One of the high points of my short trip to New York last week was attending a performance of Truth Values -- One Girl's Romp through MIT Male's Math Maze in Princeton (at the very kind invitation of Juliette Kennedy!). The play is written and performed by Gioia de Cari, who in the 1980s was a graduate student in mathematical logic at MIT, and is an autobiographical account of her experience at the time. In spite of proving a highly interesting result (published in the Notre Dame Journal of Formal Logic), after three years (including an appointment as a teaching fellow at Harvard), she decided to quit graduate school and mathematics so as to pursue her interests in music and drama. The world may have lost a good mathematician, but it certainly gained a wonderful artist: the play is fantastic, extremely funny while also touching upon some very fundamental issues.
Why did Gioia de Cari leave academia? In fact, why do women leave academia? Coincidentally, today there is a blog post on the Guardian by Curt Rice, whom we’ve talked about before here at NewAPPS, reporting on a longitudinal study on women’s retention specifically in chemistry. Although some of the points emerging in this research are specific to chemistry, most of them generalize to academia more widely. It is interesting to notice that a general disillusion with the academic path seems to affect both men and women during their years as graduate students (grad school sucks for everyone...), but the blow is apparently considerably harder on women.
Men and women show radically different developments regarding their intended future careers. At the beginning of their studies, 72% of women express an intention to pursue careers as researchers, either in industry or academia. Among men, 61% express the same intention.
By the third year, the proportion of men planning careers in reseach had dropped from 61% to 59%. But for the women, the number had plummeted from 72% in the first year to 37% as they finish their studies.
Some factors affect both men and women: inadequate supervision, lack of future prospects, the constant hunt for research funding, the prospects of a string of post-docs before settling down, and the personal costs that regular relocations entail. But women are clearly more affected by some of these factors than men; in particulsr, in heterosexual relationships, the norm is still for the woman to accompany the man in professional relocations (as discussed here). As for the hunt for funding and academic success, according to this research, women in greater numbers than men see academic careers as all-consuming, solitary and as unnecessarily competitive.
Women are more negatively affected than men by the competitiveness in this stage of an academic career and their concerns about competitiveness are fuelled, they say, by a relative lack of self-confidence.
And then there’s the invisible but pervasive wall of sexism. Truth Values offers a vivid illustration of these ‘little things’ which make it so much harder for women in male-dominated fields of academia. At some point, Gioia de Cari had been assigned the responsibility of ‘bringing cookies’ to the seminar, by a professor who had the recurring habit of assigning such tasks to female students. As she was already married at the time, she often heard that her place was at home taking care of her husband and making babies, not pursuing a doctorate degree in mathematics. Due to a combination of factors, including some difficult personal circumstances, at some point she just wasn’t enjoying doing mathematics any more, so after 3 years in graduate school she decided to pursue her artistic vein, which gave her much more satisfaction than doing mathematics.
Truth Values is an extremely valuable (pun intended!) account of the ‘invisible’ sexism still so widely present in academia: it should be seen by everyone, men and women. Moreover, it’s simply a terrific performance!
For these reasons, Juliette Kennedy and I (and others) are considering the prospects of bringing the performance over for an European tour, and I am hoping that, after reading this post, at least some readers will agree that this is something that simply needs to happen. So if you think your (European) institution may be interested in hosting a performance of Truth Values, please get in touch with me. Naturally, there are significant costs involved (travel costs, the artist’s fee, a suitable theater), but I am quite optimistic that this should not be an insurmountable obstacle, given the relevance of the issue.
As Curt Rice says at the end of his post, if we want to avoid this ‘brain drain’ from academia, we must change the current academic culture/climate. Now, I believe that, if widely seen, such a vivid account of what it's like to be a woman in academia as provided by Truth Values can make a small but perhaps decisive contribution in this direction.