by Alice Silverberg

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Over the years, I've told colleagues and friends about things I have seen or experienced. Many times, people have said that I should write them down so that they won't be lost and forgotten, since some of them might be useful parts of our history. I've been writing them down, without being sure what I would do with them. I decided to gradually post them on this website, and see what reactions I get. Thoughtful feedback would be useful for me, and would help me to revise the exposition to make it as useful as possible. I hope that while you read my stories you will ask yourself "What can I learn from this?" I'm particularly interested in knowing what you see as the point of the story, or what you take away from it. Please send feedback to asilverb@gmail.com. Thanks for taking the time to read and hopefully reflect on them!




Posted September 24, 2018

My next few posts will be "outtakes" from earlier drafts of my September 16, 2018 piece. See especially my commentary under the following outtake.
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Outtake #1: When something goes wrong

There are things I should learn to do better. One is to choose my battles, or at least figure out sooner when the battle is lost. If you look up the management chain and see no one who can be counted on to do the right thing, then your only options might be the unpalatable ones of getting a lawyer, going to the media, or getting out. When the stress of unfair treatment makes you ill, it's probably time to get out. Your health is your highest priority.
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The above was intended as advice for students. But I've told a variant of this advice to administrators (who would rather that I hadn't), and it's especially important for them. To administrators and managers (in all professions), the message is:

People need to know where to go to get problems fixed. If the problem is more likely to be solved by going to a lawyer or the media than by any option you offer, then some people will do so. If you don't want that, you need to provide better options, that can be trusted to make things better rather than worse.



Posted September 16, 2018

I was invited to submit a story for the book "The Struggle is Real: Stories of Struggle and Resilience on the Path to Becoming a Mathematician", edited by Allison Henrich, Emille Lawrence, Matthew A. Pons, and David Taylor, to be published by the MAA. According to the editors, "The goal of "The Struggle is Real" project is to talk openly about the struggles we have faced on the road to becoming a mathematician. ... the goal is to talk about it, to share personal stories, and start to break down the walls that have grown between people in our discipline. ... We believe that a resource like this will be valuable to our community in a variety of ways. First, it will give students a place to turn when they need inspiration, motivation, and encouragement. Second, it will remind those of us who are professional mathematicians to remember the times when we struggled and have compassion for our students who might be facing similar obstacles. In addition, it will help to dispel myths about who can and who cannot succeed in our field."

Below is the version that will appear in the book, i.e., the upbeat version. The editors asked me to remove from my early drafts the more pessimistic parts, and say more about things that helped me to survive. I plan to eventually post here some of the "outtakes".


Moving beyond affirmative action for men

I joke that all of my higher education was at single sex universities ... but unfortunately for a sex of which I'm not a member. The disparities between the way men and women were treated at those universities ranged from serious to laughable.

I grew up going to New York City public schools when they were unsafe and the city was verging on bankruptcy. Neither of my parents graduated from college, so my siblings and I had to learn for ourselves how to cope with the Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges.

Harvard College didn't admit women to the Class of 1979 (even though that's the college I went to). The female students were all admitted by Radcliffe College. The Harvard/Radcliffe ratio at that time was 2.5 to 1 by fiat, having gotten there gradually from a ratio fixed at 4 to 1 a few years earlier. People have told me that affirmative action must have helped me get into Harvard. They don't realize that Harvard's affirmative action favored men and not women; discrimination against women was institutionalized.

Our value was conveyed to us in trivial ways before we even started. With the acceptance letter, Harvard sent the boys a postage paid envelope for their response, and a fancy certificate suitable for framing stating that they got into Harvard. The girls needed to put stamps on their response envelopes. While Princeton alumni joke that Princeton's Latin motto translates to "God went to Princeton", I joke that Radcliffe's Latin motto translates to "Radcliffe has no money".

The female students were known as "Radcliffe bitches". Some professors made it clear that they expected the men to go on to top grad schools, while they expected the women to teach high school.

Harvard declared itself coeducational in 1999 (sic), but its 360-year legacy has a lingering impact, for example in faculty gender ratios. There were no female tenured mathematics Professors in the Harvard, Cambridge, or Princeton math departments when I was a student there, or any time before. Neither Harvard nor Cambridge had any in the 20th century, and Princeton's first was in 1994.

Churchill College prides itself on being "the first of the formerly all-male Cambridge colleges to vote to admit women". It is less proud that it was the last Cambridge College to be founded as men-only (contrary to Sir Winston's wishes). Churchill College first admitted female undergraduates in 1972. The Master while I studied there in 1979-80 had voted against admitting women.

That women weren't welcome at Princeton, which went coed less than a decade before I applied to grad school, was signaled in ways ranging from blatant to subtle. A group calling itself the "Concerned Alumni of Princeton" agitated to revoke coeducation. The ratio of men's rooms to women's rooms in the math building was 3.5 to 1. Some time after I graduated, someone who has been an AMS President told me that the reason there were no female students when he went to Princeton was that none were good enough to be admitted; he wasn't aware that women were barred.

I learned many things from my experiences. I learned that decisions that should be based on merit and fairness are often (subconsciously) instead based on empathy. This unfortunately leads to people favoring people who remind them of themselves, and people finding it hard to believe that those isomorphic to themselves can do bad things.

Something that helped me survive as a mathematician was that I'd rather listen than talk. Putting yourself in someone else's shoes is a useful game. Sitting around after dinner with other students (i.e., procrastinating instead of studying), we tried to figure out why we disagreed on something that seemed obvious to each of us. We could usually trace our differences to our own experiences or our family's values (and our acceptance or rejection of them). This helped us to see that there can be more than one valid viewpoint. One learns more by listening than by speaking.

I try to have a sense of humor and to be bemused rather than angry or resentful (though I don't necessarily succeed at that), and I try to remember what's important and not get stressed about things that aren't. I try to view the world with a sense of adventure and an appreciation for the absurd. (It helps that I haven't yet figured out that I'm not Alice in Wonderland.) Mathematicians (and people in general?) are a lot like children, with both the good and the bad that accompanies that. I'm eternally optimistic that, like children, they (we) have the capacity to learn and become better.

The mathematical community is a lot like a family. It's a collection of people, some difficult, some complicated, but to a large extent we care about each other.

References:


Nancy Weiss Malkiel, "Keep the Damned Women Out": The Struggle for Coeducation, Princeton University Press, 2016.



Posted September 2, 2018

"Alice, what are you doing next year?"

During my last semester at Harvard, I ran into Professor Q on the stairs leading to the math department Common Room.  He animatedly asked, "Alice, what are you doing next year?"

I replied, "I got into MIT, Chicago, and Berkeley.  Princeton makes its decisions next week.  If I get into Princeton, I'll go there."

Q's face turned beet red.  "You mean ... you're going to grad school?!  ...  In mathematics?!"

"Yes." 

Not only had I done well in the courses I took from Q, but I had done well in general (I had already been named one of the few students to get junior year Phi Beta Kappa, and would soon graduate summa cum laude in mathematics).  Had I been male, no one would have been surprised that I planned to go to grad school.  In mathematics.
 
Q had clearly been planning to tell me something, but now thought better of it. 

I asked, "What were you going to say?"

"Oh, nothing.  It doesn't matter."  He looked very embarrassed. 

Curious, I insisted.  "Please. You were going to say something.  What was it?"

Hesitatingly, he told me that a math teacher at his son's high school had recently left.  Q had thought that I might not have plans for next year, and would be interested in the position.

I deduced from Q's embarrassment that he would not have had this conversation with a comparable male student.  But it's nice to know that he realized he should be embarrassed!



Posted August 24, 2018

Immunizations


"I don't have a sexist bone in my body. I would never do or say anything sexist. I'm the least sexist person there is," said F, shortly before saying things that seemed rather sexist to me.

I looked at him quizzically. Did he think I was stupid, and that I'd believe that nothing he said could be sexist, just because he said so?

I tried to figure it out. After observing him and others, it seemed to me that he believed he was immunizing himself against accusations of sexism. If I charged him with sexism, I'd be implicitly accusing him of lying. He thought I'd be reluctant to do that.

It's not just men who try to immunize themselves. Many people recognize that when someone tells a woman, in a professional setting and in front of her colleagues, how lovely she looks, while praising men for their work, this can undermine her professional stature in the workplace. But some women readily compliment other women on their clothes, in front of their colleagues. Sometimes they accompany it with "This would be sexist if a man said it, but it's fine since I'm a woman." If it's not OK when a man does it, why is it OK when a woman does it? In my book, saying it's OK doesn't immunize
 their actions from scrutiny.

And when someone begins a sentence with "I know this might sound racist (or sexist), but …", that self-awareness doesn't necessarily make it less racist or sexist.



Posted August 8, 2018

In job ads, say what you mean and mean what you say
Every so often I receive an email message or phone call, sometimes from a friend, sometimes from someone I don't know, saying that his or her department has a job, here's what they're looking for, and can I spread the word and help them find someone who fits the bill?

If I wasn't sent me the job ad, I look it up. Usually, the criteria that I was told are very different from those in the job ad.

I point out the discrepancy between the official ad and what they told me, and suggest that their job ads state the criteria they're really looking for. I also suggest that they advertise widely, and not just spread the word via the "old boy network" (even if it includes me). Put together a diverse hiring committee. Interview the people whose files best satisfy the criteria in the job ad.

They usually seem surprised by my advice.



July 31, 2018 postscript to July 25 post


My July 25 post reminded me of a story I heard in 1979 from a postgraduate student at the University of Cambridge. The dorm rooms and common areas were cleaned by female "bedders" hired by the College. When some of the all-male Colleges went mixed (coed) in the 1970s, some of the bedders at first refused to clean the rooms of the female students. These bedders viewed the male students as better than them. But they said that the female students were just like them, and they were offended at the idea of having to clean for women — women could clean for themselves.



Posted July 25, 2018

A mountain of unwashed coffee cups

I visited a mathematics research institute in Bonn, Germany sometime in the 1990s. In addition to offices, each floor had a small kitchen with ceramic coffee cups, coffee-making equipment, and a prominent sign stating that everyone was responsible for washing their cups after use. So I was surprised to find a mountain of unwashed coffee cups piled in the sink.

The mountain grew higher each day, and eventually teetered precariously. I was afraid to go near it, lest my breathing set off a cup avalanche and toppled them onto the floor.

I asked around, and learned that the culprit was one person.

One day, I saw the culprit in the kitchen, adding to his monument. I pointed out the sign about washing one's own cups, and said I was curious as to why he didn't.

He politely explained that he was from Poland, where (he claimed that) washing dishes was women's work. He said that he expected the female staff or the female mathematicians to wash his cups.

