Math Careers and Choices

More and more I stumble upon the claim that the difference in individual personal choices between men and women is one of the main contributors to the gender gap in mathematical careers. Let me tell you some stories that I’ve heard that illustrate some choices that women made. The names have been changed.

Ann got her PhD in math at the same time as her husband. They both got job offers at places very far from each other. As Ann was pregnant, she decided not to accept her offer and to follow her husband. In two years she was ready to go back to research and she started to search for some kind of position at the University where her husband worked. At that time there was a nuptial rule that prevented two spouses from working at the same place. There was no other college nearby, and Ann’s husband didn’t yet have tenure and freaked out at the thought of changing his job. They decided to have a second child. After two more years of staying home, she felt completely disqualified and dropped the idea of research.

Olga was very passionate about her children’s education. She felt that public education was insufficient and that parents needed to devote a lot of time to reading and playing with their kids. Her husband insisted that the children would be fine on their own and he refused outright to read to them or to participate in time-consuming activities. Olga took upon herself the burden she was hoping to share. At that same time, she started a tenure track position. In addition to all of this, she took her teaching very seriously. Her students loved her, but her paper-writing speed declined. She didn’t get tenure and quit academia. Later, she realized that in fact her husband had shared her sense of the importance of their children’s education, but he had played a power-game which left her doing all the work.

Maria told her husband Alex that she wanted a babysitter for their two children now that she was ready to get back to mathematics. Alex sat down with her to look at their finances. Before looking for a job Maria needed to finish her two papers. That meant they had to pay a babysitter even though Maria wasn’t bringing in any money. Maria agreed to postpone her comeback until the kids went to kindergarten. She somehow finished her papers and found her first part-time job as an adjunct lecturer. Alex sat down with her again to discuss their finances. They calculated how much time she would need to prepare to teach after such a long break. The babysitter would cost more than her income. In addition, they would have to buy a second car and some professional clothes for Maria. They summed everything up: it appeared that they couldn’t afford for her to take this job. Maria rejected the offer.

Two years later, Alex was offered an additional job as a part-time mathematical consultant. Instead of accepting it Maria’s husband suggested that the company interview Maria, who was longing to return to work. Maria got an offer, but at half the fee her husband was offered. The manager explained this difference by pointing to her husband’s superior work record. Maria and Alex sat down together again and calculated that it would more profitable for them as a couple if he took the job and dropped all his household responsibilities. Maria couldn’t find a way to argue.

I recently wrote about my own decision to quit academia twelve years ago. Although what I really wanted to do was to work in academia, my family responsibilities took precedence.

Yes, personal choices are a great contributor to the gender gap in mathematical careers. I just do not like when people assume that women chose freely. Some choices we were cornered into making.



  1. Felipe Pait:

    Ann’s husband was not courageous. Olga’s husband, not honest. And Maria’s husband, worst sin of all, not a good mathematician: he couldn’t compute compound interest. Good childcare is not an expense, but an investment, in the parents’ and the child’s future.

    So, yes, you have a very good point. Hope that by the time my daughters finish their PhDs, you parents of boys out there have done a better job educating your sons than the previous generations.

  2. Ionica:

    The husbands in your examples don’t sound very nice!

    Luckily there are some counter examples. My boyfriend chose his PhD-position at a university close to where I was doing mine, so we could keep living together. He declined some really nice job offers. He still has over a year to go, but we are now discussing where to go next. I finished my PhD and am now a part-time postdoc (also close to our home, I was very lucky) and work the rest of the week as a science journalist. After my post-doc I will probably become a full-time journalist, so I can pretty much work anywhere. But I am quite sure that if I wanted to stay in academia, we would try to find a way to move to a place where both of us could find a decent job. Sure, it would be hard, but my partner and I would be equally willing to compromise if necessary.

    However, I tried to think of men I know who sacrificed their careers for those of their wives and I could come up with only one example. Sadly, I could name ten examples for the other way around.

  3. Xamuel:

    These women had a choice: they could have divorced their husbands (I’m assuming these stories take place in the U.S., with easy no-fault divorce laws) and it’s virtually guaranteed the courts would force the husbands to pay generous alimony and child support. They chose not to. (I’m not saying I agree with this particular state of affairs, but policy-wise your article seems to be saying women have things unfair and need more concessions, when this isn’t true at all) I admire the women in the stories for the hard choices they made, they sound like uncommonly good mothers and wives. It’s fallacy to say they had no choice.

