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    • CommentAuthorA Girl
    • CommentTimeMar 17th 2011
    Here is my question:

    Why women are not active on MathOverflow?

    The percent of women in math is much higher than their presence at MO. The first pages of users sorted by reputations are all mans.

    Are there natural explanations of this facts?
    It's not clear if your assertion is correct -- many people log in anonymously so gender is readily hidden. Also, provided your assertion is correct and women aren't interested in MO, this seems like the wrong forum for the question since the people with the answers are not here. This leads to speculation. Perhaps the answer is simple: women have better thing to do than to chat on the internet.
    • CommentAuthorA Girl
    • CommentTimeMar 17th 2011
    at MO the question will be mostlikely closed... you think I should repost it there?
    • CommentAuthorA Girl
    • CommentTimeMar 17th 2011
    of course the question is not that serious, but it still would be interesting to know the answer...
    For what it's worth, a large portion of the MO user base is based in North America, and in my experience North America lags noticeably behind other places (e.g. some European countries) in terms of representation of women in mathematics.

    I don't think that Ryan meant that you should post this as a question on MO. Rather, the people who would be able to give the best insight are precisely those that aren't on MO so you need to find some other way to reach them.

    • CommentAuthorGjergji
    • CommentTimeMar 17th 2011
    What Andrew said. Mathoverflow is famous enough that one can start conversations about it in most public fora out there.
    Perhaps an article on MO in the Association for Women in Mathematics ( Newsletter would raise interest, similar to the _Notices of the AMS_ article by Anton Geraschenko, Scott Morrison, and Ravi Vakil (July 2010). Although that article should have reached all female research mathematicians in the US...
    • CommentAuthorajtolland
    • CommentTimeMar 17th 2011
    I think A Girl is most likely correct. In the sample set consisting of my friends in mathematics, women participate in MathOverflow at a lower rate. I have no explanation for this fact, but I suspect it's fairly universal.
    • CommentAuthoran_mo_user
    • CommentTimeMar 17th 2011
    I would be interested in answers / informed opinions on this question; and asked myself this question, too.
    (Since this might be relevant: I come from a mathematical community where the representation of women is about as in the US,
    or rather lower. Also, as it is not visible from my username, I am male.)

    In addition, I just would like to mention that there are several women using their real name active on MO.
    And, if I had to compile a list of my favourite answers on MO, a contribution of one of them would rank very high in that list.
    Does it have to do with the subfields that are most common on MO? I notice a lot of algebraic geometry and a fair amount of logic, and both subfields have smaller proportions of women than mathematics in general.

    Not only do I not know the answer, I'm not even sure what an answer should look like. As far as I know, there isn't much explicit sexism on MO, so explanations gravitate towards vague speculation of the form "women find the voting too impersonal." It's probably possible to substantiate such claims, but I doubt I could tell if somebody had done it. For example, I don't know how much to trust things like this: How Women and Men Use the Internet.


    Alexander: I agree that there might be some subfield effect. Do you know of any data backing up your claim that alg. geom. and logic have less women than mathematics in general?

    and some general comments: there may be a "how women and men use the internet" effect. It would be interesting to know if on other stackexchange sites, women are underrepresented relative to the number of them in the "natural" population from which the site's users would be drawn.

    And I don't think that we can safely generalize from data on "how women and men use the internet", even if it's correct, to data on how female mathematicians and male mathematicians use the Internet. As you may have noticed, mathematicians are unusual.

    Re: Joseph's suggestion, I thought you all were going to try to write an article for AWM when you were writing that Notices article, what ever happened to that?

    Out of curiosity, have any of you asked your female colleagues about this? I feel like anecdotal evidence is better than no evidence at all.


    By the way, if people think that some aspect of MO that the moderators have control over is contributing to this gender gap, we would really appreciate hearing about it. Ob viously, we know it's a delicate issue and would completely respect your privacy.

    @Michael: Sorry, I don't have any data, only the plural of anecdote.

    BTW, a subfield explanation would not necessarily excuse MO. It could just as easily mean that something in MO is discouraging participation of the type of people who would tend towards subfields which are friendlier to women.

    @Noah, indeed, this was discussed, along with an article for the Intelligencer. Then we all got busy! Anton is writing a thesis and I've been applying for jobs, and we've barely had a chance to talk about MO recently, let alone written articles.

