Alice's Adventures in Numberland

by Alice Silverberg

Over the years, I've told colleagues and friends about things I have seen or experienced. Many times, people have said that I should write them down so that they won't be lost and forgotten, since some of them might be useful parts of our history. I've been writing them down, without being sure what I would do with them. I decided to gradually post them on this website, and see what reactions I get. Thoughtful feedback would be useful for me, and would help me to revise the exposition to make it as useful as possible. I hope that while you read my stories you will ask yourself "What can I learn from this?" I'm particularly interested in knowing what you see as the point of the story, or what you take away from it. Please send feedback to Thanks for taking the time to read and hopefully reflect on them!

Posted December 1, 2017

Why is this job candidate like a writing-desk?

Mr. Big had big demands, according to the department Chair who was trying to hire him. He wanted a large salary, an ample slush fund, a nice office, and a tenure-track assistant professorship for his wife. The Chair told the math faculty this last demand as if it were equivalent to negotiating for a large desk. Lewis Carroll asked "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" I wanted to ask "Why is this woman like a writing desk?"

It was one of the first departmental hiring committee meetings since I arrived at Ohio State. Mr. Big's qualifications were stellar, but my colleagues were worried that he was too much of an "operator" and that things might sour after we hired him. We didn't discuss the qualifications of "Mrs. Big." The Chair's case for her was "If we want Mr. Big we have to hire his wife. If we later decide that we don't like him, we just won't give her tenure when she comes up for it." In other words, if we don't like him, we can get rid of them both in six years by kicking her out, independent of her qualifications for tenure.

I was new and didn't know the rules, but I was pretty sure this wasn't in the tenure rulebook. If it went unchallenged, did that mean it was being agreed to? As the faculty member with the lowest seniority, I didn't want to risk my own chances for tenure by speaking out; I signaled to others more senior than me, but they didn't want to get involved.

Finally, I raised my hand and said meekly, "I'm sitting at the back where it's hard to hear. Perhaps I heard wrong. Surely we wouldn't deny her tenure just because we don't like him?" The chair of the hiring committee quietly and briefly said something about how we wouldn't do that.

The next day I ran into the department Chair's wife, while she was photocopying his exams for the course they were both teaching. (She had recently earned a PhD in mathematics education and was a lecturer in the math department.) She had heard that I had challenged the department Chair at a faculty meeting. She told me that wasn't in my best interests.

She had been friendly to me in the past. She had told me tales of growing up in Brooklyn, and learning that her family was in the Mafia---she'd complain about some bully and the next day her cousins would break his kneecaps.

Sometimes there's a fine line between friendly advice and a threat. I was very protective of my kneecaps for the next few weeks.

The committee voted for a fancy job for him (they could hardly not; he was Mr. Big after all), but only a temporary instructorship for her. While these may have been the correct decisions based on their qualifications, someone told me that it was merely a face-saving way of saying no to him. The department Chair, embarrassed about not meeting Mr. Big's demands, went against department rules and didn't make either offer.

I never found where in the rulebook it said that we could deny someone tenure because we don't like her husband, but maybe that's because I hadn't been given a tenure rulebook. Thankfully, my kneecaps are still intact.

Posted November 21, 2017

The Obvious Suspect

Professors P and Q sat across from me in the mathematics common room at the University of Cambridge. They were American professors, visiting the UK from a large midwestern university. I was an American student, visiting Cambridge on a fellowship for the 1979-1980 academic year. I was reading a mathematics text, trying to mind my own business.

P and Q were deep in discussion, trying to answer the question "Why are there so few female mathematicians?" Since they were Americans, I could hear every word.

They examined the premise that it was due to prejudice and discrimination. They rapidly dismissed that, on the grounds that the people in power in mathematics were just like them, and they were obviously good people who couldn't possibly unfairly discriminate or succumb to prejudice. Much as I tried not to eavesdrop, from that point on I felt as if I were listening to two bumbling detectives trying to solve a murder mystery. They had ruled out the obvious suspect. Who were they going to declare to be the culprit, and how were they going to get there? I had heard such debates many times before, so I had my suspicions about where they were heading. Nonetheless, I ardently hoped for better.

They eliminated one premise after another. Could it be lack of opportunities? Surely not. Lack of interest? Well, maybe, but that wouldn't fully account for it. They considered everything they could think of, until they were left with only one option.

At that point, I just couldn't restrain myself. It was clear what they were about to say, and I didn't want them to say it. Too many times had I heard (always male) professors conclude that women weren't as good at mathematics because they were genetically inferior.

