Posted on August 21, 2021

Modern Mathematics Confronts Its White, Patriarchal Past

Rachel Crowell, Scientific American, August 12, 2021

When Noelle Sawyer, a Bahamian mathematician at Southwestern University, came to the U.S. for college, she was taken aback. During the first two years of her undergraduate program, Sawyer, whose research focuses on dynamics and geometry, kept wondering, “Why is no one treating me like I’m good at learning things?”

Marissa Kawehi Loving is a National Science Foundation postdoctoral researcher and a visiting assistant mathematics professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and co-founder of the Web site Indigenous Mathematicians. When Loving, whose research focuses on low-dimensional topology and geometric group theory, was in graduate school, she says, she “felt like I literally couldn’t win.” If she accomplished something, she adds, either no one acknowledged it or they would say that “I only got that really, really good thing because of my identity and not because of my talent.” Even though Sawyer is now an assistant professor, she says that she still encounters other mathematicians who treat her as if she does not belong. “I hate going to conferences because someone says something hurtful or harmful to me almost every time,” says Sawyer, who, along with Loving and others, co-organized the first Black in Math week on Twitter last year.

Juliette Bruce is an NSF postdoctoral fellow in mathematics at the University of California, Berkley, who works in the field of algebraic geometry. She organized the 2020 Trans Math Day for transgender and nonbinary mathematicians, which she and a co-organizer brought back as a two-day event this year. She is also a board member of Spectra, an association for LGBTQ+ mathematicians. Bruce was harassed at a large mathematics conference. When she was giving a poster presentation, someone “stared at the poster a little long, stood a little bit close and then stared at me for a long time” before making “a very crass comment” on her appearance, she says.

Racism, sexism and other forms of systematic oppression are not unique to mathematics, and they certainly are not new, yet many in the field still deny their existence. {snip}Yet statistics on the mathematics profession are difficult to ignore. In 2019 a New York Times profile of Edray Herber Goins, a Black mathematics professor at Pomona College, reported that “fewer than 1 percent of doctorates in math are awarded to African-Americans.” A 2020 NSF survey revealed that out of a total of 2,012 doctorates awarded in mathematics and statistics in the U.S. in 2019, only 585 (29.1 percent) were awarded to women. That percentage is slightly lower than in 2010, when 29.4 percent of doctorates in those areas (467 out of 1,590) were awarded to women. (Because these numbers are grouped based on sex rather than gender, that survey did not report how many of those individuals identify as a gender other than male or female.)

Recently many mathematicians have been pushing to discuss these issues more and force the field to confront the racism, sexism and other harmful bias it sometimes harbors. In response to those who say that such discussions distract collective focus from mathematics research and direct it to social issues, Goins says, “If you think talking about racism is distracting, imagine experiencing it…. Not all of us can just ignore what’s happening to us directly.”


Recently Goins, whose research focuses on number theory and algebraic geometry, has been part of a team working to update the Web site Mathematicians of the African Diaspora, also known as the MAD Pages. It includes a searchable database of more than 700 profiles of researchers in mathematics and related fields. The original version of the Web site was created in 1997 by Scott Williams, then a professor of mathematics at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, who is now retired. “Mathematics is a human endeavor,” Goins says. “When we prove theorems, when we teach classes, we aren’t an automaton that’s in front of the room, writing abstract symbols on a chalkboard. We really are people that have stories.”