From time to time my female colleagues share stories with me of great unfairness or horrible sexual harassment in the world of mathematics. I can’t reciprocate — certainly not on that level.
I do not have any horror stories to tell. Generally I am treated with great respect, at least to my face. In fact, some men have told me that I am the smartest person they ever met.
The stories I want to share are not about harassment. No single incident is a big deal. But when these things happened time after time after time, I realized: this is gender bias.
First story. A guy told me, “Your proof is unbelievably amazing.”
What can I say? It is just a compliment. Though I am not sure why the word “unbelievable” was included. Is it difficult to believe that I can produce an amazing proof? I encounter surprise too often to my taste.
Second story. Another guy tells me after I explain a solution to a math problem, “I didn’t realize it was so simple.”
Actually it wasn’t simple. When I explained the solution, it may have seemed simple, but that was because I was able to explain it to him with such clarity. People tend to downgrade their opinion of the problem, rather than upgrade their opinion of my ability. It actually affects my reputation as a mathematician.
Third story. Another guy said to me (and I quote!), “I am so dumb. I tried for a week to write the program that computes these numbers and you did it in one hour. I feel so dumb. I didn’t expect myself to be so dumb. Why am I so dumb?”
After the fourth “dumb”, I started wondering what it was all about. Many guys try to compete with me. And they hate losing to a woman. It creates a strong motivation for them to discard my brilliance and to explain away my speed, even if they have to claim temporary dumbness.
Fourth story. Someone asked me, “What is the source of the solutions and math ideas in your blog? Can you refer me to the literature?”
I do invest extra effort in citing the sources of the math puzzles I discuss. Everything else — the solutions, the ideas, new definitions, new sequences — I invent myself. I have even started inventing math puzzles. This is my blog. I thought of it myself, I wrote it myself. Has anyone ever asked Terence Tao where he takes the solutions for his blog from?
Unfortunately, this attitude damages my career. When people think that my ideas come from someone else, they do not cite me.
But all these stories however minor happen all the time, not only to me but to all my female colleagues. Gender bias is real. Next time someone tells me how unbelievably amazing my proof is, I will explode.Share: