campus

Mad about inequality: Gender Representation in Mathematics Student Interviews

4 March 2019

Student 1

I’m a second year studying pure maths, logic, and a dash of statistics. I’m not sure what I’m going to do after my degree, but I’m definitely considering postgrad logic. I’m also non-binary. I think my gender has definitely affected my studies. I’m often not comfortable being out as non-binary in class the way I could in my previous arts degree, because I’m less sure my tutors have had the training or experience to know how to handle any issues that arise and back me up if another student is being an asshole. It’s also relatively obvious when I’m being perceived as a woman vs a man: men seem more inclined to talk over me and less inclined to consider my input, whether it’s intentional or not. Unfortunately, my gender will absolutely play a role in what I do after my undergrad. It’s somewhat bearable when tutors and lecturers and classmates you won’t see after that semester misgender you (because it’s often a matter of me not having the energy to strictly enforce pronouns or provide a gender 101 to people when I’m just trying to get through the class material), but I won’t be able to do postgrad without finding a niche where my gender is respected. I think there are a lot of non-binary and trans students in maths, which is why I find this stuff depressing – I’m lucky in that I’ve been out forever and I’m articulate and confident enough to assert myself when I choose to, but I know plenty of trans students who don’t have that confidence or that grasp of English to be able to advocate for themselves in the same way. I would like to see a comprehensive training program regarding respecting gender diversity, not assuming pronouns, and giving tutors the tools to back up trans students who experience pushback from fellow students. There are so many trans people in this field – I think tons of tutors, academics, etc would want to support us but simply don’t have the training.

Student 2

I’m majoring in Applied Maths in the Bachelor of Science.

I’m studying maths because I love how maths can transform difficult problems into easily solveable ones, and can model a lot of our reality.

I’m not quite sure what I’ll do after my degree.

I don’t think being female has had a big impact on my studies, but I do believe the subconscious beliefs of what certain genders should study does affect what people believe they “should” pursue. I was lucky enough to have family that encouraged me to pursue maths which offset other people’s expectations of me, but a lot of people don’t have that.

I think the level of gender representation is the way it is because there can be a subconscious expectation for females to follow certain areas of study, and for males to follow different ones. While females aren’t actively discouraged to pursue maths, males are actively encouraged, both when deciding whether to continue with it past high school and whether to continue with postgraduate study.

I feel there are some great organisations (eg AMSI) trying to decrease or offset the difficulties women experience, but ultimately every institution needs to make sure that they aren’t being biased or negatively influencing people, intentional or otherwise.

Different stakeholders could certainly do a better job of supporting women/ non binary people studying maths, especially with encouragement to continue maths to a high level.

Although I feel there is little direct bias, there are often few female role models in areas such as maths (I’ve especially noticed a lack of female lecturers, for example). This, combined with a lack of encouragement and fewer females undertaking maths, results in a lower proportion of females undertaking these studies in both undergraduate and postgraduate study.

I’d like to see more examples and visibility of women that have been successful in these areas to view as role models.

Student 3

Area/level of maths you’re studying? Operations Research, second year

Why are you studying maths?

I’ve always enjoyed maths and found it interesting. As well, it’s a highly in demand skill set which is easily transferrable between different quantitative roles.

What are your current thoughts about what you’ll do once you finish your degree?

Programming within an academic setting.

How do you feel your gender has affected your studies?

I don’t find gender impacts my ability to do the work. However, I do find it limits the people who want to work with me – I tend to see students band together in their gender groups which is very exclusionary as the gender balance is so skewed in the STEM fields I’m studying in. This considerably limits the choices of who I can build meaningful relationships with which provide crucial support during studies and which will last beyond university into the professional realm.

Do you think your gender will play a role in making decisions about what to study in the future? How?

Most definitely. If the field I’m going into is hostile to someone if my gender so that I will never really belong nor be afforded the same opportunities, then I have to seriously question whether it’s worthwhile pursuing it knowing I’ll have to constantly put up with these attitudes.

Why do you think the level of gender representation in maths is the way it is?

Entrenched societal stereotypes about acceptable career pathways for different genders. I don’t think it’s as bad as other STEM fields where women are underrepresented as the community seems to be warm, accepting and welcoming. But the number of women seriously interested in further studies diminishes past first year.

Do you feel like there are organisations doing things to address this?

I haven’t seen many active efforts to address this at uni.

Could different stakeholders (UniMelb, School of Maths and Stats, MUMS), do a better job of supporting women and non-binary people studying maths? If so, what are some actions you think they could take?

Having more female role models and addressing any active hostility and discrimination against women.

Student 4

What are your current thoughts about what you’ll do once you finish your degree?

I’m aiming to study a masters degree though I have doubts about continuing in maths sometimes.

How do you feel your gender has affected your studies?

