So don’t let the BS hold you down. Stick with it, and the Network has your back.

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