Today's rant -- a letter to my main professional society -- is posted below and needs little introduction. I am grateful to the people who have inspired me to speak up about diversity issues. For those who haven't yet spoken up, I hope you will consider doing so.
Dear President [removed], Executive Director [removed], and SIAM Fellows Selection Committee,
As I am so fond of telling my colleagues, I love SIAM. As a fifteen-year SIAM member, I've attended SIAM conferences; judged SIAM poster competitions; read, refereed for, published in, and edited SIAM journals; and, this year, won a SIAM best paper prize. Obviously, I have benefitted substantively from the excellent opportunities SIAM offers. But because I love SIAM so much, I find it necessary to ask some difficult questions related to SIAM Fellows selection and issues of diversity.
Just like I do every summer, this summer I am advising a cohort of undergraduate research students. It so happens that this summer, all four of my students are women. To boot, they are talented, hardworking, mathematically promising women working on advanced topics such as nonlocal PDE, correlated random walks, and more. These are women who have the interest and the ability to have future careers as applied mathematicians.
Besides working with my students on research, I expose them to other aspects of life as an applied mathematician. Yesterday, I found myself in the awkward position of trying to explain to them the 2013 SIAM Fellows list disseminated in the "SIAM Unwrapped" email I received. As we looked through the list of Fellows, we noted that merely two of the 33 new Fellows are women. One of my students commented "that's pretty grim" -- an assessment met with concurrence from the rest of the room.
Previous years are nearly equally grim. Based on my quick scan of data on the SIAM website, here is a tally of the representation of women amongst SIAM fellows:
2009: 194 fellows, 16 women (8%)
2010: 34 fellows, 3 women (9%)
2011: 34 fellows, 2 women (6%)
2012: 35 fellows, 7 women (20%)
2013: 33 fellows, 2 women (6%)
Overall: 330 fellows, 30 women (9%)
What am I to tell my students? What message are they meant to receive from looking at the Fellows roster? Is SIAM's contention that the dismal percentages simply are not a problem? Is the contention that in 2013, there were really only two women applied mathematicians qualified to be named Fellows? Or that because fellowship depends on a nomination process, there's just nothing SIAM can do if women aren't nominated?
One might have idealistically hoped that the Fellows program would strive to provide a little remedy to the underrepresentation of women in the field at large. It appears this is not the case. Furthermore, while I recognize that it is a dicey proposition to judge diversity based on inferences from a list of names and photos, the SIAM Fellows roster appears to include exceedingly few members from other groups (besides women) that are also traditionally considered underrepresented.
Please know that I am tremendously grateful for the hard work you do on behalf of SIAM. Also, I am in an odd position writing this email as an approaching-middle-aged white guy who has undoubtedly benefitted from the social privilege conferred by those demographics. But still, on behalf of young women and minority students, and with concern for the scientific potential that might be lost when some of them leave a field that appears to pay insufficient attention to diversity, I worry.
In case any of you share my worries and feel like discussing the issues I've raised here, I'll be present at the SIAM Annual Meeting in [location] on [date] and free for most of the day (except lunch).
Associate Professor of Mathematics