Asaf Karagila
I don't have much choice...

Safe spaces

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Sometimes, as a man in mathematics, the topic of diversity comes up. Either discussing with colleagues, or discussing with friends, or whatever. How can we bring more women to mathematics, how can we bring more people of colour to mathematics, how can we bring more people to mathematics?

One answer is kind of obvious. We need more role models. Especially in a culture where for a very long time "girls can't do math" nonsense was a common way of thinking, or people of colour were not given access to good education, you end up with a culture where people just don't see themselves as someone who might be able to be a mathematician, or a scientist, or whatever. By hiring good role models we are sending the message "no, that's all a massive pile of bullshit, of course you can do this!" and that's good. Hiring more diversely also helps to expand point of views, it helps to expand ways in which people around you think, and it also introduces you, or your staff, or your colleagues, or your students, to someone from a different background, which is an incredibly valuable thing outside of acadmia as well.

But, another answer is not so obvious. We need safe spaces for "stupid" questions. Consider xkcd 385, which encapsulated this very well. When people come from an underrepresented group, they will often not represent themselves, but rather the group. So it is easy for people from these underrepresented groups to sit quietly, to not ask questions, because if you don't ask questions, nobody thinks you're stupid. Studying, collaborating, or generally researching mathematics, without having the ability to ask questions as freely as possible is just not fun. If you end up sitting in the back, quietly, without participating, you will not have fun, you will not enjoy your experience, and why would you stay? Why would you keep doing something that isn't fun?

I was lucky. Not only that I did not come from an underrepresented group, I also had teachers that insisted that the stupid questions be voiced. If not by someone, then by themselves. I grew up in one of the most nourishing environments you can have in mathematics. Maybe I'm also a bit different from others, maybe I care less what people think, and maybe I am just loud and take over the conversation very easily. But I found encouragement when I asked questions, even when they were kinda stupid.

Recently we had a small research workshop in Leeds, CHEESE. The goal was to understand some problems, to understand ideas, and to generally consolidate future work, rather than just present some work or solve a problem. So it was imperative to create a safe space to encourage "stupid" questions. I was told afterwards that I did a good job, and that was when I realised the importance of this type of support which is often understated and underappreciated.

The onus is on us, the educators, the leaders of a research project, the students, and the participants in those research project, to make the conversation as pleasant and inclusive as necessary to allow people to ask questions, any and all. "Good question. I don't know." is one of the best answers you can get from anyone in science. It is usually honest, usually accurate, and usually enticing.

It is easy to fall into traps that you set for yourself, either by habit, or by routine, or by general indifference to life, and not think about it, or just believe that you are doing well enough. We should periodically ask ourselves if we are doing enough, if we can do more, because creating a space where asking questions is good takes very little effort. It is easy to not notice that someone is sitting in the back of the class quietly. Especially if that class is large enough. Sometimes, there's not much you can do about it. But if you are approachable, if you show your students and your peers that you are able to understand their difficulty, then you will draw them out.

We need more diversity (in most things). For that to happen we need role model, and we need an environment that encourages and builds, rather than competitive destruction. It is up to us to make these changes. Luckily, pop culture is slowly shifting towards "science is for everyone" in terms of role models. It is up to us, in academia, to make the safe spaces for "stupid" questions.

Postscript. I know that "diversity hires" can be terrible. They can lead to even more contempt, to even more pressure, and at the end to be counterproductive to their very cause. Ultimately, it is about quality, but we should set the stage in a way that encourages diversity. Often candidates from underrepresented groups will have more pressure, more stress, more difficulty. I was told that providing the interview questions in advance helps. I know it helped me a lot when I interviewed for my FLF and they gave us a "sample interview" which was quite close to the real one. Just like in mathematics things that are "obvious" might not be obvious to a less-experienced reader, "obvious" interview questions are not so obvious if you've never been interviewed before, or come from a very different background.

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