Both my girlfriend and I (both white) applied to the same PhD programs in mathematics. Most of these schools are AMS Group I and some Group II.

I got denied by a majority of these programs while she got accepted to a majority of them. I sincerely do believe my profile is stronger (see comparison below) so I think there is a definite unfair advantage geared towards females candidates for graduate admissions. Am I able to legally sue some of these schools for gender bias? Why are the admission committees doing this? Shouldn't admission decisions be based on "who is best fit and capable to be doing math research" instead of "who will look best for our department"?


  • We went to the same college, and have the same math classes except for 5-6 courses that are not math since we knew each other since high school. My GPA is 3.9, 0.2 higher than hers.
  • My Math GRE subject test score is above 80% while hers is less than 40%.
  • I have done 3 REUs, coauthored some (over 3) papers while she only did one REU last summer with no publications.

Furthermore, in my school, some of the incoming female PHD students know less math (insufficient preparation) than a typical junior/senior undergraduates, which supports my theory.

Am I the only person thinking this is unfair? Aren't the actions of these admissions committee members jeopardizing the output of their math department by choosing less capable people?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Mar 22, 2020 at 10:00
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    Would you mind explaining some of the terminology that the avarage reader won't have to look them up? Eg AMS geoup, REU, GRE subject test score. GPA is some kind of grade and the higher the better, right?
    – user111388
    Mar 22, 2020 at 12:38
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    You don't say: are you both U.S. citizens? (Some programs may have higher standards for admission of non-citizens.)
    – GEdgar
    Mar 22, 2020 at 13:33
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    Questions: Did you have to write application letters for these schools? Did you have to interview for these positions? I'm not in mathematics, but many fields/departments (may vary across schools) don't actually care about things like GPA and GRE except to mark a mandatory checkbox for the university.
    – anjama
    Mar 22, 2020 at 15:05
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    @Allure I pulled it off the HNQ list to reduce the chance of endless debates and polemics (which already started). See also this meta question. Mar 22, 2020 at 21:38

7 Answers 7


I have had people I know who are senior mathematicians tell me in private conversation that they believe it is right and proper to discriminate in favor of females in mathematics in things like graduate admissions and job hiring. In some cases they essentially admitted (in a circumspect, plausibly-deniable sort of way) to practicing this kind of discrimination themselves.

Based on these anecdotal experiences, I believe it is indeed quite possible that you were discriminated against. It’s also possible that you weren’t; there is simply no way to know for sure. It’s not even clear that there is an objective underlying truth to this question, since the notion of what it means to be discriminated against isn’t scientifically defined.

The people I mentioned are people I respect and believe to be quite sensible, well-intentioned people. Their views seem to be widely held among professional mathematicians in (US, and other countries) academia today, including many people whom I would characterize as very reasonable and moral. On the other hand, many other members of the academic math community disagree and believe that gender based discrimination in math and science is unethical and unfair regardless of which direction it takes place in. So no, you are not the only one, far from it.

I don’t think there is a legal remedy for this issue. Who will you sue? How will you prove that a specific program or person discriminated against you? Besides, the societal debate about affirmative action has been going on for several decades and doesn’t seem about to end. There have been numerous lawsuits with results going both ways. The battle lines move a little, then move the other way. Laws are passed, then get ignored or worked around. At the end of the day, there is simply a wide chasm in our society over the belief in the morality of such actions, and no law or court can change that.

For math specifically, the issue will likely subside in importance over time as the number of successful women mathematicians grows closer to (or reaches parity with) that of men in the profession and a younger generation takes over that doesn’t carry the baggage of the older generation and is baffled by the very notion that it was once believed women could not succeed in mathematics.

I understand that all of this big-picture stuff might offer only small consolation for you in your personal situation. It is reasonable to be upset, but keep in mind that most women also have plenty of things to be upset about, and while two wrongs don’t make a right, statistically speaking, you will probably end up getting just as much of a chance as your girlfriend to prove your worth as a budding mathematician, and you will probably be at least a little bit advantaged over her in other ways that you may not realize.

Life isn’t completely fair for anyone. Go out there and succeed anyway! Good luck!

