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November 19, 2010

Women in math: a complex problem

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When Michelle Lee (A.B. ’10) was a first-year, she thought she might one day pursue a graduate degree in mathematics. By her fourth year, the male-dominated math classes she had taken at the University made her reconsider.

“If there was more of a female presence,” said Lee, who now works at a political consulting firm in Washington, D.C., “I feel like I would still be in math.”

Despite extensive efforts to improve the balance, the U of C, like many of its peers, has a dearth of female mathematicians: Senior Lecturer and Co-Director of Undergraduate Studies in Mathematics Dianne Herrmann (Ph.D. ’88) has seen only one female mathematician gain tenure in her 35 years here.

The one didn’t stay long. Karen Uhlenbeck was tenured at the University from 1983–1988, but left to teach at the University of Texas.

“I’m always hopeful. I have to be, but I’ve been here—I came as a graduate student in 1975,” said Herrmann. “But other than that brief period there have been no female tenured faculty members, so I’m still waiting.”

The University of Texas has six female math professors out of its almost 45 professors. The University of Chicago has no women among its 32 tenured math professors. (Three of its four senior lecturerers, however, are women.)

It trails the math departments at M.I.T., Princeton, Harvard, and Stanford; each has between one and five tenured women on faculty. Still, none comes close to reaching a balance between men and women.

The problem extends to the rest of the University as well: There are two female economics professors and four in the physics department (a fifth works part time). Provost Thomas Rosenbaum set up a group, the Women’s Leadership Council, concerns itself with recruiting more female faculty and fostering a feeling of community among the women.

But the math department is the only major University department with no female faculty.

Fourth-year math major Anna Scott noticed that as the difficulty of her classes increased, the number of female classmates dropped.

“The harder classes tend to have less girls in them. Honors Calculus is pretty well mixed, but once you go farther in the major there are fewer girls,” Scott said.

Herrmann agreed, pointing out that in a broader sense, there are fewer women at the top. “Nationally that’s the case as well,” Herrmann said. “I don’t know the exact numbers, but it’s a pipeline issue. Women drop out along the way.”

Aware of the problem, Department Chair Peter Constantin set up a hiring group in the fall of 2008 to address the math department’s gender imbalance.

“This is one of my top priorities. We intend to maintain top quality of the department and pursue the issue of women in mathematics,” he said. “We’re a small department so we are not going to be able to make more than a few offers.”

The group searched for viable female candidates who would meet the department’s rigorous requirements. The shortlist it compiled has been the starting point for a hiring process it is currently undertaking.

“The committee’s work is done,” Constantin said. “We have a wonderful list and we are working from it.”

Constantin and his faculty are waiting for a response from one woman to whom they have offered a professorship. Their first offer was to Stanford’s Maryam Mirzakhani, who declined it for personal reasons.

“She was working on an area that we are very interested in,” Constantin said. “But her husband wanted to be on the west coast. She was very interested in working here but in the end she stayed at Stanford.”

Constantin said one problem is that, in relationships where both partners are in academia, women tend to go where their male partners have an offer.

“It is often the case that women, younger [married] women in math will have more difficulty deciding when both people work. They have to decide where to go. More often the women will follow the men, and then we have the difficulty of attracting the women,” Constantin said.

He said retaining partners is part of a larger issue of gender slant at the University across departments, and indeed, the Office of the Provost has a department dedicated to finding jobs for spouses of faculty.

Herrmann, who is joined by two other women at her level as senior lecturers, says she sees why women might stay away from a department without other female professors.

“It can be lonely to be here, if you’re the only woman here,” Herrmann said. “For a long time I was the only senior lecturer here in the department and it’s difficult to work without colleagues you can talk to, who are at your level.”

She said the lack of female professors is a self-perpetuating problem. “[The problem is] a lack of role models, a lack of somebody to go and talk to,” said Herrmann, who mentors undergraduate math majors. “There’s no choice there. If you wanted to study with a woman mathematician, you can’t do that here.”

This creates the pipeline problem; tenured math professors are necessary to mentor graduate students and lecturers, who are necessary to mentor undergraduates, and so on down the educational track.

Recent alumna Lee said having women from the math department as mentors was important to her. “I felt like I could talk to them about where I wanted to go in the future because they had been there or are there in everyday life and have to deal with these issues,” she said.

But when women in the department are not tenured, it enforces negative stereotypes, Lee said. “I didn’t feel like I was as math-confident as the men,” Lee said. “It’s an environment where the stereotype is activated over and over, especially when you see all the professors are men, and the classes are mostly men.”

As an undergraduate, Lee said she was frustrated to see the breakdown of the math department align with traditional gender roles: women in teaching positions and men in researching ones. “It just seems like the women at the University are being pushed into the traditional women roles—teaching, nurturing, advising—and the men are the researchers.”

Fourth-year Scott is interested to see how the math department brings this problem to light. “This isn’t the sort of thing that you get from class: ‘Okay guys today we’re going to talk about derivatives, and now we’re going to talk about the status of women in math,’” Scott said.

She’s happy the department is attempting to make changes, but said she can’t spend too much time thinking about the gender balance. “It’s certainly something that you can discuss, but for me it’s not something that comes into the equation when you have three problem sets for the week,” Scott said.

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