Of bias and women

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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10 Responses to Of bias and women

  1. Avatar Rachel Riskind says:

    Glad to see you post on this! For more info about implicit bias and what we can do about it, you might be interested in this paper: http://projectimplicit.net/nosek/papers/NR2012.pdf

    Also, anyone with 10 minutes of free time can learn about their own implicit biases here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html You can take tests on a variety of topics, such as gender and the STEM fields.

  2. Avatar prefer to remain anonymous for this one... says:

    The service part especially struck a chord with me.
    It’s the time of year where prospective grad students visit my department. Yesterday, I had an extremely busy day and was sitting in my office doing work with the door closed. But, a female prospective grad student was visiting. And I’m one of the senior female grad students in my department. So of course, multiple people came by my office asking me if I would spend time with her.
    I hate it. Because about 50% of the prospective students who are invited to visit are female. And I’m often the one who is asked to take time out of my day, away from my research, to talk to them. And when I don’t have time to do this, I find myself feeling bad and apologizing. And the guys who are in the same year as me? They are never, ever asked to help out.

  3. Avatar Bret Benesh says:

    Hi Adriana,

    You are posting about gender bias and BtVS (and Dan Harmon!) in the same post. You totally made my day.

    I do not think that you are crazy about either of these situations. While I think that either of these situations _could_ happen to a man, it is much more likely to happen to a woman (my opinion). In the first case, there seems to be a lurking idea that “women aren’t breadwinners, so we do not need to reward them in the same way we reward men.”

    I have a great case of gender bias (in my opinion) that I really wish I could share with you, but unfortunately I don’t know how to tell it without giving away details of which school it is and which people are involved. But I am certain that gender is playing a role.

    I really appreciated this post. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Avatar Cody L. Patterson says:

    Adriana, thanks for posting about this sensitive but very important topic. I have to count myself as a male mathematician who, at least at one point, was really ignorant when it came to gender discrimination in academia and particularly in academic mathematics. (“I believe women are just as qualified to be mathematics professors as men are. Everyone I know believes this. So what’s the problem?”)

    There were two things that I needed to realize, and they’re both touched upon in your blog entry and in the comments. I think that if every mathematician and every institution of higher education really *got* these two ideas, we’d be in a better place, though we would probably still have a lot of work to do to prevent the kinds of inequities you described.

    1. Based on our upbringing and our cultural background, we have implicit biases that influence the way we treat other people, assign responsibilities, assign competence for work well done, and generally perceive others as scholars. Even if we don’t have explicit negative stereotypes of certain groups of people, we might perceive one person’s success as a result of being “brilliant” while we might perceive the same success in a different person as a result of being “extremely hard working.” These perceptions are pervasive and can have serious implications for letters of recommendation for academic jobs, letters of evaluation for promotion and tenure, and nominations for awards. Again, these inequities of perception can operate even in the absence of any explicit beliefs about differences among certain demographic groups.

    2. Even if individuals do not engage in these “inequities of perception,” an organization can push people from certain groups into roles that may ultimately marginalize them as scholars. This sounds to me like what happened in the case of the Greendale College story, as well as in the anonymous commenter’s story. Either because they are female or because they are perceived as sensible and helpful colleagues, women faculty are often pushed into committee work or “ambassador” roles from which other junior colleagues would be excused.

    I don’t know of any good answer to the problem of implicit bias (though I have to put in a plug for the Project Implicit test, because it is an insanely clever way of getting at the idea of implicit bias). I do think that it is possible to change organizational behavior that gets in the way of equal opportunity. But this will take coordinated action, and it will take us admitting that the status quo really does have disparate effects on people from different groups.

    • Avatar Cathy Kessel says:

      Cody, you’re at the University of Arizona, so I’m a little surprised that you don’t know about its ADVANCE project. (But only a little surprised, I know you’re busy.) There’s an article about the project here: http://www.arizona.edu/features/ua-tackles-unconscious-bias-0. More substantive information about ADVANCE is here: http://www.portal.advance.vt.edu/index.php (though warning, some links don’t work). There is a faculty retention toolkit relevant to the two P&T examples (http://www.uri.edu/advance/files/pdf/UWashington_RetentionToolkit.pdf). It says, “Transparency in operations should also be applied to the Promotion and Tenure (P&T) and salary increase processes. A common perception of the P&T process is that it is not always objective. To allay concerns about the process, departments could develop and maintain objective criteria for granting tenure and promotions and inform their faculty of these expectations.” That’s an instantiation of a more general principle: before evaluating things (like people’s dossiers), develop criteria.