I introduced myself to P and Q, apologized for listening to their conversation, and told them that the answers to their question were prejudice and discrimination. (Actually, it's likely I told them there were three reasons: "discrimination, discrimination, and discrimination", alluding to the adage about real estate and location.) I pointed out that Ivy League universities had only recently begun to admit women, and were, even then, doing so in small numbers. I told them some recent stories about Harvard, from personal experience. And I pointed out some facts about the recent history of (and discrimination against) women at Cambridge.

I don't know whether any opinions changed. Their minds were probably made up before they started. But they listened politely, even though I disagreed with them. (I wish that happened more often nowadays!)

Posted November 11, 2017

People choose people who remind them of themselves

Here's a game. Look at the list of invited speakers for a conference, and guess the demographics of the organizing committee.

I can often correctly guess a lot about the nationalities, ethnicities, or genders of the organizers from the speaker list. Sometimes I can even correctly guess names of organizers.

I recommend playing the game. How much about the conference organizers can you guess from the list of speakers?

There are times when I've asked an organizer why the list of invited speakers is all male, and his reply is that the women in the field aren't good enough, the men are just better. I've gotten similar responses when a speaker (and organizer) list is disproportionately Dutch, or French, or of a particular ethnicity.

At a certain Ivy League university in the 1990s, the junior faculty attended a meeting where the (all-male) senior faculty decided which undergraduates would graduate summa cum laude in mathematics. Afterwards, some of the junior faculty told me they were upset and concerned because a female student with high grades in hard courses was passed over in favor of a male student with lower grades, after a senior faculty member said that the man reminded him of himself at that age.

People choose people who remind them of themselves. Then they rationalize it by saying that such people are better.

I like merit-based systems, and I'm not advocating for quotas. And if financial constraints mean that local speakers are preferred over those with more expensive travel costs, that's understandable. But sometimes it helps to be reminded to give full consideration to people different from oneself or one's friends. I hope that things have improved, and that the organizer-guessing game isn't as easy as it used to be.

The game has a second part. If the speaker and organizer lists are skewed in the same direction, ask yourself whether the argument that the over-represented group is just better feels right to you. If it does, do you belong to the favored group?

Posted November 7, 2017

Isomorphic students

Miriam and I didn't think that we looked alike. But whenever Professor W handed back the homework in the course we took from him, there was a 50-50 chance that he'd hand me Miriam's homework, and hand her mine. We were the only female students in the class.

At first we exchanged homeworks discreetly so as not to embarrass W. Eventually we didn't bother, and would even walk across the room to trade papers. At some point W noticed and commented on it, but he never learned to tell the difference between us.

When I ran the above past Miriam, she replied "But there's more. That was back in the 70's. In the 80's I had a similar experience at work: there were just two female programmers, and we didn't look alike at all. Still, we were often addressed by each others' name. Things got better at my next two jobs, but only because I was the only woman programmer. I'd like to say things have improved since then, but then I saw this recent FaceBook post from [Harvard Computer Science Professor] Margo [Seltzer]."

Posted October 29, 2017

"You argue like my ex-wife!"

T and I have been arguing since we met at a conference years ago.

During one fight, he said in annoyance "You argue like my ex-wife! She never lets me win!"

He was still trying to win an argument with his ex-wife. Since she was no longer around, he used me as a surrogate.

This was neither the first nor the last time that I saw a man use a woman from his professional life as a surrogate for his ex-wife, ex-girlfriend, wife, mother, or daughter. And it's led me to wonder to what extent people (of all genders) view their female colleagues as part of their personal lives, not their professional lives.

At a later conference, I realized that T and I were getting along quite well. Had I improved my interpersonal skills? That would have been nice. No, that wasn't it. He and his ex-wife had gotten back together, and they were happy. Fighting with me no longer filled his need to try to win an argument with someone who wasn't there.

Posted October 19, 2017

"What can I learn from this?"

or: Some things I wish I'd learned sooner

Click here for the post. The article will appear in abridged form in MAA FOCUS. While it's written for mathematicians, I hope that others will find something useful in it.

Posted October 13, 2017

The Case of the Writer and the Schoolteacher

I've long been troubled by the Case of the Writer and the Schoolteacher.

A high school math teacher applied to the Ohio State mathematics graduate program with the goal of teaching in a college or community college after obtaining a PhD. She had already started working towards her goal by getting a Master's degree. Her application made perfect sense to me, so I was surprised to read the evaluations of her file by some of my (male) colleagues:


and hear the emotion in their voices when they spoke against her application at the graduate admissions committee meeting. You might think that a mathematics professor could have correctly calculated that she was only thirty-something, but even for mathematicians, one's cognitive skills decline when angry.