Since I hadn't yet spent any time in a Buddhist monastery, I most likely gave a response that isn't printable.
 


Posted July 18, 2018

My Brilliant Friend

https://www.europaeditions.com/spool/cover_9781609452865_602_600.jpg

Elena Ferrante's book "My Brilliant Friend" led me to recall my brilliant childhood friend Lila (not her real name). Lila was the best student in our year in elementary school, and got the top grades. She could have done anything she set her mind to, and done it brilliantly.

Lila and I planned to become great authors someday. I was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, so Lila made up a hilarious mock newspaper article announcing the granting of an Edgar Award for my (non-existent) future first novel.

Her family was among the poorer ones. Our part of Queens had large areas consisting of "garden apartments" — small apartments in two-story brick buildings. I never saw one with a garden. Lila's brother slept in a narrow alcove in the hallway in their garden apartment. The family worried about what to do when he outgrew the length of the alcove and wouldn't fit anymore.

In New York City, kids with high enough grades who were born early enough in the year could skip from second to fourth grade. My mother ran into Lila's mother one day. Lila's mother told mine that the school decided not to let Lila skip a grade. The reason was that Lila had once cried when she didn't score 100 on a test. The school decided that this was a sign of immaturity — girls shouldn't take their grades so seriously.

Around the end of fourth grade, Lila told me that from her observations of our world, she had learned that girls and women are rewarded for being popular, and punished for being smart, so she decided that from then on she would be popular instead of smart.

I knew I would never be smart enough to figure out how to be popular, so Lila had no competition from me in that arena. I was silently glad that I would at last have a chance to be the kid with the highest grades.

It didn't happen in fifth grade — it wasn't easy for Lila to relinquish the top spot and get less than a perfect grade. She had to make a real effort. But she could do anything she was determined to do, and by the time she graduated elementary school she succeeded in being a popular kid rather than the "smartest" one.

We saw little of each other in high school. We weren't in the same classes. Every so often I'd learn of something wonderful that Lila did, in areas like music or drama. It confirmed to me that she really could do whatever she wanted.

Lila and I occasionally saw each other on the Q44A bus that we took home from high school; we both got off at the last stop, and then walked home in opposite directions. One afternoon in our senior year, toward the end of the line, when the bus had nearly emptied out, we got to talking about what we planned to do with our lives. Lila told me matter-of-factly that she intended to be a hooker. Not your run-of-the-mill prostitute, but an expensive, exclusive, high-class call girl who catered to the wealthiest businessmen and the most important politicians. Her observations about how the world worked told her that this was the best plan for how a woman could make enough money to live well, and retire early and comfortably.

I didn't know whether to believe her. She might have been serious. Or she might have been amusing herself by trying to shock me. I decided to play it cool and pretend I wasn't shocked.

Years later I was pleased to learn, indirectly, that she had a law degree and was working as a prosecutor in New York. I realized that she had just been trying to shock me.

But when Governor Eliot Spitzer (a former New York prosecutor) resigned after liaisons with high-priced call girls, I did contemplate writing a screenplay about a New York prosecutor moonlighting as a madam who ran an exclusive prostitution ring and procured call girls for her colleagues (and I'm embarrassed to admit that I was slightly disappointed that Lila's name never appeared in the articles about the escort service used by Spitzer).



Posted July 11, 2018

Math, not people

W asked me to join him and several others on the organizing committee for a research program to take place at a mathematics institute. The pre-proposal, which W and another organizer had already written, was due in a couple of days. My guess is that I was added to the committee at the last minute as its "token woman".

Our proposal was eventually accepted, and it was then our task to choose mathematicians to invite to the program.

I decided that, of the possible reasons to have a "token woman", a positive one was to have someone on the committee reminding us not to overlook mathematicians from traditionally-overlooked demographics who would be a good fit for our program. I decided to take my role as token woman seriously.

But as we tossed around names of people to invite, almost all were male. Mostly co-authors, students, advisors, or friends of my co-organizers and their friends. I was something of an outsider on the committee, since my fields of mathematics were further from our program's field than were those of my co-organizers. So I had more trouble thinking of invitees. I decided to search for ideas using the online database of mathematics publications. But since I was inputting the names of my co-organizers, it output their co-authors, students, etc.

I despaired of finding a way to broaden the demographics of our invitees. Perhaps this was just a field with no women.

I reread our proposal. It was in the form "Our program will study the ramifications of B's paper, on which interesting work has already been done by C, D, and E. We will also explore ways to solve the conjectures of F and G." This confirmed my sense that this field consisted of B through G and their entourages. I was resigned to leave it at that.

As the outsider, I felt insecure about my role in the program. I wondered, "If people ask what the program is about, can I even tell them? I can say the point is to build on the work of B, C, D, E, F, and G. But what if they ask what that means?"

I said to the committee, "Our proposal focuses on the people. But what if we instead focus on the mathematics? What are the mathematical problems we'd like to solve? Rather than saying "the work of B", can we identify the mathematical topics and questions we want to pursue?"

At first, it wasn't easy to rephrase the proposal in terms of the mathematics. But we did. And once we did, we had keywords we could feed into the database. And out popped new names we hadn't thought of. Some were good choices for our invitee list, including some women.

People are interesting. But there are drawbacks to overemphasizing people in place of ideas. Personally, I'd rather that we not name buildings after people. And I'm not a fan of a recent emphasis on people and personalities, rather than mathematics, in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Who decides whom to spotlight, and what criteria do they use? This can be problematic.



Posted July 5, 2018

"You must be mistaken!"

When I told American colleagues about a certain result, and mentioned that I had proved (and published) it, the knee-jerk reaction was "Oh, that's obvious." I grew accustomed to that response.

That's why I was surprised when the result came up in a conversation with Lucien Szpiro and he said something like "That's a nice result! Who proved it?" 

I was even more surprised that he still liked the result, even after I told him that I'd proved it.

My impulse was to exclaim "No, no! You must be mistaken! The result is obvious! I'm not a real mathematician!" Fortunately, I restrained myself.

My trips to France in the 1980s and 1990s were refreshing. It seemed to me that female mathematicians (and not just foreign ones) were treated seriously, like real mathematicians.

Afterword:
I ran a draft of this story past a friend, who advised me to remove the line "I'm not a real mathematician!" since he thought it didn't make sense. I told my friend "But this is what I actually thought. I don't want to remove it." He said that if I leave it in, I need to explain it.

Even though I don't like to include too many consecutive "whiny" posts that might look as if I'm complaining about things that happened to me, I wrote the June 16 and 23 posts to explain this one.

My knee-jerk reaction "You must be mistaken! The result is obvious! I'm not a real mathematician!" followed many incidents, over many years, of being treated as if I'm not a "real mathematician" like my colleagues.



Posted June 29, 2018

"Foreigners are golden"

When an Australian biologist told me "foreigners are golden", she opened my eyes to something that would have taken me a long time to figure out on my own. She said that in America, in her professional life she was not only treated better than in Australia, but also better than her American female colleagues.

Her explanation was that men identify women from their own country with their sisters, wives, mothers, or daughters. But a foreign woman is exotic. Almost a different species. She's special.

I began to pay attention. I noticed that in Japan I was treated better than Japanese female mathematicians, in Germany I was treated better than German female mathematicians (though not as well as I was treated in the U.S.), etc. In other countries, I was golden. Not normal, not "one of us", but assigned a higher status than the local women.



Posted June 23, 2018

This blog post is part of a series designed to give some of the backstory for an upcoming post.

Photocopying exams

When I arrived at the cavernous room in the basement to photocopy my final exams, someone was using all the machines. She told me she'd be using them for a few hours. She was the administrative assistant for a professor in the physics department.

We started chatting, and I mentioned that I was in the math department. She said that the last time she was in the photocopy room, she was shocked to find a young assistant professor of mathematics copying his own exams. "That's not right," she said.

I replied, "In the math department, even very senior faculty, such as myself, have to photocopy our own exams." From what she said next, it was clear that she (still) thought I was a secretary, copying someone else's exams. I tried a few more times with no success, and eventually I gave up trying to convince her that I was faculty.



Posted June 16, 2018

"Alice, Professor X is here in my office."

"Alice, Professor X is here in my office. He doesn't like the room he's teaching in, and wants to trade classrooms with you," said N, the department manager, over the phone.

Professor X felt that the blackboard mechanism and the platform at the front of his classroom were dangerous, and he wanted a safer classroom. I agreed to trade rooms.

This was soon after I arrived at UCI as a senior professor. Since N had known Professor X longer, and he was at a lower rank in the hierarchy than I was, I didn't understand why N used his last name and title, but not mine. So the next time she did that, I asked her. She smiled, and said she didn't know.

This sort of thing has happened repeatedly, to me and other women. I hoped it would happen less as I got older, or as the world got better. It's not that I mind being called by my first name. It's that I'd like the same respect as Professor X. 



Posted June 10, 2018, slightly revised June 14, 2018

A test of character

For a problem I was working on, I needed to know the answer to a particular mathematics question. Hoping that specialists in the area would know the answer or could figure it out, I asked around.

At conferences, I met one specialist after another whose knee-jerk response was "It's trivial." They seemed to expect me to be satisfied with that, but I pointed out that I didn't just want the answer, I wanted a proof. They couldn't produce one, and seemed annoyed with me.

The top people in the field didn't behave that way. They thought about it briefly and decided they didn't know.

I learned that rather than going through the usual routine of "It's trivial" and "But I'd like to know a proof," it saved time to begin with "I've asked Serre, Tate, and Mazur and they didn't know. But it's closer to problems you've worked on, so I thought you might be able to help."

How did the specialists respond? In a sage and serious tone, they replied "Oh, that's a very hard problem."

But it was the same problem that had been "trivial" a few months before. I wondered whether "It's trivial" had less to do with the mathematical question itself, than with the person I was asking, and (perhaps) their perception of me.

Then I asked Ralph Greenberg the question. We had a long mathematical discussion. He came up with cases where the result held, and other cases where it didn't. (It turned out to depend on whether the field was a finite field, a number field, a function field, etc.) 

Since then, I think of Ralph as a hero (and a "mensch"). And I think of that mathematical question as a test of character.



Posted June 2, 2018, slightly revised June 4, 2018

Examples of small groups

W, an undergraduate math major, was having trouble in the algebra course she was taking. In desperation she asked a professor she knew, Robert Gunning, what she should do. He told her to contact me, because I was an algebraist. Plenty of male grad students were algebraists; I don't think it was a coincidence that Gunning sent her to one of the few female grad students. W was the only female student in the algebra class.

The course was supposed to cover the basics of group theory. I asked W some questions to try to figure out how much she knew. She floundered. So I asked her to give me an example of a group. She struggled, but eventually I guessed she was trying to give an infinite cyclic group. I asked for an example of a finite group. She was stumped. I asked what examples of finite groups had been given in class. W claimed there had been none. I found her claim to be highly implausible.