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    Can confirm having heard similar things from senior people in astronomy.
    – user35915
    Mar 22, 2020 at 12:47
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    This does not help OP, but perhaps OP is ultimately best served not to go to a place that has so little respect for meritocracy. I say that as someone whose group is regularly joined by (very capable) women and has a large proportion of in an atypical field, because my motto is: "Even the odds and treat everybody according to their individual skill set, not by what bias society may imply about a random group of people who your candidate may fortuitously belong to". Mar 22, 2020 at 13:04
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    @CaptainEmacs well, rather a lot of departments seem to wish to inflict such (hypothetical) damage to themselves these days, so OP is decidedly not best served by being rejected from all of them. But of course, all these arguments have been rehashed over and over numerous times on this site, in newspaper articles, dinner tables, and pretty much everywhere else. Please let’s not hijack OP’s question to start yet another pointless debate of this type.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 22, 2020 at 17:15
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    While I mostly agree with this answer, referring to corrective measures as "discrimination" is nonstandard, and is likely to raise eyebrows from those in favor of such corrective measures. The way they see it, there are a lot of implicit biases and obstacles preventing women from succeeding, so taking into account gender is simply correcting for the implicit bias. Is it discrimination to discriminate in favor of the discriminated? Mar 22, 2020 at 20:29
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    @6005 thanks, glad you mostly agree. Can you point to the specific sentence in my answer that you disapprove of? To clarify, wherever I used “discriminate” and its derivatives, I am referring to the legal sense of actions that violate state and federal laws such as this one. I stand by what I said and don’t think the usage is controversial or nonstandard. Take it easy with those eyebrow muscles.
    – Dan Romik
    Mar 22, 2020 at 21:04

It is possible you were unfairly rejected. This is not really possible to prove one way or the other, from the information in your post.

Unrelated to that, however, your post shows a lack of understanding for the standard justifications of affirmative action, and why admissions committees sometimes may try to improve the gender balance of their decisions. I would recommed that, regardless of your opinion, you take the time to understand their point of view.

The executive summary of that point of view is that they do not believe they are giving an unfair advantage to women and minority candidates, but rather they believe they are correcting for an unfair advantage that majority (male, white, etc.) candidates already have, that is not always easily measurable.

Once again, you are free to disagree, but you should understand it.

With that in mind, let me present the standard responses to your complaints, from the admissions committees' likely point of view.

Aren't the actions of these admissions committee members jeopardizing the output of their math department by choosing less capable people?

No, because they do not believe they are choosing less capable people. It has been shown in a variety of studies that people (including admissions committees) are implicitly biased against women and minorities. That is, given a female student and a male student (alternatively: a student with a female name and a student with a male name) with the exact same level of ability, people routinely underestimate the female student's ability in STEM compared to the male student's ability.

The admissions committees are trying to correct for that, so it is unsurprising that they choose to admit candidates who you perceive as being less capable and prepared. However, the committee does not see it that way; they think the female students are equally capable and prepared, but are unfairly discriminated against.

Moreover, who is right (you or the admissions committees) is actually an empirical question: are the students they are admitting actually less qualified, or are they actually equally qualified? In theory, given the time to make well-controlled studies and the ability to collect infinite amounts of data, we could resolve this question one way or the other. And there has been a lot of research on it already, although none of it is completely conclusive, and the world is constantly changing, so it is unclear to what extent the past studies apply to today.

Furthermore, in my school, some of the incoming female PHD students know less math (insufficient preparation) than a typical junior/senior undergraduates, which supports my theory.

What makes you believe these students are not as strong? Once again there is a possibility of implicit bias here, since women are often underestimated by their peers. Few people have the capability to act as a "neutral party" and judge someone else independently of whether they look like them, talk like them, or share their personality type. You should consider whether, one way or another, you are biased in some way in your evaluation.

I sincerely do believe my profile is stronger (see comparison below)

I'm not entirely convinced by your comparison. The coursework and grades don't matter too much; the GRE matters a little more, but not a lot. The REU experience does matter. However, we don't have access to the recommendation letters or cover letters, so it's possible that hers were a lot stronger.

Moreover, from the admission committees' likely perspective, your entire comparison is predicated on the idea that you and your girlfriend were given the same opportunity to succeed, and this seems unlikely. Although you are in the same department, men are more often participating in mathematical activites throughout high school and college; this includes, for instance, applying to REUs more often. Supposing that your girlfriend is equally qualified to you, it would be unsurprising (to the committees) that she applied to and participated in fewer REUs.

The admissions committee is likely interested in assessing, not just "how much stuff does this person have on their resume?" but also, "how likely are they to succeed in our program?" And the latter question is, while a lot more difficult to evaluate, clearly more important. From their perspective, they might believe that women have an unfair disadvantage on average when it comes to their resumes, even though they are still likely to succeed given some solid evidence (e.g., prior research experience and solid coursework).

