The Blog

Dr. Malabika Pramanik on Levelling the Playing Field

Author: Adrienne Ahn

To continue the conversation on the SDGs Interview Series, Adrienne virtually interviewed UBC mathematician Dr. Malabika Pramanik on representation in academics, effects of the pandemic, and advice for those entering the STEM fields. 

Photo: Paul H. Joseph/UBC Brand & Marketing.

The year 2020 has, in many ways, presented one superimposed crisis over another. As COVID-19 swept through our countries, neighbourhoods, and workplaces, the pandemic widened existing inequality gaps and brought attention to the precarious position that many have been left in. Faster developments in and between STEM fields and a restructuring of traditional ways of living or conducting business have also come about. For Dr. Malabika Pramanik, Professor of Mathematics at the University of British Columbia (UBC), it is important to keep an eye on both as it pertains to the SDGs.

“COVID has had a disproportionately negative impact on women, Indigenous peoples, people of colour, people with mental health challenges, visible or invisible (dis)abilities. Jobs have been lost, careers have been jeopardized, domestic violence and unpaid care work have multiplied. It may take a long time and targeted policy measures to restore a semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy.”

Although the curtains have now been drawn on endemic inequalities, she has also seen the different outcomes that have come about during the past year in her own field and across the SDGs.

“While this is certainly not the right time to feel complacent about any SDG, there is still a silver lining. COVID has unearthed previously un-tapped channels of connection and communication. Virtual meeting platforms, webinars and online conferences have exploded, long-distance travel and immigration hassles are no longer barriers to attending a university and getting a quality education,” she says. “For many students and researchers unable to travel due to lack of resources or personal constraints, this has resulted in access to facilities not previously within reach. Reduction in air travel may have had some beneficial impact on carbon emissions, even though climate change remains the biggest challenge to our planet.”

As an established academic who also heads the internationally-renowned Banff International Research Station (BIRS) as the Scientific Director, it was important to sustain opportunities for continued person-to-person collaboration in her work. After all, Pramanik is heavily drawn to research and teaching; the former due to it gaining appeal during her graduate studies and the latter owing to its people-facing aspect.

“I love to work on research problems, both on my own and with students and collaborators. The process of mathematical thinking, understanding what I don’t know, internalizing the work of scholars who have worked on similar problems before me, trying to tease bits of sense out of an initially meaningless jumble – whether individually or alongside others – is an exhilarating one,” she explains.

Within what she calls “the ambience of a classroom,” Pramanik owes her appreciation for teaching to the regular discourse that takes place and the “dawning of the ‘Aha!’ moments.”

“Explaining theoretical concepts to others, trying to understand their ideas and reasoning and addressing their questions offer a level of depth and clarity that is hard to achieve on one’s own,” she says. And in her current role at BIRS, she combines these aspects by working with members of the scientific community “to find ways in which research, education and outreach activities can be supported during and after the pandemic.

Photo: Paul H. Joseph/UBC Brand & Marketing.

Prior to being recognized for her research in mathematical analysis, and before the awards for her teaching abilities, Pramanik started down this path thanks to an impactful network and a fascination with human creativity.

“Innovative ideas and solutions, effective communication of beautiful and complex thoughts and emotions are among the most challenging of human endeavours. I have always felt electrified in the presence of creativity that expresses the deepest explorations of the human mind in the simplest terms and with apparent effortlessness,” she reflects. “In mathematics, my transformative experiences have originated from teachers and mentors hailing from very different cultural and social backgrounds and very different lived experiences, yet whose kindness, support and freely shared insights have unlocked new vistas of understanding and reserves of strength I did not know I possessed.”

In many ways, these experiences have helped construct her personal understanding of gender equality as “a universe where every person (regardless of gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or socio-economic status) gets to define what success and fulfillment mean for them, and which provides each one of them a supportive framework and a clear pathway to reach that destination without the fear of discrimination or isolation.”

If we want to reach this ‘universe’ in due time, Pramanik believes that more will need to be done across and within different settings. The award-winning mathematician’s own unique positionality, combined with her familiarity with the university setting has enabled her to identify several prevailing issues within the system.