    Perhaps "the meta collective" would do better than the moderators at this. :-)

    An article written by a collection of enthusiastic MO users could be uniquely compelling, and would let people show "in their own words" why they like the site so much. Could it be that it would degenerate into chaotic, formless babble? Maybe... but I think it's still worth a try!

    @Ryan: I think it's a bit much to seriously doubt that there is a large gender imbalance on MO. Yes, we do not have perfect information about the gender identities of all the participants, but the amount of information we do have is much larger than in many real-world scenarios. It doesn't take a statistician to see that all available data points to the fact that the gender ratio among active users on MO (i.e., those who register and ask and answer multiple questions) is at least 10 males for every 1 female. The phenomenon is painfully clear.

    I have asked female colleagues about MO and a lot of them (the younger ones, at least) are well aware of its existence and look in on it from time to time but simply don't have the same kind of steady-bordering-on-addictive interest of the typical (i.e., male) MO user. I have commented to several of them that the whole SE platform seems designed to appeal to the competitive impulses of men in a way that it simply does not to women. (I should say that none of them have replied, "Oh my god, you're absolutely right!" They usually say something like, "Hmm, I'm not sure. Maybe.") There is a lot of research on the different ways in which men and women communicate: for instance, the linguist Deborah Tannen has spent most of her career studying this topic, and along with a lot of other people I read her first book on the subject ("You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation") soon after it first came out, and it had a big impact on me. But you guys (sic!) know what field I'm a professional in, and it's not linguistics, psychology, sociology or gender studies, so it does not seem worthwhile for me to continue to air my own quasi-empirical quasi-academic impressions here.

    Here is some data I would be interested to see: do any of the SE sites have a much larger percentage of female contributors? Which ones? ( may in fact be more than 50% female, but the immortal Jon Skeet is still one of the highest rep users on the site!)


    Here are a few scattered thoughts on this subject.

    First, I'm skeptical of the suggestion that the competitiveness of MO is a major factor in discouraging women from participating. I'm skeptical precisely because MO really doesn't feel competitive to me. However, it's possible that's the case because there's relatively little competition on MO in the fields in which I post answers, and it feels more competitive in algebraic geometry, for example.

    Second, I think the gender imbalance on MO is just part of a larger pattern of how male and female mathematicians use the internet. (As Michael Lugo pointed out, this is a somewhat different from the better-studied issue of "how men and women use the internet".) As far as I can tell, female mathematicians, as a group, are much less active on blogs than male mathematicians. (The last time I said this on meta.MO, someone posted a link to this blog, and since then I've started following this blog, but I think the point stands.) I suspect this larger phenomenon can be at least interpreted, if not exactly explained, in light of the research Pete mentioned about differences in how men and women communicate, but I'll follow Pete's lead and stop with that observation.

    Third, it's worth keeping in mind that the vast majority of mathematicians of any gender don't actively use MO. This means that getting useful anecdotal evidence, as Qiaochu suggests, may be more difficult than it sounds -- one should also be asking male colleagues about MO, and it is likely to take a long time before one gets enough answers to perceive any gender-correlated pattern.

    • CommentAuthorsigfpe
    • CommentTimeMar 19th 2011

    I find the question a little loaded. One could just as easily ask why so many male mathematicians choose to be active on MO. It's being read in a loaded way too. @Qiaochu Yuan suggests we answer this question by asking women. There are two sides to any perceived imbalance.

    I think the simultaneously social, and yet impersonal nature of communications on forums seems to suit many men very well. Suits me well.

    • CommentAuthorEmerton
    • CommentTimeMar 19th 2011

    Dear Sigfpe,

    At least in the United States, there is a traditional gender imbalance in mathematics (with many more men than women), which was created in part by the explicit discouragement of women pursuing advanced mathematics. In light of this state of affairs and its history, and in light of the fact that many mathematicians (although perhaps not all) are interested in eliminating this gender imbalance, I don't think the original question is all that loaded, and I don't think that the statement "there are two sides to any perceived imablance" is a very helpful analysis (even if it is literally true).

