A teachable moment for mathematicians

Reality check

If you are reading this, then you are likely a woman, racialized, indigenous, or LGBTQ+. The union of those groups covers a large part of the human race. Historically and presently, the majority of academic mathematicians, however, belong to none of those groups. In Canada, for example, about 18% of mathematics faculty are women compared to more than 50% of the overall population.

The featured image of this blog is from a math conference held at Princeton in the 1940s. See a pattern there?

I’d like to think that hiring committees for mathematics positions make objective decisions about a candidate’s merits. I’d like to think anyone, regardless of their gender identity, race, or sexual orientation, has an equal shot realizing their mathematical career goals.

Let’s be real.

We know that is not how things have worked in the past. In many instances, that is not how things work now. Candidates from marginalized groups don’t magically pop up at the top of shortlists. We need to actively consider such candidates, if for no other reason than to adjust for past and present inequities.

So I pose the question: are diversity statements in the hiring process desirable or even necessary? Surprise, surprise, I say an emphatic yes and I’ll try to convince you of why.

The op-ed

Abigail Thompson’s op-ed in the American Mathematical Society Notices and subsequently in the Wall Street Journal (sorry dear readers, that link is paywalled) decried diversity statements as politically driven litmus tests for math job applicants. She compared their widespread adoption as reminiscent of tactics from the McCarthy era in US politics.

Oh dear. Her position on this matter was equally denounced and supported by mathematicians. Her own university wrote a piece distancing themselves from her statements.

Although I could fashion this blog to focus on people in power in mathematics and the responsibility their words carry, I’m not going to make this about any one person. I think the issues are more significant than any one of us.

My main comment on the op-ed is that all of us, including me, need to be aware of our privilege and our lived experience. I acknowledge my own privilege as a white, cisgender settler and a full professor in the academy. I also recognize that as an openly gay man, I’ve experienced discrimination and erasure.

We all have our own lived experiences, and all of those influence our choices. Readers of my blog are familiar with my statements about being a gay mathematician and my call for broader diversity in the professoriate.

For me, however, …

Diversity is not the issue

Diversity is not the core issue in this discussion, it is inclusion. Thought leaders on diversity in the academy have coined a phrase that I love:

“Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice.”

Diversity is passive, inclusion is active. For those on hiring committees, this should be a guiding principle.

I’ve been on hiring committees for many tenure-track positions over the years, and have given more interviews than I can remember. Yes, we want to hire excellent researchers. Yes, we want to bring in outstanding teachers. Yes, we want colleagues who will positively contribute to service.

Unfortunately, the lack of diversity in mathematics departments will not self-correct. We need to be proactive and assertive in broadening the inclusiveness of our discipline. Hiring is critical to that goal.

The role of EDI in hiring

Diversity statements themselves are not the be-all and end-all of active inclusion efforts in mathematics hiring. Hiring committees should ask candidates to discuss EDI = Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in their teaching and graduate supervision. EDI should be addressed in the job interview through questions related to an applicant’s experience and future plans.

We all have a role to play. A candidate that is not from an underrepresented group may be able to address EDI issues far better than other applicants, and if hired, become an essential advocate for inclusion in your Department. Inclusion is not exclusion.

As we put the onus on applicants to provide highlights of their research and teaching, it is entirely fair to ask about their efforts to make math more inclusive. Applicants should expect to be asked about EDI, as it is such a vital part of the modern work world.

A critique against diversity statements is that applicants are often too junior to have any record on the matter. For example, they may not have had the time or opportunity to sit on panels, organize sessions, or write op-eds. I think that view is increasingly a cop-out. As a professor, you are not just a paper machine. You are not just a course giving engine. You are an engaged member of the academy whose views and advocacy can have a profoundly positive (or negative) influence.

Even if an applicant has limited experience actively engaging with EDI, it is fair to ask them how they will support, for example, women students in your program. How will they encourage racialized undergrads to consider grad school? If a non-binary grad student visited your office hours and state their proper personal pronouns as “they/them,” how would you react? I’ve had these experiences and more in my two decades in the academy, so none of this is fantasy.

Questions posed in the previous paragraph are fair game for the hiring committee. And there are no perfect answers. What hiring committees want to see is a commitment to being inclusive.

To applicants: You are at the beginning of your career, and we get that. You will not have the experiences that those in the professoriate for decades have. But you are asking for an academic job that may last thirty years. Think of your employers, your future colleagues and their perspectives.

Final thoughts

Looking back, I’m more-or-less happy about this discussion in the mathematics community surrounding diversity statements. It is long overdue in our discipline. A lively discussion on EDI, so long as it is respectful, can elevate us. I think the saga surrounding the op-ed may be a teachable moment for mathematicians. I hope my colleagues are open to that.

Here are my closing thoughts on EDI in math.

Let’s be kind to each other. We’ve all had hurdles in our mathematical voyage.

Let’s support each other. The professoriate is challenging enough without us tearing each other down.

Let’s recognize our privilege. Not all voices are heard or given equal weight. When people in power speak, their words matter. If your words are not supporting others, especially our students or junior colleagues, are they worth saying?

Hiring is often viewed as a jarring experience for candidates, but from my (privileged) perspective as a full professor, it is a fantastic opportunity to reenergize a Department or program. What an incredible chance we’ve been given to help usher in the next generation of math professors.

Please join me in making math hiring in the academy and math, in general, more inclusive.

Anthony Bonato

3 thoughts on “A teachable moment for mathematicians

  1. Great post to start 2020, Anthony! Some fields are even worse off: my recollection is that only 5% of tenured professors of engineering in Canada are women. When at Ryerson, I discovered that NSERC’s Chair in Design Engineering had, at the time, been awarded to 36 individuals, none female. So it goes beyond hiring policies: we must collectively consider EDI when it comes to grants, awards, publications, invited talks, tenure and promotion, etc.
    My understanding is that it has been a longstanding practice in music for candidates to perform from behind a screen, since it is their capabilities that matter and not their appearance. It’s odd that no other discipline (to my knowledge) has taken a similar blinded approach to evaluation.

    Liked by 1 person

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