“Some people might argue that ‘Gender Equality’ has been achieved in higher education. After all, anyone can choose to study math (or any subject of their choice) regardless of their gender identity. But does that really mean that we now have a level playing field? I feel that we are not there yet,” she says. “There are still many situations in academia where one comes across subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, sources of bias. Take for example issues surrounding parental leaves of absence and one’s academic trajectory. Nowadays, it is quite common that evaluations for purposes of tenure, promotion or academic awards take into account possible breaks in research or teaching projects due to parental leave. But in many fields one sometimes gets the impression that there is an unspoken but clearly present judgement passed on women who prioritized having a family over career advancement. In a gender-equal universe, personal commitments and career development would not be viewed as competitors, rather synergistic ingredients of one’s professional and personal growth.”

The synergy she describes can extend to various opportunities that constitute one’s growth; yet, as Pramanik shares: “Many research programs, workshops and conferences continue to suffer from an overwhelming imbalance in representation, preventing women of different races, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds from being comfortable in that environment. This exclusionary culture, often cloaked under the stereotype that certain fields simply do not have enough minorities, perpetuates the ongoing inequity.”

Alongside this, Pramanik points out that another cause and effect of inequality is the “lack of diverse role models, not just with respect to gender, at higher levels of academia.” She remains hopeful that, with time, there will be accelerated progress in these areas: “While not necessarily a deterrent to someone determined to enter a field, this can be a significant hurdle and sometimes a deciding factor to move away, especially for otherwise qualified students who are still exploring their options and academic paths. Change here is very gradual, but I have hope that even small incremental progress will result in a snowball effect of tangible positive outcomes in a few years.”

In continuing the discussion on SDG 5: Gender Equality, she has this to say: “I also want to emphasize that gender is just one aspect of diversity. There is enormous variety within every gender identity. Gender equality can be appreciated and attained only if it is placed in the context of the infinite variations that constitute the human experience. Many of the inequalities we see related to gender identity have their counterparts for the other aspects and indeed sometimes intersect with them. Successful strategies for enhancing ‘gender equality’ can and should also guide effort in other areas.”

One such strategy that Pramanik herself employs is developing sustainable programming for underrepresented groups in STEM fields. By breaking into this particular field, she lived through similar experiences herself. And by working in this field, she saw where the gaps remain for these groups of young women and now has a collection of advice to share.

“If you like what you do, stick with it. If you find others who share the same sense of isolation, support each other. Make small positive changes, however insignificant they may seem. Be gentle on yourself, celebrate small victories. Please do not give up because the culture made you feel less capable,” she urges. “Finally, once you do succeed according to your own metrics, take some time to reflect on your journey. Look back to analyze who contributed meaningfully to your growth, and whether your success is solely yours to enjoy. Examine your success within the context of the historical inequities and cultural stereotypes existing in your field, and then identify all the factors that helped you reach where you are.”

By hinting at how privilege has governed lives for generations, she also brings attention to the different ways it continues to impact people.

“I would ask successful members of all under-represented groups who claim to be race or gender agnostic to consider this: say you are a tenured professor in a major research university or maybe a senior scientist and technology leader shaping a booming industrial sector. Are you here simply because you are really smart, and any other member of your community who has not reached such a position is just not as good? Let’s go back fifty years – where we find nobody from a similar background in the higher echelons of your discipline. Do you conclude that under-represented minorities now are just much smarter than in earlier generations, or do you think other systemic factors might have hurt their professional chances? If you agree there were other factors, do you think their influence vanished entirely before or since you entered the field? If the answer is no, pay your debt forward; help another person like you achieve their true potential.”

In this era of the global pandemic, there has been a cascade of changes affecting everyone and everything including SDG 4 to SDG 5. A lot has changed, but there have also been missed opportunities to reimagine new economic systems, education, and ways to address global inequalities. As Pramanik illustrates at the beginning of the interview, it is up to all of us to keep track of what is happening—both the progress and challenges.

“It is safe to say that in a post-COVID era, some of these positive changes will persist,” she says. “Recovery from COVID will have the perhaps unintended, but still very welcome, outcome of a certain amount of levelling of the playing field.”