Less than one in five Harvard pure math majors is female and Harvard has no tenured female math faculty. These statistics reflect a well-known gender gap in mathematics, one which I had certainly been aware of before entering Harvard. Throughout high school I never thought that as a student I could make a significant difference in the math community. However, freshman year, I realized that there were many simple, concrete actions I could take that would have a significant impact. This observation, and the encouragement of a few upperclassmen including Meena Boppana, spurred me to co-found Gender Inclusivity in Math (GIIM) at the end of my freshman year, a student organization designed to help reduce the gender gap in math and related departments at Harvard.
Leading GIIM was one of the most eye-opening and transformative experiences of my college career thus far; it has taught me a great deal about how my behavior and language affects others, how much the little actions I take can matter (both positively and negatively), and why it is so vital that we tear down as many barriers as we can in quantitative fields like math. As I step down from GIIM board after a year and a half, I hope to share some of my observations about why inclusivity issues in math matter to all of us and what students specifically can do about the gender gap and other similar inclusivity issues.
A note: My views do not necessarily represent those of GIIM board. Since I do not identify as a woman, I have no firsthand experience with many of the issues I outline; I will justify many of my claims with data from surveys or anecdotal evidence, but these are not meant to represent every single woman’s experience in math. Finally, while my focus has been on gender issues in math, I believe that many of the issues I raise are also applicable to inclusivity issues beyond gender; I have tried to pursue non-gender-specific initiatives as much as possible and will highlight cases where I think a particular barrier applies to other diversity and inclusion issues as well.
I’ll begin with a brief quantitative description of the gender gap. The gender gap is more than just a pipeline issue, as fewer and fewer women stay in math through each stage (40% of Bachelor’s, 28% of PhD’s, and less than 10% of professors are female). At each stage, disproportionately more women are pushed away from continuing in math, indicating that there are problems at every stage of the process. The gender gap also worsens in more “elite” universities. Only 10 – 20% (depending on the year) of Harvard undergrad math majors are female and this figure is representative of most Ivy League universities. Another interesting study on AMC test scores indicates that girls who score well on the AMC disproportionately tend to come from privileged backgrounds (wealthy, parents interested in math, etc.) suggesting that girls who do end up going into math have other advantages that allow them to overcome barriers associated with being a woman. This evidence all suggests that a useful mental model of being female is like carrying an extra weight: it constantly affects you at every stage of the process regardless of how qualified you are and is potentially easier to deal with if you have other counterbalancing advantages.
So what causes this weight? While on GIIM board I have tried to identify some causes that are easily fixable by undergraduate students and discuss how students can help fix them. Here I list 5: explicit sexism within the student body, the “genius” stereotype, the math ability hierarchy, accessibility of resources within the math department, and the lack of communities and role models. I then describe how GIIM has tried to tackle these causes and what measures students at other universities can take to help reduce the gender gap.
- Explicit sexism within the student body.
- The “genius” stereotype.
- The math-ability hierarchy.
- Accessibility of resources within the department.
- Lack of communities and role models.
“Of course she got into MIT! She’s a girl….they always take girls!”
“Girls are only good for shopping.”
“Well that’s what you get for working with a girl. These kinds of labs aren’t really their thing.”
“You’re good at math…for a girl.”
“You’re a girl. Of course you overthink things.”
“Are you sure you can handle this class? Not a lot of girls can take it.”
These are all quotes (or paraphrases) said by students in the math community to other students either in high school or college that I have heard anecdotes about or that were published in the recent MIT report on the gender gap in math. I’ve also heard plenty of others, including a few that don’t explicitly refer to gender but have heavy gender-related undertones (for example, “so easy your mom could do it”). Regardless of original intent, they are all unacceptable since they all imply that being a girl somehow implies that one is worse at math. Of course, these statements are not the norm in the math community, but a single gender-based insult can spoil a student’s experience in the math community and add to the weight women experience regardless of how welcoming everyone else is.
The simplest solution to this problem is to encourage students to be more respectful of who they are speaking to and to avoid overtly sexist language. As a student, you can do more than just watch your own language; respectfully calling out other students when they are being sexist or disrespectful helps the math community as a whole. To address these issues, GIIM has worked with the Math Department to create a training program for CAs (undergraduate course assistants) that helps them respond when other students make sexist comments; this may later be extended to all math undergraduates. It’s too early to tell whether these efforts have been successful, but I think that this is one of the simplest ways for students to make an intervention that can reduce the gender gap.