    Best wishes,


    • CommentAuthormbn
    • CommentTimeMar 19th 2011
    It seems that many expect that the ratio of men to women should be the same on MO and among mathematicians. But participating on MO and being a mathematician is not the same thing!
    • CommentAuthoran_mo_user
    • CommentTimeMar 19th 2011
    @mbn: of course you are right it is not the same thing. But, A Girl, and others, including me, find the somewhat large difference in participation noticeable and surprising,
    In particular, if one proceeds as A Girl described, looking at the first users orderd by points, then one can get the impression, which in that strengths is not the reality, that MO is (almost) exclusively male.

    Now, depending on the reason for this, this is not necessarily a real problem. But there could also be reasons for this that I would find problematic. So, I would like to understand the cause.
    • CommentAuthormbn
    • CommentTimeMar 19th 2011
    an_mo_user, you right it is an interesting question, I was just commenting on the impression that I get, that some people expect the ratios to be the same.
    @Pete: The 10:1 gender balance you see, I suppose I don't see it. Among the female mathematicians I know, several use MO. These people tend not to ask or answer many questions -- choosing to use the site only to ask or answer questions that are particularly valuable to them. For comparison sake, I enjoy attempting to answer questions I'm not particularly interested in, as I enjoy the exercise of trying to figure out what other people's concerns are, or just generally being helpful. I'm not saying your perceived 10:1 ratio is wrong, I just don't see how to compute it. Most of the women I know on MO do not specify their gender in any way on their profiles.

    Ryan- The 141 highest reputation users contain no users I have any reason to believe are female, and all but 2 or 3 for whom I wasn't reasonably sure were male based on pictures, names or personal acquaintance. In fact, only one of 300 highest reputation users is someone I believe is female (of course, I could be wrong; some of those users are anonymous and I don't know their gender). Obviously, users who use the site less often still count, but this makes a 10:1 ratio seem pretty optimistic.

    The solution is obvious: some of us must undergo gender reassignment. Any volunteers?
    @Ryan: What you write sounds like an argument FOR the fact that there is a gender imbalance. The vast majority of MO users post under their real name, yet most of the female MO users you know feel more comfortable using a pseudonym. And even though these women you know might read MO, they still prefer not to participate too much.

    It might be a general phenomenon that it is more common for men to be interested in something in a nerdy, almost obsessive way. (I have no idea why this would be true, it is just an observation.) For instance, there is some difference between men and women who are very interested in music: if a person can recite Sonic Youth's discography in chronological order or sits at home making a list of the 50 greatest jazz live albums just for fun, then that person is definitely a guy. And I think that many MathOverflow users really have this obsessive streak: not only do we work with mathematics all day, but we also spend our free time answering questions and talking about mathematics online for fun.
    • CommentAuthorgilkalai
    • CommentTimeMar 20th 2011 edited
    One of the interesting aspects of MO and other Internet activities (e.g. "polymath" projects) is that they are quite similar to the way things go in "real life" but the processes are much more transperant. This applies to several issues we discussed before e.g. the approach towards applied mathematics. It also applies to matters like reputation, and also to the present discussion.

    Probably when it comes to heavy users and to overall activity the ratio of female participants is very low, below 2%, much lower than the percentage of women in graduate schoolds and among professional mathematicians.

    The disturbing thing is that perhaps similar reasons to those which cause women mathematicians not to be involved with MO, are reasons which cause women not to be involved in mathematics at all. There are some aspects of the mathematical environment which are fairly orthogonal to excellence and talent in mathematics which are unfriendly to women.
    • CommentAuthordeane.yang
    • CommentTimeMar 20th 2011
    Gil, could you elaborate on the details of what "aspects of the mathematical environment which are fairly orthogonal to excellence and talent in mathematics which are unfriendly to women"? I guess they should be obvious to me, but unfortunately they are not and I need to be educated.
    • CommentAuthorsigfpe
    • CommentTimeMar 20th 2011

    @Emerton This phenomenon is not simply about the "traditional" phenomenon of gender imbalance in mathematics as the premise of the original question is that we are looking at a male/female ratio on MO that is higher than that in the world at large. Additionally, MO might not be representative of mathematicians at large. It is a subset made up of those who like to make active use of online tools. I believe it might be just as reasonable to ask why men like to interact this way as ask why women might not.