Another way of saying this is that more things padding your resume is not necessarily better than fewer things, which nevertheless point strongly to the candidate being highly qualified.

Shouldn't admission decisions be based on "who is best fit and capable to be doing math research" instead of "who will look best for our department"?

Yes, and the admissions committees believe they are selecting for the former, whereas you believe they are selecting for the latter. They believe that women are underselected and underrepresented despite being highly fit and capable.

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    +1 The program might also recognize that extreme gender disparities are a problem for many reasons. Mar 22, 2020 at 22:03

The comparison you make is quite compelling, insofar as you both went to the same school, and have conducted similar tests/classes in your respective CVs, and there is no aspect (that you have mentioned) where her record is stronger than yours. I would recommend you take a careful look to see if there are any aspects of your girlfriend's CV that are superior to your own, and see if it is plausible that these may have affected the results. Assuming that there is no compelling difference in her favour, this comparison does indeed give rise to a suspicion of sex discrimination, but obviously it is just two data points, so it is not definitive. Possibly one or more of these universities are engaging in sex discrimination, or maybe they just did not make a very astute comparison of those two applications.

Why are the admission committees doing this? Shouldn't admission decisions be based on "who is best fit and capable to be doing math research" instead of "who will look best for our department"?

If these schools are indeed engaging in discrimination, it is likely that this is a species of "affirmative action", geared towards the goal of increasing the proportion of females in mathematics programs. Universities have a long history of engaging in affirmative discrimination, and they have generally not been disuaded from this by legal prohibitions to the contrary. Many universities presently appear to be taking action towards trying to increase the proportion of females in STEM programs, so it is possible that this is what is occurring here (though without more detail, I couldn't say for sure).

Personally, I agree with your view that universities should just hire on merit, and let the chips fall where they may. However, that philosophy is contrary to the popular wisdom of the university sector, and the administration of most universities do not see things this way. Within the university sector, and the broader corporate sector, there is a great deal of emphasis on racial and sexual "diversity" in recruitment and retention. These institutions have been heavily affected by the neo-Marxist academic philosophy of the last sixty years, which holds that disparities in social outcomes are attributable primarily or solely to institutional discrimination against under-represented groups, and thus in need of affirmative correction through positive discrimination. (And really, if you have already gone through an entire undergraduate university degree and you have not noticed this, you must have been living under a rock.)

If you are correct that you have been discriminated against because you are male then I am very sorry --- that is indeed very unfair. I am just a lowly academic, and not the Lord-of-All-University-Hiring, but you have my sympathies, for whatever that is worth.

Am I able to legally sue some of these schools for gender bias?

You can sue anyone you like for anything you want, but if you decide to do this you should get legal advice before doing so, since there is no guarantee of success, and an unsuccessful lawsuit can cost you a lot of money. If you are considering taking legal action over this matter, you should first speak to a lawyer who practices in anti-discrimination law, both to determine the legal rules for sex discrimination in your jurisdiction, and to get advice on whether your evidence of discrimination is compelling. You should also carefully document everything you can about the application process, and in particular, make sure to document any assurance given by the universities to the effect that they are an "equal opportunity employer" or that they "hire on merit". Remember that you cannot sue the university sector in general --- you would need to make a case against a particular university, based on their actions.

Please bear in mind that, although anti-discrimination laws provide a broad prohibition of sex discrimination in employment and recruitment decisions, they often contain exemptions for "positive action" or "special measures". This occurs when an employer discriminates in favour of an under-represented group for a purpose allowed by the statute. There are legal requirements on this type of discrimination, but it is allowed by law if it follows certain requirements. However, an employer cannot generally rely on this exemption if they have given a contractual assurrance of hiring solely on merit, or an assurance that they are "equal opportunity". (Strictly speaking, they might still not be in breach of anti-discrimination law, but they could be sued for breach of contract.)

Whether or not affirmative discrimination in favour of females would be allowed here is complicated, and depends on a number of issues. Modern universities generally have a high proportion of female students in total, but low proportions in the STEM subjects. It is a matter of legal controversy whether or not this circumstance allows them to legitimately engage in positive discrimination in favour of females within the STEM subjects. (Arguably they would only be able to do so if they likewise discriminate in favour of males in subject areas where males are underrepresented.) You will need to speak to a lawyer in this field to get an idea of the position in your jurisdiction.

