When Female Mathematicians Walk Into A Bar

Guilty – I find math jokes hilarious. When they are in fact jokes about math. I belong to a group on Facebook dedicated to the sole purpose of sharing math jokes. They make me groan or roll my eyes and occasionally laugh out loud. Once in a while someone will post a joke like this:

Yo Mamma’s so fat, her favorite day is Pi day.

Which is not only painfully unfunny, it’s also misogynistic, fat-shamey, and not even about math.

So I sigh and keep scrolling, hoping the rest of the jokes for that day will have more content and be less offensive. But then this happens:

Why do we have Pi day and Women’s day but we don’t have Men’s day?
Because men are rational!

By now I’m annoyed, but I tell myself to let it go, he was just trying to make a joke about pi being an irrational number, haha. It’s just a joke

And then someone posted this:

Woman = time * money
Time = money
Money is the root of all problems
Therefore, Woman = problems

So I decided to speak my mind and commented, “Did they run out of jokes at the funny joke store where you shop?” (Night at the Museum II is a family favorite.)

My comment made people angry. ‘Look how many people thought it was funny,’ they said. ‘It’s your choice to be offended,’ they said. ‘It’s just a joke, get a sense of humor.’

Usually when a group starts posting too much offensive content, I just leave the group. But these are math jokes. I love math jokes. I want to stick around for the other 90% which are funny. So I decided to say something. I typed up a serious post for the group, which, to summarize, said:

“As a [female] mathematician, I have some trouble with the amount of jokes posted here that are about women. There is already a huge gap between the number of men and women in math. […] Let’s try to make this group a space where everyone can feel like they belong.”

The original post and comments, in Hebrew, can be viewed here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1468380300090389/permalink/1664671797127904/

Immediately came a rush of agreement and thanks from many female members of the group. But backlash was incredible. I can’t say I didn’t expect it, given the attitude I had met from the previous comment about the women=problems post. Here are some examples of response comments:

“So you went through 1000(!) posts and found 10 that were offensive to women. Nice. I thought I was obsessive…Grow a couple.”

“Your post creates a bad name for all women in general, and specifically for us women in this group.”

“Your post ruined my Friday morning.”

“Hi girls, I wanted to post a math joke, but I’m afraid I’ll be attacked if I do.”

“This post reinforces the stereotype that women are irrational and overly sensitive.”

“Who are you to decide what kind of jokes I can laugh at? If you’re offended, that’s your problem. You are being a bully and acting in a way worthy of Iran or some place where women are objects. Shame on you.”

“Get a sense of humor.”

“I don’t think [you are] looking for a solution, just attention and pity.”

“I’ve had enough. What a humorless party-pooper.”

“What a shame that you allow your feminist opinions to blind you, and worse, to try to ruin this group.”

“Taking an offensive joke is a price you should be willing to pay.”

Then there was one comment which stood out:

“Your argument is right, but you’re wrong to try to convince men who are defective and egotistical who would never accept criticism even if it is justified, and certainly not from a woman.”

To which I responded,

“Well, then, back me up. Men, speak up!”

And then came the following responses, all from men.

“Liora, you are not alone! 🙂 I also feel that the jokes about women are offensive and not funny.”

“I never thought those jokes offended anyone, but now I see the amount of women who are hurt by them and I really do think we should stop telling them. Even if I personally am not offended, the fact is that some women here are and we need to respect them.”

“What is with you guys? Someone said it’s offensive, apologize and stop posting them. It’s that simple. When women ask you not to tell offensive jokes, stop telling them they are being whiny or have no sense of humor. Behave like human beings.”

“To all of my penis-owning friends, we are not women. We do not experience the jokes in the same way. So most of us are not offended, and we might not even notice the misogyny in them. But if someone tells me his tooth hurts, I won’t silence him by claiming that my teeth feel fine. If she says the jokes are offensive, I believe her, and if I find a joke that contains gender references, I’ll think twice before posting it. We’re here to have fun, not to hurt anyone.”

“Liora, great post. It’s a shame you had to take so much pigheadedness in response.”

“I’ve started a new group. It’s called Misogynistic Math Jokes. Take your misogynistic math humor there.”

