Tuesday, December 26, 2006

(Feminist) News from the math world

The latest newsletter from the Association of Women in Mathematics (AWN) contained a letter to the editor that I want to share with you all.

In the July-August AWN newsletter, President Keyfitz outlines the difficulties involved in obtaining appointments for women on key prize-awarding committees. We would like to add that even when women are appointed to important decision making bodies, they may not be able to advance the careers of highly deserving women. As women who have served on committees, we have observed that it is quite easy for other members of the committee to deny the quality of a woman mathematician and quickly dismiss her from the discussion. A single outspoken committee member bent against women can seriously hinder the possibilities of awarding a woman an honor that isn't shared by five or six men as well. Even well-intentioned colleagues often don't realise how their unconscious assumptions accumulate to become heavy drags on women mathematicians. This can affect both the writing and the interpretation of letters of nomination, as well as committee discussions. Even women mathematicians may fall into this group.

It is imperative that the AWN address these concerns or women will lose the gains we've made in the past 30 years. We need to demand that men and women condemn openly sexist statements without waiting for someone to be bold enough to file a lawsuit. We need everyone to watch themselves for their own subtle biases. We need to educate people about writing strong letters that will survive reading by even the most biased committee members. If committees are more likely to choose a woman when they are choosing five men, then we need more prizes awarded to multiple recipients. We need to stop the downward spiral caused by judging mathematicians based on a lack of prestigious positions, plenary addresses, top notch publications and awards, without ever pausing to examine their research directly.

This does not even address the issues that may uniquely affect women who are parents: the publication gaps and temporary inability to travel. There is almost no funding to help such women recover their research programs. Certainly there is no funding available from the NSF (National Science Foundation) that will allow them to work part-time in research-only positions at their home institutions like many top women mathematicians did in the past. Given the societal pressure to work even with a young child, few women mathematicians today take unpaid leaves for childcare. Instead they work fulltime jobs, often keeping up their teaching and service while their research is forced on the back burner. It is time to provide grants, even small ones, which will allow women to recover their research after children, or to keep their research going while having young children around. It is time for universities to offer 50% pay for 50% work. It is time that committees realise that many parents with doctorates a decade ago may have been doing research for only eight of those years if not fewer.

There are also the solved two body programs which often place women at second tier jobs with higher teaching. Rather than holding the lack of prestige against the women, it should be noted that her important results have more weight for being completed in what may have been a less than supportive environment. What would she have done at a top notch department with time granted to complete research? What could she do now if offered funding or a top notch position?

Finally the AWN might attempt to spread the word as to which top notch jobs are truly top notch for women and which have such incipient sexism as to prevent the women there from succeeding. Sexism at times can be so pervasive that it is more of a distraction from mathematics than teaching, service, and childcare combined. When the only recourse is to file a lawsuit, there is really no recourse at all.

Anyone with ideas for effective action is encouraged to post them at the Effective Action for Women in Math Webforum at http://groups.google.com/group/WomeninMath.

Stephanie Alexander
Jean Taylor
Karen Uhlenbeck

I'll add comments later, as I'm in a rush.