Women in Math: The Symposium

On Saturday, Tori and I hosted a symposium to celebrate Women in Math – sponsored by the UChicago AWM.  We had undergrads, grad students, a post-doc, and tenured faculty talking about their own research (in the case of women), and the work of female mathematicians (in the case of the men). Unfortunately, we started a little too early in the morning – attendance was very low for these talks, which were universally excellent.

In the afternoon we had a larger attendance.  Most of the talks were more about women in math than about math itself.  Kiki Zissimopoulus ran an excellent session on how to teach to an inclusive classroom. We explored what an inclusive classroom is, what constitutes ‘mathematical thinking,’ and ways that we can foster an inclusive environment in our own classes.  I was excited to apply some of these ideas to my own teaching – especially the idea of strategic learners and deep learners, and trying to encourage deep learning techniques (returning to old homework problems, repairing errors, etc).

We also had a fascinating session by Stephen Meyer, of UChicago Astrophysics, about Implicit Bias.  He gave an interesting presentation, which centered on a study of letters of recommendation for male and female medical candidates.  The statistical differences are striking, and hard to ignore: twice as many letters for women as for men included ‘doubt raisers’ – comments like, “She worked hard on projects she accepted,” which are interpreted negatively, while offering surface support. Only 3% of the letters for women referred to them by their titles, while 12% of letters for men did so – and there was no difference in the number of women who had such titles compared to the number of men. Letters for women are much more likely to address training, personal life, and teaching than letters for men.  On the other hand, male letters tend to address research much more than female letters. Perhaps the most interesting method of analysis was looking at the most common words following possessives: “her research,” “his colleagues,” etc.  Overwhelmingly these words followed social stereotypes.  All of this is true regardless of the gender of the recommender – one of the most insidious aspects of implicit bias.  And, as Professor Meyer pointed out, this effect is multiplied by the biases of the readers. On a related note, this is a cool resource (shown to me by Kiki Zissimopoulus) about gender biases revealed by word usage in teacher reviews.

We also had a great session on Impostor Syndrome, run by Claudio.  He ran it as a workshop, and at one point asked us to turn to our neighbors, look them in the eye, and tell them something that we are proud of.  I found this incredibly difficult – even though he had told us to do it, even though I knew they would not think of it as bragging, even though I knew they wouldn’t laugh or make a face. Even so, I was near tears by the time I said anything. What was interesting (and surprising) to me was that everyone in our little group had a quote-unquote “rational” for thinking they did not really belong in the UChicago PhD program. I was able to look at my fellow grad students and see that they were being absurd – they are excellent mathematicians and well suited to UChicago – but I can’t do the same for myself. Very frustrating, to know that one is being irrational and yet be unable to escape from those thoughts.

We closed the night with mathematical trivia, put together by Mathilde. The questions were perfectly chosen (though I may be a little biased since my team won).  Questions ranged from mathematical trivia (How many 4-dimensional platonic solids are there?), to historical personages (I am a French mathematician whose hand was buried apart from my body.  Who am I?), to estimation questions (How many kangaroos are there in Australia?). We had a great time, and it was fun to get competitive over something small.  My team won a bag of tropical fruit as a prize – a UChicago math department tradition started by accident in my first year.

All in all, I think we did a good job of the symposium, given that it was planned in less than two months.  We even (after adjusting slightly) had the right amount of food! (Plus some non-perishables that we’ll use in our next event.) Goodness – I was exhausted afterwards, primarily over the stress of making sure everything ran smoothly.  We luckily had a lot of volunteers to help run each classroom, deal with setting up projectors, and even clean up the food after meals. I have no idea how anyone can run a several-day conference! But it was a great experience, and next year we’ll do more early planning, get more speakers, and all in all have a great time.

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