Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | July 22, 2012

Women in the violent world of mathematics

I refer to my old post Women and mathematics in relation to the caustic comic strip by Zach Weiner. Both my post (which later became a section in my book Mathematics under the Microscope) and Weiner’s cartoons are about the place of a woman in the violent world of mathematics and about men’s perception of women’s place. If you think that this is an exaggeration then read comments to my post, like this one, from a female colleague:

As one of the few female mathematicians in Alexandre’s field I think he is correct.

You probably have to be a research mathematician to understand what he is saying about being bold, needing intellectual independence, the psychologically charged and tense discourse and everyone looking and acting as if they are going to get into a fist fight any moment.

This is typically not how women behave and when a woman does act like this (learned or natural) she gets all sorts of criticism for not being the sweet docile soft person she looks like. And all too often the criticism is from other women, not just from men.

Or this comment, sent to me in response to my book and published in the Addenda and Comments:

Part of my anger and frustration at school was that so much of this subject
that I loved, mathematics, was wasted on what I thought was frivolous or
immoral applications: frivolous because of all those unrealistic puzzles,
and immoral because of the emphasis on competition (Olympiads, chess, card
games, gambling, etc). I had (and retain) a profound dislike of
competition, and I don’t see why one always had to demonstrate one’s
abilities by beating other people, rather than by collaborating with them.
I believed that “playing music together”, rather than “playing sport against
one another”, was a better metaphor for what I wanted to do in life, and as
a mathematician.

Indeed, the macho competitiveness of much of pure mathematics struck me very
strongly when I was an undergraduate student: I switched then to
mathematical statistics because the teachers and students in that discipline
were much less competitive towards one another. For a long time, I thought
I was alone in this view, but I have since heard the same story from other
people, including some prominent mathematicians. I know one famous category
theorist who switched from analysis as a graduate student because the people
there were too competitive, while the category theory people were more
co-operative.

It may be worth mentioning that I am male. In other words, a dislike of competitiveness is not confined to women. The
statistics department I entered as an undergraduate, for example, had no
women in it, yet was much less competitive than the pure mathematics
department (which had once been headed by a woman). I think it is
disciplinary tradition rather than gender that is the key factor here.

I am now a Computer Scientist. I have also found differences in the competitiveness of people in different sub-domains of CS.
To generalize greatly, I have found people in Artificial Intelligence (AI)
much less macho and competitive than those in (say) Algorithm and Complexity
Theory. Within AI, people in (say) Argumentation are generally much less
macho and competitive than those in Game Theory and Mechanism Design. In each
case, the more formal and mathematical the domain, the more competitive it
tends to be. It could be that these domains have acquired their cultures
from mathematicians, while the other domains have been less influenced by
the culture of mathematics.

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Responses

  1. I wonder if it’s changing any. I do not have a PhD, but I love mathematics, and am finding many lovely people (mostly through math circle culture) to play math with. Yes, it can be like playing music with other musicians.

  2. I add a quote borrowed from Jon Borwein’s webpage:

    “a certain impression I had of mathematicians was … that they spent immoderate amounts of time declaring each other’s work trivial.”

    Richard Preston, From his prize winning article The Mountains of Pi, New Yorker, March 9, 1992.

    • I think this is a misconception. When research mathematicians say that something is trivial it can mean two things:
      1. It really adds no new information and is just a logical circle.
      Or
      2. Now that it has been completely worked out it can be seen to follow from much simpler arguments.

      Statement 2 is in no way a belittlement of the other person’s work, and statement 1 is usually meant as constructive criticism.
      Of course everything depends on context and the (sometimes toxic) personalities involved.

  3. I’ve experienced as well an unattractive cult of individual genius in mathematics, supported I believe by (true or false) myths about famous figures. Looking outside the bubble, very little that’s important or great is done by lone individuals!


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