Miss Representation*

A few weeks ago, I attended the AMS Central Fall Sectional Meeting in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. It was my first time co-organizing a Special Session (so yes, I can now cross that off my bucket list). Initially, we invited a pretty diverse group of people, although a few had to cancel in the last minute. In the end, we had seven speakers, 5 of which were female (two of our male speakers dropped out, it would have been more even if they hadn’t). My co-organizer, Ursula Whitcher (now a recurring guest star in this blog), mentioned this as a fun fact to Georgia Benkart, associate secretary of the Central section. What she had to say surprised us very much.

Apparently, there is a strong correlation between the percentage of women speakers in a special session and the gender of the organizers. These numbers were published in the October Notices of the AMS.  They only looked at the names of people, and classified them as male or female when it was obvious from the name, or unknown gender when it was unclear (like a Chris or a Sasha?). In our case, the percentage was very much skewed in the female direction, but I was surprised to see that when there is at least one female organizer, the number of women speakers seems to be larger. Of course, like in our case, you might think that women might favor other women speakers, and that’s why there are more in those sessions.

What I found most interesting was that the percentage of women speakers in a session with at least one female organizer was much closer to what we could call the “actual” percentage of female mathematicians (by looking at number of PhDs granted for the last ten years). This last number is hard to figure out from this data, though. We could also look at the AMS members and see that it’s not so clear (but mostly because a very large percentage of members have unknown-gender names). Still, what this seems to imply is that women are generally under-represented in special sessions with only male organizers.

There are, of course, many reasons for this. The network for women mathematicians is growing, and we are all much more aware of each other from being AWM members, from attending women in math conferences, and from noticing each other since we ARE a minority. But it worries me that it seems like the male mathematicians still don’t think of or know very many women mathematicians.

Some organizations are dealing with increasing female representation by requiring that some percentage of the speakers be female. I am pretty sure the International Mathematical Union  has such a requirement. I have even been invited to be a speaker or in a scientific committee for a conference because they needed at least one woman (and somehow someone knew my name, and not another, more famous woman’s name). I am not complaining about this (I have participated in some cool thing because of this rule) but I am just surprised that I know SO MANY women in number theory, and it seems like they are not well known outside of our little network.

Anyway, this is not a complaint, I am just surprised at these numbers and I would like to know why this is happening, and these are just some ideas. So, dear readers, what do you think? Please share your thoughts and comments below.

*I stole the title for this post from a 2011 documentary, that I recommend you all watch.

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