W had another implausible claim. She said that the course skipped over the basics and instead taught more advanced material, since the other students had already learned algebra through various programs such as summer math camps.

I found a copy of Herstein's "Topics in Algebra", and I gave her a list of problems to solve before we would meet again the next week.

At tea a few days later I ran into Professor B, who taught the algebra course. I casually enquired about the course. One question I asked was "What examples of groups did you give?" He replied "None. The students should be smart enough to come up with examples on their own." He volunteered that since almost all the students knew the material already from summer math camps and the like, he didn't see a point in teaching them things they already knew, so he assumed the basics and started with more challenging material. He wasn't concerned about the one or two students who hadn't seen the basics.

It was very late in the semester. While it might have been theoretically possible for W to learn the material on her own and catch up to her classmates, it would have been a Herculean task. She did try.

Sensibly, she changed her major to statistics. 



Posted May 26, 2018

"Name one!"

On a committee to evaluate people across all fields, I was the representative for many of the STEM fields. That I was a mathematician came up frequently at our meetings. During the week, we came in at our convenience to read files.

One day, X, Y, and I were sitting around the table in the file room. As we read files, X and Y chatted amiably. They laughed about how all mathematicians are poorly dressed. And how mathematicians hold their glasses together with tape. I tried to ignore them.

Eventually, the insults reached a level where I didn't feel comfortable keeping quiet. In as friendly a voice as I could muster, I said "Some of the people in my department dress quite well."

X shot back, "Yeah, right! Name one!"

I looked down at my clothes. By pure luck — or more truthfully, my awareness that the better I dressed with this committee, the better the candidates I represented fared in the committee's evaluations — I happened to have been quite well dressed that day. I gestured towards my clothes, but they didn't get the hint.

Did they intend to deliberately insult me?

I don't think so. I think it's more likely that they didn't think of me as a mathematician (or maybe even as an academic). I wondered whether the STEM candidates we evaluated would have fared better with a man representing them, well-dressed or not.

I named a mathematician — a former Dean — who dresses nicely. They expressed doubt, and continued their chatter.

After I finished reading files, on my way down in the elevator, a well-dressed woman complimented me profusely on my lovely outfit. I smiled, and wished X and Y had been there. But I still don't know what I should have done to make them remember that I'm a mathematician.



Posted May 18, 2018

Stage whisper

Professor Q was supporting candidate Y and I was supporting candidate X, for a postdoc position.

During the hiring meeting, Q said to me in a stage whisper that was heard by everyone in the room, "You're only supporting X because she's a woman."

I pointed out that:
  •   Almost all the candidates I had supported since I arrived at Ohio State were male.
  •   All of the candidates he had ever supported were male.
  •   No one accused him of only supporting his candidates because they were male.
I found out later that Q and the department chair had made a secret deal, and had already promised Y a position. They did this so that Y would use our university as the sponsoring institution on his application for an NSF postdoctoral fellowship. The chair and Q hoped that the department would decide on its own to extend an offer to Y, so they wouldn't have to admit that they had violated departmental rules by making a secret promise of a job offer. Q's stage whisper was because he felt he needed to undermine the case for X, to make sure that Y got an offer.

In the end, Y was offered both an NSF fellowship, and a postdoc position from us. He turned down the latter and went elsewhere with the NSF.



Posted April 16, 2018

"I'd be happy to hire her if she were male."

Professor H, the department chair, was a good guy who usually did the right thing.

D applied for a job at Ohio State, after having had a couple of postdoc positions. The consensus was that her file wasn't good enough for an offer at the assistant professor level, but it was a strong file for a postdoc position.

Professor H refused to consider D for a postdoc. "But she's a top candidate," I said, and H agreed. 

Why didn't she get the job? 

Professor H said that if D were male, he'd be happy to hire her for a postdoc position. But she was female. H said that the higher administration might accuse us of gender discrimination if we offered D only a postdoc, when she was so many years past the PhD. It didn't matter to him that we had made offers to men with similar files to hers, including about the same number of postdoc years.

I find it ironic that the fear of a gender discrimination accusation was the reason D was denied a position that she would have gotten had she been male.



Posted March 31, 2018

The following post is reminiscent of the January 15, 2018 post.

"Don't tell anyone you have this!"

When negotiating a job offer, it can be useful to know what others are earning. Salaries at state universities are often public, though they can be hard to find. One sometimes confronts dirty looks or open hostility from those who would prefer to keep the information secret. 

 I knew that the University of California had a salary scale. On one job interview in 2004, I asked the department chair if I could see it. He gave me a startled look that seemed to say that he viewed my question as highly improper. He waited for me to retract my request, but I said nothing and waited. 

 He went to his computer, printed out a page, folded it in half to hide the data, handed it to me, and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "Don't tell anyone you have this!" 

 That evening I looked at the page he gave me, and saw that it gave a url. I checked online, and sure enough he had printed out a page from a public website.



Posted March 25, 2018

J. SMITH and Miss Jane DOE

Part III of the Mathematical Tripos at the University of Cambridge consisted of courses at the first year graduate level.

Early in my first term, an attendance sheet was passed around in each course.

The first time I got such a sheet, I wrote "A. SILVERBERG", using the same format as those who signed before me, and passed it to the students behind me.

Sometime later, I realized that a young man was towering over me. He had come up behind me, from the back of the classroom.

He placed the attendance sheet on my desk and said "You haven't put your name on this."

Was he hitting on me, and wanted to know my name?

I said "Yes, I have," and pointed to my name.

The young man turned bright red with embarrassment, and retreated with the sheet.

In a different course later in the week, the other woman who was taking some of the Pure Mathematics Part III courses got the sheet before I did. She wrote "Miss Sarah REES". I realized that the young man assumed I hadn't put my name because there were no names in the format "Miss Alice SILVERBERG".

I decided that I probably wouldn't like Miss Sarah Rees, and we wouldn't have anything in common. I was very wrong!

I eventually got used to these lists of names. When the Churchill College students had to sign up with a doctor under the National Health Service, the list of available doctors was in the format "J. SMITH" for the male doctors and "Miss Jane DOE" or "Mrs. Jane DOE" for the female doctors. Or maybe it was "Dr. J. SMITH" for the men. I never understood why we needed to know the marital status and first names of the women, but not the men.



Posted March 20, 2018

Three Reasons


When I was offered an opportunity to spend the academic year 1979-80 as a student at the University of Cambridge, I went to a Harvard junior faculty member who was from England, and asked for advice. He told me:

No one in the Cambridge maths department will speak to you, for three reasons:
  • The first is that you're a woman. The other students are reserved Englishmen who are shy about speaking to women, so they won't speak to you.
  • The second reason is that you're American. They're not accustomed to speaking to foreigners, so they won't speak to you.
  • And the third reason is that they don't speak to anyone. So they certainly won't speak to you.
This was both a good joke, and good advice. I did become friends with some of the other students, but it helped to know in advance that I would have to try harder.

When I returned for a brief visit a year after I left, I was surprised that I was greeted warmly by faculty who had seemed oblivious to my existence when I was a student. Some of the people I met in my year there are friends to this day.

There are many communities in the world, with different customs, values, and traditions. It makes life interesting. Some of my richest experiences come from living in another culture.



Posted March 10, 2018

Math Hookers in the House of Ill Repute
by Miriam Kadansky and Alice Silverberg

When we were 15 years old, we spent 8 weeks at the Ohio State University as students in the Ross Program, a summer math camp for high school students from all over the country. The program was very intense. We worked nearly day and night, eking out about 4 hours of sleep each night.

We did have some time for exercise; our info sheet said "the boys will receive locker permits which will allow them to use the tennis courts, gymnasium, baseball fields and the swimming pool. The girls may also use the tennis courts at any time and the pool on designated evenings" (which turned out to mean just Wednesday evenings, the one time the boys were not allowed to cavort naked).

The counselors were crucial to the program's success. They were college kids who worked very closely with the high school students, and lived with us in the dorms.

The dorms were sex-segregated and were locked at night, after which we couldn't get into the boys' dorm and they couldn't get into ours.

The 39 boys had the benefit of 24-hour access to the 15 male counselors, while the 6 female students (4 in high school, and 2 who were OSU undergrads) only had 24-hour access to the 2 female counselors. We decided that wasn't fair; everyone should have equal access to all 17 counselors.

Miriam, the feminist and the most organized among us, encouraged us to protest. So Bindu, Lisa, and the two of us marched as a delegation to the math department and presented our demands.

Dr. Ross's secretary didn't know what to do with us, so she sent us to a young staff member cum grad student. His nickname was "Joe Cool", and he cultivated that image by wearing dark sunglasses indoors. Later, Alice came to think of him as the department bouncer, whom the department would sic on women (usually civil service staff who were hard to fire) to make their lives miserable enough that they'd leave.

We presented our demands to Joe. We wanted everyone to be in the same dorm, so all the students would have equal access to the counselors.

Joe Cool peered at us over his sunglasses, and replied that what we were asking for was "against the laws of the state of Ohio". If the dorm were coed, then it "would be called a House of Ill Repute and you would be labeled prostitutes", he told us.

We left in a state of shock. We had never before been called prostitutes (at least not in our hearing). When we told the older counselors what Joe had said, they informed us that just a year or so earlier, all the students had lived together in a coed dorm. Joe was just trying to get us to stop complaining.



Posted February 25, 2018

"They don't have a history of sending students to Princeton"


I once read that by the 1920s, every major mathematics department in the country allowed women to be PhD students except Princeton, which didn't grant PhDs to women until the 1970s. (Side note: female grad students at Harvard got Radcliffe degrees until the 1960s.)

One spring day in the early 1980s, in Princeton's math department Common Room, someone asked the Graduate Chair about the next entering class of graduate students. After he told us about one of the star students, we asked if Princeton had accepted any women. He told us of several women they thought about admitting but decided against.

A typical case was a student at one of the all-female Seven Sisters schools (he had trouble remembering which one). She had top grades and great letters of recommendation. Princeton rejected her because her college didn't have a history of sending students to Princeton for math grad school (not surprising since Princeton had been a men's school until recently). The Graduate Chair didn't know what these good letters and grades really meant, unlike those from all-male colleges where he knew the faculty and Princeton had an established network.

I learned from this that Princeton's history as an all-male university continued to skew its graduate admissions decisions for years after the university decided to admit women. In much the same way, the Ivy League's practice of recruiting heavily from historically all-male prep schools like Exeter and Andover continued to skew its undergraduate admissions for years after the universities went coed.