Several months later, near the end of the admissions season, an application arrived from a man who had made his career as a writer. It wasn't clear to me why he wanted to earn a mathematics PhD. Though he was older than the math teacher (whose age seemed to be a concern to my colleagues), and he hadn't gotten a Master's degree, my colleagues' evaluations were glowing. They said he was a mature, well-motivated adult, and that it would be a pleasure to have him in our classes.

It's curious how I and the rest of the committee could have read the same files so differently.

Posted October 8, 2017

These are things that would help everyone!

The Dean of the College of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) at Ohio State University invited the female MPS faculty to lunch at his home to ask us what he could do to help women.

He lived out of town so it was a bit of a drive to get there. Why did he want us to meet at his house? He said that since we were women, he decided we would feel more comfortable at a home than at the university.

It's too bad he hadn't asked us what we preferred. Some of us were not pleased that we had to take time away from work to go there and back, arrange carpools, etc.; it would have been more convenient for us if the meeting were on campus. (Given the quantity of leftovers that his wife put into their refrigerator after the lunch, I cynically wondered whether the leftovers were the real reason he wanted the meeting at his house.)

At the lunch, we went around the room giving our advice. We stressed the need for fairness, transparency, accountability, and knowing the law and following it. When we were done, the Dean looked upset, and said "But, but, ... these are things that would help everyone, not just women!"

"That's right," we replied.

"But I want to do things that help women!"

We told him that what helps everyone helps women.

He didn't seem happy about that.

Why did he seem to lose interest when we didn't tell him things he could do specifically for women? Some of us wondered if he was using the Deanship as a stepping stone to a higher position; perhaps he was mostly interested in adding a line to his CV about how he helped women? Soon after that, he left OSU to become President of a different university.

The trip to his house would have been worth it, if only OSU had taken to heart our suggestions about fairness, transparency, accountability, and knowing the law and following it.

Posted October 4, 2017

"Who's on first?"

"I'd like to speak to Mr. Silverberg" said the voice over the phone in my office.

"There's no Mr. Silverberg here," I replied.

"Is this the number for Dr. Silverberg?" he asked.


"Well, when can I speak to Mr. Silverberg?''

Perhaps I had been watching too many Marx Brothers films, or too much Abbott and Costello. "There is no Mr. Silverberg at this number."

"But isn't this Dr. Silverberg's number?"


"Well, can I speak to Mr. Silverberg?"

"There is no Mr. Silverberg at this number."

"But isn't this the number for Dr. Silverberg?"


"Well, who are you?"

"I'm Dr. Silverberg," I said calmly.

Stunned silence at the other end.

Then, "umm ... I'm an insurance salesman."

A long pause, and then he continued, "I guess I'm not going to be able to sell you anything, am I?"

"I guess not."

I felt sorry for him. Maybe I was too cruel. But perhaps the conversation was memorable enough that he learned something.

Posted September 28, 2017

Women at Harvard

Below is a link to remarks I delivered at a panel entitled "Lawrence Summers: One Year Later" at the Joint Mathematics Meetings on January 12, 2006.

At the Q&A, an audience member said that I had unfairly attacked Harvard and he needed to come to Harvard's defense. I pointed out that the text I had read did not include my opinions and consisted of a compilation of quotes and facts, largely from Harvard-related sources, especially a text by Drew Faust who was at that time a Harvard professor and Dean. (Faust has been President of Harvard University since July 1, 2007.) What do you think? Was the text an unfair attack on Harvard, or a compilation of quotes and facts?

You can click here for the text. While most of the links are now dead, some of the references can be found by searching for the titles online. If you just want something short, I suggest jumping to the end to my Q&A responses, starting with "Testing".

The piece appeared in the Newsletter of the Association for Women in Mathematics along with some of the write-ups of other panelists' remarks. AWM Newsletters are available here.

Posted September 23, 2017

Letters of recommendation for women

A distinguished and influential mathematician whom I'll call Y sat next to me in the computer room at a mathematics research institute one evening. Y was having trouble with a word processing program, and asked me for help. I happily obliged.

When I realized he was writing a letter of recommendation, I looked away, assuming it was confidential. This made it harder for me to help him. Possibly just as a way to let me know that it was OK to look and to continue helping him, Y asked me for advice on the letter.

So I read it. The gist was something like "Susie is a lovely person. It was a pleasure having her in my class." Nothing about how well she did in the class.

I asked some questions, and learned that Susie was an undergrad applying to professional schools. I asked Y how Susie did in his class; what sort of grades did she get on the exams and homework? He told me that she got the highest or second highest grade on each of the exams and homeworks, giving her the highest total score in the class. I gently asked what he thought about including that information in the letter. He asked if I thought that was a good idea. I replied, "Yes".

