Tag Archives: family

The mathematicians of Surathkal


all emphases mine

Family influence and/or patriarchal power over their children’s education and career paths and aspirations:

“Sabari […] wanted to study medicine. “My grandmother and several others at home, practise home medicine.””

““At teen ages, we do whatever parents tell us to,” she said candidly. “They said take science in 11th and 12th standards so I did.”

“Manasa was lucky because her father was the math teacher. Only one other student at her old school continued to 11th standard.”

“If they [students] join a B.Sc. in maths because they were forced to, then they will soon know the reality, that what they were taught till then is not enough.”

Parental power sustains and reproduces unequal gender roles

Parents don’t want to send their daughters out of the state. I’m in NIT-Surathkal because I come from Karnataka itself. There are constraints.”

“In a society like ours, doing a PhD. is not always encouraged, especially for women as there is an opinion among families that the man must be more qualified. The women agree that they have heard people say things like “who will search for a boy now (now that she’s a PhD.)”.

Managing the dual face of patriarchal power through humour. Family poses both an “enablement” and “constraints” (Sen); parents exercise their freedom to translate their own experiences into shaping your children’s future (“he wasn’t able to finish 10th standard”). Feeling “grateful” and “lucky” for being allowed to flourish against the odds of one’s birth gender!

“Manasa B. counts herself lucky to have a father who is very particular that all his three children be well educated. “He wasn’t able to finish his 10th standard and he was determined that we do.” While she’s grateful for that, she knows that marriage will eventually come into the picture. “They’ve told us that in between studies if we ask you to get married, you can’t say things like ‘no, only after I finish’.” In her case, Manasa joked that she is off the hook until her elder sister gets married.”

Defying family:

“Sabari says that she had to fight a lot before she was allowed to come to NITK for her PhD.“Right before I joined here, one prospective groom came asking for marriage. My parents asked me to stay back and get married. I said, no I will go to Surathkal. If he agrees to let me, then good.”However, he didn’t, and Sabari proceeded with her plans.”

Willpower – but curbed by “adaptive preferences” (Sen):

“Manasa B. realised early on that she had a penchant for mathematics but her only ambition then was to become a teacher.”

Enablements and constraints, tradition:

The intersection of gender and class opens some future avenues and closes others. However this isn’t as black and white as the concept of “discrimination” may suggest: it is overt discrimination, but also internalised beliefs that lead people to put brakes on themselves and those others whom they love and over whom they have power (their children).

“Tenth standard is the highest education students were allowed to reach, especially girls. For the boys, it is better now but back then nobody sent their children out of the village to continue studies and there was no science college nearby.”

Where you go to school matters,” says Manasa. This becomes even more evident, she says, when they interact with their contemporaries from the IITs, IISERs – India’s top research institutes. “That’s when we realise how much we know and how our background and school education plays a role.”

Some constraints are self-restrictions: 

“Manasa said that the will to learn beyond what is considered ‘necessary’ is not something everyone has.”

“From basic education itself, students are hating mathematics a lot.”

“Conversion factors” (Sen) are initiatives, institutions, spaces, “arenas” that help level the playing field for people who have had different starts in life BUT these conversion factors can only ever begin to solve the problem:

“It always helps to collaborate with peers and arenas where they can do this are at government-funded training programmes for mathematicians – specifically the ATM schools (Advanced Training in Mathematics Schools) for teachers and Ph.D. students; and MTTS (Mathematics Training and Talent Search) for B.Sc. and M.Sc. students. […]“These really help. We learn a lot,” says Manasa. At these camps, though, women remain a minority. 

Locked in, or “having a family while female”. Family situation determines professional choices, identity, delineates freedoms. Babies are “not easy to manage” but they are also “our strength”. Female time itself is different: marriage serves even as an anchoring point in time.: “I started my Ph.D. in my sixth year of marriage” rather than “I got married right after I got my undergraduate degree”. To continue with other pursuits, such as a profession, or a passion, women have no other choice but to pass on care and household labour to other women, sometimes across generations (in other cases across nationalities). Unsurprisingly, very few women continue into marriage (in this micro-unrepresentative sample 1 in 5, but this is a very similar optimistic round-up of the actual overall proportion of women with children in science).

Only Kumudakshi is married among the five. She got married right after B.Sc. and has a baby now. “I started my PhD. in my sixth year of marriage. It’s not easy to manage with a baby but they are our strength.” She admits that she is able to do this because her mother lives with them. “Otherwise, managing this would have been a bit difficult. Someone should be there to take care of the house and things.

The generative and motivational belief in the dominance of personal willpower and tenaticy – but intertwined with a false consciousness

The hope? Willpower to discover and pursue your own grains of talents, develop personal tenacity:

“actually, I don’t think it’s true that students will do better in private schools. If they want to study, they will study anywhere.”

Yet, with the above statement – which I’m sure she sincerely believes, not least because I notice the same contradictory tendence in my own thinking and that of many people I’ve talked to –  the same mathematician actually contradicts her own experience when she compares her own educational journey to that of her colleague, the maths’ teacher daughter:

“had told me [the journalist] earlier that her experience studying at a government school was not as challenging as Manasa K.J.’s.”


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Why no one can “have it all”

“Our gilded expat cages”
(The photo is intended to represent the sexes…)

This is just one example of the many articles on the web right now which continue a one-sided discussion that will never have a solution until we stop pretending that *anyone* can be independent. The men are just as dependent as the women (and that’s true of all kinds of relationships, as well as about singles). The ideal of independence is unattainable because it is trying to answer a badly defined question. In my research about matheamticians’ careers, I have met a lot of academic couples, and academics partnered with non-academics. The same mechanisms as described in this short article are visible in academic careers, as well. Many more female academics who are in relationships with children tend to default to the housewife optio, compared to our male colleagues. My hypothesis is that there are several main culprits. These come in order of importance, with 1 and 2 being probably equally important, and 3 and 4 being contingent upon them. i would be very thankful if anyone shoots down any of my ideas or adds better ones!

