Souciant laddishness and the gender question in mathematics

Jonathan Rée, whose describes himself as a “freelance philosopher and historian,” published a review of MWA in the March issue of the Edinburgh-based Literary Review.  I actually saw the review a few weeks ago but for some reason expected it to be in the April issue; and I have been dropping hints (here, for example, and here; also here) ever since.   The review says a few things about my book that are quite nice and a few that are not quite so nice, but on balance — and here I could use a couple of inside-out smileys to help me stand back from the “hip and hucksterish” pose Rée is convinced I have adopted and prove to you that I really mean what I’m saying — I’m overjoyed that something called Literary Review has taken notice of my book at all.  I could tell you hair-raising stories about my frequent run-ins with the literary bullies at my high school; but now I can put those days definitively behind me.

I had to run to my dictionaries — my (useless) OED  as well as an online urban dictionary — to be sure I understood what Rée meant by the “insouciant laddishness” that “astonished” him.  I assumed it alluded to something like a cross between Peter Pan and a soccer hooligan, but in fact laddish is used as a synonym for macho.  Thus the Cambridge online dictionary writes

Laddish behaviour is the noisy, energetic, and sometimes rude behaviour that
some young men show in social groups; adds

characteristic of male adolescents or young men, esp by being rowdy, macho, or immature;

while the urban dictionary has this variant:

The rowdy and occasionally anti-social attitude displayed by groups of testosterone-heavy males.

I do not think Rée really meant to call me noisy, rowdy, testosterone-heavy, energetic, immature, adolescent, nor even young (since his review very unkindly divulged my approximate age).   Since November 23, 2008, a Yahoo group has been planning a “Death of Laddism Parade,” which appears to be devoted to the worthy goal of eradicating sexism, at least in London.  What, you must now be asking, does all of this have to do with Mathematics without Apologies?

The clue is in the sentence from Rée’s review in which he refers to my “tolerance towards male-identified competitiveness that may shock some readers.”  I preemptively addressed that word “tolerance” at the end of this post; and I seem to remember that what my high school’s literary bullies found most intolerable was a mathematics student capable of ironic distance.  But what gives Rée the impression that the competitiveness to which I devoted parts of Chapter 2 is “male-identified?”

Well, you’ll say, maybe it’s because the overwhelming majority of mathematicians who appear in Chapter 2, as well as in the rest of the book, are men.  And there is no denying that Rée has put his finger on one of mathematics’ dirty little secrets, which is not really much of a secret:   namely, that most mathematicians have historically been men, and that this hasn’t really changed.  This is a very big problem indeed; as I wrote on p. 8, “Whole books can and should be devoted to this problem.”  And precisely because I was so souciant as not to want to pay lip service to this very big problem in the middle of a book about something else, I basically left it at that remark.

(I confess to misgivings about the use of the word “actress” on pp. 41-42.  No distinction is made between doctors and doctresses, or janitors and janitresses; so why actors vs. actresses?  The person I met at that dinner party was unquestionably a woman; at the suggestion of several distinguished feminists I removed all reference to her physical appearance, couldn’t I also remove her sex?  It seemed to me that including this detail heightened the dramatic tension of the scene.  But that may have been a mistake.  The observant reader will note that the genders of the characters called Number Theorist and Performing Artist are not specified.  This was a deliberate decision, in order not to perpetuate the harmful stereotype of a lecturing male dominating a passive female listener.   Only a very old-fashioned persion will assume that Performing Artist’s propensity for playing female characters proves anything whatsoever.)

The gender problem in mathematics is vast.  It is international in scope, and perceived very differently in different countries; during my brief term as an elected bureaucrat in France, my French female colleagues found my suggestions of anything resembling affirmative action demeaning.  Just a few weeks ago I witnessed an email exchange between German mathematicians who found it shockingly sexist that the Centre International de Rencontres Mathématiques in Marseille had no facilities for women with children and French colleagues who wondered why the Germans presumed child-care to be specifically a woman’s responsibility.   The problem has material, political, sociological, and educational ramifications.  But here, because Rée brought it up, I want to point to the question of whether and to what extent competitiveness in mathematics is “male-identified.”

