Changing the Distribution: The Transformation of Harvard’s Statistics Department

Changing the Distribution: The Transformation of Harvard’s Statistics Department

For its first 58 years, Harvard’s Statistics Department did not have a single female tenured faculty member. In recent years, the tides have turned.


Changing the Distribution: The Transformation of Harvard's Statistics Department statistics, nevin manimala
The Science Center

For 58 years after its establishment, Harvard’s Statistics Department — known for being a small, scholarly community of a few dozen researchers sequestered on the seventh floor of the Science Center — did not have a single female tenured faculty member.

That picture has changed dramatically over the past ten years, as the department has transformed to accommodate a skyrocketing number of undergraduate concentrators and a rising awareness of gender representation in the sciences.

About a quarter of today’s tenured Statistics faculty is female, a development that administrators, professors, and alumni see as a sea-change from the department of decades past.

Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity Judith D. Singer, who received her PhD in Statistics from Harvard in 1983, said the Statistics department was “very, very much gender-imbalanced for decades.”

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“This was a department that always had female graduate students but never had female faculty, ever,” Singer said.

Singer attributed the imbalance to the small size of the department and a conspicuous lack of undergraduate concentrators in its early years.

“I think the more striking trend is that there are undergraduates who are concentrating and taking classes in statistics,” Singer said. “When I was a PhD student, if there was an undergraduate around, that was an unusual phenomenon.”

Professor Xihong Lin, who holds a joint appointment in the Statistics Department and the Biostatistics Department at the School of Public Health, said that peer departments at Stanford and UC Berkeley have historically had larger statistics programs. As recently as 2008, the Harvard Statistics Department had fewer than 20 undergraduate concentrators. Today, that number has increased more than seven-fold.

Remembering her time as a graduate student in the department, Singer said she has seen an evolution in attitudes towards gender representation among faculty over the years. She shared an anecdote about Frederick Mosteller, who was the founding chair of the Statistics Department and her own PhD advisor.

“Fred was actually a wonderful man who gave opportunities to women, but it was just not a department that could see its way to diversifying its faculty effectively,” Singer said.

She pointed to a moment during a reception in Loeb House to celebrate Mosteller’s retirement in 1987. The former Chair had introduced his wife to attendees with an off-hand joke that Singer — at the time, one of only a few women in Statistics — still remembers clearly.

“He said, ‘every statistician needs a wife,’” Singer recalled, to which an alumus of the department interjected, “Fred, some of us are wives.”

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‘A TEAM EFFORT’

According to Interim Dean of Sciences Christopher W. Stubbs, one of Harvard administrators’ main objectives when hiring new faculty members is to maximize representation across the faculty body and ensure that students “can see people that look and feel like them in the classroom.”

“Every step along the way in the [hiring] process… the administration is looking over the shoulder of these [faculty] searches as they’re executed and making sure that they’re meeting our broad educational objectives,” Stubbs said.

He lauded the efforts of former Dean of Sciences Jeremy Bloxham — who stepped down at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year — in bringing the tenure-track faculty of the Sciences division to gender parity through a series of appointments that included the hiring of Statistics Professor Susan A. Murphy in 2017.

According to Singer, collaboration between Statistics faculty and senior Faculty of Arts and Sciences administrators, including former FAS Dean Michael D. Smith, was instrumental in reducing the department’s gender imbalance. Singer particularly noted the work of former Statistics Department Chair Neil Shephard in promoting diversity within the faculty population of the department.

Singer said one effective mechanism adopted by Shephard was the extension of full-time equivalent appointments to faculty with tenured positions elsewhere at Harvard, which gave them voting rights and participation in the department. She named Lin and Statistics Professor Xiaole “Shirley” Liu, who both also serve as Biostatistics professors at then School of Public Health, as examples of recent full-time equivalent appointments that increased the gender diversity of the department

“By extending our appointments to Professor Lin and Professor Liu, all of a sudden there were two tenured women in the department,” Singer said.

Singer noted that these “FTE” appointments enabled the Statistics Department to increase female faculty representation more quickly than recruiting and hiring from outside the university.

Lin cited support from FAS and University officials as a key factor to increasing the number of female faculty members in the department.

“From the leadership and to the faculty in the department, everybody feels that promoting diversity is one of the department’s higher priorities,” she said.

According to Lin, this “team effort” has resulted in an “intellectual environment that is stimulating, supportive, and nurturing.” She said the senior faculty care about the junior faculty and often discuss ways to help the junior faculty develop their careers and make more connections.