Posted February 17, 2018

They knew the law and obeyed it


For years I had a recurring nightmare. Instead of being a professor serving on a qualifying exam or PhD thesis defense committee to grill a stressed-out graduate student, I was the student.

As I stood at the blackboard, the committee bombarded me with questions. But instead of mathematics questions, they asked:

"How old are you?"
"When did you get your undergraduate degree?"
"Where did you get your undergraduate degree?"

Once they satisfied themselves that I had gotten my degree at a sufficiently precocious age and from a sufficiently prestigious institution, they started in on more personal questions. I kept trying to bring them back to the mathematics topics I was supposed to be tested on, but they kept interrupting me with irrelevant questions. Every so often the committee would discuss how they felt about my answers.

The exam (and nightmare) ended with no math questions being asked.

While I never saw a real exam like that, the nightmare probably came from how the mathematical community evaluates people, and the contrast with what I had seen at IBM.

I spent the academic year 1988-89 on a fellowship at IBM's research center in Yorktown Heights. One day, Don Coppersmith showed me the CV of an applicant for the fellowship, and asked for my opinion of it.

The first thing I did was calculate the candidate's age based on the birthdate on the CV. I remarked approvingly on how young the candidate was when he got his PhD.

Don snatched the CV out of my hand, and told me that they're not allowed to take age into account. He said it was a mistake that we saw the birthdate---HR should have removed it.

Whenever anyone asks me about my year at IBM, I say "The main difference I saw between IBM and academia was that at IBM, they knew the law and obeyed it."



Posted February 11, 2018

A quick way to reject a paper

The Annals of Mathematics is a journal headquartered in Princeton. While I was a grad student, an Annals editor stopped another professor on the third floor hallway in Fine Hall. The editor showed his colleague a paper that had been submitted to the Annals, and asked for his opinion. The colleague immediately turned to the page with the author's university affiliation. He remarked on the lack of prestige of that (large public Midwestern) university and concluded that, due to where it came from, the paper should be rejected since it was very unlikely to meet the high standards of the journal. The editor thanked him for his help.



Posted February 3, 2018, slightly revised February 6, 2018

The next story goes well with my September 10 post "We'd love to hire a woman".

The rules of the game

When you know the rules of the game, it's easier to win. But how do you find out the rules, and what do you do if the rules you're told aren't the real rules, or if the rules keep changing?

Lenore Blum was Deputy Director at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) in Berkeley. She found me in the MSRI library one day in May of 1993, and asked me to be on a panel of mathematicians to give career advice to a group of female undergraduate and graduate mathematics students from around the country. I told her that I'm not very good on panels (I'd much rather have time to reflect, than to feel pressured to give a quick response), so I declined.

But I attended the event as a member of the audience. Lenore was the moderator. The panelists were young female mathematicians who were visiting MSRI or nearby institutions. After the panelists had their say, Lenore turned it over to questions. When the questions petered out, Lenore called on the chair of the Berkeley math department, who was sitting next to me.

"Jack, could you please tell these students what they would have to do to become mathematics professors at UC Berkeley?" Lenore was asking for the rules of the game.

Jack's reply was something like: "They should enter Harvard at age 16, graduate summa cum laude, get a scholarship to study in England for a year, then go to Princeton for grad school, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship."

The first thing that struck me was that Jack himself hadn't followed this path. The second thing that struck me was that the number of Berkeley professors who had followed that path was probably not far from zero. The third thing that struck me, in looking at the roomful of female students, was that it was already too late for any of them to follow that path. Was the quality of their future work irrelevant? I wondered to myself "are these really the rules of the game?"

Stunned, I almost didn't hear Lenore saying "Alice, could you please tell us about your career?" My first reaction was annoyance that Lenore hadn't honored my preference not to speak. But as I started to answer, I felt as if I were in a cartoon where a lightbulb turns on over my head. And I was impressed with how clever Lenore was.

I turned towards Jack, and answered Lenore's question. "I entered Harvard at age 16, graduated summa cum laude, got a scholarship to study in England for a year, then went to Princeton for grad school, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship."

You could have heard a pin drop. Then Lenore asked Jack, "Why don't you hire her?"

Jack asked me when I got my PhD, and based on my response, told me to apply to Berkeley in a couple of years.

I continued to work hard and publish. Two years later I applied for a position at UC Berkeley. I wanted the job, but I knew I wouldn't get it. So why did I apply? Because I didn't want them to have the excuse "But she never applied." I applied every year thereafter, until Paul (a Berkeley professor) told me not to apply; they were never going to hire me.

At least they didn't tell me that I hadn't followed the rules of the game.



Posted January 29, 2018

How do I know how good it is, if I don't know who wrote it?
When a paper is submitted for publication, the editors send it out for expert opinions. The first time I was asked for my opinion about a computer science paper, I blurted out "How am I supposed to know how good it is, if I don't know who wrote it?"

From that, I realized how crucially my judgment of the work depended on my opinion of who did it.

I was accustomed to refereeing mathematics papers, where the authors' names are revealed to the referees. But computer science often has double-blind reviewing, where the reviewers don't know the identities of the authors. It took me awhile to get used to this. I found that I was trying to guess the authors' identities. But that lessened as I've learned how often my guesses are wrong!

I wonder how much our opinions of the work are shaped by what we learn from seeing the authors' names.



Posted January 23, 2018

"HIRE ME!"


I think I could write a book about job interviews. I think many women in academia could. Here's a story about a job interview I went on in 2004.

It was at a university where I knew the Dean. He encouraged me to apply for the position.

The schedule included a 50 minute interview with the Hiring Committee. Contrary to the picture above, I was seated at one of the short ends, with the committee lined up on both sides of the long skinny table. I'm guessing the Chair was at the far end, facing me. I felt as if I were looking down a long tunnel; the phrase "running the gauntlet" came to mind.

I'm sure there were other questions, but I remember only one. They said they wanted to hire a woman, and asked me how to go about doing that.

It's possible I've been asked similar questions informally at interviews, by friends in one-on-one conversations. But this was a formal part of the interview, at which I'd be graded on my answer. What was the right answer?

At the time, it seemed to me that the obvious response was to jump up and down and shout "HIRE ME! HIRE ME!"

"HIRE ME!" Dare I say it?

But why hadn't they thought of that?

I decided I needed to think a bit more, so I stalled for time.

I asked them what they'd been doing so far. They had made offers to women and (mostly) men, but the women had turned down their offers to go to better places.

Since I've often been asked the question (though not usually for a grade), I had a ready answer, which I gave them: "Put together a diverse hiring committee. Advertise widely, with an ad that gives the criteria you're really looking for. Interview the people whose files best satisfy those criteria. To the extent that you can, make offers that are attractive enough that they're accepted. Go down your list until the positions are filled or you run out of acceptable candidates."

(In other words, do what you should be doing anyway.)

They weren't at all happy with my response.

After further discussion, I got the sense that they wanted me to tell them "You've been doing great! There's nothing else you should be doing!" I hadn't. They chose to view my reply as criticism, and they weren't pleased.

The rejection email from the department Chair began:

Dr. Silverberg:
The Hiring Committee has met and made its decision. It is not good for you. We will not be making an offer to you.

I gave it a 5 or 6 week cooling off period, then emailed the Dean:

Dear T,

Although I haven't been asked for feedback on my job interview, I thought it might be useful to give feedback on one aspect.

Much of my interview with the hiring committee consisted of discussing the question of how to hire more women. In retrospect, my feelings about having been asked that question, and then been rejected for the position, are negative. By the way, I gave standard, well-known answers to that question, but was left with the impression that some of the committee reacted to my response defensively and negatively.

I hope that this feedback is helpful for your future job searches.

Best regards,
Alice

The Dean never replied.

If I had it to do over again, knowing that I would be rejected (for whatever reason), it would have been more fun to have jumped up and down and shouted "HIRE ME! HIRE ME!"



Posted January 19, 2018

Personal Questions

A group of faculty took me out to the interview dinner after the talk I gave during a job interview in 2004. The Dean's wife, R, sat next to me. I was meeting her for the first time. R told me some interesting stories about her family, and her complicated relationship with her sister. But things got complicated for me when R persisted in asking me increasingly personal questions.

I've been asked overly personal questions many times at job interviews. How to deal with it is always a challenge.

When I was a grad student, Princeton convened a meeting so that female faculty could give advice to female grad students, to prepare us for being treated differently from our male counterparts during our job searches. They told us that women are asked a lot of "illegal questions" at job interviews ("Are you married?" "Do you have children?"), and there's always the dilemma of what to do. They pointed out that we could refuse to answer, but then we probably wouldn't get the job. They recommended answering truthfully (and hoping one could change the culture someday).

Several times I tried to change the subject, but R was insistent. I started out answering truthfully some of her questions about my relationship with my siblings, much as we were advised. But the questions got more and more personal, and I felt more and more uncomfortable. This wasn't the sort of conversation I would normally have with a stranger, or in the hearing of faculty who were interviewing me for a job. I didn't want to hurt my chances of getting a job offer by offending the Dean's wife, but finally I said in as polite a voice as I could muster that since it was a job interview, I didn't feel completely comfortable with personal questions such as these.

She was very upset, and loudly told me so. I don't know how many faculty had been paying attention to our conversation, but now they all were. So much for trying to make a good impression!

Over the years, universities have gotten better at training hiring committees on best practices for hiring, including not asking "illegal questions". But they don't train spouses of faculty members. (Some do suggest that non-faculty spouses not be involved in job interviews.) And they don't always train hiring committees, Deans, or Chairs to step in when someone else asks the "illegal questions".



Posted January 15, 2018

Don't tell anyone. They'll be jealous.

When I was a child, my mother told me a story. When she accepted one of her first jobs, her boss told her "Don't tell your salary to your co-workers, since they'll be jealous." After she eventually quit, she and her co-workers went to lunch and ended up exchanging salary information. It turned out that my mother had been the lowest paid employee. That's when she realized that the boss didn't want her to discuss salary so she wouldn't find out how poorly she was being paid.

So when I got a job offer and the department Chair said "Don't tell your salary offer to anyone in the department, since they'll be jealous," I burst out laughing.

From an early age, I've had a fondness for the adage "knowledge is power".


Posted January 8, 2018


They melted like butter



Z came to my office hours to ask for help with her homework. As usual, I used the Socratic Method. I asked her questions designed to help her figure out the answers herself, so that she'd have the skills she would need to solve problems on her own.

But rather than answering my questions, she was silent. I looked up from the textbook. Z was batting her eyelashes at me. I don't know if anyone ever batted their eyelashes at me before, but this was unmistakable.

I ignored the batting, and continued as before. Z got more and more flustered and confused. She expected me to give her the answers to the homework problems, and didn't understand why I wasn't doing so.

