When State Sen. Daniel Biss was introduced at a dinner the other night, his Ph.D. in mathematics won the heartiest applause.
“I’m almost never in a room where people clap when the mathematics part of my bio gets recognized,” he told the 100-plus crowd. “So, I feel very happy right now.”
I interviewed Biss, elected from Illinois’ 9th Senate District, in Chicago, in 2012 after one term in the Illinois House, at a political salon at Yoshi’s Cafe on Chicago’s North Side.
The North Shore legislator is competing in a crowded race for the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Biss joined the University of Chicago mathematics faculty at the age of 25. He later traded in Cartesian coordinates and quadratic equations for government and politics.
“No one has ever, in the history of mathematics professors, gone into that line of work, planning to use it as a launching pad into politics,” he said.
We covered many pressing issues, including the influence of money in politics, education funding, and a hot topic in Springfield, the treatment of women. That morning, NBC Today Show anchor Matt Lauer had been fired, the latest golden-boy-turned-predator brought down by sexual harassment accusations.
But the assault on women is daily, and reaches every realm. Women are harassed, discriminated against and disrespected in the media, entertainment, government and politics and technology.
And math departments, Biss said.
“One of the tragedies of mathematics is it’s still in 2017 a grotesquely male-dominated profession,” Biss said. “And I have to tell you that the number of mathematicians who will tell you to your face that it’s just because we have a meritocracy, it’s just about who is better at it and who’s worse at it, is sickening.
I asked, as we should of every man: What have you done about it?
As a younger faculty member, Biss replied, “I took it upon myself, not just to mentor graduate students, but to advocate for them in the department.”
He tried to help colleagues “understand that there was institutional bias, there was unconscious bias that was systematically pushing down women from advancing in the department.”
When he arrived in Springfield, he saw “open sexism,” he said. “I saw stuff that was right on the line, constantly.” And things that were “devastating, in terms of who gets called on in committee. Who gets talked over, who gets listened to, and who gets ignored.”
Today, the state capital is immersed in a sexual harassment scandal, triggered by a complaint against State Sen. Ira Silverstein, leveled by a female lobbyist.
Legislators have responded with calls for investigations, special committees, reforms and training to guard against sexual harassment and discrimination.
Biss shared an instructive story about that training.
On Nov. 9, a vote was scheduled to override Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of HB 2462, an “equal pay” bill Biss sponsored. It would prohibit employers from screening job applicants based on their salary histories.
That same day, legislators attended sexual harassment training sessions in the capital. Senate Democrats in the morning, the Senate Republicans in the afternoon.
“In between, we did one thing. One thing,” Biss said. “We rushed to the Senate floor to vote down a bill of mine to create equal pay law for women in Illinois.”
“In the quick intermission, between sexual harassment trainings, we voted against equal pay for women.”
The boys still don’t get it.
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