  5. Avatar Allyn Jackson says:

    Let me add my thanks, Adriana, for posting on this important topic in a forthright
    and sensitive way. Last year I observed parts of the Women and
    Mathematics program at the Institute for Advanced Study and also
    participated in one of the program’s panel discussions. The only man
    in the room was a mathematics graduate student who was accompanying a
    friend. At the end of the panel, the moderator asked this male
    student what he made of the discussion. He expressed surprise that
    gender issues were so present in the minds of his female colleagues;
    for him, they were pretty much nonexistent. He also said that he
    hadn’t liked it when the moderator of the panel had said – jokingly! –
    that women are better in mathematics than men. The moderator said
    something along the lines of, “Now you see what we deal with every
    day!” I wrote a short piece about the WaM program, “The Welcoming
    Side of Mathematics”, that appears in the current issue of the

    This posting also made me think about some recent pieces on the
    subject of women in academia. Last year a book came out, Do Babies
    Matter?: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower, the contents of
    which were summarized in an article that one of the authors, Mary Ann
    Mason, wrote an for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Baby
    Penalty”. How to balance life and career is a matter that hits
    men and women in very different ways. “For men, having children can
    be a slight career advantage and, for women, it is often a career
    killer,” Mason writes.

    Probably many readers saw the article that appeared in the New York
    Times last fall, “Why
    Are There Still So Few Women in Science?”, by Eileen Pollack.
    Pollack was an outstanding physics major at Yale, but she left physics
    and is is now a professor of creative writing at Michigan. In
    addition to discussing the general question posed in the title of her
    piece, she also looks back on why she changed course and what might
    have been different. It’s a fascinating article that makes many valid
    points. But I know I was not the only one who winced at the portrait
    of Yale mathematician Roger Howe that appears in the article.

    • Avatar Adriana Salerno says:

      Here are the links to some of the things Allyn comments on (thanks for the info Allyn!) She linked to it but somehow the links didn’t get attached when she posted.

      Allyn’s article about WaM: http://www.ams.org/notices/201403/rnoti-p239.pdf

      “The Baby Penalty” article: http://chronicle.com/article/The-Baby-Penalty/140813/

      “Why are there still so few women in science?” article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/magazine/why-are-there-still-so-few-women-in-science.html?_r=0

      • Avatar Cathy Kessel says:

        One more wince about the Pollack article: Like a similar NYT article a month earlier (Angier’s “Mystery of the Missing Women in Science”), “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” cites the Benbow–Stanley talent search ratio from the 1980s (“In the early 1980s, a large group of American middle-schoolers were given the SAT exam in math”) and a more recent ratio. Neither of these articles tell us that these ratios were obtained from non-random samples: students who are applying to programs such as Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, http://cty.jhu.edu/talent/testing/. I’ve written about the way in which the ratios have been used in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics: http://scholarship.claremont.edu/jhm/vol1/iss2/3/.

        What I haven’t written about is their possible effects on readers. In the 1980s, news reports of these ratios tended to frame them in genetic terms. A study done in the 1980s suggests that these reports affected parents’ beliefs about their children’s mathematical abilities (Eccles & Jacobs, “Gender Differences in Math Ability: The Impact of Media Reports on Parents,” Educational Researcher, Mar., 1985). (The results were little complicated, so I won’t put them all here. Mothers who heard about the talent search findings tended to react as one might guess: predicting less success for daughters than mothers who did not hear about the findings.) t don’t know of a recent similar study about the effects of articles such as Pollack’s.

  6. Avatar Allyn Jackson says:

    I realized that the last sentence of my previous comment might be
    unclear. I “winced” at the portrait of Roger Howe in the New York
    Times Magazine article because the article made him look like someone
    who doesn’t care about his students and neglects to encourage them.
    In fact, Howe is known as an excellent teacher and dedicated mentor,
    and he has made important contributions to mathematics education at
    all levels. For these contributions, he received the 2006 AMS Award for Distinguished
    Public Service.

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