And now for a completely different rant...

I noticed that there was a juicy little tidbit in Nature that had my Twitter feed all a-flutter today. Apparently the editors of Nature saw fit to publish in their correspondence section a missive from one Lukas Koube, and, well, I think I'll begin by reproducing it here:

 

Publish on the basis of quality, not gender

The publication of research papers should be based on quality and merit, so the gender balance of authors is not relevant in the same way as it might be for commissioned writers (see Nature 504, 188; 2013). Neither is the disproportionate number of male reviewers evidence of gender bias.

Having young children may prevent a scientist from spending as much time publishing, applying for grants and advancing their career as some of their colleagues. Because it is usually women who stay at home with their children, journals end up with more male authors on research articles. The effect is exacerbated in fast-moving fields, in which taking even a year out threatens to leave a researcher far behind.

This means that there are likely to be more men in the pool of potential referees.

Lukas Koube Sherman, Texas, USA.

Oh my. I have so many thoughts on this.

So, let's get started, shall we?

1. "The publication of research papers should be based on quality and merit"

This is one of those assertions that looks great on paper, which is why so many people use it as a highbrow way of telling those of us trying to come up with solutions to the gender disparity in scientific fields to shut up. The first problem with this assertion is that while publication should be based on quality and merit, reality (read: academic politics) quite often gets in the way. How do I know this? I know this because publication involves people. People can be idealistic, and work tirelessly towards lofty ideals such as this one, but they can just as often be lazy, petty, vindictive, and nepotistic. Publications like Nature often get hundreds of submissions a week, and assuming that every single editor and reviewer is upholding this goal above all else (and indeed is even able to tell when they are not doing so) is an astonishing display of naiveté.

Secondly, this statement assumes that "quality" and "merit" are objectively defined, allowing editors to rank submissions from best to worst in a clear-cut, mutually agreed upon manner, and to the satisfaction of all.

Um, nope. Nope nope nope.

These values are subjective, and "quality" and "merit" are most often defined by those in positions of power. As an example, take the game Cards Against Humanity. (Yeah, I'm going there. you can subsititute Apples to Apples in this example if that's more your thing.) You don't win a round of CAH by popular vote - there's just one judge. Your entry could have the entire room in stitches, but the judge has ultimate veto power. And if the judge doesn't appreciate it as much as everyone else does, well then tough crackers for you. (I once played a round of Apples to Apples wherein we were all trying to match the adjective "beautiful". I played "Canada". Was it the funniest entry? No. The most accurate? No. Was the judge for that round Canadian? Yes. I won.)

2. "the gender balance of authors is not relevant in the same way as it might be for commissioned writers"

I agree. Yes. The gender balance of authors isn't relevant in the same way as it is for commissioned writers. However, I take issue with your assumption that this means it isn't relevant at all. There are a ton of factors that contribute to gender disparity in publication. There are biases woven through our education system, affecting women in high school, college, graduate school, and beyond. Those of us who are working to adress gender diparity in the sciences know that what we are up against is a Hydra with many, many heads. That's why we don't say things like "the publication of research papers should be based on quality and merit" and then declare the problem fixed, patting ourselves on the back for a job well done. Bias of any form is, and always has been, an incredibly complicated issue.

3. "Because it is usually women who stay at home with their children..."

And this is where I seethe with rage. There are studies showing that having children affects women's careers negatively, while the effect on men's careers can actually be positive. The major reason behind this is because of the prevalence of this belief that you yourself hold: women are usually the ones taking care of the children. Not only is this assumption often innacurate when it comes to women with strong careers, but the attitude that women can either have children or be scientists, but not both, while men can do both easily (Because hey! He probably has a stay-at-home wife to do all the time-comsuming child-rearing for him, amirite?!) is exactly the kind of biased thinking that we are working to address. Remember that Hydra? That's one of its heads.

Doing a quick search on Google, I find that this is not the first time you've completely missed the point when people make arguments about the representation of women in male-dominated groups. Also, pro tip: when your argument can basically be restated as "Things are the way they are because that's the way they are!" then you haven't actually made an argument.

And finally, I want to thank you, Lukas. Thank you for submitting such a shining example of dude-butting-in-to-mansplain-without-any-proper-research I have seen in a while. It's comments like yours that do my work for me.

Good articles on math fear

There are some great articles/blog posts floating around that are tackling the same subject as my video - please check out this article written by Ben Orlin, a high school math teacher, about his own struggles in a college math course. While you're at it, you should go read his entire blog - www.mathwithbaddrawings.com - because he is such an entertaining writer. This passage particularly struck me (emphasis mine):

I manifested every symptom that I now see in my own students:                                                             

  • Muddled half-comprehension.
  • Fear of asking questions.
  • Shyness about getting the teacher’s help.
  • Badgering a friend instead.
  • Copying homework.
  • Excuses; blaming others.
  • Procrastination.
  • Anxiety about public failure.
  • Terror of the teacher’s judgment.
  • Feeling incurably stupid.
  • Not wanting to admit any of it.

                                                            

It’s surprisingly hard to write about this, even now. Mathematical failure—much like romantic failure—leaves us raw and vulnerable. It demands excuses.

I tell my story to illustrate that failure isn’t about a lack of “natural intelligence,” whatever that is. Instead, failure is born from a messy combination of bad circumstances: high anxiety, low motivation, gaps in background knowledge.

Most of all, we fail because, when the moment comes to confront our shortcomings and open ourselves up to teachers and peers, we panic and deploy our defenses instead.

 

This is so true! And I think that many of us are more likely to react this way to mathematics because there is a myth in our world that math is only for the "special" or "gifted." that is simply untrue! Take this article that appeared today in the Atlantic, The Myth of 'I'm Bad at Math' - The authors make several points I've tried to make myself (albeit in a much more polished, let's-get-this-actually-published kind of way, as opposed to my rant-on-YouTube method). Ultimately, math is something that rewards hard work. So keep working!                         


A Math Major Talks About Fear

I believe that STEM fields benefit from the inclusion of people with "non-traditional" backgrounds, and I cringe when I see people justify keeping them out. And I cringe when I see people justify keeping themselves out.

And I know (boy, do I know) that feeling like a failure in math does not mean you are a failure in math.

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