  4. Misha:

    And, last but not least… Academic research work is not for everybody, and many people, men and women, decide against
    going into it all the time. How many men with a good potential for research have chosen Wall Street instead, to support
    their families, and could not get back to academia a few years after (when they had built a good nest egg)?
    And how many men simply had a realistic assessement of their abilities for research and decided that they
    would be better off not pursuing an academic position? And where is the guarantee that the women in your stories
    would be happier in academia?

    Is it always fair to blame a society if you make a decision based on circumstances,
    some if not most of which are not gender-related?

  5. misha:

    I bet many people would prefer staying at home raising their children to the rat race with its paper pushing, petty rivalry, back stabbing, phony PC politics and other rotten fruits of the modern academia.

  6. misha:

    Here is a relevant video some people may enjoy.

  7. Poiuyt:

    Each of the women had more choices than any man. Each could have a career or focus on children and let the man earn money. Each chose for the children. No woman has to bear children. And everyone knows, or ought to know, that children require sacrifices (as well as being rewarding). The choice is free, and biology dictates that the woman will spend more time with children than the man, when they are young.

    This is an illogical blog post. Stop whining. Make your choice and live with it.

  8. misha:

    To Poiuyt: 1)Life is mostly illogical, stop whining. 2)The math departments and the working place in general would only benefit from becoming more women-friendly and more human-friendly in general.

  9. colorblind:

    I’m not sure I have a point, but here goes…

    All three of these stories revolved around kids. And for those of you who may have forgotten (or to spoil the surprise for those who don’t know yet), kids are generally a result of the sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. In most cases these acts are consensual. The choice that’s important here was made at the point that the couples chose to have sex that was less than 100% protected without being cognizant of the possible consequences.

    Perhaps Ann gave in to her significant other’s desire for sex – was she not courageous? Perhaps Olga never told her husband what she expecting in the rearing of future children – was she not honest? And perhaps Maria never determined the costs of having a child before she was pregnant – was she not a good mathematician?

    People seem to forget that as a species the main reason we exist is because we continue to propagate the species sexually. Until we accept cloning as a general practice or learn to sprout kids like a plant, these stories will continue.

    These stories remind me of the men who complain about having to pay child support for children they’ve never seen. That choice was made when they had the sex in the first place and they have no right to complain.

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand the general point of the article. And Misha is right, most workplaces could stand to be more women friendly. It’s just the cornering decision that Tanya describes isn’t a husband, it isn’t kids, it’s sex – a natural and generally unavoidable part of the human condition.

    On a tangent, this reminded me of a recent Abstruse Goose comic:

  10. Padraig Hogan:

    What a load of hooey. You can make up anything like that “in retrospect” blaming it all on someone else. These stories are ridiculous.

    It was only later she “realized he was playing a power game”. Grow up. If you want to be treated equally to men then stop the hypocrisy, stop the picture of women as poor helpless souls and stop condemning men in every way that you can. I don’t know, maybe you will delete this post simply because you don’t like it, but I think you should at least allow it up for another perspective on it whether people agree with it or not.

  11. Rouzbeh:


    You said : “These stories remind me of the men who complain about having to pay child support for children they’ve never seen. That choice was made when they had the sex in the first place and they have no right to complain.”

    I take it you are also against abortion rights for females (not talking about rape, etc)? After all, they made the same choice.

  12. Harry:

    My wife and I are in a similar position to your examples. I am currently halfway through my Maths PhD and my wife is finishing off her studies. We had a child together a year ago. My wife took a year off work as I continued my studies due to the biological differences between us. We are now both working hard to allow us both achieve what we want. The main differences I can see between us and your examples is that I am not a misogynist and that we are not driven by our finances but by what we truly want.

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  14. CoolMathGuy:

    I believe that people have a choice and mothers that have children should stay home with their young, to teach, play & nurture them until they are ready for school! Yes, it does take patience and responsibility but as for Ann, she did her best and I appreciate what mothers go through to put their careers on hold for the love of their children.. too bad fathers don’t take on that role more often!

  15. Maria Droujkova:

    Thank you for the stories, Tanya.

    @Padraig – your attitude both exemplifies and illustrates the problems described in the post quite nicely. Thank you for providing yourself as an example.

    Here’s my story, while we are sharing. My husband is super-supportive and the extended family is glad to help. We had a baby two weeks into my first semester in a PhD program. My mom stayed with us for the first semester and my husband’s mom for the second semester. We did full attachment parenting – exclusive breastfeeding, contact with me on demand, etc. It was made possible, in large part, by my great advisor Sally Berenson, whose name I will praise whenever my graduate school comes up. As a mother of four kids and one of then-pioneering female researchers at that campus, she knew a thing or two about parenting in academe.