I looked more closely. I saw an ordinary-looking female Ohio State undergraduate student. Dyed blond hair, lots of makeup, low-cut blouse. Quite a lot of mascara on the batting eyelashes.

I continued to treat her the same way I would have treated any student (of any gender). But I realized what was going on. She was doing exactly what she had always done at office hours to get the instructor to tell her the answers. I must have had colleagues who melted like butter, and she expected me to do the same.

If Z had thought of it as flirting, she might have realized why it had worked on some of my (male) colleagues. My colleagues had trained her to act in a way that gave her the homework solutions, and she had learned that lesson well. Her confusion told me that she knew that it (usually) worked, but didn't understand why.

I don't think she came back to office hours. I worried about Z---that someone would take advantage of her naivety. But it would have been hard to give her helpful life advice, while staying within the boundaries of our professional relationship.




Posted January 3, 2018

The Letter


I used to point out how few women were invited to participate in conferences at the Oberwolfach mathematics research center, until someone said to me "If you weren't invited to Oberwolfach, it must be because you're not good enough to be invited."

From this and many similar experiences, I learned that my observations and suggestions are more likely to have a positive effect when I don't stand to benefit. I have more credibility when I'm the only female invited speaker, than when there are no female speakers.

It's more effective when someone else speaks up on your behalf.

But when the speaker list is all male and probably shouldn't be, who should speak up?

In 2006, at my suggestion the Association for Women in Mathematics enacted a policy that anyone can ask the AWM President to send a letter to organizers of a conference reminding them of the benefits of considering potential speakers from a wide pool so that good people are not overlooked (if not for their current conference, then for future ones). Suggestions included having a diverse organizing committee, making an effort to think of potential speakers whose demographics, mathematical interests, or geographical areas aren't represented on the organizing committee, using the Mathscinet searchable database to check that important areas or people aren't overlooked, and contacting colleagues and organizations that could help suggest names or ways to go about finding them. We referred to it as "The Letter" (as in "I wonder if those conference organizers might benefit from being sent The Letter").




Posted December 30, 2017

It's the ones who know better

Sometimes, the people who disappoint you the most aren't the ones who do the wrong thing; it's the ones who know better, but don't stand up for what's right.

Before deciding on the next math department Chair at Ohio State, the Dean interviewed all the tenured and tenure-track faculty, one by one. He reported that the main concern of the faculty was a lack of collegiality. He said that three names recurred in the interviews. Around the (purely metaphorical) water cooler we asked each other "Who's the third?" Not because we couldn't think of a third one, but because there were several possibilities.

Of the three "non-collegial" faculty, the first two were obvious. One I'll call Nick Machiavell (not his real name). Soon after I arrived at OSU, Nick told me the useful and important observation that "collegiality" is a codeword that academics use to marginalize people they don't like. While there's a lot of truth in that, it was also an excuse Nick used to ignore criticism of his behavior.

For example, Nick often disagreed with our colleague Greg, but he might phrase it by stating that Greg was stupid. Greg recalls standing up at a faculty meeting and asking everyone, "why do you put up with this behavior?" After one of the times that Greg pushed back, Nick implemented a new strategy. Right after Greg said Y at a faculty meeting, Nick, rather than calling Greg stupid, said that anyone is stupid who says Y.

Nick and I often had the same views on what the right outcome should be. But he and I had very different views on how to achieve that outcome. Nick became so unpopular in the math department that when some of us (including Nick) wanted X to happen, the best strategy was to try to prevent Nick from attending the meeting at which X was discussed.

Hamlet Prince (not his real name) was well educated, well spoken, and well respected by his colleagues. Ham wanted the department to hire R for one of our postdoc positions. R had a strong file. Nick told me that he was against the appointment, since "eastern Europeans are lazy --- they stop working after you hire them." Nick added that he knew this was an "illegal reason" to not hire someone, but that he'd deny saying it, if I told anyone.

I let Ham know that I and others would support his proposal to hire R, despite Nick's objections (which Nick had also told Ham, "illegal reason" and all). However, Ham (who was a tenured full professor) told me he decided to back down since standing up to his colleagues wasn't in his best interests.

Without the strong support of Ham, who was closest to R's field, the department wouldn't offer a postdoc position to R. While I understand the need to pick one's battles, I wished that Ham would choose to fight more of them.

Greg was eventually so miserable at OSU that he accepted a job offer elsewhere. Shortly before he left, I asked Greg if Nick drove him out. He replied that it wasn't the Nick Machiavells of the department who drove him away, it was the Hamlet Princes. It's the ones who know better, but aren't willing to do the right thing.



Posted December 26, 2017

"There are no blacks in Ohio"

When I arrived at Ohio State University in 1984, OSU's student body looked much more homogeneous than those of Harvard and Princeton. It seemed as if most of the female students dyed their hair blond, and most of the male students wore baseball caps (often backwards). But what I found most striking was that the students seemed almost uniformly white. Even Princeton, with its history of "eating clubs" that at various times discriminated against women, Jews, Catholics, and people of color, looked racially diverse compared to Ohio State. I asked a colleague why this was. The answer was "there are no blacks in Ohio." As I drove east from campus to the Columbus airport through miles and miles of African American neighborhoods (before Interstate 670 was completed), I wondered what that really meant.

Until 1987, OSU had open admissions; I was told that all you needed to get in was an Ohio high school diploma. In 1987, OSU raised its academic standards for admission to the Columbus (flagship) campus, basing it on grades, test scores, and minimum course requirements. Looking around campus, it seemed to me that the number of students of color went up. When I've told people this, they've immediately tried to correct me: "No, you mean the number went down."

I mean it went up. Enough for me to notice. Why was that? I asked around, and was told that open admissions at Ohio State had been on a first-come, first-served basis. Submitting an application by the publicly stated deadline wasn't soon enough. The high school students from the wealthy white suburbs were told by savvy guidance counselors the date by which they needed to submit their college applications in order to be accepted to the main campus of Ohio State. The inner city schools didn't have that information.

Open admissions policies often have noble goals of equal access. But to achieve equal opportunity and equal access, one needs equal information.



Posted December 22, 2017

A Response to Feedback

While many of my stories thus far are from the 1980s or 1990s, for almost all of them I could tell very similar stories that happened recently.

I've postponed some tales of recent incidents since they're more problematic to write about. In some cases, I still need to work with the people involved. For some, I might be able to make more of a difference behind the scenes, rather than making the stories public now. And for some of the recent stories, and all of the more serious incidents, I would like to distance myself from them a little more so that I can write about them in a way that's helpful and compassionate. I'm hoping that readers will stick around as I figure out how to do that!

It's interesting that some people consider the stories to be horrifying or depressing. I've mostly posted stories I find amusing; I haven't yet written about the more extreme incidents that seriously and negatively impact someone's life or career. Those are still to come!



Posted December 1, 2017

Why is this job candidate like a writing-desk?

Mr. Big had big demands, according to the department Chair who was trying to hire him. He wanted a large salary, an ample slush fund, a nice office, and a tenure-track assistant professorship for his wife. The Chair told the math faculty this last demand as if it were equivalent to negotiating for a large desk. Lewis Carroll asked "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" I wanted to ask "Why is this woman like a writing desk?"

It was one of the first departmental hiring committee meetings since I arrived at Ohio State. Mr. Big's qualifications were stellar, but my colleagues were worried that he was too much of an "operator" and that things might sour after we hired him. We didn't discuss the qualifications of "Mrs. Big." The Chair's case for her was "If we want Mr. Big we have to hire his wife. If we later decide that we don't like him, we just won't give her tenure when she comes up for it." In other words, if we don't like him, we can get rid of them both in six years by kicking her out, independent of her qualifications for tenure.

I was new and didn't know the rules, but I was pretty sure this wasn't in the tenure rulebook. If it went unchallenged, did that mean it was being agreed to? As the faculty member with the lowest seniority, I didn't want to risk my own chances for tenure by speaking out; I signaled to others more senior than me, but they didn't want to get involved.

Finally, I raised my hand and said meekly, "I'm sitting at the back where it's hard to hear. Perhaps I heard wrong. Surely we wouldn't deny her tenure just because we don't like him?" The chair of the hiring committee quietly and briefly said something about how we wouldn't do that.

The next day I ran into the department Chair's wife, while she was photocopying his exams for the course they were both teaching. (She had recently earned a PhD in mathematics education and was a lecturer in the math department.) She had heard that I had challenged the department Chair at a faculty meeting. She told me that wasn't in my best interests.

She had been friendly to me in the past. She had told me tales of growing up in Brooklyn, and learning that her family was in the Mafia---she'd complain about some bully and the next day her cousins would break his kneecaps.

Sometimes there's a fine line between friendly advice and a threat. I was very protective of my kneecaps for the next few weeks.

The committee voted for a fancy job for him (they could hardly not; he was Mr. Big after all), but only a temporary instructorship for her. While these may have been the correct decisions based on their qualifications, someone told me that it was merely a face-saving way of saying no to him. The department Chair, embarrassed about not meeting Mr. Big's demands, went against department rules and didn't make either offer.

I never found where in the rulebook it said that we could deny someone tenure because we don't like her husband, but maybe that's because I hadn't been given a tenure rulebook. Thankfully, my kneecaps are still intact.



Posted November 21, 2017

The Obvious Suspect

Professors P and Q sat across from me in the mathematics common room at the University of Cambridge. They were American professors, visiting the UK from a large midwestern university. I was an American student, visiting Cambridge on a fellowship for the 1979-1980 academic year. I was reading a mathematics text, trying to mind my own business.

P and Q were deep in discussion, trying to answer the question "Why are there so few female mathematicians?" Since they were Americans, I could hear every word.

They examined the premise that it was due to prejudice and discrimination. They rapidly dismissed that, on the grounds that the people in power in mathematics were just like them, and they were obviously good people who couldn't possibly unfairly discriminate or succumb to prejudice. Much as I tried not to eavesdrop, from that point on I felt as if I were listening to two bumbling detectives trying to solve a murder mystery. They had ruled out the obvious suspect. Who were they going to declare to be the culprit, and how were they going to get there? I had heard such debates many times before, so I had my suspicions about where they were heading. Nonetheless, I ardently hoped for better.

They eliminated one premise after another. Could it be lack of opportunities? Surely not. Lack of interest? Well, maybe, but that wouldn't fully account for it. They considered everything they could think of, until they were left with only one option.

At that point, I just couldn't restrain myself. It was clear what they were about to say, and I didn't want them to say it. Too many times had I heard (always male) professors conclude that women weren't as good at mathematics because they were genetically inferior.