I can’t do much more than point, because I don’t believe there is anything like a consensus on this question, and even if there were it would be paradoxical of me (with my presumed tolerance for laddishness) to be the one to make it public.  It does seem significant, though, that the international
series of conferences entitled “Women in Numbers” — organized since 2008 by and for women number theorists — has been so successful that it has served as the model for “a new initiative to build networks of female researchers in different areas of mathematics“.  The acknowledged “benefit” of such meetings is

for senior women who will hopefully meet, mentor, and collaborate with the brightest young women in their field on a part of their research agenda of their choosing, and for junior women and students who will develop their network of colleagues and supporters and encounter important new research areas to work in, thereby improving their chances for successful research careers.

But the unacknowledged benefit of spending a week contemplating mathematics (usually in a picturesque setting) without the rowdy competitiveness of the testosterone-heavy crowd must also be an attraction.

Let me conclude by pointing out, for the sake of those who did not attend the International Congress of Mathematicians in Seoul at 2014, that the universal reaction to the awarding of the first Fields Medal to Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to receive this honor, was “it’s about time.”  I lost count of the speeches in which I heard some variant of that reaction, always met with enthusiastic applause.  Given the profession’s dim record up to this point, one may be justified in wondering about the sincerity of at least some of the speakers; but the sentiment can hardly be called “laddish.”


5 thoughts on “Souciant laddishness and the gender question in mathematics

  1. Emily Riehl

    I have no direct experience with “Women in Numbers” but I did attend the first “Women in Topology” meeting (August 2013, Banff), which I’m told has a similar structure. Based on that experience I agree wholeheartedly with the acknowledged benefit but very little with the unacknowledged one. (By the way, the link to the “new initiative” is broken.) Unlike in athletics (, it’s not clear that testosterone provides any competitive advantage in mathematics. It may correlate with, but should not be conflated with, self- or projected confidence. Most mathematical settings are male-dominated, but I would not describe them as rowdily competitive or particularly testosterone-heavy.

    What distinguished the Women in Topology meeting was firstly that it was a workshop, devoted to solving problems in lieu of talks, and secondly that its participants were somewhat less well-known. Workshops, more so than conferences, have severe space limitations. The focus on women meant that female postdocs and graduate students, who as a group might be less likely to be invited to participate in other contexts (stereotypes of mathematical genius being gendered), were given (exclusive) priority. Any small-group setting provides more opportunities to contribute, but my feeling was that this phenomenon was more a feature of the structure of the program than a result of any gender dynamics.

    Just to clarify, I don’t believe you meant to suggest that most women would be relieved to do math in a male-free environment. (I certainly hope that my male colleagues wouldn’t wish for a female-free environment either.) In my view, the chief problem caused by the relative lack of diversity in mathematics is that it puts off people whose contributions would be very welcome. Also, it’s no fun to feel that you are personally responsible for other’s perceptions of your group; see


  2. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

    Thank you for all these comments (and for the links). I overstated the case in order to draw attention to the excessiveness of the reviewer’s comments, but from what I have heard there must be a kernel of truth. Mathematicians are not known for being rowdy or demonstrative in any way, but at least some initiatives for women in mathematics are predicated on the belief that boys have been socialized to be overbearing in ways that (most) girls have not, and that this discourages girls from speaking up in math class. I know this only from hearsay, but I would be surprised if there weren’t studies claiming to quantify this effect. I have been hearing for years that the elimination of the special entrance exam for women to the Ecole Normale Supérieure has led to a sharp decrease in the number of women obtaining PhDs in mathematics in France; not because of testosterone or rowdiness, of course, but because the common entrance exam places a premium on the projection of a certain kind of self-confience. I haven’t seen any figures.

    Everyone who has attended the Women in Numbers meetings has raved about the experience, and this includes some colleagues who are fairly jaded. So they must be doing something right.


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