I've had other similar experiences over the years. My experiences are consistent with studies that conclude that letters of recommendation about men are written differently than those about equivalent women. The ones about women talk more about her personal life, while the ones about men include more relevant adjectives and information, and fewer "doubt raisers".

My experiences are also consistent with studies that conclude that people read letters about men and women differently, and perceive equivalent letters to be stronger when the subject is male than when the subject is female.

See for example and the references therein.

Posted September 18, 2017

Changing Places

The September 15 story about collecting plates reminded me that at seminar dinners, when I sat down next to that same department chair, he would get up and make his wife change places with him, so that I sat next to her instead of him. He didn't do that with anyone else. While I liked her and enjoyed talking with her (despite the incident with the plates), sitting next to her made it harder for me to talk to the mathematicians or participate in the discussions about mathematics.

Such incidents could be viewed as in some sense trivial (though they can have tangible effects on one's opportunities and career). But to borrow the title of a marvelous book by Paula J. Caplan[1], dealing with this type of treatment time and again eventually feels like lifting a ton of feathers.

A number of people have encouraged me to continue posting my adventures, since knowing that others are having similar experiences makes them feel less alone. I found Caplan's book to be very useful, and recommend it to those who might benefit from a survival guide and those who want to learn more.


[1] Lifting a Ton of Feathers: A Woman's Guide to Surviving in the Academic World, Paula J. Caplan, University of Toronto Press, 1993.

Posted September 15, 2017, slightly revised September 24, 2017

The story about the segregated cloakrooms in my September 4 post reminded me of some other stories from my time at Ohio State. Here's one of them:

Collecting plates

Shortly after I arrived at Ohio State University as an assistant professor, the department chair and his wife held a party for the three new assistant professors in number theory. The other attendees were the other number theory faculty and their wives. We sat in armchairs in the living room, to eat the buffet meal. Everyone there knew that I was one of the three new assistant professors.

When most of us had finished eating, the wives of the professors approached me as a group to inform me that I needed to join them in going around the room collecting the empty plates of the mathematicians and carrying them into the kitchen.

The two other new faculty were not told to do this. They were male, and I was the only female mathematician at the party. While I wanted to be helpful, I knew that whatever happened next would set a precedent for how I would be treated in my new job.

Before you read further, here's a question for you to think about: What would you have done, if you'd been me?

I didn't know what to do, and thought for a moment. Then I stood up, walked over to the other two new faculty, and said "We've been asked to collect the plates."

When the wives saw the three of us collecting dirty plates, some of them ran over to the two men and told them they mustn't do that, they're guests. The two men sat down.

Again, what would you have done?

I sat down too. But neither I nor the professors' wives were happy that they were left to collect the plates on their own.

Posted September 10, 2017

The below is a lightly modified version of a real conversation.

"We'd love to hire a woman"

"We'd love to hire a woman. It's too bad there aren't any." How many times have I heard that? This time, it's from the chair of the math department at a large state university.

I look at him in amazement. "What about A, B, C, D, and E? They were all on the job market last year. Why didn't you hire any of them?"

"We made an offer to X."

"But he turned it down, didn't he?"

"Yes. Isn't that a shame? It would have been great if he had accepted."

"But when X turned you down, you could have hired A. She's great. Why didn't you make her an offer?"

"We didn't have a job for her husband."

"Did she say she'd only accept an offer if you made an offer to her husband too?"

"No. She didn't mention him in her application."

"Do you know if they're still married?"

"Well, no. But that's what people tell me, so I'm sure she wouldn't have taken the job if we'd offered it to her."

"She ended up accepting an offer at a place where her husband didn't get an offer, and I think she would have preferred a job at your university." This doesn't seem to faze him.

"What about B? She's also great."

"Her husband is a lawyer, and there aren't any jobs for lawyers around here."

"No jobs for lawyers? Near [the mid-sized city his university is in, which is close to a major urban area]? I'm surprised."

"What about C? She'd be a great hire."

"She's not in the right field. We were looking for someone who works on Z theory."

"But X doesn't work on Z theory, and you made him an offer."

"Yes, isn't it a shame that he didn't come? It would have been great if he had."

"What about D?"

"She wasn't good enough."

"That's interesting. A lot of people think she's better than X, and you offered X a job." Again, he's unperturbed. But at least the excuse was a valid reason to turn someone down. He can't possibly use that excuse with someone as good as E. "E is truly exceptional. Why didn't you hire her?"

"She didn't send in a job application. We can't make her an offer if she doesn't apply."

I can't let that slip by. "That makes sense. But X didn't apply, and you made him an offer."