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    Yes, indeed. There is a general misapprehension on this forum (mostly by people who have no legal training) that any form of discrimination is illegal. That is not how anti-discrimination law works, particularly when it comes to affirmative action.
    – Ben
    Mar 23, 2020 at 1:06

The is a degree of randomness to these processes and factors that are unknown or not described in your post. Think of any logistic regression model that you might have seen. Some proportion of those predicted to be 1 actually are 0 and vice versa. It could be due to an excluded variable but it could be random. Are you both proposing to work with the same faculty and/or on the same topics? If not, you have no idea how many other people were actually focused on the same topics/faculty as you. You also do not know what the letters said. You also may find it hard to judge quality of past work. GPA is not the be all and end all for researchers, sometime you might see a lower GPA because a student took more risks that are interesting. It could be that they look at your summer histories in ways that are different than you are. In the end, if you got into one program that is a good fit that is all you need.


It depends on your local laws of course, but if it can be proven that you were discriminated against because of your gender, there's a good chance it was unlawful.

Related question I asked on the Law StackExchange. The law cited is for Australia, and the relevant section is Section 21, which explicitly prohibits "educational authorities" from refusing or failing to accept your application as a student based on your sex:

(1) It is unlawful for an educational authority to discriminate against a person on the ground of the person's sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, intersex status, marital or relationship status, pregnancy or potential pregnancy, or breastfeeding:

(a) by refusing or failing to accept the person's application for admission as a student; or

(b) in the terms or conditions on which it is prepared to admit the person as a student.

Section 30 provides exceptions to when it is lawful to discriminate based on sex, but they're not applicable in your case. The base argument would be that that women are better mathematicians than men, therefore it is preferable to admit women. However, per the answer to the linked question, the way to discriminate is to set a standard mathematics test, and disqualify anyone scoring below a certain mark. Since you scored better than your girlfriend this argument does not work.

That said: how are you going to prove you were discriminated against because of your gender? There're a lot of possible ways the program can defend itself:

  • It can claim there was some material difference in the applications that led them to favor your girlfriend instead of you, e.g. in the letters of recommendation
  • It can claim they had two admission pools, one for "standard" applicants and one for under-represented groups, and both groups of applicants were considered against members of that group only (I don't actually know if this is legal)
  • It can claim that they need to achieve a diverse student body, which necessitates gender-based discrimination

There was a lawsuit about this some time ago, when the group Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard for discriminating based on race. Final result: the judge ruled in favor of the university.

Suffice to say, it's a minefield out there, and if you are considering legal action, get professional legal advice.

  • While this material is interesting, I'm afraid I disagree with your assessment of the law here. In particular, you have not mentioned Section 7D of the Act, which allows educational institutions to take "special measures" to achieve substantive equality between men and women. That section provides a very broad exemption that is commonly used in cases of affirmative action.
    – Ben
    May 1, 2020 at 5:19
  • Even if it is established that the university discriminated in favour of women, if they can establish that one of their purposes was to acheive "substantive equality" between men and women, and that has not already been achieved, then their action is deemed not to constitute "discrimination" in the legal sense in Section 5. As I note in my answer, there is some controversy over whether this is easily established in the university context, but so far the legal system appears to be very accomodating to pro-female discrimination.
    – Ben
    May 1, 2020 at 5:21

Going forward, I would advise that you simply choose your gender status as non-binary or choose the “prefer not to say” option on applications. Academic institutions are moving towards a model of racial and gender equity in programs and unfortunately that means that you might not be considered as valuable to the program because of your sexual orientation, race, or gender (in the name of inclusivity, equity, and diversity of course). By simply identifying on your application that you are male, unless the program is female dominant, you open yourself up to the possibility of judgement based on the gender box you check. This approach might sound problematic or unethical to some, but unless there’s an explicit advantage of stating your preferred gender on an application, nobody really needs to know but you. Besides, gender is fluid and a social construct, you can always change it once you get accepted.

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    "Prefer not to say" is fine. Selecting non-binary when you are not would be lying. Also, in many places the admissions committee will not see what you indicate on the demographics form. Instead they will infer your gender from other information. Mar 23, 2020 at 7:11

Discrimination is when an under-represented group is excluded from an opportunity. Nearly everyone agrees that is unfair.

Affirmative action is when an over-represented group is excluded from an opportunity. This is your situation. Some people think that affirmative action creates justice because it compensates for unfair discrimination by resulting in a relatively equal outcome. Other people think that affirmative action is unfair because it is a process that excludes people based on their group.

What is fair or unfair depends on which is more important: process, or results. Both views are defensible.

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