Polite Gender Bias

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 β€” 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 β€” the solutions, the ideas, new definitions, new sequences β€” 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 When people think that my ideas come from someone else, they do not cite me.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.



  1. Erik:

    Except that men do the same to men. I’m confronted from junior engineers all the time who have the exact same reactions when I solve a problem or explain a solution (or similar enough). People’s egos are fragile things and nobody likes to admin there are people more talented or intelligent them themselves.

    When I provide a solution that took much effort, thought and intelligence to generate, its not strange for me to hear “That’s so easy, I can’t believe I didn’t think of that myself” — of course its easy, after someone else has done the heavy lifting. Assuming that this happens to you because of your gender is, perhaps, a false assumption.

  2. DO:

    How do you know that these types of interactions do not occur between men and other men? Especially the “so simple” remark. That one seems pervasive in mathematics, from very early on, and across genders.

  3. Tanya Khovanova:

    Erik and DO,

    I agree with you. I do not have a way to check that the remarks relate to my gender.

  4. Santo D'Agostino:

    Gender bias is real, and I’m sure that at least some of the comments had the underlying thought that “I can’t believe a mere woman is this smart … unbelievable!” However, egos are also fragile, and surely some fraction of the underlying thought was (at least in some cases) some sort of shame for not being smarter than they are.

    I used to play tournament chess, and the number of excuses thrown around in discussing recent games was remarkable. Nobody was ever outplayed by a better player, they typically “had a winning position” but then threw it away with “a bad blunder.” I wonder if the behavior of math people is analogous. I wonder how much (wasted) effort typically goes into protecting one’s own image of oneself as a “smart” person (or a “good” chess player, or whatever).

    Top chess players had much stronger egos, and would be much more honest: When they were outplayed, or made a mistake, they would admit it, carefully examine the situation to see exactly what went wrong, and then work hard to correct themselves so that they would not fall into such a situation again. Rather than waste energy protecting their own internal image of themselves as good players, they took effective action to improve.

    I’ve encountered this sort of excuse-making frequently, both in myself, and in my students, and it’s sad to see how unconscious it is in some students, especially young ones. Many of them reflexively call themselves dumb, perhaps in an effort to pre-empt being so judged by others. (I imagine most people reckon it’s a lot more painful to be judged dumb by someone else than to do it light-heartedly themselves, but it’s counterproductive to continually tear yourself down.)

    This sort of excuse-making is a bad thinking habit, and teachers must be alert to it, and patiently help their students root it out of their thoughts. The habits of the strong chess players are much more helpful, and nurturing such habits ought to be part of the training of math students too.

  5. Richard:

    I think it might just be a case of the competitive nature of being Human, and that in being good at math (or any heavily abstracted subject) we feel that we have to (not that we are, it is a Perceived standard) be smarter. I myself have personally said these same ‘Biased’ responses to both men and women; like wise I have had them directed at me before.

  6. Hillary:

    I think you are believably amazing! And so are your proofs.

  7. Richard:

    I like it, though it gives the feeling as not quite as amazing as unbelievably amazing. it’s like saying the largest imaginable number and the largest imaginable cardinal.

  8. Sam Alexander:

    I must be biased against MYSELF, because 90% of the time whenever I finally solve a problem I’ve been working on, I kick myself. “God, that was so simple! I’m an idiot for not discovering it right away!”

  9. Gregory Marton:

    I wonder if now someone who has said to you, “Wow, I feel so dumb!” is now saying to himself, “Wow, I feel so dumb!” πŸ™‚

  10. Juan Castaneda:

    I tutor math for a living. From my students (both male and female) I hear all the time comments like: “Wow! You make it look so easy!” or “I didn’t realize it was so simple. I should have known that!” I agree with previous comments in that I don’t see this reaction as gender-biased. I have noticed self-image is extremely important at a very deep level for most people. This is subconscious, so I am always looking for subtle ways to go out my way in helping students protect their ego before, during, and after the math learning process takes place.

  11. Marco:

    One of my pet peeves in the math world is when people refer to mathematical objects as “guys”. I often hear phrases such as “This guy is mapped to that guy, and these guys are killed.” To my ears, it is like fingernails on a chalkboard. It is also insidiously sexist, in the sense that it is not bad enough to be remarked upon.

  12. Shabnam:


    Those people were being polite – occasionally I (and other mathematicians I know) have referred to mathematical objects as ‘fuckers’: “Take these fuckers, map them over there, then kill those fuckers”. During talks I try to avoid anthropomorphising though.

  13. Jim:

    Please, Tanya, don’t explode, your friends will miss you.

  14. Weekly Picks « Mathblogging.org — the Blog:

    […] general impressions from the research community could also be found. Tanya Khovanova’s Math Blog shared some experiences of polite gender bias, a post which the Secret Blogging Seminar reflected upon afterwards. The Accidental Mathematician […]

  15. Jim:

    The “so simple” remark can be countered by (paraphrasing I.M. Gelgand): “a solution may be simple, but finding it may be not simple.”