Another important solution is to create a supportive community (primarily consisting of women, but men are also welcome) where these sexist comments do not exist. This was one of GIIM’s primary missions from the very beginning: we have hosted sushi community dinners and other socials to build a community of women in math and held discussion groups to provide an opportunity for women to discuss sexist comments they hear (among other things). Math Night was a collaborative problem set/office hours night for all math concentrators created as a joint collaboration between GIIM, the Math Department, and Leverett House; one of its goals was ensuring that math concentrators including women could find supportive problem set groups. One major purpose of our conference WIMS (Women in Math and Statistics) was creating a Boston-wide community of women in math for this reason. These efforts have had varying degrees of success; I’ve heard some resounding testimonials from WIMS, Math Night, and the dinners about the community we have developed, but many people (including me) feel we could do more. Unfortunately, magically forcing people to socialize, especially Harvard students on busy schedules, is very difficult; GIIM will continue to experiment with types of socials to determine which are most effective.
The classic stereotype of a mathematician is a white (or perhaps Asian) male bespectacled genius who is incredibly introverted to the point of being unable to function in society, has known he wants to do math (and only math) from an incredibly young age, and is completely incapable of understanding anything that is not directly math. This stereotype has been perpetuated by virtually every form of popular culture, until it’s expected that almost every aspect of this holds true for every math student. Thus many math students spend time trying to find the true geniuses who fit this stereotype and divide their world into those geniuses and everyone else.
Virtually everything about this stereotype is not only wrong but also incredibly insulting to everyone who does math. Classifying some students (regardless of gender) as geniuses devalues the hard work that fuels their success and any skills they might have in other areas. It also insults every perceived non-genius (which usually includes all the females, racial minorities, and other underrepresented groups according to people’s stereotypes) by saying that they are inherently incapable of doing math no matter how hard they work. Research has shown that convincing students that talent, not hard work, is more relevant for success makes students less resilient to failure and lowers their eventual test scores. Despite all of this, this stereotype has been perpetuated by not just Harvard math undergraduates but also those higher up.
Obviously, it’s impossible for students to convince Hollywood to accurately portray mathematicians as people, not stereotypes. But we can ensure that our community is free of these insinuations just as we can rid our community of sexist comments. GIIM’s CA training program may prove somewhat successful in this regard as well. We have also found that students, administrators, and professors are unaware of how their language may entrench this stereotype (i.e. “You can’t take [hard math class] and have a social life!”), and encouraging them to be more careful and aware of their language has a positive rate of success. This is yet another area that I think is firmly within the control of the student body to change.
Math students, for whatever reason, love to rank each other based on perceived math ability and create a social hierarchy of perceived competence. At Harvard, this is largely based on the freshman-year math class, since Harvard offers many different freshman-year math tracks at varying intensities depending on your initial background. At colleges without a variety of freshman-year math courses (e.g. MIT), social status is based on your background when entering the community. Within the high school math contest community, it is often based on how many contests you passed in the AMC/AIME/USAMO sequence. Even within a class, students who show off more by solving simple problems with high-powered theorems can ascend farther up this hierarchy. It’s virtually impossible to eliminate this social hierarchy; if math students want to rank each other, they will find some difference and some way to do so. Even worse, almost every single student I have met in math has an inherent tendency to rank others; it takes a strong conscious effort to not do this or let this color one’s vision.
This hierarchy increases competition and makes for a poor learning environment overall both by encouraging students to focus on how others are doing in class, not how they are doing and by discouraging students who feel that they are relatively weak based on their past experience. But why is it a specifically gendered issue? Women entering the Harvard math department tend to have weaker backgrounds because of external cultural factors out of our control, and thus are, on average, forced to the lower tiers of the hierarchy, since it is fixed based on your initial math knowledge and does not respond to any improvement over time. Thus any action that negatively affects lower tiers of the hierarchy will disproportionately affect women and other minorities. Unfortunately, there are plenty of these: pernicious false myths that only students who take Math 55 (the highest-level freshman math course) can become concentrators pervade the department, many students feel (falsely) that lower-level freshman math courses are more oriented towards an applied math angle or inadequate preparation for a math degree, and the highest tiers of the hierarchy are often treated as geniuses, fueling the genius stereotype above.
