In Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp Through M.I.T.’s Male Math Maze, Gioia de Cari explores the persistent sexism and isolation she faced as a Mathematics PhD student at MIT in the 1980s.

As de Cari explains in the prologue to the show, she decided to tell her story decades after leaving MIT, in response to remarks by then-Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers in which he claimed that the underrepresentation of women in math and science careers was due to innate biological differences.

In the 75-minute performance there are no costume changes, save for the donning and removing of de Cari’s blazer and leopard-print heels. There are no complicated set changes, big musical numbers or even scene partners allowing her to take a breath.

Gioia de Cari performing Truth ValuesGioia de Cari performs solo in her autobiographical show Truth Values.

Decades of history and more than thirty characters flow in a non-stop rush from de Cari alone as she guides the audience from her childhood as a self-described weird kid through pranks at the University of Berkeley, her time as a PhD student in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and into her career beyond academia as a performer and advocate for gender equality in STEM.

Gioia de Cari stands in the centre of a single spotlight on the Theatre of the Arts stage, barefoot, looking at the audience with a level, unyielding gaze. The staging is minimal: a simple chair, a low table that holds a spiral-bound book and her discarded blazer and a set of five fabric panels hanging behind her, on which images and videos are projected throughout the show.

Performing personal history

Truth Values premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2009, where it won an Overall Excellence Award for Best Solo Show. Since then, de Cari has performed Truth Values more than one hundred times, including in a homecoming performance on MIT’s campus.

On Saturday, September 24, she performed to a nearly sold-out house at the University of Waterloo’s Theatre of the Arts, as part of a free event sponsored by Women in Math, the Faculty of Mathematics and the Faculty of Engineering. The performance was the last one in a Canadian tour of Truth Values, which took de Cari from Ottawa to Toronto and then to the University of Waterloo.

De Cari’s comedic impressions of the eccentric characters she encountered at MIT are where Truth Values really shines. She drew huge laughs from the audience as she introduced them to the graduate students and professors who made her time at MIT alternately inspiring and miserable, including a cluelessly amorous officemate, a fellow researcher with nihilistic dreams of nuclear destruction and a Gilbert and Sullivan-loving professor who mentored her through both her research and her fledgling performing arts career.

The play does not shy away, however, from the darker side of de Cari’s time at MIT: struggles with mental health and family tragedy, imposter syndrome and difficulty connecting with her peers and the soul-crushing weight of persistent dismissal and discrimination from the professors who were supposed to be her mentors.

Roundtable on sexism in STEM

In a Beyond the Bulletin podcast episode earlier this month, de Cari explained her goals when creating Truth Values:

“My goal, always, as an artist, is just to stir the soul,” she said. “I think, though, that the reason we won a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to put an educational framework around this piece is because the Foundation saw an opportunity for use of the play as a great conversation piece, where they can have a great conversation about bias in STEM.”

After the show, de Cari was joined onstage by several Waterloo students and faculty to discuss their reactions to the show and the ongoing struggle for gender parity within STEM.

 Gioia de Cari, Ryan Consell, Andrea Chakma, Maliha Ahmed, Anita Layton and Jeremy Steffler.

The panel, from L-R: Gioia de Cari, Ryan Consell, Andrea Chakma, Maliha Ahmed, Anita Layton and Jeremy Steffler.

Jeremy Steffler, equity officer for the Faculty of Mathematics, served as moderator, asking the panelists several prepared questions before welcoming audience questions as well. Every panel member pointed to similarities between their experiences and those depicted by de Cari during the show, regardless of their age and education level.

Dr. Anita Layton, professor of applied mathematics, computer science, pharmacy and biology as well as associate dean for research and international for the Faculty of Mathematics, described how for much of her career she has frequently been the only woman in the room.

She also expressed her frustration at how, despite an outstanding academic career, she still deals with journalistic coverage that minimizes her accomplishments in favour of focusing on her roles as a wife and mother.

The panel’s youngest members described the ways STEM departments have simultaneously changed and remained frustratingly similar to the 1980s MIT depicted in Truth Values.

Andrea Chakma, a fourth-year mechatronics engineering student and president of the Women in Engineering Undergraduate Student Committee, described her struggles with imposter syndrome every time she starts a new co-op assignment, and her work with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts to empower girls in STEM. At the same time, Chakma highlighted the importance of supportive female peers and mentors in her success, telling stories about how helpful a group chat of other female students was for supporting each other through doubts.

Similarly, Maliha Ahmed, a third-year PhD student in the Department of Applied Mathematics, expressed her gratitude for the mentors she’s had throughout her academic career.

“I’ve really been fortunate,” she explained, “to have been taught by so many female math professors, and that really has had a huge impact. I really do feel grateful that I had those role models, be it in elementary, high school or university.”

Advocacy work and responsibility

In response to an audience inquiry, the panelists also discussed the complicated question of who bears the responsibility for doing advocacy work in academic spaces.

Ryan Consell, an engineering instructional support tutor who works closely with first-year students, emphasized that men in STEM must also take on the work of fighting gender inequality.

“Those of us who are in positions of power can be those advocates to take some of the burden off some of the people – our colleagues or in our classrooms – who might be exhausted,” Consell said.

Panelists discussion after the play.

From L-R: Mark Giesbrecht (dean of the Faculty of Mathematics), Gioia de Cari, Mary Wells (dean of the Faculty of Engineering), Ryan Consell, Andrea Chakma, Maliha Ahmed, Anita Layton, Jeremy Steffler and Ghazal Geshinizjani (chair of the Women in Math Committee).

Layton, meanwhile, noted that individuals must find a balance between doing advocacy work and pursuing their research and other commitments. Finding that balance is important no matter where you are in your career because gender discrimination “doesn’t stop after you’ve got a PhD,” she said. “It doesn’t stop ever.”

Throughout the discussion, audience members frequently burst into spontaneous applause in support of the panelists’ continued persistence in the face of gender discrimination. The audience’s enthusiasm – both for the Truth Values performance and the discussion that followed – demonstrates the possibilities of art to get people talking about complicated issues surrounding inequality, justice and academia.

“One of our goals at the Women in Mathematics Committee is to raise awareness on gender bias in mathematics and academia in general, as well as to promote an inclusive culture in our community,” said Dr. Ghazal Geshinizjani, research associate professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and chair of the Women in Math Committee. “We often organize events with themes around equity and inclusion that have formal scientific formats. That is important, but there is also a lot of power in storytelling and art to reach underneath our outer layers that separate us. This play was one of those opportunities, and I am hoping anyone who attended took away some food for thought.”

For more information about Truth Values, including de Cari’s upcoming documentary film project and memoir, visit the project’s website. To learn more about de Cari’s multi-faceted career as a musician, speaker and performer following her time at MIT, visit her personal website.

If you enjoyed this event, consider getting involved with future Women in Math and Women in Engineering programming, including the Directed Reading Program (WiM) and the November 12 Women in Engineering Hackathon.