"Yes, isn't it a shame that he didn't accept it? It would have been great if he had."

We seem to be going in circles. Has he been listening to me at all? Let's give it one more try. "Next time I hope you'll consider hiring a woman."

"We'd love to. It's too bad there aren't any."

Posted September 4, 2017

The next post is a reworking of an article I wrote that appeared as a page in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006. The article went over well when I performed it as stand-up comedy, so you might want to read it that way (think Carrie Bradshaw in "Sex and the City").

At the time there was amusing (and sometimes cruel) commentary about the Chronicle article on the Internet. Some people (mostly women) "got it", and others read it as the whining of a spoiled brat from the elite and privileged class. Perhaps I should have explained that I don't really care about urinals (though the Internet did produce some fascinating and beautiful photos of urinals in response to the article). While I've left in some of what was intended as self-deprecating tongue-in-cheek humor in the hope that it won't be misunderstood this time, in the new version I tried to make it clear that I didn't attend a fancy prep school.

I also moved earlier the hint as to why I hid an article about gender equity inside a "fluff piece" on what the illustrator called "potty parity". To be more explicit: over the years, I've tried many different ways of encouraging universities to treat women and men fairly and equally. The direct approach was usually met with indifference, anger, or fear. In my attempts to make the point in less threatening ways that wouldn't be ignored, I tried other approaches, including humor, naïvety, and, yes, urinals.

Soon after the HP Labs incident described in my August 11 post below, I enquired as to whether the San Jose Mercury News might report on age and gender discrimination in Silicon Valley. I was told that the Mercury News wouldn't publish negative stories about Silicon Valley companies because the economy of Silicon Valley depended on those companies. Urinals were the "clickbait" I used to eventually get a newspaper to go near gender equity.

The hostility from some quarters that the SF Chronicle article generated was one reason I've been hesitant about making other stories public. I'm hoping that the feedback I get about this blog will be honest, but also kind!

Click here if you'd like to see either the SF Chronicle version with its cute drawing, or the version I submitted to them.

Are urinals in women's rooms a sign of progress?

The first time I saw a urinal, I walked out and checked the sign on the door to make sure it really was a women's room. It turns out that urinals are surprisingly common in women's rooms at American universities.

Are urinals in women's rooms a good sign or a bad one?

I'm in the first generation in my family to graduate from college, and I attended New York public schools when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy. So when I started as an undergrad at Harvard, I wasn't coming from a very privileged background. I didn't know what to expect at an elite university, and was in for a few surprises.

The wall of the women's shower room in Harvard's Indoor Athletic Building was lined with about a dozen urinals. I had to pass the row of urinals to go from the locker room to the pool, and I always felt as if there were some ritual I should perform. Throw in a penny and make a wish? I never figured it out, but I suspected that my classmates who had attended fancy prep schools had been properly trained in the correct etiquette and knew what to do.

Do urinals in women's rooms signify that the university is hedging its bets in case it decides to turn back the clock? When I was a grad student at Princeton in the 1980s, I was told that if women complained about lack of equality, Princeton would go back to being all-male. A few years later, the Princeton Alumni Weekly published a letter claiming that the experiment in coeducation had clearly failed, and suggesting we return to the good old days of an all-male college.

I don't recall seeing any urinals in Princeton when I was a grad student. But then, they didn't have many women's rooms. When the math department's visiting committee asked grad students for feedback, I did a survey of the restrooms in Fine Hall, and calculated a three-and-a-half to one ratio of men's room's to women's rooms. The women's rooms were all strategically located --- one on the floor where the math department secretaries worked (there were two men's rooms on that floor), one on the floor where the statistics department secretaries worked (ditto for the two men's rooms), one for the math/physics library in the basement, and one on the twelfth floor. That's the floor just below the penthouse, where the university held singles parties.

I read the visiting committee my lists of ways that women were not treated fairly at Princeton. I had a list of serious issues that directly affected our ability to do mathematics. They ignored those. I had a separate joke list, with things like unequal access to toilets, that I threw in just to lighten things up. The two women on the committee pounced on the joke list; these were the issues that were important to them. One explained that she had arrived late to the meeting because she had run up and down the stairs searching for a bathroom she was allowed to use. Apparently, such things get more important as you age.

Whenever I get the opportunity, I naively ask the powers-that-be why there are urinals in the women's rooms, and why they haven't been removed. They're there because they used to be men's rooms. Removing urinals is very expensive, and we don't have that kind of money.

Harvard doesn't have that kind of money.

Princeton doesn't have that kind of money.

Stanford doesn't have that kind of money.

Isn't it really a question of priorities?