There are two potential ways of tackling this hierarchy. One short-term fix is by encouraging women to get into higher tiers; in Harvard’s case, this is possible since the hierarchy isn’t entirely fixed when you enter college but rather determined by your choice at the beginning of freshman year. There is some evidence that women at Harvard, lacking self-confidence in themselves (for cultural or social reasons), choose to place themselves in lower-level freshman math courses relative to what they are capable of while boys choose the opposite; some freshman math courses have indicated that women routinely score at the top of the class, suggesting they were overqualified to begin with. The official Harvard Math Department description of freshman math classes somewhat exaggerates their difficulty, which definitely could contribute to this. GIIM has published more accurate descriptions, in our view, in the Advising Pamphlet that should help fix this. This is only a short-term fix, since it doesn’t directly tackle the problem of the hierarchy but instead makes it less likely that women will be stuck on its lower tiers.
The much better approach is removing the hierarchy directly. GIIM has tried doing this to a certain extent by debunking some of the false myths associated with the hierarchy in documents such as the Advising Pamphlet. We have also tried working with the Math Department to decrease hierarchy-based messages in official Math Department documents and working with the student body in ways similar to those described above. In theory, this problem should be tackle-able by a student group since it is just a mindset students happen to possess, but there doesn’t appear to be an easy way to resolve it.
Many students at Harvard have found official advising either inadequate or difficult to navigate, so they have resorted to other alternatives, including finding professors they know well to talk to on a personal basis or relying on social connections made by being close to or at the top tier of the social hierarchy. This of course simply entrenches the hierarchy and often prevents women from receiving the advising that they deserve. I am fairly certain that similar situations exist at many other schools and colleges as well.
To help solve this problem, GIIM began running our own advising events around major events (course selection and concentration declaration) aimed at including all students and perspectives in the math department. Further, we collected a large amount of crowd-sourced advice similar to what math concentrators would get and wrote the Advising Pamphlet to help make this information available to everyone in the math department. In addition, community-building initiatives like Math Night have helped women and other underrepresented students gain more access to better peer-to-peer advising. These have all had reasonable success within Harvard, and I’m excited to see GIIM continue to pursue these initiatives and make them even more popular within Harvard. Similar methods of increasing accessibility can undoubtedly work in other colleges and schools.
One potential solution I’ve brought up many times above is the creation of a safe community for women, which provides them with a place to safely discuss obstacles unique to being a woman in math, peer-to-peer advising networks and social capital to combat the hierarchy and lack of advising resources, and a location free of stereotypes or gendered comments. Successfully creating this community significantly helps many of the issues above; in fact, according to some students, countries that have strong communities of women have been able to mostly close the gender gap, even if structural or cultural inequities remain.
Another important aspect of community-building is the importance of role models that women can look to for inspiration and mentoring. Many women cite important role models from their childhood, but often these are male, simply due to the lack of prominent female mathematicians to serve as role models. Fortunately, society is gradually improving this situation as formerly unknown figures like Emmy Noether, Sophie Germain and Ada Lovelace become more prominent; the recent book/movie Hidden Figures has helped bring light to these issues. On a more institutional level, we need female math professors or similar role models. Unfortunately, Harvard has no tenured female professors. As a result, GIIM has run a speaker series where we invite prominent female mathematicians from other universities and from industry to speak about their research and challenges they faced; these events have had varying success in inspiring women in the department and raising issues related to the gender gap. The WIMS speakers also play similar roles in both their keynotes and panels as well as the smaller breakout sessions where they get to closely interact with participants; these events were very well-received at WIMS 2016. Thus creating role models for women in math is not by any means easy, but it is definitely doable for a student group even at a university without female tenured professors.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it makes clear that there are many actions that we as students can take to help reduce the gender gap with minimal effort. So the only question that remains is this: why do we care so much about gender issues in the first place? To this, in addition to the inherent injustice, I can only give you my answer: because every day, there are students out there, perfectly capable of going into math, who are forced out for reasons totally out of their control. Because every single time a student leaves math or another quantitative field, humanity is less likely to solve any of the major mathematical and scientific challenges facing it today. And because every little way I make math more inclusive and every student I encourage to do math can do far, far more for the field and for humanity than I could ever do alone.