Need an example of why you can’t leave diversity up to chance? Look no further than this flyer for Brigham Young University’s Women in Math club event:
That’s right: the event — which was organized by the club, and not the university — featured four speakers from BYU’s math department faculty … none of whom were female.
There was an immediate outcry on social media:
Here's a math question, "How many women do you need for a women in maths conference?"
— Spits 2.0 (@antifatwa) February 21, 2018
Good lord. I majored in math and know from personal experience that men in STEM can be awesome encouragers and mentors for women, but this poster is horrifyingly tone deaf… especially when BYU has women among their math faculty.
As always, representation MATTERS. https://t.co/dytOnAE4Oi
— Kelly Schutz (@kelgamel) February 21, 2018
People are getting a laugh out of the BYU "women in math" poster but it really does expose a problem not just at BYU but in the greater math community. We are a field almost wholly made of white men. So if you're a woman or a minority, please consider mathematics. We need you.
— Keith Penrod (@KeithPenrod) February 22, 2018
Hey, @BYU, try this for Math:
— PanelsFullOfMen (@PanelsFullOfMen) February 22, 2018
The Club’s Response
In a Facebook post, the club issued a statement confirming that the poster was real and not satire:
Many of you have probably seen a poster circulating around the Internet from our Women in Math Organization! The poster featured the pictures of four of our department faculty. It was done with good intentions. It was not meant to demean women or be satirical. We value women in mathematics and their contributions, and work to promote opportunities for women to succeed in mathematics.
Speaking with The Salt Lake Tribune, the club’s adviser, Martha Kilpack, clarified the intentions behind the panel, as well as its selection process.
“The club is for women in mathematics and all those who support women in mathematics and giving women, such as our students, a place to feel comfortable in exploring mathematics,” said Kilpack. “Our students chose the faculty members to speak, and they felt comfortable in choosing any one of the faculty members — and they happened to choose four males.”
The Salt Lake Tribune notes that two of the department’s 37 faculty members and two of its adjuncts are women – among the lowest, if not the lowest, in the state.
Some BYU students weren’t satisfied with the response.
“I’m confused,” Stephanie Driggs tweeted, per HuffPost. “Do they really think that the poster was the main issue here?”
Another student, Talia Ruth, shared her email to the math department:
It was a shock to see a poster advertising a conference of sorts regarding women in math showing only male faculty. Women should be represented by women. Please note this error reflects poorly on this department and consider how this will impact the department and university in the future.
What Schools (and Employers) Should Do Instead
Incidents like these show that good intentions aren’t enough to dismantle unconscious bias.
Why? Because even women can have bias against other women, and because lack of female leadership can be self-perpetuating.
If we all get used to seeing only men in math departments or on speaker panels — or in the corner office — we might not think twice about choosing more men for leadership roles. This leaves women and people of color out of the equation, reinforcing the opportunity gap.
The solution is to choose speakers and leaders with diversity in mind. That might mean instating a variation on the Rooney Rule, which mandates interviewing minority candidates for every open position. It might mean relying less on referrals, which favor white male job seekers during the hiring process. And for organizations like BYU’s Women in Math club, it might mean proactively contacting speakers from outside the faculty, as well as encouraging the university to hire more women.
One thing is obvious: gender equity won’t happen on its own. Organizations will have to take action to close the gap.
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