  16. Chris:

    Maybe this is different in other countries. But here in Germany where female research mathematicians are just as rare as anywhere I have known one female mathematics professor (now deceased, sadly..). She was highly competent as a researcher, but also very collaborative. She was very well regarded by her male colleagues. But that may be also due to her excellent character. No one was skeptical of her abilities or surprised if she came up with good results. Not even remotely. Why? Because she had published many articles, done very good research. Who would read a published article that contains brilliant results and then somehow dismiss it because the author is female? That’s ridiculous. So I would recommend to let your work speak for itself and maybe also work on your ego problems… If you are at the beginning of your career you encounter just the same problems as anyone at this stage. It’s too easy to blame others or make use of the perceived persecution because of your sex if things don’t work out.

  17. Bob the Payaso:

    Once at dinner I listened in stupefaction to upandcoming star X at MIT ask well established senior professor Y at a state university W (of whom he apparently knew little) who had just explained to X some things in Y’s supposed area of expertise ask X “and did you work all these things out yourself?” It’s a step beyond “Can you refer me to the literature?” It reflects the condescension some people at fancy universities have towards those at (even not much) less fancy universities.

  18. Eleventh Linkfest:

    […] Tanya Khovanova: Polite Gender Bias (in Mathematics) […]

  19. Rick:

    Mathematically skilled workers can be emotionally distant to people in general.

    I don’t deny that male mathematicians might lack empathy for female mathematicians.

    However, I claim that this is not a special property caused by male bias.

    I claim that the phenomenon is caused by spending eight or more hours a day thinking about highly abstract topics.

    If I spent all day doing anthropology or psychoanalysis, I might see people as human beings with emotions. As it is, I spend time on abstract theories, and I barely can see people as humans.

    Incidentally, I note that male mathematicians can be rather abrasive to other male mathematicians as well.

  20. Shitikanth:

    The first three incidents have often happened with me, too. I have never written a blog, or a paper (yet) so I cannot comment on the fourth story, but I would say that you are probably wrong in confusing natural competitiveness with gender bias. I am sure this would have happened even with your female colleagues.

    Why do women feel the *need* to feel biased anyways?

  21. Tariq:

    “Unbelievably X” for some adjective X is commonly used amongst young people, and seldom connotes literal disbelief – much as “awesome” rarely describes something inspiring awe.

  22. An Observer:

    Your blog entry and many of the comments here are based on the illusion that there are geniuses/gifted ones — which are rare — and the rest of the population — very common and plentiful. I know that most reading what I just wrote will perhaps think I am a lunatic for questioning that assumption, but question it I do. Even more, I think it is bunk.

    What I believe, and what is supported more and more every day by research, is that the genius potential is not rare at all, that it is largely a result of environment and hard work and so on, not genetics. While genetics certainly must play a role in what area any particular individual might achieve extreme excellence, the real reason for differences is not some intellectual caste system we are born into, doomed to, but rather the result of people having or not having the right environments, making the choices to work hard or not, and taking the time to find our what their muse might be, or not. A reference for these ideas can be found in David Shenk’s “The Genius in All of Us”.

    While this alternate philosophy is still consistent the the stratifications we observe, it frees us from the crippling belief that the majority are doomed to mediocrity. That belief is nonsense which is also, unfortunately a self-fulfilling prophesy — believe it and you will likely live as though it were true, and reap the results.

    How does this relate to the above? Under the illusion of the intellectual caste system, differences in exercised/trained abilities remind us of our place in the caste and therefore say something about who we are — and that is often humiliating, demeaning, etc. This in turn generates all sorts of behaviour, emotions, handicaps, some of which are discussed above. If on the other hand, I recognize that you are thinking faster, have done something clever, etc. and I know that I can focus and do similar things, maybe along some other path, it is merely inspiring to see, and motivating for me to do likewise.

    Of course a critical part is the realization that I have to find my own muse before I can do this well.

    It is intriguing and disturbing how educated we can get without understanding emotions, how emotions baffle most of us — living as we do driven by motives we do not understand. And all the while, this is so unnecessary; if we would only slow down and take the time to think, to see to hear … things like that which I have outlined above would become intuitively clear. For in many areas, science is a blunt tool, taking much longer to arrive at the same conclusions that the insight of a trained intuition can unlock in short order.

    So — what does this mean for your situation? I would answer that with a question and a suggestion:

    What of all the things you are doing, writing, sharing, planning, etc. would you do if there were no comparisons, no praise, no chance that anyone would recognize your abilities … if there were instead only the joy of creating mathematics and teaching this to others?

    Whatever it is, forget everything else and do only that.

