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Spring/Summer 2003

Volume 32
Number 3-4

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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," Lewis says.

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 ALL GIRLS/ALL 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 success."

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 graduate students."

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 entirely.

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.



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