March 20, 2013

Pi Day Organizers Should Avoid Encouraging Gender Stereotypes

To the Editor:

Last Sunday’s Pi recitation contest saw children recite hundreds of digits from memory at the public library. However, what should have been an occasion to celebrate mathematics in Princeton was unfortunately nothing but, thanks to the astonishingly inappropriate conduct of the organizers of the event (the Princeton Tour Company).

The presenter of the 7-13 category presented herself as neither qualified nor interested to talk about Pi Day itself. Dressed in a lab coat, she instead made frequent comments about the appearance of the female contestants such as “You look so cute in your dress — just as well because that’s all I can talk about at an event like this!” and “What a lovely little skirt you’re wearing.” To one boy, she offered to “work out so I can become a supermodel and present next year’s competition in a bikini.” Despite no comments on the appearance of the male contestants (except one boy’s Pi-themed tie), she repeatedly complimented the clothes, accessories, and hair of the female contestants, eventually telling one girl who had paused mid-recitation, “I bet you stopped just there so we could all look at how pretty you are — that should be your strategy!”

These comments may have been intended harmlessly, but from the audience perspective, their effect was quite significant. The message being emphasized was that these girls were pretty first, clever/interesting/talented second. In a field such as mathematics which, like many scientific disciplines, still struggles to attract female academics, it seems particularly insulting to repeatedly draw attention to the physical appearance of girls above all else at an event like this one.

Worried by the attitude being presented, I mentioned my concerns to another organizer outside the competition hall and was consequently told in a raised voice that “if I didn’t like it, I could leave.” He also threatened that he was “visibly very angry.” Unsurprisingly astonished by this response, I did indeed leave, after being aggressively and repeatedly told, “Thank you for your feedback” until I offered to put my thoughts into an email instead.

Unfortunately, the only I response I received was “Thank you both so much for your communication regarding the Pi Recitation contest. Your feedback was detailed and constructive which will serve us well in planning for next year’s events!” Given that this email was addressed both to me and to another audience member who independently complained on similar grounds, I can only assume that this response was intended sarcastically.

Regardless, I believe that it’s important that next year’s events do take the attitude of the presenter into account. The Pi Day celebrations are a wonderful opportunity to introduce children to mathematics, and we should be extending that introduction to everyone, without playing to stereotypes or separating children based on gender. The issue of gender biases in academia is an extremely sensitive one, and I hope that the organizers will in future bear this in mind before behaving the way they did this year.

Catherine Offord

Dickinson Street