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Not Yet an Equals Sign

The appointment of Professor Williams is an important—but insufficient—step towards equality in the Math Department

By The Crimson Editorial Board

The Math Department recently announced that it would be hiring Lauren K. Williams ’00 as a senior professor, marking only the second time in its history that it has granted tenure status to a woman. We have previously opined on the need for the department to recruit a more diverse range of professors, and are happy to see that the department has succeeded in bringing such an impressive scholar to Cambridge. Yet we are simultaneously disappointed at how groundbreaking this appointment is—it should not be so revolutionary for a woman to earn a tenured faculty position in mathematics at the University.

From elementary school onwards, studies have shown that women face systemic barriers to success in mathematics. Cultural attitudes often tell girls and women that they are not cut out for the field, causing them to lose confidence and leave higher-level mathematics classes. This achievement gap is evident in our own community, where Math 55: “Honors Abstract Algebra” enrollees have been 100 percent male, and women have been asked to leave the department’s common room because they’re assumed to not be math concentrators.

Appointing women to more teaching and research positions in the department is essential to combatting this culture. Female and non-binary students deserve to have role models that share their identities and experiences and that can mentor them through a field still heavily dominated by male voices. Moreover, the important work of female academics such as Williams deserve the equal recognition and continued support that is afforded to so many male faculty members.

While Williams’s appointment is a much-needed step toward diversity, one must not overlook the value that Williams brings to our institution as an academic. We are deeply concerned at the potential for her appointment to be tokenized and for her accomplishments—in fields such as cluster algebras—to be overshadowed or ignored due to her gender. Williams should serve as an example of how women are equally capable of achieving great things in mathematics, and her having done so should be celebrated, with attention paid to her highly impressive resume and accomplishments.

Past reports indicate that minority faculty members often must take on the burden of serving as advocates and mentors for students who share their identity—an unfair additional expectation placed on their already overworked shoulders. So while we hope that Williams will serve as an example, role model, and perhaps an advocate and mentor while at Harvard, it would be inappropriate for the University to expect that these are all roles she is obligated to assume. We expect Williams to be given the freedom to navigate her own path as a newly tenured faculty member.

The Math Department must continue taking on the necessary burden of supporting its female students and building a culture where female affiliates feel valued. An important next step toward this constitutes the provision of appropriate diversity training to discuss scenarios in which non-male students may feel unwelcome. Commendably, the department has instituted two relatively new programs focused on hiring more women for teaching roles ranging from tenured professor to teaching fellow. Indeed, there is no contradiction between valuing female scholars for their academic work and specifically targeting them in recruitment efforts. The evidence suggests that women face unique challenges in gaining recognition for their work, and ensuring that this work is given equal consideration is quite different from selecting candidates solely on the basis of their gender—if anything, the latter scenario historically has benefitted men more than women.

We eagerly look forward to welcoming Williams to our community and classrooms. Her experience and innovation in mathematics should serve as an example to students of all backgrounds. Mathematics, after all, has been touted as the universal language, uniting people of disparate backgrounds and life experiences. Thus, we hope that one day the Math Department embodies the subject matter it instructs.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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