1. the way gender roles within the household snd in the workplace are defined in contemporary Western society, and the way these definitions are adopted, un-challenged, passed on to children and perpetuated by (a) institutions and (b) both men and women. These gender expectations/roles/conventions are by far not obvious or universal across time and space! An example of a different gender role distribution is socialist and postsocialist Eastern Europe where the proportion of female scientists was, and remains (though to a smaller extent after 1989), higher than in the west. in fact, Germany is a very interesting one-country example where women born in the [former] GDR are socialised in a noticeably (though by far not completely) more gender-equal way of thinking. aS someone who grew up in Eastern Europe, and has been in the uK for 9 years, I am still often shocked by occasional day-to-day revelations of micro- and macro-gender inequalities I was never aware of.
2. The “scaffolding” which enables people to go about their daily lives outside of work. This includes but is not limited to transport infrastructure, healthcare, childcare and all stages of education but especially early-age education, family structure (extended families in one geographical locality enable more women to spend more time on paid employment), the urban landscape (a funny detail such as the preference for houses in the UK vs apartments in Germany makes UK cities much less dense in comparison, meaning more driving and less access to social spaces outside the work-home nexus, which in turn makes it more likely that one of the partners will stay at home with the children), parental leave laws and practices.
3. Historical inertia
4. Counterproductive initiatives! Small UK example: I don’t know how useful are all the “women in academia” events is the Athena SWAN initiative, though they are certainly very well intentioned. I am yet to be convinced that Athena SWAN is contributing, instead of taking up time and cluttering the debate space… I am pretty sure I am being unfair here and I really hope to see positive change brought about by this initiative… (i am just using this blog as a space to think aloud, so don’t take this particular statement as very serious). But a bigger German example is the law which requires university employers to employ the woman if there are two equally qualified candidates. This one seems both hard to implement and badly received by men and women academics, and in some cases creates a bad attitute towards any female academics employed anywhere because their colleagues begin to harbour suspicions of what they see as “unfair” appointment. This one also needs a more extended discussion, but I am sligtly more convinced of it than by my Athena swan comment above.

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The two body problem (a bunch of articles I read today)

On The Two Body Problem, blogpost on Women in Astronomy http://womeninastronomy.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/figure-1-two-body-problem.html

“We Met in Grad School” in the Chronicle, with loads of interesting reader comments http://chronicle.com/article/We-Met-in-Graduate-School/134548/

Blogpost about “Advising on the two body problem” http://biochembelle.com/2012/09/30/advising-on-the-two-body-problem/

“”Solving” the two body problem”, at the blog Tenure, She Wrote https://tenureshewrote.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/solving-the-two-body-problem/

A happy “Two-Body Problem” story, for a change! http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2005_10_12/nodoi.4906092037166312197

Unusual academic paths (“Alt” or “post” academics) http://theprofessorisin.com/2014/09/29/the-one-body-problem-when-youre-both-alt-and-ac-part-i-cardozo/

An (overly?) optimistic anthropological discussion of personal benefits such as broadening of horizons which occurs thanks to hypermobile lives: Liudmila Kirpitchenko, Academic hypermobility http cosmopolitan dispositions,Journal of Intercultural Communication, ISSN 1404-1634, issue 27, November 2011. immi.se/intercultural/nr27/kirpitchenko.htm

A more balanced anthropological discussion: Scott A Cohen and Stefan Gössling (2015) A darker side of hypermobility,Environment and Planning A 2015, volume 47, http://epn.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/07/24/0308518X15597124.full.pdf

(somewhat long and rambly) blogpost about alternative (non-academic) jobs for PhD graduates http://scicurious.scientopia.org/2013/09/18/redefining-alternative/

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Family Maths Day in Berlin: 6 September, Saturday!


Was für eine tolle Idee: ein Mathe-Familien-Tag! Das Fest findet am Samstag, 6.September, von 14 bis 18 Uhr im Schulgarten Moabit statt. Der Eintritt ist frei. Mehr Infos hier und hierMathe-Familien-Tag am 6.9. in BerlinMathe-Familien-Tag 2014Mathe-Familien-Tag 2014

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Is there a life after grad school? The story of a Computer Science PhD

Here’s an interesting interview with PhD student in Die Zeit (my translation)

CAROLA DOERR, 29, gained her PhD from Saarland University and the Max Planck Institute for Informatics. 

A wrong decision

Will I wake up some day and just know it for sure? Do I want to work in science or in industry? This decision gave me stomach ache for a long time while I was doing my PhD. I had previously spent two years working for McKinsey who then funded my PhD. My topic was random algorithms. In addition, I held a post at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics [Computer Science] in Saarbrücken and a grant from Google. I never had to worry about money. But I asked myself: Which lifestyle is right for me? Which goes better with family?

After submitting my PhD, I first worked part time at McKinsey and the Max Planck Institute, because I still couldn’t make a decision. At some point, however, I realised that it would be difficult to reconcile the lifestyle of a consultant with my desire to have children. At the Max Planck Institute, already two colleagues had children. I asked the director how he assessed my chances for a permanent position in science. He was quite confident . These were three signals for me. Now I live in Paris and work at the Pierre-and-Marie-Curie-University. I have a permanent research job and I can decide freely how much teaching I want to do. My husband is a professor at another university in Paris. Our daughter is seven months old.

If you read German, here is the full article with five more stories by PhD students in other subjects:




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