elizabeth_gasparimElizabeth Gasparim was born in Curitiba, Brazil and studied for her PhD in Mathematics at the University of New Mexico, USA. She worked at Universidade Federal de Pernambuco (Brazil), then at New Mexico State University (USA), and The University of Edinburgh (UK). Presently, she is a faculty member at the Universidad Católica del Norte in Chile. Her favourite activities are swimming and dancing. 

Being a dangerous woman: general principles

At first, when I was asked to write about what it means to be a dangerous woman, I thought about difficult moments in my life when I was treated with prejudice. However, I was not about to start writing something pessimistic, since I see no use in lamenting. So, I took some time to think, and commented on the topic with friends. Each one of my friends immediately replied that this is right, that I am a dangerous woman. I was quite amused, but none of them could come up with any characteristic to describe why I fit such a concept. After reflecting a bit I was able to identify some characteristics that make people afraid, so I thought to share them with my dangerous colleagues. It will be very interesting to find out whether my views are shared by some women in this privileged group.

It seems to me that the number one characteristic that identifies a dangerous woman is creativity. It is enough to do something out of the ordinary to observe that people around are disturbed. Whenever one does something new there start complaints, objections, gossips. Everyone seems uncomfortable instead of appreciating originality. But then, what to do? Certainly not give up. If you are confident that you have a good idea, then you have to work to make the best of it. At this point comes what I think is the number two characteristic of a dangerous woman, tenacity. You have to persist, to hold strong behind your ideas. After all, if you do something that is really original, then it will be so new that most people are afraid to admire it, and will revert to criticism. However, you just continue, have faith in yourself, and keep strong.

As soon as a woman does something successfully there comes all kinds of aggressiveness. It is like as if it was a sinn for a woman to excel in anything. It is natural that we become angry with the frustrating attitude of people around who seem to believe that only men are allowed to achieve success. But it is no advantage ever to foam at the mouth and join the angry crowd. Here I come to what I think is the number three characteristic of a dangerous woman, kindness. Whereas we should never accept being treated poorly, nevertheless we still ought to always be kind. Be firm whenever necessary, but be kind always. The kindness we offer always returns to us in double. This might seem surprising, as perhaps the idea of dangerous woman might be associated with cut throat forcefulness, but such an attitude also returns to us in double. By being mean you will only attract to yourself meanness.

Next comes a crucial issue. One needs to know how to identify what are the important things to do. What is correct and productive. This requires the characteristic number four that must belong to a dangerous woman, honesty. As it is with honesty that one acquires the capacity of seeing the truth, and a vision of the truth is essential to success in any area. It is my opinion that honesty is the same as love. With love comes good health, and good health is the topmost richness that we can possess. Without good health nothing else matters. It is first necessary to be healthy, then we can take care of other issues. I have read from the school of the indian philosopher Aurobindo that every pain is a sign of falsehood. This is exactly correct. With honesty there comes good health. With good health comes strength. Next comes courage. But first there must be honesty, honesty is essential.

Perhaps the text so far sounds very serious, so it is time to play. One must always play a little bit every day, or even better, a lot every day. Laugh, rejoice, dance, skip, stretch, enjoy yourself. Now we come to the most fun of the essential characteristics of a dangerous woman, number five, cheerfulness. I read on a little self-help booklet: do not take life too seriously, you will never get out of it alive. Enjoy life, enjoy people, enjoy your success and celebrate every victory, even when it seems like a little issue, every victory counts, celebrate each one. Every celebration is a show of gratitude. Every time you are grateful there come more reasons to be grateful. Make sure that you hear yourself saying cheers very often.

Let me summarise. I have just discussed five characteristics that seem to be essential for a dangerous woman. Keeping these characteristics is a good recipe for success. They are: creativity, tenacity, honesty, kindness, and cheerfulness. A single woman with such characteristics can create harmony around. A group of dangerous women with such characteristics will have success, and make the world around them a better place.

Different countries, different experiences

In the first part I discussed what I find to be the top 5 characteristics of a dangerous woman: creativity, tenacity, honesty, kindness, and cheerfulness. These are general features which are beneficial under any circumstances.

When I finished the first part of the text I was asked to write about my experience in Latin America. I have worked in several countries. Perhaps at first glance, one might expect that working in the UK would be the most different from my native land. Here the answer is yes and no. On one hand with the average scientist I encountered in the UK essentially the same sexist attitude I experienced in Brazil, and in some cases even worse. On the other hand, the UK has scientists of amazing quality, and it was precisely with those who have created the most beautiful theories and achieved some of the most impressive results in the world that I was able to carry out wonderful scientific discussions. I joked about the historical development of such talents saying that the queen has magical powers and that a person receiving an honour becomes a magical being, but this is just a joke, those were already magical beings once they got there. Such level of quality is lacking in Latin America. There is a mathematical concept of what is called a homogenous manifold, and I say that the world is a homogeneous manifold, except for a few singularities. So that it is mostly the same to work in one country or another, with very few exceptions: amazing people and amazing opportunities.

What I have found now in Chile is an exception: a real opportunity to improve the quality of the school of mathematics at Universidad Cat ́olica del Norte. I have just arranged to hire a new colleague to join our research group, established cooperations with nearby universities, organised joint seminars and events, and hosted visits from excellent scientists from various countries. This is just the start. This year and a half in Chile was the first in my life when I did not have to worry at all about sexism, harassment, and people trying to block my success because I am a woman. Here I am given the freedom to just develop the best scientific work I can do, which of course makes me more productive. So, in my personal experience Chile has been the best place for a woman to work.

Nevertheless, outside the workplace one encounters unbelievable circum stances in Latin America. So, I finish with a story that will sound like an anecdote, but actually did happen. I was organising a session on geometry and physics in the Latin American Congress of Mathematicians this year. During the weekend I took a trip to visit a beautiful park. The driver of the tour bus asked me how long I would spend there as a tourist. I explained that I did not come as a tourist, but had come for work purposes, to which he answered:

‘I am very sorry that your life has turned out so sad that you were forced to work. I do not say so because of sexism. I am not sexist. But this is not the wish of God. Religion tells us clearly that the most important quality for a woman is to be submissive to men, especially her husband who will work to maintain the family”.

As the conversation continued the driver because more and more horrified as I proceeded to explain that I am not married and that in fact I have a male cook who I hired with the resources I make from my own work. When I told the cook that the driver said the most important quality for a woman was to be submissive to men. He simply replied:

“Very good”.