There are no such thing as the “odds” a panel would be “randomly” all men. Yet The Atlantic thinks there could be, and so does a fellow named Greg Martin, a mathematician at the University of British Columbia.
Before we get into this, without regard to the demographic, political, or sexuality of the persons considered, and going only on meritocratic principles, construct in your mind a list, of five to ten persons, of: (1) all-time greatest mathematicians, (2) best living chess players, (3) fastest runners, (4) those who have most contributed to computer science, (5) the most profound playwrights who ever lived.
Done? Let’s count the proportion of men on each panel. Say. Pretty large, no? Too unbalanced for modern university students to contemplate. Certainly the predominance of men is not politically correct. Maybe next time I ask for such a list I should do a little throat-clearing shaming first, maybe remind you of your higher duty to Equality and Multiculturalism, or give some hints about what happens to unrepentant sexists. Then we’d have better panels which look like “who we are.”
Skip all that and notice two things. To construct any panel there are two criterion: how many, and for what reason. Panels are limited, so the number will never be very large. The reason is thus our focus. Why are we convening a panel of the world’s greatest mathematicians? Easy. Because we’re interested in hearing a discussion on the topic of, say, innovation in mathematics. Why do we want to hear from the fastest runners? Because we want to hear about running fast. And so on.
In other words, we caused the topic to be chosen, and then we caused the members on the panel to be there. Two causes. Both are intentional.
Random means unknown, and only that. Therefore we cannot have a panel which is “randomly” comprised, because we have a known number and a known topic. So the odds of constructing such an impossibility, i.e. a “random” panel, are 0.
Why is hearing mathematicians talk about math of any interest? I’d bet the majority of human beings wouldn’t have the slightest interest in attending that panel. But if they would, which would they choose: a panel comprised of the the best of the best in all of math or perhaps in some specialty, or any old mathematicians, say, the first five we meet? Obviously the former, which is the assumption the panel creators probably make. The cause of creating the panel is multifaceted.
The Atlantic says Martin began his model with a “‘conservative’ assumption that 24 percent of Ph.D.s in mathematics have been granted to women over the last 25 years” and that “he finds that it’s statistically impossible that a speakers’ lineup including one woman and 19 men could be random.” The implication is that organizers toss every mathematician’s name into a hat and pull out twenty, a move which would surely place a few non-males on panels. You can even mathematically model this, as Martin did.
But who wants a panel like that? Not every mathematician is worth listening to. Most, like most people, are only average at their jobs, and some are even below average. Only a few are at the top. We want to hear from those at the top. And those at the top, for whatever reason, are more than predominately men.
A non-man The Atlantic linked to (because she’s pals with Martin) started off her article “If, like me, you still find yourself shaking your fist at the abysmal numbers of women speakers at your average STEM conference, and you enjoy a bit of geeking out over math…”
That’s an odd thing to say. Why would you want to have non-man speakers at an event where you anticipate “geeking out” over math? To hear them talk about their non-maleness? Wouldn’t this be better classified as geeking out over non-maleness? But that’s not really a STEM topic. Anyway, what does non-maleness have to do with math? Well, perhaps that has an answer, and perhaps not one some non-men would like to hear.
Even if the answer is “sexism”, that topic still has nothing to do with math. If the panel were convened to discuss sexism, then having non-men makes sense. But if the goal is to talk about this or that success in math as math, then purposely selecting non-men is itself sexist.
Another thing that bothers me is the scientism of Martin’s model. It couldn’t do what it set out to, because nobody in the world is interested in “random” panels. It was always clear that panels were caused to be, just as it was plain why the composition of certain panels are populated largely with men. Saying that you had a model to describe the rarity of non-men as if Science™ itself would, if left to itself, populate panels under the theorem of Equality is silly.
Last point: a clarification. Why panels of mathematicians? Or fast runners? Why not panels of nurturers? Or on motherhood? Or any of thousands of topics where the sex ratio would be just as skewed, but in the opposite direction and where nobody could complain?
Thanks to GK Graham at Twitter for suggesting this post.