Monday, August 30, 2010

Why aren't you having babies?

Goia De Cari abandoned her doctoral thesis in math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1980s. Here's a bit of what she has to say about what it was like being a female doctoral student in math at that time:
When I was at MIT, several professors asked me, "You're married, so why are you here? Why aren't you having babies?" One of my professors asked me to deliver cookies to a seminar. I was driven out of my office an overly amorous fellow student.

It's such a difficult thing, with sexism, to suss out exactly what's happening. All the time while these things wer ehappening, the quesiton was in my mind, Is this sexism, or is it something else? I'd think, oh, I'm making a mountain out of a moelhill. It's just a plate of cookies! It's trivial, isn't it? Why is this bothering me? It's after a zillion little things that are no big deal that it sneaks up on you.

The above is from an interview by Julie Rehmeyer that appears in the June/July issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, The Mathematical Dramatist: Interview with Gioia De Cari. After leaving mathematics, De Cari became an actor and a playwright. The interview is running in the Notices because a one-woman play, Truth Values: One Girl's Romp through M.I.T's Male Math Maze, which premiered last summer at the New York International Fringe Festival, has been running in a variety of venues around the US and is of interest to the mathematical community. (It won the Festival's 2009 Overall Excellence Award, by the way.)

Aqueductistas will understand why I was thinking about Life's Anna Senoz as I read the interview. Here's a bit more of what De Cari says:
In 2000 or so I did a solo show called The 9th Envelope that was like an Alice in Wonderland fantasy story, and I wove in some interludes about math. What really surprised me was how capitaved audiences were by the math parts. People would come up to me afterward to talk about them. I thought, "Oh wow, my next show better be all about math!"

That was the genesis of Truth Values. But as I got into it, I found there were all kinds of things that were dfficult about turning autobiographical material into a work of art. In particular, how do you find the right tone? My perspective was that everyone I had known in the math world was just doing the best they could, even if it wasn't as good as it needed to be. I didn't want to go in a negative direction with it, but the play also couldn't leave out the sexism, because that was a strong aspect of what happened to me. I was fighiting with myself about it, thinking, "Look at how far MIT has come. I shouldn't bring this up now."
But then Larry Sumemrs came along. [In 2005, while Sumemrs was president of Harvard, he remarked in a public forum that he believed that differences in inherent aptitude were a bigger factor than sexual discrimination in the low numbers of women in the upper echeleons of academia.] When he said that, that's when I thought, I've got to speak up here.

The most upsetting thing to me, even more than Summers's comments, was what happened to Nancy Hopkins in the wake of the comments. She was a biologist at MIT, and she was there when Summers made his remarks. She said afterwards that she left because otherwise she would have blacked out or thrown up. The press just ripped her to shreds over this. She got hate mail for a year.

As an artist, you have more license to say certain things than academics or scientists do. So at that point I felt like I had a responsibility to speak up, and I finished the play.
Go read the rest of the interview here. And check out her website here-- it's a wonderfully geeky blend of art and science.

1 comment:

Athena Andreadis said...

I did my PhD at MIT in the same time bracket as De Cari. While far from perfect, MIT is actually progressive and proactive compared with other places. They started giving degrees and full privileges to women early (Ellen Swallow Richards got an MIT degree a scant ten years after the institute's foundation). Ten years ago, they did a systematic survey of discrepancies between female and male faculty and have been attempting to correct the imbalances -- with only partial success, especially in the "harder" science departments.