A professor at the University of Notre Dame told me that the college couldn't accept women and men in equal numbers, about 20 years after nominally going coed, because there weren't enough women's dormitories. I asked naïvely why they couldn't build more. Notre Dame doesn't have that kind of money. Isn't it just a question of priorities, I asked. Why can't some men's dormitories be converted to women's dormitories? The alumni would stop donating to the college, if their sons couldn't live in the same dorms they lived in, he replied. Surely if gender equity were a high enough priority, the university administrators would find a way; one just has to be creative. Coed dorms? His reaction told me that if I were Catholic, he would have nominated me for excommunication.

When a group of us walked into the Ohio State University Faculty Club during my job interview in 1984, in the middle of a mathematical conversation I was told to go to a different room to hang up my coat. The need to guard against cooties must have been a high priority of one of the building's designers, since there were separate women's and men's cloakrooms. By the time I rejoined my colleagues, the mathematical conversation had progressed, and I was at a disadvantage.

I arrived at Ohio State as a new assistant professor, fresh out of grad school. When I checked out the athletics building, I came across a door that read "Faculty Locker Room". Delighted with the realization that I was no longer an inconsequential grad student and could now enjoy faculty perks, I put my hand on the knob. Then I heard voices from within. Male voices. I suspected I wasn't welcome in the Faculty Locker Room, and I walked away disappointed. A colleague later confirmed my suspicions, and laughed at the thought that I would enter the Faculty Locker Room. It was a men's room, of course, and women weren't allowed. Over the next 20 years, that colleague was promoted from faculty member to associate dean, to dean, to retirement, while the Faculty Locker Room remained all-male.

Women faculty did have the right to pay extra to use a corner of the women students' locker room, but we didn't get a room of our own. And the women all had to walk down a long unheated hallway, down the cold stairs, and down another long hallway to get to the main pool, while there were men's locker rooms on every floor, including one right across from the pool. But at least things had improved since I attended a math camp there in the 1970s, when allowing the men to swim naked was a higher priority than allowing the women to swim. (Yes, you read that right.)

I was about to give a seminar talk in Canada, and I ran all over the building looking for a women's room. I must have passed four men's rooms. I finally found what I was looking for. But it said "Staff Only", and it was locked. It was meant for the secretaries, and they have keys. I've since been told that "staff" includes faculty, in Canadian English. So as visiting faculty I had the right to use the restroom (if I could pick the lock). But the female students didn't. The men's rooms weren't "Staff Only", and the male students used them.

Though Europe has mixed success with gender issues, it seems to be on the cutting edge with unisex restrooms. It's just a room with a toilet (and if you're very lucky, a sink). Locking the door gives complete privacy, unlike our half or three-quarter stalls.

The United States hasn't gotten the hang of unisex. I was stumped by the urinal in the unisex restroom on the sixth floor of the University of Arizona's math building. The sign outside had men and women icons. Inside were a sink and urinal side-by-side, and tucked in a corner was a stall containing a toilet. As I went into the stall and locked it, I pondered: What am I supposed to do if someone comes in and uses the urinal? Should I warn him that I'm there? Or keep quiet and wait for him to leave? Or was Arizona so liberated that I was expected to come out, say hello, and wash my hands while he did his business?

The prettiest urinals I ever saw were in the Stanford math department. Each was filled with a beautiful philodendron, spilling over the edge, lovingly cared-for by the elderly German staff member who served as department den mother. I don't know much about plants, but I recognized the heart-shaped leaves from my tenth grade science fair project on transpirational pull in philodendra. According to my report[1] (at last, a chance to reference it!), they thrive in water. A Monet poster was mounted tactfully on the wall next to the philodendra-filled urinals. The room had a wonderfully gemütlich feel to it.

Inspired by those urinals, I decided to publish a book of photos of urinals in university women's rooms, and to use the Stanford urinals as the cover photo. But before I got around to taking a picture, the philodendra were gone. It turns out that if you don't flush a urinal every so often, toxic fumes build up in the pipes. So out went the philodendra, and in went blue chemicals, flushed once a week so that no one would die from urinal fumes. It would have been an ironic way to go.

The Monet poster disappeared too, and was replaced by a tampon dispenser. The urinals looked odd next to the tampon dispenser, and the room seemed sterile rather than homey. European Impressionism gave way to early twenty-first century post-modernism, but the one constant through time was the three urinals. To give Stanford credit, when the math department remodeled they did remove the urinals. I wondered if we'd see headlines about Stanford's bankruptcy. That must have broken the bank.

I returned to Princeton a few years ago, and was pleased to find that one of the two men's rooms on the floor with the math department offices had been converted to a women's room. A women's room full of urinals, with bright blue water in each one. Those urinals were the first sign I saw that Princeton is moving towards equality for women. Urinals as a sign of progress? I'll take what I can get.


