Friday, September 7, 2012

Women and SLACs: internal instincts

Something I don't fully understand is the gendered nature of where people end up professionally. Small liberal arts colleges (SLACs) have a higher percentage of female mathematics faculty than big state university systems; big state university systems have a higher percentage of female mathematics faculty than R1s. There is certainly room to argue for multifactorial discrimination as a cause for women to "slide down" the prestige ladder over time -- the "gender smog" that pervades our air is, well, pervasive, and so if it affects grant funding rates and paper acceptance rates and teaching evaluations and issues of fit* it's not surprising that even if we only consider anti-child career-devoted women who succeeded in postdocs after graduating from Princeton or Berkeley the percentage at high prestige institutions is less than that of anti-child career-devoted men who succeeded in postdocs after graduating from Berkeley or Princeton. Fine. Discrimination sucks; I want to move on to a more interesting discussion from my point of view.

  • I noticed at a recent discussion that involved a lot of women mathematicians that a far higher percentage were at SLACs than I would have expected at a research conference. 
  • In addition, I've watched some really "famous" women mathematicians move from large state R1s to SLACs over the last five years. (Famous is in quotes because the mathematical community is small -- but they are famous to me!)
  • I've watched a fair number of my own generation of early-career mathematicians try out various jobs, and seen a lot of women try SLACs due to their own interest or someone else's encouragement. Several of these efforts have really not worked out and it's taken a lot of effort for these women to get back into research-focused environments. Conversely, I've seen a few guys who really wanted SLAC or teaching-focused jobs just inexorably pushed back toward less teaching-focused schools.
  • I have watched my own thoughts and emotions, and have noticed my own internal bias that says "Women more naturally fit at SLACs!" This intellectual bias, though, does not actually fit the evidence that I'm observing. It's caused me a fair bit of cognitive dissonance.
I have no empirical reason to think women mathematicians would do better at a SLAC than an R1. The teaching is hard work, the student evaluations are still statistically unfair to women, and it's a tough job that requires a lot of finesse. I have now gotten to know several women mathematicians at R1s who I can say with confidence would be total failures at many SLACs and are brilliant at what they do in terms of research and graduate students. I know there's a cultural bias that pairs women and teaching or women and caretaking or women and mentoring. What I don't understand is why I would internalize that -- I know rationally that it's not really so. I still feel an internal dissonance when I think about pursuing a research-oriented career. I have a hard time having confidence in myself when it comes to working primarily on research, even though it makes me happier than concentrating primarily on teaching. What? Why? This is so irrational. Clearly something unexamined has happened in my psyche.

Cordelia Fine discusses this in her book, "Delusions of Gender". There are a lot of reviews praising this book for its witty writing and excellent science, but it just made me really really depressed. It's talking about my life. There's a whole chapter on women in mathematics that discussed quite thoroughly why succeeding in mathematics as a woman or man makes you more sexist. We all learn unconsciously from what we see every day. Successful women in math see themselves as a minority, an ever-diminishing minority. Successful men in math see women as a minority. How can you see otherwise? It's a fact. The only place you don't see women as a total minority in mathematics is at some SLACs. Some places women are even approaching -- gasp -- 45% of the total faculty!

I have become more sexist as I've continued in mathematics. (You can test your own unconscious bias at Understanding Prejudice.) I can't help it, and it conflicts with my own interests and the truth of my own life. I anticipate that some troll could come along and tell me I'm just realizing that women are worse at (whatever), but the problem is it's not true. I am clearly, measurably better at some things that are not in the unconscious "female" box in my brain. I am clearly, measurably not cut out for some things that are in the unconscious "female" box in my brain. I'm still female. It's a lot to untangle.

* There are a lot of contradictory and complementary studies on bias: a RAND study says NSF awards don't show gender bias, but other studies show NIH and NSF awards show huge bias against US ethnic/racial minorities; another study says women receive teaching awards at a rate comparable to participation in the workforce but scholarly awards at a rate not comparable to men when prestige of publications is considered; there are tons of studies on bias in teaching evaluations and it seems Asians (whether immigrant or from the US) are discriminated against while women in math get higher evaluations if they're exceptionally "warm" while they're heavily penalized if they are not "warm", while black professors get different messages if the evaluation is phrased as "feedback" or "evaluation"; it goes on and on and on... very complicated!

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