“Guys, guys…I don’t get what your problem is. Someone said she was offended, and she is clearly not the only one. What’s so hard about just accepting? Why are you acting like it will somehow destroy the group? It seems to me that not posting these offensive jokes will only improve the quality of our group.”

“How does saying that there were ‘only 10’ misogynistic jokes out of 1000 prove anything but the fact that there were 10 misogynistic jokes?”

Each response received its own dose of backlash.

I am overwhelmed and grateful for all the support, for every man who stood up to his peers and called them out. Every man who showed that women’s issues are not in fact only women’s issues, they are human rights issues. Men who reminded us that there are not only rude, self centered, egotistical dunderheads out there, but also caring, empathetic, kind men who love women and are not afraid to call injustice by its name. I am proud to be part of a group with you.

In an unexpected turn of events, about 12 hours after my post, a group admin invited me to join the team of group moderators. I now have the ability to remove posts and block users from the group, which means no more misogynistic math jokes over here! What this tells me is that the message was received. My voice was heard. But I think that is partly due to the amount of men who spoke up in support of me and my fellow women mathematicians.

It’s easy to look back at the comments and think, wow, there is no chance for equality in the future. Why would any woman want to learn mathematics if it means being surrounded by attitudes like those? But from the supportive responses, it is evident that men also care about equality. Misogyny is becoming less socially acceptable. Men have joined the fight for women’s rights and respect. Following my post about math jokes, I saw proof of that happening. So instead of being crushed and disheartened, I am hopeful.

Here’s to a better future, a better world for our boys and girls to grow up in.

*Top image from https://xkcd.com/385/

7 thoughts on “When Female Mathematicians Walk Into A Bar

  1. Liora, you are so brave. Good for you for fighting inequality and ignorance.
    I don’t get how people could be so blind to their surrounding.
    How could they not notice hurting human beings like them. If men how so “rational” as they say, then why do they act this way? I guess that it was the opposite way, and men would be oppressed so systematically, they wouldn’t think “men jokes” are so funny, would they?
    My friend was in the group you talked about, and she told me how brave and strong you were, acting like a leader for the unheard, the women mathematician minority.
    I my self study mathematics, and sometimes feel really alone. It is really hard for me sometimes with this manly environment of “jokes” and women objectification. Really sometimes I just want to quit!
    I wish I was more like you, I could never stand up to such a crowd who is so negative and hurting, I would immediately break from a comment such as “Your post creates a bad name for all women in general, and specifically for us women in this group.” it’s horrible!
    So stay brave for all of us! 🙂 and I hope we have more strong people like you.

    1. Your comment brought me to tears. Thank you so much for your words of encouragement.
      And about being brave – it’s easier once you know someone else who has already done it. I personally have my favorites, Gloria Steinem, Emma Watson, Malala, etc. Next time someone makes a sexist joke in your math department – stand up to them! And if they fire back, the 250 people who liked my post and I will back you up.

  2. Oh, I could only wish to have the courage to do so. I can never stand up to them.
    Once I’ve tried to even just hint when someone in the department said something like “Your mama is so fat she’s eaten the whole sandwich theorem”, and I replied “You know, that might be offensive to some”, then all they guys in the lounge started laughing at me. “jeez relax, it’s just a joke” and “get a sense of humor”, someone even had the nerves to say after I left (I could still hear him by the door) “she’s probably having her period or something”!!!
    Afterwards another girl who was there, said to me “you where right, but don’t bother, that’s how they are”, said I shouldn’t get offended and I should carry on.
    So I could never stand up to them, I’m afraid they might exile me. Even now not many of them talk to me :/.
    Maybe we need someone like you in our department 🙂

    1. See, it’s exactly that kind of attitude which is why the jokes bother me so much. It’s not that the one joke is so bad. It’s that it’s *all the time* and we’re always one or two girls in a room full of men who think we’re just “on our period.” Sandwich theorem my ass!

      Luckily though there are online groups of women in mathematics and other STEM fields. You can join them and find support and role models from other women in math around the world. Don’t give up! 🙂

      1. Hi Liora. I am still waiting for your answer. I sent you a private message if you haven’t seen :/

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