I introduced myself to P and Q, apologized for listening to their conversation, and told them that the answers to their question were prejudice and discrimination. (Actually, it's likely I told them there were three reasons: "discrimination, discrimination, and discrimination", alluding to the adage about real estate and location.) I pointed out that Ivy League universities had only recently begun to admit women, and were, even then, doing so in small numbers. I told them some recent stories about Harvard, from personal experience. And I pointed out some facts about the recent history of (and discrimination against) women at Cambridge.

I don't know whether any opinions changed. Their minds were probably made up before they started. But they listened politely, even though I disagreed with them. (I wish that happened more often nowadays!)



Posted November 11, 2017


People choose people who remind them of themselves

Here's a game. Look at the list of invited speakers for a conference, and guess the demographics of the organizing committee.

I can often correctly guess a lot about the nationalities, ethnicities, or genders of the organizers from the speaker list. Sometimes I can even correctly guess names of organizers.

I recommend playing the game. How much about the conference organizers can you guess from the list of speakers?

There are times when I've asked an organizer why the list of invited speakers is all male, and his reply is that the women in the field aren't good enough, the men are just better. I've gotten similar responses when a speaker (and organizer) list is disproportionately Dutch, or French, or of a particular ethnicity.

At a certain Ivy League university in the 1990s, the junior faculty attended a meeting where the (all-male) senior faculty decided which undergraduates would graduate summa cum laude in mathematics. Afterwards, some of the junior faculty told me they were upset and concerned because a female student with high grades in hard courses was passed over in favor of a male student with lower grades, after a senior faculty member said that the man reminded him of himself at that age.

People choose people who remind them of themselves. Then they rationalize it by saying that such people are better.

I like merit-based systems, and I'm not advocating for quotas. And if financial constraints mean that local speakers are preferred over those with more expensive travel costs, that's understandable. But sometimes it helps to be reminded to give full consideration to people different from oneself or one's friends. I hope that things have improved, and that the organizer-guessing game isn't as easy as it used to be.

The game has a second part. If the speaker and organizer lists are skewed in the same direction, ask yourself whether the argument that the over-represented group is just better feels right to you. If it does, do you belong to the favored group?



Posted November 7, 2017

Isomorphic students

Miriam and I didn't think that we looked alike. But whenever Professor W handed back the homework in the course we took from him, there was a 50-50 chance that he'd hand me Miriam's homework, and hand her mine. We were the only female students in the class.

At first we exchanged homeworks discreetly so as not to embarrass W. Eventually we didn't bother, and would even walk across the room to trade papers. At some point W noticed and commented on it, but he never learned to tell the difference between us.

When I ran the above past Miriam, she replied "But there's more. That was back in the 70's. In the 80's I had a similar experience at work: there were just two female programmers, and we didn't look alike at all. Still, we were often addressed by each others' name. Things got better at my next two jobs, but only because I was the only woman programmer. I'd like to say things have improved since then, but then I saw this recent FaceBook post from [Harvard Computer Science Professor] Margo [Seltzer]."



Posted October 29, 2017

"You argue like my ex-wife!"

T and I have been arguing since we met at a conference years ago.

During one fight, he said in annoyance "You argue like my ex-wife! She never lets me win!"

He was still trying to win an argument with his ex-wife. Since she was no longer around, he used me as a surrogate.

This was neither the first nor the last time that I saw a man use a woman from his professional life as a surrogate for his ex-wife, ex-girlfriend, wife, mother, or daughter. And it's led me to wonder to what extent people (of all genders) view their female colleagues as part of their personal lives, not their professional lives.

At a later conference, I realized that T and I were getting along quite well. Had I improved my interpersonal skills? That would have been nice. No, that wasn't it. He and his ex-wife had gotten back together, and they were happy. Fighting with me no longer filled his need to try to win an argument with someone who wasn't there.



Posted October 19, 2017

"What can I learn from this?"


or: Some things I wish I'd learned sooner


Click here for the post. The article will appear in abridged form in MAA FOCUS. While it's written for mathematicians, I hope that others will find something useful in it.



Posted October 13, 2017

The Case of the Writer and the Schoolteacher

I've long been troubled by the Case of the Writer and the Schoolteacher.

A high school math teacher applied to the Ohio State mathematics graduate program with the goal of teaching in a college or community college after obtaining a PhD. She had already started working towards her goal by getting a Master's degree. Her application made perfect sense to me, so I was surprised to read the evaluations of her file by some of my (male) colleagues:

SHE'S 41!!! I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHY THIS WOMAN WANTS TO GO BACK TO SCHOOL!

and hear the emotion in their voices when they spoke against her application at the graduate admissions committee meeting. You might think that a mathematics professor could have correctly calculated that she was only thirty-something, but even for mathematicians, one's cognitive skills decline when angry.

Several months later, near the end of the admissions season, an application arrived from a man who had made his career as a writer. It wasn't clear to me why he wanted to earn a mathematics PhD. Though he was older than the math teacher (whose age seemed to be a concern to my colleagues), and he hadn't gotten a Master's degree, my colleagues' evaluations were glowing. They said he was a mature, well-motivated adult, and that it would be a pleasure to have him in our classes.

It's curious how I and the rest of the committee could have read the same files so differently.



Posted October 8, 2017

These are things that would help everyone!

The Dean of the College of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) at Ohio State University invited the female MPS faculty to lunch at his home to ask us what he could do to help women.

He lived out of town so it was a bit of a drive to get there. Why did he want us to meet at his house? He said that since we were women, he decided we would feel more comfortable at a home than at the university.

It's too bad he hadn't asked us what we preferred. Some of us were not pleased that we had to take time away from work to go there and back, arrange carpools, etc.; it would have been more convenient for us if the meeting were on campus. (Given the quantity of leftovers that his wife put into their refrigerator after the lunch, I cynically wondered whether the leftovers were the real reason he wanted the meeting at his house.)

At the lunch, we went around the room giving our advice. We stressed the need for fairness, transparency, accountability, and knowing the law and following it. When we were done, the Dean looked upset, and said "But, but, ... these are things that would help everyone, not just women!"

"That's right," we replied.

"But I want to do things that help women!"

We told him that what helps everyone helps women.

He didn't seem happy about that.

Why did he seem to lose interest when we didn't tell him things he could do specifically for women? Some of us wondered if he was using the Deanship as a stepping stone to a higher position; perhaps he was mostly interested in adding a line to his CV about how he helped women? Soon after that, he left OSU to become President of a different university.

The trip to his house would have been worth it, if only OSU had taken to heart our suggestions about fairness, transparency, accountability, and knowing the law and following it.



Posted October 4, 2017

"Who's on first?"

"I'd like to speak to Mr. Silverberg" said the voice over the phone in my office.

"There's no Mr. Silverberg here," I replied.

"Is this the number for Dr. Silverberg?" he asked.

"Yes."

"Well, when can I speak to Mr. Silverberg?''

Perhaps I had been watching too many Marx Brothers films, or too much Abbott and Costello. "There is no Mr. Silverberg at this number."

"But isn't this Dr. Silverberg's number?"

"Yes."

"Well, can I speak to Mr. Silverberg?"

"There is no Mr. Silverberg at this number."

"But isn't this the number for Dr. Silverberg?"

"Yes."

"Well, who are you?"

"I'm Dr. Silverberg," I said calmly.

Stunned silence at the other end.

Then, "umm ... I'm an insurance salesman."

A long pause, and then he continued, "I guess I'm not going to be able to sell you anything, am I?"

"I guess not."

I felt sorry for him. Maybe I was too cruel. But perhaps the conversation was memorable enough that he learned something.



Posted September 28, 2017

Women at Harvard

Below is a link to remarks I delivered at a panel entitled "Lawrence Summers: One Year Later" at the Joint Mathematics Meetings on January 12, 2006.

At the Q&A, an audience member said that I had unfairly attacked Harvard and he needed to come to Harvard's defense. I pointed out that the text I had read did not include my opinions and consisted of a compilation of quotes and facts, largely from Harvard-related sources, especially a text by Drew Faust who was at that time a Harvard professor and Dean. (Faust has been President of Harvard University since July 1, 2007.) What do you think? Was the text an unfair attack on Harvard, or a compilation of quotes and facts?

You can click here for the text. While most of the links are now dead, some of the references can be found by searching for the titles online. If you just want something short, I suggest jumping to the end to my Q&A responses, starting with "Testing".

The piece appeared in the Newsletter of the Association for Women in Mathematics along with some of the write-ups of other panelists' remarks. AWM Newsletters are available here.



Posted September 23, 2017

Letters of recommendation for women

A distinguished and influential mathematician whom I'll call Y sat next to me in the computer room at a mathematics research institute one evening. Y was having trouble with a word processing program, and asked me for help. I happily obliged.

When I realized he was writing a letter of recommendation, I looked away, assuming it was confidential. This made it harder for me to help him. Possibly just as a way to let me know that it was OK to look and to continue helping him, Y asked me for advice on the letter.

So I read it. The gist was something like "Susie is a lovely person. It was a pleasure having her in my class." Nothing about how well she did in the class.

I asked some questions, and learned that Susie was an undergrad applying to professional schools. I asked Y how Susie did in his class; what sort of grades did she get on the exams and homework? He told me that she got the highest or second highest grade on each of the exams and homeworks, giving her the highest total score in the class. I gently asked what he thought about including that information in the letter. He asked if I thought that was a good idea. I replied, "Yes".

I've had other similar experiences over the years. My experiences are consistent with studies that conclude that letters of recommendation about men are written differently than those about equivalent women. The ones about women talk more about her personal life, while the ones about men include more relevant adjectives and information, and fewer "doubt raisers".

My experiences are also consistent with studies that conclude that people read letters about men and women differently, and perceive equivalent letters to be stronger when the subject is male than when the subject is female.

See for example https://www.cerias.purdue.edu/site/images/uploads/Discrimination_gender_memo_07-12.pdf and the references therein.



Posted September 18, 2017

Changing Places

The September 15 story about collecting plates reminded me that at seminar dinners, when I sat down next to that same department chair, he would get up and make his wife change places with him, so that I sat next to her instead of him. He didn't do that with anyone else. While I liked her and enjoyed talking with her (despite the incident with the plates), sitting next to her made it harder for me to talk to the mathematicians or participate in the discussions about mathematics.

Such incidents could be viewed as in some sense trivial (though they can have tangible effects on one's opportunities and career). But to borrow the title of a marvelous book by Paula J. Caplan[1], dealing with this type of treatment time and again eventually feels like lifting a ton of feathers.

A number of people have encouraged me to continue posting my adventures, since knowing that others are having similar experiences makes them feel less alone. I found Caplan's book to be very useful, and recommend it to those who might benefit from a survival guide and those who want to learn more.

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[1] Lifting a Ton of Feathers: A Woman's Guide to Surviving in the Academic World, Paula J. Caplan, University of Toronto Press, 1993.



Posted September 15, 2017, slightly revised September 24, 2017

The story about the segregated cloakrooms in my September 4 post reminded me of some other stories from my time at Ohio State. Here's one of them:

Collecting plates

Shortly after I arrived at Ohio State University as an assistant professor, the department chair and his wife held a party for the three new assistant professors in number theory. The other attendees were the other number theory faculty and their wives. We sat in armchairs in the living room, to eat the buffet meal. Everyone there knew that I was one of the three new assistant professors.

When most of us had finished eating, the wives of the professors approached me as a group to inform me that I needed to join them in going around the room collecting the empty plates of the mathematicians and carrying them into the kitchen.

The two other new faculty were not told to do this. They were male, and I was the only female mathematician at the party. While I wanted to be helpful, I knew that whatever happened next would set a precedent for how I would be treated in my new job.

Before you read further, here's a question for you to think about: What would you have done, if you'd been me?

I didn't know what to do, and thought for a moment. Then I stood up, walked over to the other two new faculty, and said "We've been asked to collect the plates."

When the wives saw the three of us collecting dirty plates, some of them ran over to the two men and told them they mustn't do that, they're guests. The two men sat down.

Again, what would you have done?

I sat down too. But neither I nor the professors' wives were happy that they were left to collect the plates on their own.




Posted September 10, 2017

The below is a lightly modified version of a real conversation.

"We'd love to hire a woman"

"We'd love to hire a woman. It's too bad there aren't any." How many times have I heard that? This time, it's from the chair of the math department at a large state university.

I look at him in amazement. "What about A, B, C, D, and E? They were all on the job market last year. Why didn't you hire any of them?"

"We made an offer to X."

"But he turned it down, didn't he?"

"Yes. Isn't that a shame? It would have been great if he had accepted."

"But when X turned you down, you could have hired A. She's great. Why didn't you make her an offer?"

"We didn't have a job for her husband."

"Did she say she'd only accept an offer if you made an offer to her husband too?"

"No. She didn't mention him in her application."

"Do you know if they're still married?"

"Well, no. But that's what people tell me, so I'm sure she wouldn't have taken the job if we'd offered it to her."

"She ended up accepting an offer at a place where her husband didn't get an offer, and I think she would have preferred a job at your university." This doesn't seem to faze him.

"What about B? She's also great."

"Her husband is a lawyer, and there aren't any jobs for lawyers around here."

"No jobs for lawyers? Near [the mid-sized city his university is in, which is close to a major urban area]? I'm surprised."

"What about C? She'd be a great hire."

"She's not in the right field. We were looking for someone who works on Z theory."

"But X doesn't work on Z theory, and you made him an offer."

"Yes, isn't it a shame that he didn't come? It would have been great if he had."

"What about D?"

"She wasn't good enough."

"That's interesting. A lot of people think she's better than X, and you offered X a job." Again, he's unperturbed. But at least the excuse was a valid reason to turn someone down. He can't possibly use that excuse with someone as good as E. "E is truly exceptional. Why didn't you hire her?"

"She didn't send in a job application. We can't make her an offer if she doesn't apply."

I can't let that slip by. "That makes sense. But X didn't apply, and you made him an offer."

"Yes, isn't it a shame that he didn't accept it? It would have been great if he had."

We seem to be going in circles. Has he been listening to me at all? Let's give it one more try. "Next time I hope you'll consider hiring a woman."

"We'd love to. It's too bad there aren't any."




Posted September 4, 2017

The next post is a reworking of an article I wrote that appeared as a page in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006. The article went over well when I performed it as stand-up comedy, so you might want to read it that way (think Carrie Bradshaw in "Sex and the City").

At the time there was amusing (and sometimes cruel) commentary about the Chronicle article on the Internet. Some people (mostly women) "got it", and others read it as the whining of a spoiled brat from the elite and privileged class. Perhaps I should have explained that I don't really care about urinals (though the Internet did produce some fascinating and beautiful photos of urinals in response to the article). While I've left in some of what was intended as self-deprecating tongue-in-cheek humor in the hope that it won't be misunderstood this time, in the new version I tried to make it clear that I didn't attend a fancy prep school.

I also moved earlier the hint as to why I hid an article about gender equity inside a "fluff piece" on what the illustrator called "potty parity". To be more explicit: over the years, I've tried many different ways of encouraging universities to treat women and men fairly and equally. The direct approach was usually met with indifference, anger, or fear. In my attempts to make the point in less threatening ways that wouldn't be ignored, I tried other approaches, including humor, naïvety, and, yes, urinals.

Soon after the HP Labs incident described in my August 11 post below, I enquired as to whether the San Jose Mercury News might report on age and gender discrimination in Silicon Valley. I was told that the Mercury News wouldn't publish negative stories about Silicon Valley companies because the economy of Silicon Valley depended on those companies. Urinals were the "clickbait" I used to eventually get a newspaper to go near gender equity.

The hostility from some quarters that the SF Chronicle article generated was one reason I've been hesitant about making other stories public. I'm hoping that the feedback I get about this blog will be honest, but also kind!

Click here if you'd like to see either the SF Chronicle version with its cute drawing, or the version I submitted to them.


Are urinals in women's rooms a sign of progress?


The first time I saw a urinal, I walked out and checked the sign on the door to make sure it really was a women's room. It turns out that urinals are surprisingly common in women's rooms at American universities.

Are urinals in women's rooms a good sign or a bad one?

I'm in the first generation in my family to graduate from college, and I attended New York public schools when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy. So when I started as an undergrad at Harvard, I wasn't coming from a very privileged background. I didn't know what to expect at an elite university, and was in for a few surprises.

The wall of the women's shower room in Harvard's Indoor Athletic Building was lined with about a dozen urinals. I had to pass the row of urinals to go from the locker room to the pool, and I always felt as if there were some ritual I should perform. Throw in a penny and make a wish? I never figured it out, but I suspected that my classmates who had attended fancy prep schools had been properly trained in the correct etiquette and knew what to do.

Do urinals in women's rooms signify that the university is hedging its bets in case it decides to turn back the clock? When I was a grad student at Princeton in the 1980s, I was told that if women complained about lack of equality, Princeton would go back to being all-male. A few years later, the Princeton Alumni Weekly published a letter claiming that the experiment in coeducation had clearly failed, and suggesting we return to the good old days of an all-male college.

I don't recall seeing any urinals in Princeton when I was a grad student. But then, they didn't have many women's rooms. When the math department's visiting committee asked grad students for feedback, I did a survey of the restrooms in Fine Hall, and calculated a three-and-a-half to one ratio of men's room's to women's rooms. The women's rooms were all strategically located --- one on the floor where the math department secretaries worked (there were two men's rooms on that floor), one on the floor where the statistics department secretaries worked (ditto for the two men's rooms), one for the math/physics library in the basement, and one on the twelfth floor. That's the floor just below the penthouse, where the university held singles parties.

I read the visiting committee my lists of ways that women were not treated fairly at Princeton. I had a list of serious issues that directly affected our ability to do mathematics. They ignored those. I had a separate joke list, with things like unequal access to toilets, that I threw in just to lighten things up. The two women on the committee pounced on the joke list; these were the issues that were important to them. One explained that she had arrived late to the meeting because she had run up and down the stairs searching for a bathroom she was allowed to use. Apparently, such things get more important as you age.

Whenever I get the opportunity, I naively ask the powers-that-be why there are urinals in the women's rooms, and why they haven't been removed. They're there because they used to be men's rooms. Removing urinals is very expensive, and we don't have that kind of money.

Harvard doesn't have that kind of money.

Princeton doesn't have that kind of money.

Stanford doesn't have that kind of money.

Isn't it really a question of priorities?

A professor at the University of Notre Dame told me that the college couldn't accept women and men in equal numbers, about 20 years after nominally going coed, because there weren't enough women's dormitories. I asked naïvely why they couldn't build more. Notre Dame doesn't have that kind of money. Isn't it just a question of priorities, I asked. Why can't some men's dormitories be converted to women's dormitories? The alumni would stop donating to the college, if their sons couldn't live in the same dorms they lived in, he replied. Surely if gender equity were a high enough priority, the university administrators would find a way; one just has to be creative. Coed dorms? His reaction told me that if I were Catholic, he would have nominated me for excommunication.

When a group of us walked into the Ohio State University Faculty Club during my job interview in 1984, in the middle of a mathematical conversation I was told to go to a different room to hang up my coat. The need to guard against cooties must have been a high priority of one of the building's designers, since there were separate women's and men's cloakrooms. By the time I rejoined my colleagues, the mathematical conversation had progressed, and I was at a disadvantage.

I arrived at Ohio State as a new assistant professor, fresh out of grad school. When I checked out the athletics building, I came across a door that read "Faculty Locker Room". Delighted with the realization that I was no longer an inconsequential grad student and could now enjoy faculty perks, I put my hand on the knob. Then I heard voices from within. Male voices. I suspected I wasn't welcome in the Faculty Locker Room, and I walked away disappointed. A colleague later confirmed my suspicions, and laughed at the thought that I would enter the Faculty Locker Room. It was a men's room, of course, and women weren't allowed. Over the next 20 years, that colleague was promoted from faculty member to associate dean, to dean, to retirement, while the Faculty Locker Room remained all-male.

Women faculty did have the right to pay extra to use a corner of the women students' locker room, but we didn't get a room of our own. And the women all had to walk down a long unheated hallway, down the cold stairs, and down another long hallway to get to the main pool, while there were men's locker rooms on every floor, including one right across from the pool. But at least things had improved since I attended a math camp there in the 1970s, when allowing the men to swim naked was a higher priority than allowing the women to swim. (Yes, you read that right.)

I was about to give a seminar talk in Canada, and I ran all over the building looking for a women's room. I must have passed four men's rooms. I finally found what I was looking for. But it said "Staff Only", and it was locked. It was meant for the secretaries, and they have keys. I've since been told that "staff" includes faculty, in Canadian English. So as visiting faculty I had the right to use the restroom (if I could pick the lock). But the female students didn't. The men's rooms weren't "Staff Only", and the male students used them.

Though Europe has mixed success with gender issues, it seems to be on the cutting edge with unisex restrooms. It's just a room with a toilet (and if you're very lucky, a sink). Locking the door gives complete privacy, unlike our half or three-quarter stalls.

The United States hasn't gotten the hang of unisex. I was stumped by the urinal in the unisex restroom on the sixth floor of the University of Arizona's math building. The sign outside had men and women icons. Inside were a sink and urinal side-by-side, and tucked in a corner was a stall containing a toilet. As I went into the stall and locked it, I pondered: What am I supposed to do if someone comes in and uses the urinal? Should I warn him that I'm there? Or keep quiet and wait for him to leave? Or was Arizona so liberated that I was expected to come out, say hello, and wash my hands while he did his business?