  23. gridlock:

    I think you may be unknowingly creating INSTINCT violations (needs for dominance, reward seeking, and potentially sex or survival) in the men you talk with.
    It isn’t any deliberate move to piss certain people off, but merely a lack of understanding on how other people communicate in general. I’ve always had problems communicating with people so I took steps in trying to figure out why I was so regularly spectacularly failing in simple conversational methods. I figured that if sociopaths can fake emotional cues, then a high-functioning Aspergers man (with some other emotional issues) should be able to figure out how to fake natural communication techniques. I am perfectly aware of other people’s emotions plus vocal tone modulation to a fault, but I don’t read body language well or attach emotional links to other people’s conversation internally well. I suck at remembering names and faces, but am great at remembering voices. I also, as you see clearly, talk way too damned much (which is great for Blogs, not great for conversation) when I have a grasp of a subject.

    Note that a simplified comprehension of brain activity, you can divide the human brain into 4 primary sections:
    Brain Stem (INSTINCT) = survival, food, sex, dominance, shelter, reward seeking, pain, empathy, identifying threats.
    Right Brain (EMOTION) = abstract thinking, emotions, motivation, pleasure, attaching emotional cues to objects.
    Left Brain (LOGIC) = problem solving, deduction, basic prediction, spatial calculation, danger estimation, repetitive actions, recalling past events accurately.
    Forebrain AKA Frontal Lobes (PREDICTION) = intuition, complex prediction of future events, prediction of threatening creatures actions, advanced prediction of another human’s actions, prediction of the outcome of your own actions.

    Most human interaction can be predicted using only 3 brain sections (the Forebrain section is massively under-utilized in most humans) as reference. The human brain makes decisions using “Framing”. The reason that you cannot communicate well with other people is because they literally are not thinking in the same pattern that you are.
    The “Gatekeeper” aspect of the brain limits most human thought a cyclic pattern, but each human usually uses a different pattern than 5/6 of the other humans. If we behaved more intelligently as a species (using the advanced prediction of the Forebrain) the pattern would be 1/24 for each human, but since they don’t then 1/6 is usually a quicker estimation.

    Framing works by limiting Gatekeeping out decisions unless they fit that person’s usual brain pattern.
    For myself, the simplified version is: LOGIC (is greater than) EMOTION (is greater than) INSTINCT
    The advanced version adds PREDICTION between EMOTION and INSTINCT.

    For myself, any decision has to be LOGICAL first, then once it is past that gatekeeper, it has to be EMOTIONALLY appealing, and finally (if innate PREDICTION finds nothing wrong) then INSTINCT requirements are factored in. This all happens usually in the space of an eye blink and unconsciously. Now that you are consciously aware of my mental pattern then you can tailor your statements to best appeal to myself. However, since I am merely 1/6 of any wider audience, you need to tailor your appeals to reach each 1/6 of the audience piece by piece.
    My mother, however, is difficult to communicate with. My mom’s brain pattern is: EMOTION (is greater than) INSTINCT (is greater than) LOGIC. Before my basic understanding of this concept I had great difficulty communicating with her. My sister Monica’s brain pattern is: EMOTION (is greater than) LOGIC (is greater than) INSTINCT. Thusly, my sister Monica has always been able to communicate well with my mother. My other sister Miki has the brain pattern of: LOGIC (is greater than) INSTINCT (is greater than) EMOTION, but I would say that I communicate well with Miki, but not as well as with Monica, and very poorly with my mother. One of the basic quick solutions for my communication failures with my mom was to force myself to push forth EMOTION cues (even though they are not my dominant trait when speaking) with INSTINCT appeals using body language (which I also do not use very much).


    A way of verifying this is to look at advertising and political manipulation. Advertising is the most blatant to observe, thusly the easiest to dissect.
    Take McDonald’s Restaurants old campaign of “FOOD FOLKS AND FUN”. Break it down to what you know now.
    FOOD (INSTINCT) FOLKS (INSTINCT/EMOTION) FUN (EMOTION). No appeals to logic in that phrase. So you slap some food price numbers up in the background imagery.
    Now your campaign is aimed at the 1/6 of the audience — INSTINCT (is greater than) EMOTION (is greater than) LOGIC.
    Take a look at restaurant menus in general. The layout pattern is usually — ITEM NAME then ITEM DESCRIPTION then ITEM PRICE then ITEM IMAGE. Pattern is LOGIC EMOTION LOGIC INSTINCT.
    This method makes it rather simple to quantize human behavior to simple predictable interaction terms.

  24. Reila:

    I just wanted to say that I know exactly what Tanya is talking about. I’m in engineering, and I get this shit all the time. Whether it’s my co-workers declaring straight-up that all girls are incompetent during my internship, or complete bewilderment whenever I accomplish something, or even just trivializing my work as simple.

    For all those guys out there who insist it doesn’t happen, you don’t notice it if the culminating experience of sexism hasn’t really affected you adversely. What more proof do you need other than Prof. Ben Barres, a female to male transgendered scientist, who has actually lived the experience of both genders?


  25. Reila:


    Sorry for the extra post, but I just had to get this article in there.

  26. Tanya Khovanova's Math Blog » Blog Archive » Why Would I Know Where the Sugar is?:

    […] wrote a blog essay, Polite Gender Bias, about some of my other stories. Each individual case might not seem gender-related, but they were […]

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