How to Make Change As a Lowly Undergraduate

Members of the Gender Inclusivity in Math (GIIM) board celebrating at our end-of-semester holiday party.
“Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends upon unreasonable people.” — George Bernard Shaw

I’ve come to believe that the reason that established power structures and institutions don’t budge is not that they won’t, but that no one believes they can. I knew that not an ounce of optimism was left when Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, told me that I shouldn’t bother trying to reform the Harvard math department. “People have tried and failed before you,” she said. This coming from a woman who increased the percentage of computer science majors at her institution from 14 to 40 percent women, after an inspirational talk encouraging us to make change within our communities at a summit for women in tech.

The cynicism from everyone around me fueled my fire. The problem solver in me suggested that where others had tried and failed lay an intriguing open problem of enormous consequence. The Harvard math department as of 2015 has no tenured women on the faculty, no female students in the most intense freshman math class for two years in a row, and two female students graduating with a degree in math in the last graduating class. Something had to move.

Desperate to do something, I decided with friends to conduct a survey of undergraduates in the math department. Among other topics, what I really wanted to get at was sentiments of men versus women in the department. I was getting no publicity for my survey and was pretty sure no one would read it (read it!), but I felt compelled to see it through. On Christmas Eve, I put the results up on my Facebook, and this thread launched a debate on the state of gender in math among my classmates. While the debate on Facebook was raging, Vikram, a freshman math student who I knew through the undergraduate math association (HUMA), wrote an article about the issue for the Harvard Political Review (HPR).

Vikram and I became co-conspirators on a movement defined only in our minds to make the math department better for women and other outsiders, including underrepresented minorities. Riding on the wave of interest of our classmates, Vikram, Cherie Hu, and I planned a panel event of women in math to discuss their personal experiences in math at Harvard and beyond. Leading up to the panel event, I spent hours agonizing over every detail. We sent personalized invitations to the math faculty, publicized like mad on social media, and flyered the math department. There were times when, given the lukewarm sentiments of many of those in power, I questioned whether I was even doing the right thing. Perhaps I was rocking the boat too much, and I should leave the mathematicians alone.

A few things kept me going during this turbulent period, in which it was unclear whether I had devoted an entire semester to a project that would ultimately be squashed. A phenomenal class in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality department on Gender and Science by Sarah Richardson, who moderated our panel and provided necessary faculty support, reminded me that historically change was made slowly and without gratification, and that Larry Summers was dead wrong. Also at this time, many of my friends “came out” as allies and reminded me that I was fighting the good fight. Several female friends reached out to me with personal anecdotes about feeling marginalized in subtle and totally-not-subtle ways in the math community: a young woman told me that she chose not to take a class because she could not find a study group.

So, I kept moving. The event ultimately drew 150 concentrators with an equal gender split. And then, after celebrating the success of the panel event for about five minutes, it dawned on me that people were looking to me on how to proceed. Vikram asked me whether creating a student group for women in math and allies would be of interest and I said absolutely not. As a rising senior who had already started up a student group, Harvard Mirch, I knew how much work lay ahead and that I had no time for it. But I couldn’t let it go. My final project for my Gender and Science class was to make an intervention of any sort, and it felt as if the fates were conspiring as I lay the groundwork for Gender Inclusivity in Math (GIIM).

How do you run a student group when you have no time between classes and job hunting? Having an amazing team and delegating as much as possible. The moment I agreed to start GIIM, I resolved that I would start it very differently from how I approached running Harvard Mirch and the gender in math panel, namely no agonizing over details. My litmus test for this was that I would try and never order food for events directly. (I succeeded with the exception of one rainy Sunday morning when I found myself with my co-president Amanda schlepping tins of Felipe’s tacos down Mount Auburn street for a brunch in Lowell House when we had forgotten to delegate the task.) We selected a student board of students who shared our vision, but whose opinions often differed significantly from ours. Delegating major projects to board members and democratizing decisions when I had strong opinions was never easy, but ultimately was extremely beneficial. Early on, we had intense debates over the use of the word “women” in the context of a gender non-binary (one of the reasons why we love the name “Gender Inclusivity in Math”), the role of male allies in leadership, how to make our events as intersectional along race/class/etc. lines, and how we should work with the math department and those in power. These debates sometimes turned dramatic, when, for example, some felt that men shouldn’t be on the leadership of GIIM. Our emphasis on male allies is unusual, but, in my opinion, crucial and important when the majority of the math community is male. I respect the male allies in GIIM immensely, who must walk a fine line between doing and listening.

The effort of our collective work has been rewarding and so worth the effort. Sitting in a room in Lowell eating sushi and alternately talking about Gilmore Girls, abstract algebra, and crushes was an invaluable moment to me, as it would not have been possible a year ago. Moreover, being one of the only seniors in the group, I’ve gotten to mentor younger women in the organization and feel old and wise. With one semester down and a board entirely comprised of freshman and sophomores except for me and another student, I am confident that Harvard GIIM is an entity to stay as long as it is necessary. On the horizon for the spring semester is a conference for women in math and statistics in the Boston area and a national survey of undergraduates in math. I hope that when you stumble upon this historical artifact on a “blog” in 15 or 30 years, you will laugh because encouraging gender inclusivity will be so hilariously unnecessary.