It Adds Up to Success: Warming the Climate
for Women in Mathematics
By Karen S. Rowan, Editor On Campus With Women
Melanie Wood, the only woman to ever place first in the
competition for the US Math Olympiad program, speaks at the
Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics.
When Jim Lewis was appointed the chair of University of Nebraska's
Department of Mathematics in the spring of 1988, he looked around
and saw few women. Indeed, there was only one female professor in
the department, and the number of graduate students in mathematics
was about 20 percent, the same as when he first joined the department
in 1971. Even worse, the women who were in the department were not
earning the PhD degree.
"It struck me as being wrong," Lewis recalled, "and I felt compelled
to improve the situation. I don't think I could have looked at myself
in the mirror if I didn't do anything about this."
Lewis was determined to use his new leadership position to change
the climate for women faculty and students. Inspired by an article
about the law school's success in drastically increasing its number
of women graduates, Lewis sought to create a similar change in his
own department by recruiting more women graduate students.
Articulating a Recruitment Plan
The same spring that Lewis was appointed chair, the department made
a major effort to recruit women candidates for two open positions.
Sylvia Wiegand, the sole female professor in the department, headed
the search committee, and 12 of the top 17 candidates for the new
positions were women. Of those, two women were hired. Unfortunately,
one stayed only a year and another left after four years. Currently,
the department has four women faculty members out of 32 permanent
faculty. Lewis identifies no turnover among tenured faculty as a major
factor in preventing a significant increase in women faculty.
As a result, Lewis and his faculty colleagues focused their attention
on recruiting more women graduate students. "We had zero women earn
PhDs in the 1980s, and we needed to change this." Lewis set a goal
for the department to recruit a critical mass of women graduate students--at
least 30 percent--so that women would not feel isolated. By 1993 the
percentage of women graduate students in the department was greater
than 40 percent. Over the past decade, the percent of women graduate
students has ranged from 42 percent to 48 percent.
The mathematics department's impressive shift in demographics has
resulted in a marked change in the number of women earning PhDs and
put the University of Nebraska ahead of the national average. In the
1980s, the department awarded PhDs to 23 men and zero women; in comparison,
over the last ten years 26 of the department's 64 PhDs went to women
(over 40 percent). According to The Chronicle of Higher Education,
nationwide only 25 percent of PhDs in mathematics went to women in
2000. Over the last four years, Nebraska's percentage has been even
more striking; 12 of its 24 PhDs were awarded to women.
Designing a Positive Environment
Although critical mass is an important element in creating a welcoming
environment for women faculty and students alike, numbers alone are
not enough. The National Research Council's 1992 Educating Mathematical
Scientists report, also known as the Douglas Report, described
the correlation between educational climate and recruitment. A positive
learning environment, the report asserts, which "provides the assistance,
encouragement, nurturing, and feedback necessary to attract and retain
students and to give them an education appropriate for their future
careers" (2), is an important factor for women and underrepresented
minority students, as well as doctoral students (3). Thus, Lewis reasoned
that his department's efforts to create a supportive environment for
women and minority students would benefit all students.
In order to create a supportive environment, the department established
student awards--outstanding qualifying exam, best first year student,
best graduate student teacher, special fellowships for top students--to
acknowledge and reward excellence in teaching and research. A fellowship
was created in honor of faculty member Sylvia Wiegand's grandmother,
the first woman to earn a PhD in any discipline from a German university,
and her grandfather, also a well-known mathematician. In order to
better support students' progress to degree, the department also created
workshops, run by senior graduate students, to help students prepare
for qualifying exams.
All of these efforts to create permanent change in the department's
climate seem to have paid off. Due to the tone of Lewis's leadership,
making the department a welcoming place for women has now become a
priority for the department as a whole. Faculty members participate
in recruitment weekends during which all prospective students visit,
and the department advertises its supportive climate for women as
one of its distinguishing features.
"Men and women alike in our department really like the idea that
by making the department a more supportive environment for women,
we, in fact, simply made the department a better place for everyone,"
The department's efforts have brought it acclaim from the University
and beyond. Lewis and Wiegand were each awarded the University's Outstanding
Contribution to the Status of Women Award in 1996 and 2000, respectively.
In 1998, faculty member Judy Walker successfully nominated the department
for the NSF Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics,
and Engineering Mentoring. With the $10,000 award, the department
helped create the Nebraska
Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics. Now in its
sixth year, the Conference brings women from across the country to
present research, network, and hear from accomplished women mathematicians.
The department's outreach efforts extend beyond graduate and undergraduate
students. For the past seven years, the department has also co-sponsored
MATH, a weeklong summer mathematics camp for high school girls.
The participants take courses in codes and chaos theory taught by
women faculty, engage with peers who share their interests in mathematics,
and gain new confidence in their own abilities and potential.
Closing Racial Disparities
Despite all of the department's success in changing the climate for
women, Lewis admits that the department has not been as successful
in recruiting traditionally underrepresented minority students. Lewis
comments that the department is "hoping that is our next decade of
Currently, the department is home to five underrepresented minority
students, four of whom are women. It has only one under-represented
minority faculty member. Lewis notes that these numbers are par for
the course in mathematics departments, especially for a state like
Nebraska that has a small minority population, but he is quick to
say, "We believe we can do better." Lewis points to the mathematics
departments at the University of Maryland and the University of Iowa,
both of which have been more successful in recruiting minority students.
In the future, Nebraska's mathematics department will work to build
on their success with women students to recruit more minority women.
The department has also begun working with university leadership to
use fellowships dedicated for minority students as a recruitment tool.
Finally, Nebraska's program will look more closely at the successes
of the University of Iowa, since that state's demographics are similar
to Nebraska's, to see if it can serve as a model.
Though Lewis remains optimistic about future efforts to recruit minority
students, experience has taught him that changes in this group are
unfortunately not likely to be "as dramatic as our success with women
Note: This article is based in part on research conducted by Amanda
Lepof, former editor of On Campus With Women.
|From the Outside In: Programs
for Women in Mathematics
The Chronicle of Higher Education
recently reported on EDGE (Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education),
a month-long summer program sponsored by the National Science
Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for women entering
PhD programs in mathematics. Since 1998, the program's organizers
have brought together recent college graduates and first-year
graduate students for a demanding schedule of coursework and
problem-solving sessions designed to strengthen participants'
analytical skills and to prepare them for the often overwhelming
intensity of graduate mathematics departments.
In addition to the program's focus on math fundamentals, it
addresses the chilly climate for women in graduate departments
head on. EDGE instructors and mentors also talk with students
about "the impostor's syndrome," a belief many women have that
they don't belong in advanced study, a belief sometimes fostered
by graduate faculty and departmental cultures. EDGE instructors
and mentors combat this syndrome by staying in touch with participants
once they begin their graduate programs, providing both mathematical
and emotional support; organizers also try to identify one faculty
member in each student's department who will mentor her.
Despite these efforts, program participants have not always
been successful in their efforts to attain PhDs. The Chronicle
reports that 14 of the program's 50 participants left graduate
school with master's degrees, while five left graduate school
These results suggest that while EDGE and programs
like it offer welcome support for aspiring women mathematicians,
mathematics departments themselves must instigate local change,
as has the University of Nebraska's Department of Mathematics,
to improve the climate for women and minorities in graduate
education and the field as a whole.