Recently I wrote a post, Mathematicians are people too, about the image problem of mathematicians and called for examples of mathematicians who do not fit the traditional stereotype.
On Google+, Christian Perfect said:
ok, so, as an autistic white male mathematician, I’m going to steer clear.
I said that as a glasses-wearing, bearded white man, I didn’t feel much use either. Christian replied:
so: stereotype-abiding mathematicians band together to reassure public that mathematicians don’t necessarily conform to the stereotype.
That’s the kind of logic only mathematicians would appreciate.
I also received this comment from Twitter user @sebmr2:
Didn’t Galois do enough to break stereotypes for me to fit them?
I don’t think all mathematicians should personally break the stereotype. I remember some years ago I was working in a university mathematics department and someone had pinned up a newspaper comment piece in the staff room about how lecturers should dress in sharp suits like businessmen if they want to give the right impression to their students. I don’t agree with this.
However, my call for examples was written from another viewpoint. Not: can I, as someone who studied mathematics at university, adapt myself to avoid the stereotype. Instead: what if I was faced with a class of students, many of whom would never fit the stereotype (by virtue of their ethnicity or gender, for example)? I would want my class to believe that they too could be mathematicians, yet if they think all mathematicians conform to a certain ‘type’ then this is a barrier to them seeing themselves in this way. Particularly as it is obviously an incorrect stereotype.
So I am interested in breaking stereotypes not to change you, dear reader, but to better inspire others.
There’s a mathematician six floors above me where I work. I’d never had much to do with her, but I’d heard she’d had an unusual childhood in Burma, and grew up to become the first female professor of mathematics at the university where we both work. One day on Twitter she wrote, “Maths is in my heart,” a sentiment both alien and amusing to me, being someone who’s terrible with numbers. It stayed with me though, and later that afternoon I knocked on her door and asked if she’d tell me her story.