Modern Mathematics Confronts Its White, Patriarchal Past

Modern Mathematics Confronts Its White, Patriarchal Past

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. “One of the biggest challenges is how hard it can be to start a conversation” about the problem, Sawyer says, “because mathematicians are so convinced that math is the purest of all of the sciences.” 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.”

A Human Endeavor

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.”

Goins likes to bring attention to the stories of 20th-century mathematicians William Schieffelin Claytor and Vivienne Malone-Mayes, who are both included in the MAD Pages. Claytor was the third Black American to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics and the first Black American to publish mathematics research that was not a thesis. “Here’s someone who started with a very promising career, but because of the forces that be, he gave up,” Goins says. After earning his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1933, Claytor took a position at West Virginia State College. He applied for one at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. But others did not want someone “Negro” on the faculty, as Goins puts it. “Even in the town of Princeton, he was not allowed to go to the movie theaters, to even buy clothes,” he says.

When Claytor went on to the University of Michigan for a second postdoctoral position,  “because of racist practices, he was not allowed to teach,” Goins says. Furthermore, he notes that at this time “there was a towering figure in topology”—Robert Lee Moore of the University of Texas at Austin—“who was well-known for saying he did not want Blacks in the field, he did not want Jews in the field, he did not want women in the field. And there’s a general feeling that Moore really tried hard to make sure that Claytor did not get his papers published—that behind the scenes, he didn’t really let students of his let Claytor give talks at conferences.”

Malone-Mayes encountered racism and sexism from Moore, but she persevered in the field. When she decided to pursue her doctorate, she wanted to apply to Baylor University, but the school did not allow Black Americans to attend at the time, Goins says. She instead enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. She had a different adviser, but it was there that she encountered Moore. Last year U.T. Austin announced a decision to remove Moore’s name from one of its buildings, the Dallas Morning News reported. (For more on other instances of problematic naming in mathematics, Sawyer recommends a list posted on the American Mathematical Society’s Graduate Student Blog in July 2020.)

At times, Malone-Mayes “had to sit in a chair in the hallway because she was not allowed to be in the classroom while Moore was teaching,” Goins says. But despite segregation and isolation, Malone-Mayes earned her doctorate in 1966, becoming the fifth Black American woman to do so in mathematics. “And, in an ironic twist of fate, she became the first Black professor at Baylor University,” Goins says.

Missing Representation

Too often, the stories of trailblazing mathematicians from marginalized backgrounds have been buried. Alan Turing, the World War II code breaker who has been called “the father of modern computer science,” is often “the one LGBTQ mathematician that most people know,” Bruce notes. “Short of that, I think the list of well-known LGBTQ+ mathematicians becomes pretty, pretty dry.” Looking for additional historical examples “gets into delicate ground of, you know, not everyone wants to be out. And speculating on someone from the past’s gender identity or sexuality can be a minefield,” she adds.

Yet examples of pioneering forerunners are important. Loving, who earned her doctorate in mathematics in 2019, is the first Native Hawaiian woman to do so. When she was in graduate school and faced negative comments and stereotypes, she remembers thinking, “Who is there ahead of me? It’s not the same to be fighting a battle when you sort of can see that you could win it versus when you’re like, ‘Maybe it’s hopeless.’”

Sawyer says that she is “very aware” that she could “just leave academia and leave this all behind.” Ultimately, though, she does not want “math to be a safe corner of science for very bad people,” she says. Every few months, Loving hears about students of color who are leaving math Ph.D. programs. “It’s always these stories of just harassment, abuse and neglect,” she says. Both Sawyer and Loving have clung to opportunities to cultivate math communities that give them support and a sense of belonging. Still, Loving says, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had talented students of color, [and] when I talked to their white faculty mentors or when I read the letters from those people, it’s like they can’t see the talent in them. They can’t see themselves in them…. It all comes back to this failure of imagination to think of who could be successful. Who can be a mathematician? Who deserves to be here?”

Goins thinks that it would help if math departments changed their hiring practices to focus more on factors such as whether a prospective faculty member “wants to help build community” and if they “will be good at teaching or perhaps good at encouraging women and minorities as undergraduates to continue in this profession.”

He is lead program director of the African Diaspora Joint Mathematics Workshop (ADJOINT), a year-long program at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) in which Black faculty form resource communities. The groups meet at MSRI in Berkeley, Calif., for two weeks at the launch of the program and continue meeting throughout the coming academic year, “so they can continue to do research, to foster that community among each other,” Goins says. The research topics vary each year. For 2021, they included “Adventures in Constructive Galois Theory,” “Steinberg Modules of Braid Groups,” “Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Health” and “Using Decision Modeling to Personalize Policy in Complex Human-Centered Problems.”

“I want to ensure minorities are feeling welcomed, that they do have communities that they feel they’re a part of,” Goins says. As the world begins to think about a post-COVID future, new possibilities open up. Mathematics departments, for instance, will have to consider whether to return to “normal” or to deconstruct and rebuild some of the old ways of doing things. Many mathematicians say their field is full of opportunities to reimagine a more inclusive, vibrant future for people of all backgrounds.