[1] How is the transport of water in the Philodendron cordatum affected by its leaves?, Alice Silverberg, science project, Martin Van Buren High School, Queens, New York, January 3, 1973.

Posted August 28, 2017, slightly revised August 29, 2017

I wrote up a number of these stories years ago. One reason I haven't shared them widely is that I tried to write them in an entertaining way, and I wasn't sure whether that would go over well, or turn people off. I would very much appreciate feedback on which approach will be more effective: the "dry" factual reporting in the versions I posted of the first three "adventures", or this piece, which attempts to be entertaining and has some "attitude". Thanks!

A conspiracy of women

Paula Cohen [now Paula Tretkoff] and I stood underneath the lamplight on a street corner in Bonn late one night, discussing mathematics, the Arbeitstagung conference we were attending, and our peculiar place as women in a male-dominated field.

When he saw us, Serge Lang crossed the street and rushed over to us, exclaiming in delight "What's this? A conspiracy of women?" Paula and I looked around to see what other women he was talking about, but we were the only ones there. What made us a conspiracy?

I told Serge that his assignment for the next day at the Arbeitstagung was to go up to every group of two or more men and say "What's this? A conspiracy of men?"

During the breaks between talks the next day at the conference, I noticed male mathematicians standing around in groups of three, four, seven, ten,.... I saw Serge and reminded him of his assignment. He laughed it off, assuming I'd been joking. But I would have loved to have seen the faces of the men, if Serge had asked them if they were part of a conspiracy.

A flock of sheep, a herd of elephants, a pride of lions, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks, a conspiracy of women.

At a conference at Johns Hopkins a few years later, two younger mathematicians and I waited together in the tea room for the others to return from the lunch break. Again, we discussed our peculiar situation as women in mathematics. I warned them that the next man to enter the room would comment on our being a conspiracy of women; it would probably happen if there were only two of us, but with three, it was nearly certain. They were astonished and disbelieving. Sure enough, the first person to walk in stopped, looked at us, and remarked on the conspiracy of women. The three of us burst out laughing. He asked why, and we explained. I'd like to say that he laughed too, but unfortunately he was very angry with us and stomped off in a huff.

Why is it that male mathematicians can rove in large packs with no one seeming surprised, but put two female mathematicians together and we're viewed as a threat worthy of comment?

Karen Holbrook, the only woman to serve as President of Ohio State University, told me that her advisors told her not to consider appointing two women as deans, since doing so would lead to charges of favoritism for her own sex. It didn't matter to them that all of her (male) predecessors hired male deans in great numbers.

Is there a double standard here? Sorry, can't answer that. A woman just walked in, and I have to leave if I don't want to face conspiracy charges.

Posted August 22, 2017

"But is she on a trajectory to get a Fields Medal?"

When we were trying to fill faculty positions in the Ohio State University math department, my colleagues usually put forward the names of male candidates. When women were proposed, they wouldn't make the cut for various reasons, such as that the university where she did her postdoc was less prestigious than that of another candidate, or another applicant published in a more prestigious journal.

After observing this for many years, I proposed an applicant who trumped all other candidates my colleagues had proposed that year, in all categories that my colleagues had stated were important to them.

Speaking against my candidate at the hiring meeting, a colleague asked "But is she on a trajectory to get a Fields Medal?"

My colleagues turned to me for a response. The question took me by surprise. If I said no, that would reduce the chances that she would get a job offer. But if I said yes, they wouldn't believe me.

Instead, I pointed out that:
1. the department had never before used such a criterion in our hiring deliberations,
2. our mission was only to choose the best candidate among the applicants, and this candidate had the best file,
3. no one who had ever gotten a Fields Medal had ever been a faculty member in the Ohio State math department,
4. as far as I could tell, no one in the department had been on a trajectory to get a Fields Medal at the time they were hired,
5. it isn't clear that being "on a trajectory to get a Fields Medal" is a meaningful concept.

Since then, I've seen variations of that line ("but is she on a trajectory to ...?") used against women, but I've never seen such a line used against men.

Posted August 18, 2017

"She only got the job due to affirmative action"

Referring to the only female Professor in his (mathematics) department, a Professor I know told me "she only got the job due to affirmative action."

He seemed to be saying that she wasn't good enough to get the job on her own merits. The conversation could have ended there, but I persisted.

"She's an excellent mathematician. I think she's better than almost all the Professors in your department," I said. He agreed with that.

"Then why did she only got the job through affirmative action?" I prodded.

