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
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.
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
“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.