Unconscious bias 101
Or: why equal opportunities are still not reached in academia
Basic information, links and my opinion on the topic
Topic 1: Why we still need events and associations for women in mathematics
After getting asked the question a couple of times lately, I would like to explain quickly why Europe (and especially Germany) has associations for women in mathematics, and why it is important to have scientific workshops only for women. I will order by questions
Question 1: Why an organisation such as European Women in mathematics?
Omitting the concrete reasons and history of the foundation of European Women in mathematics, which you can find on the EWM webpage, first I would like to point out that in western Europe, it sounds not strange at all to have women's organisations: It is natural for groups of common interests and values to give themselves a legal form, e.g. form an association or foundation, because in this way it is easier to administer activities.
Question 2: What do women in mathematics organisations do and why should I care?
One part of the activities of womens' associations is to encourage girls to study mathematics and to pursue a career in mathematics research. It has nothing to do with convincing girls to study something different than they want, it is rather to encourage them to follow their own interest in mathematics despite adverse factors around them, such as being confronted by stereotypes in school or family. Another part of the activities of women's associations is to gather data and inform the public in general and the scientific community in particular on the situation of women in mathematics. One important point I want to mention here is that it is indeed proven by several studies that there exists a gender bias in STEM hiring, for example in this PNAS article. (One reason why such a study is not conducted specifically in mathematics is the smallness of the community, which makes studies of this type difficult to realize). It is not easy to talk about unconscious bias and gender bias: As mathematicians we believe in proofs, we are used to abstraction and might believe that we can make ourselves free of subjective opinions. Also, young female mathematicians might never have had the feeling to be discrimiated due to their gender. A quite comprehensive study in Germany reveals though that the percentage of women mathematicians experiencing discrimiation is getting higher and higher with every career step (notice that the persons interviewed were already professors, so we are talking about a higher and higher percentage of cases of discrimination even among women who "made it"). Last, women's associations and in Germany also universities are often organizing events especially for women or with women-only speakers. I will talk about this in the next question.
Question 3: why are "women in [your favorite research field in maths]"-events useful?
First of all, there is a lot of discussion on why there are so few women speakers on conferences. Every organizer for sure has a good reason when asked, and often this reason is that he/she does not know other female mathematicians in the field. With "women in ..." events we show that these women do exist, just that the organizer did noth think about them. This might not have been done out of bad will, not at all: To my experience, quite often a small team of organizers agrees first of all in speakers which they absolutely want to speak on their event, and then the money which they have to organize the event is already exhausted, and there is no space for experiments. Therefore, it is useful to have a platform where female mathematicians can speak about their work, so that they become more visible and they will be more often invited to "normal" conferences. Moreover, such women events providing a meeting place for like-minded people. Collecting opinions of participants, one major point seems that in these events there is often a positive and supporting spirit among participants and lecturers, see also this article http://www.europeanwomeninmaths.org/sites/default/files/documents/history_d/abriefandpersonal.pdf Personally, women events were the only events where I ever got feedback on the mathematics of my talk or poster.
Some Links on this topic
- gender issues in conferences
- statistics about the situation of women in mathematics in Europe..
- What EWM does.
Some info on the obstacles for women in mathematics
- A nice article by Mahya Karbalaii in faz (in German).
Topic 2: Equal opportunities issues are not (always) gender issues!
It often occurr to me that equal opportunities deputies (German "Gleichstellungsbeauftragte") seem to deal only with gender issues. Maybe this is an outsider's perspective, but even if, it is a quite common one. In the following I want to explain why I think there are more minorities in mathematics research which we should think about when talking about equal opportunities and objective criteria for hiring. [this part is currently updated and will be uploaded soon]