A voice of reason in CiF

It would have to be a mathmo, wouldn't it? Sam Howison, an applied maths professor, looks at why the first 50 Fields medal winners were uniformly male and, refreshingly, comes up with a range of explanations with the starting point that there just aren't many female mathmos:

Data is scarce in this rarefied region, and hypotheses are hard to test; so, too, is the influence of the culture of their chosen field. Nevertheless, such astronomical odds of a woman winning the medal are disturbing, and they are just an extreme point of a range of evidence that women are underrepresented in mathematics at many levels.
It's indisputably true that you don't find anything like a 50% proportion of women at the top level of maths, or theoretical computer science for that matter. On the other hand, in my experience the women that you do find there aren't obviously any less smart and capable than the men, so if you were making randomized choices based on intellect you'd expect women to be far more frequent in Fields medal holders than they are.

This year, Stanford professor Maryam Mirzakhani won a Fields medal. She's clearly a hard-core pure mathmo; I defy anyone with anything less than a Ph.D. in maths to read about her research interests and not have their brain leak out of their ears. This is not just "I don't understand what this is about", this is "I can't even picture the most basic explanation of this in my head". Compared to that, even Fermat's Last Theorem was a walk in the park - solving polynomial equations is standard A-level fare, and even if you can't understand what Andrew Wiles did to prove it you can at least understand the problem. With Mirzakhani's work, you have no frame of reference, you're like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie.

Howison's point about the astronomical odds of the Fields medal award gender distribution (50 tails in 51 unbiased coin tosses) is a nice point of probability, but of course the first place you'd start is to look at the eligible pool - top-flight mathematicians, generally at (UK) professor level, with a substantial track record of publishing. That will tell you your bias; if 1 in 10 people in the pool are female, you're tossing a biased coin which will show tails 9 times out of 10. Still, it's pretty clear that even with that pool the Fields medal gender split is way out of line with what you'd expect.

Howison makes an interesting point that I hadn't considered up to now:

[...] people with successful careers have usually had a high degree of support from a mentor. As well as providing academic guidance and inspiration (as Mirzakhani freely acknowledges she had when a student), the mentor will introduce their charge to influential colleagues on the conference circuit and elsewhere, and arrange invitations to speak at seminars and workshops. That is one way for a young mathematician to get their work noticed, and to improve their chances of getting a position in a world-leading department where they can thrive. Is this perhaps (if only subconsciously) difficult for women in a community where the majority are men?
The usual reason for explaining the lack of women in senior positions in Fortune 500 firms (banks, Big Pharma etc.) is that they're not as good at men at talking their own book, preferring to be more even-handed in giving credit for the achievements in which they'd participated. However, Howison tantalisingly hints at a squaring function in gender representation here - will junior female mathmos only get good support and PR from a senior female mentor, and do such senior female mathmos pick up juniors with a blind eye to gender? It would be fascinating to get some data here.

I do wonder whether that perennial topic in gender discrimination, motherhood, plays a role here. Because the Fields medal only goes to people younger than 40 - Andrew Wiles, who cracked Fermat's Last Theorem, was a notable omission from its holders due to his age - if you take time out from academe to have children then this disproportionately affects your time where you're eligible for a Fields medal. The Guardian interviewed this year's sole female awardee, Maryam Mirzakhani but she didn't make any comment about her family life so I have no idea if she has kids.

So mad props to Maryam Mirzakhani for being the first female winner of the Fields medal, and here's to hoping for many more. Apart from anything else, if we can start to get some data on what factors determine female Fields medal winners we might have a hazy glimpse of what we need to fix in the academic lifecycle to get more top-flight women choosing to follow it.


Formalising success in a bureaucracy

It's only natural, when you've managed to get out of a hole against all odds, that you want to re-use the people and/or planning that made the difference. You'd be wasteful if you didn't, to be honest. Following this line of thinking, and after a small team of digital fixers managed to save the flagship Healthcare.Gov federal healthcare exchange from near-certain doom, the White House is trying to do just that.

Today they announced the launch of the new U.S. Digital Service which aims to replicates the lessons of the (relative) success in saving Healthcare.Gov with other troubled US federal government IT projects. Heaven knows that there's no shortage of potential targets for USDS to help with. The question of the moment is: can this new government team actually succeed? If so, what does success look like?

US CIO Steve van Roekel outlined the USDS role:

"This isn't going to be a group that we parachute in to write code," as Van Roekel put it in a call earlier this summer, and with perhaps the Department of Health and Human's experience with HealthCare.gov on the brain, "This isn't decending a group of developers onto the scene." Rather, the focus is going to be on helping agencies figure out where their weak points are and how to fix them.
Note that therefore the role of USDS staff isn't actually the same as the Healthcare.Gov fixers, but that might be OK as the fixing itself wouldn't scale; if you want to solve the key IT problems of more than one government agency at at time then you can't have most your staff embedded in one project, and there's no reason to think that the government can recruit multiples of the motivated team that fixed Healthcare.gov. They're going to have to strike a balance, though. They won't be able to determine the principal IT problems of an agency without spending time working with and talking to the agency's tech team. The more time they spend there, the more trust they'll gain and the better the quality of information they'll gather - but then they won't be able to help as many agencies.

The danger with any new government agency is that after a time it accumulates bureaucrats whose primary purpose is propagating their own employment and importance. Van Roekel seems to be aware of this and planning to bring in people for 2-4 year rotations. With placements of 3-6 months this may be about right; long enough for the new people to spend a placement or two with the veterans and absorb the institutional knowledge, do a couple more placements as peers while encouraging their friends to join up, then lead new recruits in placements as the veterans leave.

What's going to be interesting is to see how the USDS embeds are treated in the troubled agencies. Are they going to have the influence and effective power to remove obstructions - such as long-term barnacle workers who hoard knowledge and obstruct progress? If not, they're unlikely to be able to change much. If so, the agency's workers are going to hunker down and be terrified of being fired or reassigned. It's going to be quite a challenge for tech sector workers to get their heads around the government worker mindset sufficiently to influence those workers into getting things fixed.

Incidentally, www.usds.gov was not resolving as of posting time; I actually consider that a potential sign of success as the new team is focusing on getting operational before getting any marketing/PR in place; still, they're going to need a portfolio of some form after a few months in order to attract their new short-term hires.