When I walk into the room

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that too few women reach the level of permanent academic appointments in mathematics. What is not agreed is what should be done about it.

Some think that we should have some form of affirmative action. There used to be pressure to appoint the qualified woman on the short list, without considering whether she was the best applicant. This, fortunately, is no longer done; better strategies include various kinds of networking such as women-only conferences, mentoring schemes, role models, and so forth, and family-friendly career structure.

Others think that it is patronising and ultimately destructive to ghettoise women, or any other group in the mathematical universe, and refuse to take part in activities of this sort.

Most people take a more moderate position. A moving poem by JoAnne Growney describes her feelings on entering a room full of mathematicians; if she can’t immediately see how many women there are in the room, she feels happy. This very human reaction cuts right through the empty debate, in my view.

I have no solution to offer. I did get taken to task after the report of the International Review of UK Mathematics was published. One of its recommendations was that we should take action to increase the number of women in the profession, though it gave no concrete suggestions about how this might be done. I remarked that I wished they hadn’t said this. In the present economic meltdown, no action we can possibly take is going to change the proportion of women by very much, and failure to implement this recommendation will certainly be used by funders as a stick to beat the community with. I stand by this, although as I hope is clear I strongly support the objective. (The community has already been damaged by a very superficial reading of the report’s recommendation on statistics by the research council.)

So I took Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own down from the shelf and re-read it. I like Virginia Woolf; she is highly intelligent, but never talks down to me. As with any book of substance, I get different things from it every time I read it. What struck me this time was a comment about Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen, part of the first group of women to write great literature in English. Comparing them, Woolf asserts that Brontë’s work is flawed because she is angry about the opportunities and experiences she has been denied by her circumstances, and this anger comes through her writing; Austen, on the other hand, is completely reconciled to her situation and her prose is undisturbed.

I am sure that some mathematicians, of both genders and on both sides of the debate, are angry. While it is less likely that this anger would come through in their writing, I can just about believe that it might inhibit the delicate psychological process of actually doing mathematics.

All I have to offer, then, is my own view, which is that as mathematicians we are not male and female, black and white, or divided up in any such artificial way. Maybe we are algebraic and geometric, or continuous and discrete (“gooey and prickly”, as Alan Watts said), and these differences may well affect the mathematics we do; it certainly affects the way we think about it. But the other differences are profoundly irrelevant.

So I managed to come up with the following. I tried to follow JoAnne’s format but couldn’t condense it into a single stanza, I’m afraid; so I had to add a third dimension to her 5×5 scheme. As well as JoAnne, I acknowledge inspiration from Poppy Warren, whom I met in Ann Arbor in 1973.

I enter a room,
Try to count up the
(As Pythagoras
labelled our order…)

But how do you tell
Who is and who’s not?
Female, male, black, white,
Old, young, scruffy, neat,

It was inky hands
Or chalk-crusted cuffs
Once; now, one fiddles
With a smartphone, one
Hefts bags of papers.

A conversation
Stops; the speakers fall
To contemplation —
They are probably

Sidle up to them,
And as they stare down
At their shoes, deep in
Abstract thought, drop the
Innocent question:

“What happens at the boundary?”
“What’s its automorphism group?”

As a final note, I wanted the last word of the second stanza to be “undiscriminating”, which would have better conveyed the ambiguity I wanted here; but the rules didn’t allow it, and I didn’t want to break them until the end.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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6 Responses to When I walk into the room

  1. Peter says:

    I know we’ve argued about this before, but I still find your criticism of the recommendation concerning women and minorities in mathematics misplaced. Even though I’m not in the UK, I see the same situation in Germany and the US so allow me to generalize.

    Maybe (I think even probably) it will come as you say: it’s impossible to follow the recommendation right now and it will be held against mathematicians at a later point leading to more cuts.

    And I cannot help but feel that this would be a just consequence. Our community seems to have disregarded the topic for a very long time. We should have done something about it over the last few decades but didn’t and, I think, we deserve to feel the repercussions.

    Unfortunately, the timing is horrible and it will cause much more damage than it would have done in better times. But this is a failure of our community and its leaders, not of the recommendation.

    What is truly annoying is that the repercussions will, of course, not fall on the people that have ignored the issue for so long. Instead, it will be the young, un-tenured researchers. This is the even bigger failure of our community and its leadership.

  2. Peter says:

    I forgot to add; thank you for sharing this poetic reply publically!

  3. JoAnne says:

    One of the things that can be done without monetary cost is to take positive steps to encourage the visibility of women and other underrepresented groups already in the mathematics profession. Since the days when I was a graduate student the number of women in mathematics (and the percentage) have grown — but math-women still are not, for whatever reason, proportionately visible in the media, on lists of prize winners, as quoted experts, etc etc etc.

  4. Ralph says:

    I like your poem very much. Instead of settling for a word that doesn’t satisfy, you might keep the syllable rule by breaking a different one: “Undiscriminate.”

  5. Thank you, everyone, for your responses.

    Peter and I have indeed debated the issue of women in mathematics before. I have to say that, when I said above that I regard the gender of a mathematician as profoundly irrelevant, I really meant it.

    My first feedback on this post was something along the lines of “Why do we need more women in mathematics?” In view of my attitude, I hear this as “Why do we need more mathematicians?” I don’t think I argued that we did. Perhaps, in the present climate when administrators are not keen to pay for mathematics, we need fewer, not more. But I do very strongly believe that we should cherish and encourage the ones we have, in every way possible.

    Ralph: Thanks for the suggestion. I will mull over it, but at the moment I am thinking I may leave it as it is. Ambiguity is best when it is a bit hidden.

  6. For information: the London Mathematical Society and HoDoMS have a booklet on good practice for advancing the careers of women in mathematics departments, at

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