"Well, one of my colleagues was prejudiced against women, so he fought against hiring her. Affirmative action was needed to overcome the prejudice of that colleague."

Whatever one's views on affirmative action, it seems to me that this was a case where it made the right thing happen.

Posted August 11, 2017, slightly revised August 18, 2017

The Meritocracy

On September 14, 2000 I had lunch at a restaurant in Silicon Valley as part of a group of people attending a lecture that day at HP Labs. At some point, I learned that I was sitting next to Dick Lampman, the Director of HP Labs. Lampman mentioned to me that he learned on his travels that America is superior to other countries in being a meritocracy, not an old boy network. He told me that elsewhere, it's who you know, while in America, it's what you know.

One reason I had gone to the lunch was that I wanted to get a job at HP Labs. At some point I asked Lampman how one gets a job in Silicon Valley. He replied that one needs to have a friend inside the company, and "it's all who you know." I asked "What happened to the meritocracy?" He looked sheepish, but didn't reply. I then asked "How do I get a job in your lab?" Lampman pointed out a manager who was sitting across the table, Abraham Lempel, and suggested I talk to him. The two letters I later sent Lampman (below) describe what happened next. I eventually sent a similar message to Carly Fiorina, then-CEO of Hewlett-Packard. I have not yet received replies from them.

Two letters I sent to:
Richard H. (Dick) Lampman
Director, HP Labs
1501 Page Mill Road
Palo Alto, CA 94304-1126


March 15, 2001

Dear Dick Lampman,

I'm writing to you concerning a policy of age, and possibly also gender, discrimination at your lab.

We met over lunch on Sept. 14, after Avi Wigderson's public lecture at HP Labs. You told me that in your travels you learned that the U.S. differs from other countries in that the U.S. is a meritocracy.

At that lunch I mentioned that I was looking for a job in Silicon Valley. I asked how I would go about getting a job at HP Labs, and you told me to talk to Abraham Lempel or Gadiel Seroussi. I therefore got a ride back to the lab, along with Hendrik Lenstra, from Lempel. Lempel asked Lenstra if there were any new or recent PhDs from Berkeley whom HP Labs should hire. I asked Lempel whether he only hires new or recent PhDs. His answer was yes. He said that his justification for this policy was G. H. Hardy's famous statement that "mathematics is a young man's game".

When we arrived at the lab I asked to speak with him privately. We went to Lempel's cubicle. I gave him my CV, and said that I was interested in a job at HP Labs. He looked at my CV and said that I was much better than the people they hire. The answer was basically no. I made further enquiries more recently, and was told that they would not hire me, and I was "too good for them".

My personal experience in asking for a job at HP Labs confirms the explicitly stated policy that Lempel told to me and Lenstra on Sept. 14, before he knew that I was looking for a job. I believe that policy constitutes age discrimination. Since Lempel said he based his policy on the Hardy quote, it also raises the question of gender discrimination. More importantly from your point of view, it means that your lab does not hire the best people, and that is bad for your company, for our country, and for our society.

Now that you have been informed of some hiring practices of your lab, I hope that you will take clear and swift corrective action.

If I can be helpful to you in any way, please let me know. I am willing to work with you positively and constructively towards improving your lab's hiring practices and its climate for employees, to allow a more diverse and inclusive workforce, so that a meritocracy can be realized in your own lab.

Yours sincerely,

Alice Silverberg
Professor of Mathematics
Ohio State University


May 21, 2001

Dear Mr. Lampman,

I am writing as a follow-up to my letter of March 15 concerning the hiring practices of HP Labs.

I recommend that you read the April 2001 issue of Working Woman magazine, especially the Editor's Note on p. 6, where a case is made for the importance to employers of understanding the necessity to broaden the pool of acceptable applicants. The articles in the magazine give a clear explanation for why a policy of hiring from a narrowly defined age, gender, ethnic, or racial group is bad for business.

I hope that the lack of response to my letter of March 15 does not signal a lack of concern for the problems inherent in hiring practices based on a belief that "mathematics is a young man's game".

Yours sincerely,

Alice Silverberg


Further information:

When I questioned Abraham Lempel in his car about hiring based on the belief that "mathematics is a young man's game", he said that they want young people since they (the managers) can mold them to do what they want them to do. He said that older people are fixed, and can't be changed. He added that scientists are more productive when they're young. Both Lenstra and I questioned this. Lempel gave Galois as an example. Lenstra gave Cartan, Serre, and Mazur as counterexamples. I pointed out that we don't know what Galois might have accomplished had he not died so young. I think I said something about female mathematicians doing better work the older they get.

My recollections are based on notes I wrote down soon afterwards, and emails and letters I sent at the time.