November 23, 2010

“Women in mathematics” overstates impact of gender imbalance

In response to the Nov. 19 article "Women in mathematics: a complex problem"

One of the claims made in the Maroon’s November 19 article, “Women In Mathematics: A Complex Problem,” is that the absence of women to talk to within the math department is a demotivating factor for women interested in pursuing mathematics. However, there are plenty of women, as well as plenty of mathematicians, to talk to, so the unresolved question is: What specific utility does a woman mathematician offer to another woman mathematician that cannot be offered by a combination of women and mathematicians?

The article does not suggest or bring to light either discrimination in hiring and promotion processes, or statements made by faculty members or others that suggest that women are incapable of doing mathematics. Nor is there evidence of social segregation along gender lines at any level (undergraduate, graduate, or post-doc). From what I’ve observed, study groups and discussion groups of students at all levels tend to be gender-mixed in the same proportions as the overall pool from which the study group is drawn (so in an algebra class with 2:1 male-to-female student ratio, a typical study group would have a 2:1 male-to-female student ratio, rather than all-male or all-female study groups). At the graduate student level, segregation (in academic discussions) is more by discipline area than by anything else. Thus, there are abundant opportunities for females to learn from male role models, or vice versa.

To the extent that people have inhibitions learning from or seeking role models in people who differ from them in terms of gender (or other characteristics), counseling and outreach can be used to target such inhibitions. Moreover, this approach can yield immediate results, unlike the long-run goal of creating gender balance within the faculty.

Vipul Naik

Ph.D. Student

Department of Mathematics