I was pretty bummed to read this New York Times article about the prospects for women seeking tenure in Economics.
In case you don’t have time to read it all right now: in recent study, Economist Heather Sarsons found that in Economics, women received almost no credit (measured as increased likelihood of receiving tenure) for papers coauthored with a man. Men received nearly the same credit for papers coauthored with women or with men as for solo work.
Is this bias present in Math? I honestly don’t know. This study doesn’t say anything about a similar bias in Mathematics. It does tell me that such a bias could potentially exist. I feel naïve in saying that I was totally blind to the possibility–I hadn’t considered that this might be an issue. You might think I should have at least thought about it before, because I collaborate a lot in my work. I really like doing math with other people. Collaboration keeps me motivated, and, for me, discussion is part of the process of understanding. All of my papers have multiple authors. Some are written with other women, some with mixed groups.
My most recent finished work was done with a male coauthor. We both worked very hard on the project, and it really does belong equally to both of us. My name is listed first, just because I’m earlier in the alphabet than he is. But because that is the convention in mathematics, nobody would assume I deserve more credit than he does. This study, though, made me begin to wonder if people will actually assume that he deserves all the credit.
Don’t worry, you say, that was Economics. What does it have to do with Math? Yes, I want to be soothed. However, I do consider the fact that Math and Economics are both heavily majority male fields with overlapping skill bases. Also, the author of the article (not the study) hypothesizes that one contributing cause could be that Economics paper authors are listed alphabetically. Hmm, maybe this is relevant to Math. Also, it brings up new questions for situations like those discussed in Adriana’s 2014 post about gender bias—did those women write papers with men, for which they did not receive “full credit”?
This study opens up some frightening possibilities, especially for frequent co-authors like me. I’m not up for tenure now, but when I am, how will my papers count? Will the papers I wrote with men mean anything? As a female researcher early in my career, should I avoid working with men?
To try and put some positive spin on this whole study, perhaps this is good news for research collaborations among women. Sarsons’ study found that women did receive equal credit for papers coauthored with only other women. In Economics, papers written with only women authors are taken seriously and count towards tenure. According to this study, women do not need male coauthors to bring weight to their research.
Outside of any consideration of co-author gender tenure bias, there are many reasons that women might want to collaborate with other women. With many fewer women than men in most areas of mathematics, in can be difficult for women within an area to even meet each other, let alone begin research projects together. This is one reason that groups like the Association for Women in Mathematics (which I just wrote about last time) and focused research workshops like Women In Numbers (WIN) exist.
Adriana Salerno has written about WIN on this blog before, so you may have heard about it. In fact, WIN is how I met Adriana in the first place, along with a lot of the other great women I know in number theory. For those of you who haven’t heard, Women in Numbers (WIN) was the name of a 2008 workshop organized by Kristin Lauter, Rachel Pries, and Renate Scheidler to help build a network of women Number Theorists. Since then there have been two more WIN workshops (all held at the Banff International Research Station), each bringing together women number theorists from all over the world to work very intensively on group projects led by experts in the field. These collaborations often continue after the workshop and lead to publications, in the peer-reviewed WIN proceedings volumes as well as in journals and other conference proceedings. The workshops are very challenging and ask a lot of the group leaders and participants, but the results are tangible and exciting. I attended the first WIN in 2008 and WIN3 in 2014, and three papers on my CV came out of WIN collaborations.
I bring WIN up here because I have heard many people question the value of a “separate” network for women in number theory. Even though these publications are peer-reviewed, won’t papers from workshops like these be taken less seriously because only women are involved? I think that the hopeful message from this study is, no, maybe not. At least in Economics, working with other women is a good thing.
The WIN model has expanded to connect number theorists in Europe (WINE) as well as to women in other fields, including shape theory (WiSh), algebraic combinatorics (ACxx), topology (WIT), applied math (WhAM!), non-commutative algebra and representation theory (WINART). The AWM was recently awarded at $750,000 grant to further these focused research networks. As I learned at the JMM panel, the AWM is trying to get the word out and encourage more women to get involved–by joining an existing group or by starting a focused research network in their own field. Here is a great website about all this. I don’t think you even need a clever acronym—just a desire to connect with women in in the field.
This has been a thoughtful month for me, considering Sarsons’ work on the research front and the recent work on gender bias in student teaching evaluations (see Sara’s blog post from a few weeks ago) on the teaching front. I’m trying to keep it all in perspective and think about the great things going on for women in mathematics. However, I’m really troubled. Partially because it seems that so much gender bias is unconscious. I believe that, for the most part, people in mathematics want to treat each other fairly. While trying to be fair, we can still make a whole series of tiny choices and judgments that add up to discrimination. We can’t see our own patterns. We (yes, we) don’t even know we are discriminating. Of course women can be biased, too. For example, one of the student teaching evaluations studies discussed in the Inside Higher Ed article (also linked in Sara’s blog) found that female students in the study showed significant bias against female instructors, while male students in that study showed no significant preference. In a 2012 study, both male and female STEM faculty members rated a job applicant named John higher than an identically qualified applicant named Jennifer.
So I’m swimming in questions. Do women in math get less credit for collaborative work with men? Are there bummer biases of all kinds lurking in academic and mathematical life? Do I unthinkingly underestimate my female colleagues’ contributions because of their gender? Do I unknowingly assess others unfairly? My answer on all counts is wow, I hope not. Ugh. But probably the truth is, at least sometimes, yes.
I want to talk more about these issues in the profession. I am dying for someone to do a study similar to Sarsons’, only in Math, and to design other studies to uncover potential biases that we might otherwise be blind to. I also think that those of us who teach should to talk to our students about bias, especially as it relates to student teaching evaluations. If, indeed, most people want to treat others fairly, we need to have these conversations so that is even possible.