The prettiest urinals I ever saw were in the Stanford math department. Each was filled with a beautiful philodendron, spilling over the edge, lovingly cared-for by the elderly German staff member who served as department den mother. I don't know much about plants, but I recognized the heart-shaped leaves from my tenth grade science fair project on transpirational pull in philodendra. According to my report[1] (at last, a chance to reference it!), they thrive in water. A Monet poster was mounted tactfully on the wall next to the philodendra-filled urinals. The room had a wonderfully gemütlich feel to it.

Inspired by those urinals, I decided to publish a book of photos of urinals in university women's rooms, and to use the Stanford urinals as the cover photo. But before I got around to taking a picture, the philodendra were gone. It turns out that if you don't flush a urinal every so often, toxic fumes build up in the pipes. So out went the philodendra, and in went blue chemicals, flushed once a week so that no one would die from urinal fumes. It would have been an ironic way to go.

The Monet poster disappeared too, and was replaced by a tampon dispenser. The urinals looked odd next to the tampon dispenser, and the room seemed sterile rather than homey. European Impressionism gave way to early twenty-first century post-modernism, but the one constant through time was the three urinals. To give Stanford credit, when the math department remodeled they did remove the urinals. I wondered if we'd see headlines about Stanford's bankruptcy. That must have broken the bank.

I returned to Princeton a few years ago, and was pleased to find that one of the two men's rooms on the floor with the math department offices had been converted to a women's room. A women's room full of urinals, with bright blue water in each one. Those urinals were the first sign I saw that Princeton is moving towards equality for women. Urinals as a sign of progress? I'll take what I can get.

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[1] How is the transport of water in the Philodendron cordatum affected by its leaves?, Alice Silverberg, science project, Martin Van Buren High School, Queens, New York, January 3, 1973.




Posted August 28, 2017, slightly revised August 29, 2017

I wrote up a number of these stories years ago. One reason I haven't shared them widely is that I tried to write them in an entertaining way, and I wasn't sure whether that would go over well, or turn people off. I would very much appreciate feedback on which approach will be more effective: the "dry" factual reporting in the versions I posted of the first three "adventures", or this piece, which attempts to be entertaining and has some "attitude". Thanks!

A conspiracy of women

Paula Cohen [now Paula Tretkoff] and I stood underneath the lamplight on a street corner in Bonn late one night, discussing mathematics, the Arbeitstagung conference we were attending, and our peculiar place as women in a male-dominated field.

When he saw us, Serge Lang crossed the street and rushed over to us, exclaiming in delight "What's this? A conspiracy of women?" Paula and I looked around to see what other women he was talking about, but we were the only ones there. What made us a conspiracy?

I told Serge that his assignment for the next day at the Arbeitstagung was to go up to every group of two or more men and say "What's this? A conspiracy of men?"

During the breaks between talks the next day at the conference, I noticed male mathematicians standing around in groups of three, four, seven, ten,.... I saw Serge and reminded him of his assignment. He laughed it off, assuming I'd been joking. But I would have loved to have seen the faces of the men, if Serge had asked them if they were part of a conspiracy.

A flock of sheep, a herd of elephants, a pride of lions, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks, a conspiracy of women.

At a conference at Johns Hopkins a few years later, two younger mathematicians and I waited together in the tea room for the others to return from the lunch break. Again, we discussed our peculiar situation as women in mathematics. I warned them that the next man to enter the room would comment on our being a conspiracy of women; it would probably happen if there were only two of us, but with three, it was nearly certain. They were astonished and disbelieving. Sure enough, the first person to walk in stopped, looked at us, and remarked on the conspiracy of women. The three of us burst out laughing. He asked why, and we explained. I'd like to say that he laughed too, but unfortunately he was very angry with us and stomped off in a huff.

Why is it that male mathematicians can rove in large packs with no one seeming surprised, but put two female mathematicians together and we're viewed as a threat worthy of comment?

Karen Holbrook, the only woman to serve as President of Ohio State University, told me that her advisors told her not to consider appointing two women as deans, since doing so would lead to charges of favoritism for her own sex. It didn't matter to them that all of her (male) predecessors hired male deans in great numbers.

Is there a double standard here? Sorry, can't answer that. A woman just walked in, and I have to leave if I don't want to face conspiracy charges.




Posted August 22, 2017

"But is she on a trajectory to get a Fields Medal?"

When we were trying to fill faculty positions in the Ohio State University math department, my colleagues usually put forward the names of male candidates. When women were proposed, they wouldn't make the cut for various reasons, such as that the university where she did her postdoc was less prestigious than that of another candidate, or another applicant published in a more prestigious journal.

After observing this for many years, I proposed an applicant who trumped all other candidates my colleagues had proposed that year, in all categories that my colleagues had stated were important to them.

Speaking against my candidate at the hiring meeting, a colleague asked "But is she on a trajectory to get a Fields Medal?"

My colleagues turned to me for a response. The question took me by surprise. If I said no, that would reduce the chances that she would get a job offer. But if I said yes, they wouldn't believe me.

Instead, I pointed out that:
1. the department had never before used such a criterion in our hiring deliberations,
2. our mission was only to choose the best candidate among the applicants, and this candidate had the best file,
3. no one who had ever gotten a Fields Medal had ever been a faculty member in the Ohio State math department,
4. as far as I could tell, no one in the department had been on a trajectory to get a Fields Medal at the time they were hired,
5. it isn't clear that being "on a trajectory to get a Fields Medal" is a meaningful concept.

Since then, I've seen variations of that line ("but is she on a trajectory to ...?") used against women, but I've never seen such a line used against men.




Posted August 18, 2017

"She only got the job due to affirmative action"

Referring to the only female Professor in his (mathematics) department, a Professor I know told me "she only got the job due to affirmative action."

He seemed to be saying that she wasn't good enough to get the job on her own merits. The conversation could have ended there, but I persisted.

"She's an excellent mathematician. I think she's better than almost all the Professors in your department," I said. He agreed with that.

"Then why did she only got the job through affirmative action?" I prodded.

"Well, one of my colleagues was prejudiced against women, so he fought against hiring her. Affirmative action was needed to overcome the prejudice of that colleague."

Whatever one's views on affirmative action, it seems to me that this was a case where it made the right thing happen.




Posted August 11, 2017, slightly revised August 18, 2017

The Meritocracy

On September 14, 2000 I had lunch at a restaurant in Silicon Valley as part of a group of people attending a lecture that day at HP Labs. At some point, I learned that I was sitting next to Dick Lampman, the Director of HP Labs. Lampman mentioned to me that he learned on his travels that America is superior to other countries in being a meritocracy, not an old boy network. He told me that elsewhere, it's who you know, while in America, it's what you know.

One reason I had gone to the lunch was that I wanted to get a job at HP Labs. At some point I asked Lampman how one gets a job in Silicon Valley. He replied that one needs to have a friend inside the company, and "it's all who you know." I asked "What happened to the meritocracy?" He looked sheepish, but didn't reply. I then asked "How do I get a job in your lab?" Lampman pointed out a manager who was sitting across the table, Abraham Lempel, and suggested I talk to him. The two letters I later sent Lampman (below) describe what happened next. I eventually sent a similar message to Carly Fiorina, then-CEO of Hewlett-Packard. I have not yet received replies from them.

Two letters I sent to:
Richard H. (Dick) Lampman
Director, HP Labs
1501 Page Mill Road
Palo Alto, CA 94304-1126

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March 15, 2001

Dear Dick Lampman,

I'm writing to you concerning a policy of age, and possibly also gender, discrimination at your lab.

We met over lunch on Sept. 14, after Avi Wigderson's public lecture at HP Labs. You told me that in your travels you learned that the U.S. differs from other countries in that the U.S. is a meritocracy.

At that lunch I mentioned that I was looking for a job in Silicon Valley. I asked how I would go about getting a job at HP Labs, and you told me to talk to Abraham Lempel or Gadiel Seroussi. I therefore got a ride back to the lab, along with Hendrik Lenstra, from Lempel. Lempel asked Lenstra if there were any new or recent PhDs from Berkeley whom HP Labs should hire. I asked Lempel whether he only hires new or recent PhDs. His answer was yes. He said that his justification for this policy was G. H. Hardy's famous statement that "mathematics is a young man's game".

When we arrived at the lab I asked to speak with him privately. We went to Lempel's cubicle. I gave him my CV, and said that I was interested in a job at HP Labs. He looked at my CV and said that I was much better than the people they hire. The answer was basically no. I made further enquiries more recently, and was told that they would not hire me, and I was "too good for them".

My personal experience in asking for a job at HP Labs confirms the explicitly stated policy that Lempel told to me and Lenstra on Sept. 14, before he knew that I was looking for a job. I believe that policy constitutes age discrimination. Since Lempel said he based his policy on the Hardy quote, it also raises the question of gender discrimination. More importantly from your point of view, it means that your lab does not hire the best people, and that is bad for your company, for our country, and for our society.

Now that you have been informed of some hiring practices of your lab, I hope that you will take clear and swift corrective action.

If I can be helpful to you in any way, please let me know. I am willing to work with you positively and constructively towards improving your lab's hiring practices and its climate for employees, to allow a more diverse and inclusive workforce, so that a meritocracy can be realized in your own lab.

Yours sincerely,

Alice Silverberg
Professor of Mathematics
Ohio State University

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May 21, 2001

Dear Mr. Lampman,

I am writing as a follow-up to my letter of March 15 concerning the hiring practices of HP Labs.

I recommend that you read the April 2001 issue of Working Woman magazine, especially the Editor's Note on p. 6, where a case is made for the importance to employers of understanding the necessity to broaden the pool of acceptable applicants. The articles in the magazine give a clear explanation for why a policy of hiring from a narrowly defined age, gender, ethnic, or racial group is bad for business.

I hope that the lack of response to my letter of March 15 does not signal a lack of concern for the problems inherent in hiring practices based on a belief that "mathematics is a young man's game".

Yours sincerely,

Alice Silverberg

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Further information:

When I questioned Abraham Lempel in his car about hiring based on the belief that "mathematics is a young man's game", he said that they want young people since they (the managers) can mold them to do what they want them to do. He said that older people are fixed, and can't be changed. He added that scientists are more productive when they're young. Both Lenstra and I questioned this. Lempel gave Galois as an example. Lenstra gave Cartan, Serre, and Mazur as counterexamples. I pointed out that we don't know what Galois might have accomplished had he not died so young. I think I said something about female mathematicians doing better work the older they get.

My recollections are based on notes I wrote down soon afterwards, and emails and letters I sent at the time.