I open a document in Latex, a word processor used by mathematicians. I’ve typed just half a page so far and most of it is definitions. I stare at the screen for a minute or so, contemplating what should go next. I get a sinking feeling in my chest. My heartbeat rises and my hands get clammy. I suddenly feel like I’ve just consumed 3 shots of espresso in the last few minutes. I can’t deal with this now. I’ll just respond to emails instead; at least that’s a somewhat productive alternative.
The above scene, or something like it, was not uncommon throughout my undergrad career as a math major. At certain low points during those years, I felt as though all “output” that I produced determined my worth as a mathematician and, by extension, as a person. So I’d push my work to the back of my mind, put it off for longer than I should have, just to avoid that sinking feeling.
By most measures, I was an accomplished math student. I was involved in a number of research projects. I gave well-received presentations to a variety of audiences at conferences. I became acquainted with several sub-fields of mathematics, and left college with a strong grasp of what it would mean to be a graduate student, to be a mathematician. And I made lots of friends in the math world. I felt–and still feel, even while on a “break”–a part of the community, and I’ve been lucky enough to feel very welcomed and supported within it on the whole.
But something held me back from being as good a student and a researcher as I wanted to be. Some of it was a deep-seated anxiety that I wasn’t good enough. The (damaging) trope of the “mathematical genius” didn’t apply to me, I felt, yet I was constantly surrounded by people who embodied it and/or embraced it. The roots of my anxiety were more complicated than simply doubting my intelligence, though. I’m a somewhat scatter-brained, indecisive person, and I have a number of interests. And even though nothing else called my name quite as strongly as mathematics did, I sometimes doubted whether my love for the subject was strong enough when I observed some of my peers. One of my favorite things about math was working with other people, so I didn’t do as much solitary recreational math as others seemed to. I began to feel inferior for not having the desire to discuss math 24/7, for using my free time on other things besides reading graduate-level textbooks or Math StackExchange pages. I loved problem-solving and did it recreationally sometimes, but even that wasn’t something I actively sought out on a regular basis.
Over time, I began to notice that almost all of the peers to whom I felt inferior were men. Now, in my experience there is no lack of discussion about men dominating STEM fields, which is great. Over the years I’ve talked and read about many relevant issues such as impostor syndrome, “mansplaining” in mathematics and elsewhere, and the benefits of all-female learning environments for women in STEM.
That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t address a fundamental problem that discourages a lot of women in particular from continuing on in mathematics: a general air of competition among mathematicians over not just who is good at math, but who’s the most interested.
The constant pressure to prove yourself not only as capable, but as unfailingly interested and engaged, is mentally exhausting. I wish we would all just admit to each other more that math is hard and often unforgiving. That it beats us down just as much, if not more, than it gives us joy and inspiration. I don’t mean that we should get in negative feedback loops with our friends–I’ve fallen into that pit, too–but I think there is a way to support each other and acknowledge our shortcomings and frustrations while helping each other to overcome them.
The above paragraph applies to everyone, but I’m gonna talk about women again for a sec. We tend to talk about graduate school in mathematics as being only for people who live and breathe mathematics, who love it with a fiery passion. However, it’s much easier to love something when you feel you are good at it. And–I don’t think I need to cite any sources on this–men tend to have more confidence trying new things, bouncing ideas off of people, making assertions. It’s only natural that that increased confidence leads to more positive feelings in general towards the subject and to an increased quench for knowledge. As with anything, positive momentum keeps you going. And men tend to have more of it.
So the next time a well-intentioned person suggests that maybe I’m not meant for grad school if I’m not head-over-heels in love with math, or that proving myself I can do it shouldn’t be a factor in my decision, I’ll tell them this: my relationship with mathematics is as complicated as any long-term relationship–with any person, or interest, or what-have-you. I don’t expect my love for math, buried under the baggage that has piled up over the years, to magically bubble up to the surface one day and solve all my problems (pun). And I’m under no illusion about how difficult graduate school will be. But I’m going to try damn hard to push through. Because mathematics needs more women. Because I know my potential hasn’t been realized yet. Because one of the things that makes me the happiest is when my male peers talk about a female professor with respect.