Stubbs said there is still room for improvement, however. While he acknowledged that progress in reducing gender imbalances in traditionally male-dominated departments like Statistics has been “depressingly slow,” he said he is committed to addressing this challenge during his time as Interim Dean of Sciences.

“I think it’s incumbent on all of us to think hard about what more can we do,” he said. “I’ll certainly do everything that I can while I’m sitting in this chair to bring about that change.”

‘AN EMPHASIS IN TEACHING’

In addition to recruiting female faculty members, professors are also aiming to bridge the gender disparity among undergraduate concentrators through improving the quality of instruction.

Singer attributed the origin of this effort to Statistics Professor and former Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Xiao-Li Meng, who chaired the Statistics Department from 2004 to 2012. Meng’s ideas marked a “profound shift” and are part of the reason why the department had expanded so quickly, according to Singer.

“When Meng was chair, he believed that the key to success in the department was to improve the quality of teaching in the department, to make taking courses and to make being a concentrator an attractive option. And if we made it an attractive option, we would also attract more women into the field,” Singer said. “So improving the climate and the attention to teaching in the department generally saw an increase in enrollment, an increase in concentrators, an emphasis in teaching.”

Both Stubbs and Lin pointed to burgeoning undergraduate interest in Statistics classes. Lin mentioned, in particular, Statistics Professor Joseph K. Blitzstein’s popular course Statistics 110: “Introduction to Probability,” which currently boasts 542 enrolled students.

“The Statistics Department is a remarkable department in that the number of students per year that take courses in statistics is around 2,500,” Stubbs said. “Of all the departments in our division, I believe it’s the case that Statistics carries the biggest instructional load per faculty member of any department in our division.”

Stubbs added that the “growing appreciation of data science” and its interdisciplinary applications have caused what he called a “tsunami of demand” for statistics courses.

According to Singer, the faculty’s diverse research areas reflect the versatility of statistics for use in other fields. Many Statistics professors have joint appointments in other departments.

“There’s a very famous quote from a fellow named John Tukey, who was actually the unofficial PhD advisor of my advisor: ‘One of the fun things about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard,’” Singer said.

A ‘PRETTY SIGNIFICANT DISPARITY’

Several undergraduates in the department said that while they notice continued gender disparities, they are cognizant of the department’s ongoing efforts to address them.

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Kelsang D. Donyo ’19, a Statistics concentrator, said the gender imabalance among Statistics faculty was particularly noticeable in upper-level statistics courses, but paralleled trends in other STEM departments.

“When you go in the upper-level classes, like Stat 139 or Stat 149, it does tend to get more male-dominated,” she said. “But at the same time you sort of expect that, sadly, as a student concentrating in Statistics, or taking those statistics courses, or math courses, or CS courses, and we just get trained to be used to that.”

Donyo said she believed the department could do more to promote diversity in concentration advising and mentorship, rather than relying on student-run advocacy groups such as Gender Inclusivity in Mathematics.

“It would be nice to have a female voice to kind of help you navigate certain job opportunities after graduation, in terms of more technical roles,” Donyo said. “It’s more like you as a Statistics concentrator have to speak out, maybe find a female mentor figure on your own, rather than that being provided for you.”

Tejal Patwardhan ’20, a Statistics concentrator and a teaching fellow for Stat 110, acknowledged the “pretty significant disparity” in the gender composition of faculty members and concentrators in the department. Still, she said she felt faculty members were “very aware” of this issue and taking active steps to address it.

In particular, Patwardhan pointed to Blitzstein’s efforts to diversify the teaching staff of Stat 110 through the hiring of more female teaching fellows. She said this was especially encouraging to potential female concentrators — given the course’s role as an introduction to the concentration — and guided her own decision to concentrate in Statistics.

“When I took the class and I saw a lot of women TFs who were very brilliant, that made me want to join,” Patwardhan said.

Similarly, Allison R. Paul ’20 said that the encouragement and support she received from professors was a significant factor in her decision to concentrate in Statistics.

“I started off wanting to do pure math, and in freshman year I got kind of turned off from it when I was taking [Math] 55,” Paul said. “At the same time, I was taking Stat 110, and Joe Blitzstein emailed me, saying ‘hey, you should really think about being a Stat concentrator!’ And I really appreciated that and have since really liked Stat. And Blitzstein is my advisor right now.”

—Staff writer Amy L. Jia can be reached at amy.jia@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmyLJia.

—Staff writer Sanjana L. Narayanan can be reached at sanjana.narayanan@thecrimson.com.

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