Gender parity and queer awareness needed in mathematics

Written by Anthony Bonato, Ryerson University. Photo credit Twentieth Century Fox. Originally published in The Conversation.

Hidden Figures, the movie, showcased the importance of Black women in mathematics.

Equity, diversity and inclusion — EDI — is a trending concept these days. Many institutions now have policies, initiatives and even vice-presidents devoted to EDI — including my own institution, Ryerson University. There is much discussion about how EDI affects productivity and innovation.

Recently, EDI in mathematics was brought to the public discourse. Last month I sat on a panel for EDI in Mathematics at the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Sciences. Also, Ryerson Science and the Canadian Science Policy Centre recently released the report: Forging Paths to Enhanced Innovation which I highly recommend you read.

We, unfortunately, have an EDI crisis within mathematics. For example, the average Canadian mathematics department has on average fewer than one-fifth female professors. There are only a handful of gay, bisexual or lesbian mathematics professors in Canada that I know. My own department has only three women faculty out of 21 tenured or tenure-track professors: Our percentage of women math faculty members is only 14 per cent.

A visualization created by the 10 and 3 on mathematics departments in Canada’s universities (2015). Image credit

I’m a gay mathematician. I’ve faced challenges in my journey to full professor of mathematics and I talk about these challenges when I can. I am hoping to inspire others to do the same.

Up until now, I’ve found the silence on EDI in mathematics, especially on lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans issues, deafening. I had no role models or advocates as I progressed in my academic career. No one talked about EDI in mathematics departments and few professors or students were public about their identities. There are, however, a few vocal advocates for EDI right now, like Dean Imogen Coe at Ryerson. That makes me think we are on the right track.

The landscape in context

To better understand why there are so few LGBTQI2S voices in mathematics, I gathered together some statistics that might shed light. First, to make a broader point, I start with some shocking statistics related to gay youth.

According to Egale, a LGBTQI2S advocacy non-profit, about one-third of LGBTQI2S teens have attempted suicide, compared to seven per cent of youth in the general population. About half of LGBTQI2S teens have considered suicide, and 19 per cent of trans youth had attempted suicide in the previous year. Almost 70 per cent of trans youth reported verbal harassment over their gender identity, and about half of LGBTQI2S teens were harassed over their sexual orientation. One in five LGBTQI2S adolescents were physically assaulted.

Out of 195 countries in the world, homosexuality is criminalized in 72 of them. That’s 38 per cent. Same-sex marriage is a good indicator of a positive environment for LGBTQI2S folks, but only 23 countries (that’s seven per cent) have legalized same-sex marriage. We are all waiting to see the results of the Australian same-sex marriage referendum this week.

One of my undergraduate professors said that mathematics is a byproduct of luxury in a society. People will not do mathematics if they are struggling with other more basic issues like personal safety or acceptance.

It’s tough to encourage youth to study calculus when they are getting beat up for being who they really are. When your government criminalizes your identity, it makes it that much harder to think about number theory.

There are no surveys that I am aware of specifically regarding LGBTQI2S folk in mathematics. None, and it’s 2017. There is only one relevant survey: Queer in STEM, which was a U.S. national survey, published last year in the Journal of Homosexuality and written about last year in Wired magazine.

The survey had 1,400 responses to a 58-page questionnaire and we may glean some interesting things from it. A majority of participants (57 per cent) were out to their colleagues, which is slightly higher than the U.S. workforce at 47 per cent. That’s positive news.

Also, when there was better gender parity in an academic department, participants reported a higher degree of openness. So better EDI in your STEM workplace makes LGBTQI2S folks more open. When there was a higher degree of openness, participants reported a safer and more welcoming environment.

Changing the culture

There are a number of measures we can take to support EDI.

We need an articulated strategy to achieve gender parity in mathematics departments in the not-so-distant future. To do this, we need to pay special attention to academic hiring, which has a lasting impact on departments owing to the long-term nature of tenure. The process — the way in which we do this outreach and hiring – is incredibly important, as are the outcomes for greater diversity.

Photo credit Shutterstock.

There must be greater attention to EDI in senior roles such as mathematics department chairs. I did a stint as department chair and encourage my colleagues, especially my women colleagues, to do the same. We also need to see greater diversity in all levels of university administration and in the leadership in professional societies.

There should greater emphasis on EDI in endowed research chairs. Given the poor track record of universities nominating women for Canada Research Chairs, the Government of Canada introduced new measures for greater EDI in these positions. I hope one day there will be endowed chairs in mathematics specifically aimed at LGBTQI2S people. An Alan Turing Chair has a nice ring to it. The same holds for student scholarships both within and outside the university.

We need to work to make sure our LGBTQI2S know they are not alone. They need to know they are just as capable of progressing successfully in mathematics as their heterosexual or cisgendered counterparts.

Mathematics is a difficult subject regardless the context you are working in and we need as many minds as possible to advance the subject. A proof of the Riemann hypothesis is possibly sitting in some transgendered teens brain as I write this. What an incredible tragedy if that proof never comes to fruition.

There are a small set of groups devoted to queers in STEM. Spectra is one group I know of supporting LGBTQI2S folk in mathematics. Other organizations focus more broadly in STEM, such as LGBT STEM, National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals and Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

Implementing the ideas described in the recent Forging Paths report by Ryerson Science and the Canadian Science Policy Centre, such as changing perceptions and challenging stereotypes within STEM-based professions, would send us in a positive direction.

We have a long way to go, but I am convinced that with collective effort, EDI in mathematics is achievable. We can no longer hide behind claims that mathematics is genderless, racially neutral and independent of LGBTQI2S issues. Mathematics is studied by people, and its application affects people.

Mathematicians need to embrace our diversity as a strength, not as a burden or weakness.

Diversity gives new perspectives and challenges the status quo. Isn’t that what mathematicians actually do for a living? We can and we must do this.