    • CommentAuthorRyan Budney
    • CommentTimeMar 20th 2011 edited
    @Dan and Ben: I think part of the problem is we're talking about several things, the original question is rather vague and broad. You two seem to be arguing that women use MO less repetatively/compulsively than men. That's quite different than general usage/presence on MO. For example, there could be a glut of gender-neutrally named women that use MO, but perhaps they've contributed only to two or three threads over the past year. That is still usage of MO, it's just not as obvious as the type of usage "high rep" users engage in. The original post that started this thread contains both these ideas: both "presence" and something more along the line of per-capita time spent on the site.
    • CommentAuthorA Girl
    • CommentTimeMar 20th 2011
    I think the general addiction to the internet and sites like facebook is equal between woman and man. MO is much similar to facebook: you post question/answer and then you begin to be addicted by checking comments or checking new questions... I see much sense in the comment about different field presence at MO. Also the presence of the competition and the fact that girls might be not entirely sure (or shy) in their own answers/questions can scare somebody like me, but I believe this can scare everybody independently on gender.
    • CommentAuthoran_mo_user
    • CommentTimeMar 20th 2011 edited
    Ryan Budney, yes, the original question is not completely precise as it does not define 'active' and 'presence'.
    My interpretation, which in view of the reference to 'the first pages' seems reasonable, is to interpret it as 'visibility'.

    Say, if someebody visits the site for the first time, and wants to get an impression who is using this site, by looking through the user list and opening some random questions, than I am quite convinced the impression is: almost only male users.

    Now, the question is why is this so? And, I agree with you that there are two almost independent questions.
    Namely, the gender distribution in the actual user base; and, the visibilty of the respective groups.

    If I understand you correctly, then you say, based on personal evidence you have, that the gender bias in the real user base is smaller than the one that one might guess. And a reason for this is a combination of the following two effects: different intensity of (active/visible) usage and different likelihood of making the gender visible (by the name or a photo).

    A Girl, you definitely shoud not be scared away. For example you always could, as I and some others do, use also on the main site, a completely neutral/impersonal name. (Though this is not encouraged, it is at least tolerated, and I experienced little problem doing so.)
    • CommentAuthorgilkalai
    • CommentTimeMar 20th 2011
    Dear Deane, for example, it is hard to avoid discussions and arguments about metters of rules/management/conduct etc. Those are pretty "orthogonal" to mathematics and in general it is easier to feel comfortable in such activities when you are part of the majority. Also a strong incentive for participation is evaluation/appreciation by your peers and again being part of a majority is an advantage.
    • CommentAuthordeane.yang
    • CommentTimeMar 21st 2011
    Gil, thanks. But are you saying that female mathematicians simply feel different enough from male mathematicians that they feel uncomfortable participating in such discussions about rules/management/conduct? Or do we male mathematicians conduct these discussions in a manner that alienates the female mathematicians? If so, what can we do better? I am very interested in learning in how I could change my own behavior to improve matters.
    • CommentAuthorWill Jagy
    • CommentTimeMar 21st 2011
    • CommentAuthorgilkalai
    • CommentTimeMar 22nd 2011 edited
    Dear Deane, I dont have a good understanding why women mathematicians are not participating in MO, polymath projects and other Internet activities. Since these activities (at present) are sort of side shaw to the main mathematical action, and they are (for now), to a large extent, educational/outreach activities rather than integral part of mathematical research, I don't even see it as particularly problematic. I just conjecture that maybe similar reasons that drive women away from MO also drive (now, and more so in the past) women away from mathematics.

    This was not meant as a judgmental remark, and, in particular, I do not see anything that you should change. For all I can tell you behave wonderfully.

    Maybe, as some people commented, the "addictive" nature of MO, the "silly-competition" touch, and, in particular the strong incentives to follow matters on a "real-time" basis, to answer very quickly, and to make a large number of postings, are less appealing to women.
    • CommentAuthorGreg Marks
    • CommentTimeMar 22nd 2011
    I consider this question very important: its answers may inform our efforts to maintain an egalitarian environment in our classrooms.
    For what it's worth, I contacted a female friend that is a very occasional contributor to MO (who logs in to MO with a gender-neutral ID). In her case it seems the density of interesting things on MO is too sparse -- not focused enough on her particular interests. She's very much a multi-tasker that has many things going all at once, with most of the hours of her day filled with various tasks at work, side-work projects, friends, relatives, etc, so she views MO as having relatively low relevance for her own life. Anyhow, that's my summary of her e-mail response to reading this thread -- she is also too busy to bother logging into meta! But this is only one data point. But I imagine it's not totally insignificant.

    She does contribute to certain math twitter feeds. Somehow twitter-distributed math fits more readily into her life -- I think she might get them on her cell phone.

    Izabella Laba has responded to this thread on her blog:

    Here is a very interesting comment by Izabella.

    To me, the “reputation” system looks like a formalized version of the same informal evaluation systems that social groups have been using forever. If a woman has noticed in the past that she is being taken less seriously than her male colleagues, she’ll expect the same on MO, for example that she’ll get fewer points than a male colleague for the same knowledgeable answer. The point system encourages a competitive mindset, and I think that mathematicians tend to be competitive by nature. If you’re female and expect to start with a huge disadvantage just for this reason, you may well be discouraged from participation.

    This of course is based on general life experience, not on anything that has actually happened on MO. I’d love to see MO develop a reputation (heh) for treating women fairly.

    It seems to me that MO is used predominantly by mathematicians in English-speaking countries. I would be curious to see how the sociology of the site would change if it would have more Asian, African, and Latin-American mathematicians.
    My opinion is that, although sociology of MO is undoubtedly an interesting topic for a sociologist, as mathematicians it is not our field, and we should be wary of jumping to conclusions, let alone being tempted to act based on those conclusions.
    • CommentAuthorEmerton
    • CommentTimeMar 29th 2011

    Dear Daniel,

    I have no opinion on whether the sociology of MO is interesting for a sociologist, but what I might call the practical sociology of MO is of interest to (at least some) mathematicians, insofar as it relates to more general issues of participation in mathematics. The diagnosis and solution of problems of participation in mathematics are (in my view) not ones that we should ignore until such time as a professional sociologist comes along and prescribes a solution. Rather, they are problems which are of interest to mathematicians, any solution to or amelioration of which is likely to come from mathematicians (because no-one else is has much stake in the issues, or is in a position to do much about it, other than perhaps university administrations and granting agencies, but surely their influence is second order at best).



    • CommentAuthoran_mo_user
    • CommentTimeMar 29th 2011 edited
    @Daniel Moskovich: yes, it would be also interesting to know what you ask. And, yes, one has to be careful with indentifying 'the reason' and jumping to 'the solution' as questions of this type are simply complicated.
    However, first, I agree with Emerton. And, second, the under representation of participants from non-English speaking countries does not seem as extreme to me* (just looking at the first user page I believe I at least find six, and one were it is unclear). Yet, indeed, as I mentioned somewhat indirectly in another thread, on some occassions I feel (from observation not personal experience) that limited skills of English are treated not as friendly as they, in my opinion, should be.

    (As no doubt anybody reading my texts here already knows, I never spent a significant amount of time in an English speaking country.)

    *Clarification: I mean that while I believe it certainly exists, it is less extreme than the underrepresentation of identified female participants among users with high representation.
    • CommentAuthordeane.yang
    • CommentTimeMar 29th 2011
    Alas, it appears that Izabella nails it at the start. She doesn't have time. This might be an overgeneralization, but it appears that women mathematicians are less prone to wasting time on sites like MathOverflow than their male counterparts.
    @Deane. I don't find that explanation very convincing since she does apparently have time to maintain a blog.
    To add to Deane's remark, I've heard from a few women in academia (math or other) who feel at a disadvantage, rightfully or not, because they feel that their home lives make more demands on their free time than the home lives of their male counterparts. If I was in that situation, MO would certainly be one of the first candidate for deletion from my schedule, so I find this perfectly understandable.

    @Dan: the most cursory look at that blog shows that it is not being updated very often and the lengths of the posts are very reasonable, so I don't think the time commitment involved is even remotely comparable to having a presence on MO.
    Dear Deane, this is absolutely not a comment on your position about the actual theme of the thread , but I am afraid I can't agree with your characterization of the activity of more than 10,000 users here as "wasting time on sites like MathOverflow".