    I had to give up my research assistantship when my daughter was one and a half and very active. It was harsh financially, because I had to maintain full-time status and pay out-of-state tuition (despite having lived there for enough years) because of my visa type. It also meant less research, obviously. I got more involved again when my kid was four, and graduated after six years with a decent enough conference and project participation record. If you saw a young kid at PME in the early 2000s, that was probably mine.

    My plan was to be a part-time research and teaching adjunct, work part-time on my company, and parent full time. We homeschool, and are actively involved in the local family education communities. After trying different things, I found a comfortable combination of working on grants with several research groups, participating in open educational projects, adjuncting online, starting my own projects and doing more applied and practical consults such as curriculum development.

    At one of my interviews for a university position, I met a beginner researcher, in a position similar to what I was interviewing for, pumping milk for her tiny baby. She sounded somewhat sad and tired when she talked about the baby, but happier about the research. She was required to physically be in the office, without the baby, for thirty-forty hours a week. After I mentioned flexible hours, the interview was pretty much over. My R&D career is probably way slower, and she got to work under one of my research heroes and I did not, but I would not want to be in her position. She probably would not want to be in mine.

    tl;dr version: If you want something less standard, make it happen yourself through friends, family, and network, rather than going through institutional channels.

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    […] case studies in “Math Careers and Choices” are more fables than […]

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    […] Math Careers and Choices: Tanya Khovanova writes More and more I stumble upon the claim that the difference in individual personal choices between men and women is one of the main contributors to the gender gap in mathematical careers. Let me tell you some stories that I’ve heard that illustrate some choices that women made […]

  18. Meg:

    My mom gave up her research career to stay home with the kids because her social science research was never going to make as much money as her husband’s engineering degree. Given that women make 77% of what men do, on average, and the fields women are likely to be in are less valued than those men are likely to be in, any time “the rational” decision is made about economics chances are it is going to hurt women. The personal is personal, but it is also political; these dynamics won’t change until men are willing to give up economic security for their wive’s careers the way women have been expected to give up their careers for the family’s economic security.

    We could help it along, of course, by getting rid of the tax advantages for stay-at-home parents, passing paid medical leave acts modeled after Sweden and bringing the domestic and professional spheres closer together. The last one is important: as long as “kids in public” is considered an imposition and “kids in a meeting” is considered unprofessional the implicit assumption is that someone is staying at home to take care of the offending young people. True equality will require society figuring out how to have childrearing be compatible with full public participation.

  19. mikapfl:


    thank you very much for the blog post. I already beleived such mechanisms to be one of the reasons for gender imbalancy in STEM, but I hadn’t such a concrete idea.



  20. Reila:

    The problem is gender roles. Somehow as a society we seem to have normalized the assumption that menial household tasks such as cooking and chores are the work of women, regardless of whether the women are the primary breadwinners. My mother, and all of my father’s 4 sisters pursued reasonably difficult careers (engineering, medicine, math, law, and physics), yet they are consistently paid less than their husbands for comparable work and are expected to take on additional housework such as cooking and cleaning every day when they come home from work. My aunt who has a physics PhD had to put off completing her thesis to take care of her son so her husband could complete his PhD first, because that was how our society expects things to be. (If she had prioritized her own PhD and had her husband take care of the kid her family and friends would have criticized her for not being a supportive wife.) She also had to put off looking for a job to take care of her son for her husband to find one first so they can have enough money to send the kid to daycare. My mother never had the opportunity to pursue a PhD because she was married and money was scarce so she took a job to support my father while he started his PhD. She was ridiculed by her bosses and demoted for not being able to work late because she has to take care of me when I was a kid. As a result her pay didn’t increase for years while everyone else flaunted their raises, despite the fact that when she left the company her co-workers had to ask her for help for the next few months because she was one of their most brilliant engineers.

    This is ridiculous. If I ever have kids the father will have to at least share the burden (at best he will take care of all of it). If my job offer conflicts with my husband’s, I will prioritize my work. There’s no way I’ll give up something as exciting as discovering my own theorem to something as trivial as maintaining a relationship or doing household stuff. If I work in academia and I hit the glass ceiling with no way up I’m not sure what I’ll do. Or rather, if anything I can do will make a difference.

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