Mathematics in Fiction Class Visit

Today I attended a colleague‘s “Mathematics in Fiction” course. This course is designed as a First-Year Seminar course, not necessarily for math majors, and has a large writing component. I was invited to attend the class as a “guest participant” so I could be part of a dialogue on the broader issues about gender & mathematics, and how women are portrayed as mathematicians in works of fiction.

Overall, I really enjoyed the discussion we had. I’m hoping the students continue to ponder the issues and questions that were raised. In our conversation, I realized I wanted to make two distinctions that the students perhaps didn’t see.

Mathematician, Math Professor, and Math Teacher
Several students said they were unsure that there are still problems about gender in mathematics, citing that they had mostly female math teachers in high school. There seems to be a cultural conflation of mathematician, math professor, and math teacher. When I tell people I have had very few female math professors, a common response is, “Well all of my high school math teachers were female.” In my mind, these three titles have different connotations. I don’t consider high school math teachers to be “mathematicians” necessarily. To me, a mathematician is someone with advanced training and who has engaged in mathematical research (and, in most cases, who is continuing to do so). The research component separates math professor from math teacher.

As far as the distinction between “mathematician” and “math professor,” I used to think the overlap between these groups was so large that we might as well call these terms synonyms. But “math professor” is an academic job title — one cannot be a math professor if one isn’t employed. Meanwhile, “mathematician” has something more to do with educational background, training, and hobbies and isn’t job related.

One Question Becomes Two
One student brought up that perhaps the gender imbalance in mathematics has more to do with interest than anything else: Could it be that girls are just less interested in math, and that’s why there are fewer female mathematicians? (I don’t believe this to be true.) Our conversation made me want to point out the following distinction, which I think is important: There is a question of whether women like math less than men like math, and then there is a question of whether women like mathematical careers less than men like mathematical careers. In my mind, these are two¬†very different questions.

My experiences & my gut instinct make me think that the bigger issue is that women are less interested in becoming math professors, not that women are less interested in mathematics. Indeed, there has been a lot of discussion about the so-called “leaky pipeline”: While more and more women are finishing both undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics, there seems to be a slow-down when it comes to who is being hired into academic mathematics.