I think identifying as female has had a subtle effect on my experiences of studying maths throughout  undergrad but some of the negative aspects have become increasingly more noticeable towards later undergrad years. During my first year I remember being aware that there were less girls majoring in maths (I think I heard it was about 30%?) but at the time I didn’t see that as a big issue and it didn’t stop me from choosing a lot of maths-heavy subjects. People were often surprised when I said I liked maths and was planning on majoring in maths/maths-related majors. While some of these reactions I can attribute to the general population’s perception of maths, when it came from guys who were also studying STEM majors it seemed that they were surprised because I don’t fit the “maths-geek” stereotype which is typically thought of as male. I’ve noticed that the gender mis-balance gets even more extreme in third year subjects and beyond. My gender, among other things, has contributed to feeling that I don’t belong in some classes.

Do you think your gender will play a role in making decisions about what to study in the future? How?

It wouldn’t be the main issue stopping me but it still has some influence over my decisions. In some ways also being aware that there’s underrepresentation makes me even more determined to study maths or other male-dominated subjects, and though this counterbalances some of the obstacles, I’m not always sure that stubbornness will get me through.

Why do you think the level of gender representation in maths is the way it is?

I think it’s a lot of factors. Beginning early on in school a lot of people get the impression that maths is only for a certain type of person and this discourages a lot of kids of all genders. And then I think that, of the girls and non-binary people who do stick with maths up to university level, a lot get to the point where all the seemingly small frustrations compound enough to make them consider switching to one of the other things they’re talented at. It’s not only the frustrations stemming from people outside the university and other students, but also from within the university and global mathematics community. This maths department and maths community in general are very traditional in a lot of ways, and this tends to suit traditional students only and makes it difficult for students who don’t fit the mould. And you can’t really expect this cycle of underrepresentation and homogeneity to change without changes being made first from within.

Do you feel like there are organisations doing things to address this?

There are some organisations doing great work in addressing some of the issues leading to gender underrepresentation in maths. It makes me smile when I see one of AMSI’s ChooseMaths adverts and I hope that kind of thing can continue to encourage more people (especially girls and non-binary) to pick maths subjects in high school and university. I also love seeing the work of the women/nb who manage to make it in maths being celebrated.

Could different stakeholders (UniMelb, School of Maths and Stats, MUMS), do a better job of supporting women and non-binary people studying maths? If so, what are some actions you think they could take?

Yes, I think the university and in particular the School of Maths and Stats could do a lot more to support a whole range of underrepresented students by making studying maths more inclusive and accessible.

Student 5

Area/level of maths you’re studying?

I’m doing an undergraduate science degree majoring in maths and stats with a pure maths focus.

Why are you studying maths?

I started out doing a physics degree, which of course meant doing a lot of maths subjects. I found I was really enjoying the maths subjects – I love the systematic approach and proving stuff is super fun. So I made the switch over to maths.

What are your current thoughts about what you’ll do once you finish your degree?

I’m thinking I’ll do further study in the area of neuroscience / cognitive science / psychology. I’ve been so committed to maths for several years that this feels super weird to say! However I am very interested in mental health and so have decided I’d like to try to make progress in that area. I feel that my maths degree will stand me in good stead and give me a unique set of skills to bring to tackling problems in the area of mental health.

How do you feel your gender has affected your studies?

I don’t think I’ve experienced explicit discrimination. However, I feel that the lack of female role models has given me a distinct sense of not really belonging in maths. Out of 15 lecturers I’ve had for 13 maths subjects, two have been female. I think it’s really hard to feel that you belong when you don’t see many people who look like you.

Why do you think the level of gender representation in maths is the way it is?

I think in part, the level of gender representation is self-perpetuating. When people don’t see people like themselves in a particular field, I think they’re less likely to enter that field themselves. I wouldn’t rule out biological differences having some effect on which people are more likely to study maths. However, I think we’d want to be pretty certain that that was all that was going on before we stopped trying to reduce the disparity – and we’re nowhere near that point.

Do you feel like there are organisations doing things to address this?

There seem to be more and more events and programs aimed at increasing representation in maths. I think this is great!

Could different stakeholders (UniMelb, School of Maths and Stats, MUMS), do a better job of supporting women and non-binary people studying maths? If so, what are some actions you think they could take?

Connecting young maths students with mentors who can guide them, and who can also make students feel less alone, would be helpful I think (to be honest I’m not sure if this is already happening at UniMelb). Also, the lack of scholarships for female / non-binary maths students seems like an obvious opportunity that is currently being missed at UniMelb.

Student 6

Name, area/level of maths you’re studying?

I am hoping to major in Statistics.

Why are you studying maths?

I love how maths is related to all aspects of life.

What are your current thoughts about what you’ll do once you finish your degree?

I am hoping to get a job once I have finished my undergraduate degree.

How do you feel your gender has affected your studies?

As a female I found studying maths to be quiet isolating. It can be hard to form meaningful relationships with your peers when most of them are male. However, I have found that a lot of support is given towards female students particularly by the university. This support has encouraged me to be more dedicated towards my studies.

Do you think your gender will play a role in making decisions about what to study in the future? How?

No I don’t think so.

Do you feel like there are organisations doing things to address this?

Yes, I know there are some companies who have quotas for hiring females.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *