Montana State University

Archived Spotlight story

Strength in Numbers

By ROBIN WILSON (Claremont, CA)

(Published in the "Chronicle of Higher Education", July 18, 2003)

About a dozen young women cluster around tables in Room 211 of Pomona College's Millikan Laboratory on a cool June morning. Five of them, barely able to keep their seats, take turns applying theorems to prove a mathematical statement, stopping at each twist in the problem to write the results on a blackboard.

One of the students, Monique L. Richardson, nods her head. "I feel like I've got something," she announces, giving a high-five to a student sitting across the table. "I'm on a roll!"

These young women were among the brightest in their undergraduate math departments. Two of them have already spent a year in graduate school, and 11 others have been accepted to graduate programs this fall at places like Rice University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Maryland at College Park. For them, this month at Pomona is unique: It is likely to be the last time in their mathematical careers that they are surrounded by other women.

They are here because the number of women who eventually become mathematicians is astonishingly low. Only a small proportion even makes it to graduate school, and many of those few soon drop out.

Professors estimate that at least 50 percent of the students who enroll in math Ph.D. programs never earn degrees. Women in the field are particularly at risk: In 2002, 42 percent of the undergraduate mathematics majors in the country were women, but only 31 percent of those who earned Ph.D.'s in math that year were women, according to the American Mathematical Society. And only 13 percent, or 127, of those who earned doctorates were female U.S. citizens. In the professoriate, in 2000 only 17 percent of those tenured in math at four-year institutions were women.

Over the past 25 years, a profusion of programs has tried to turn the numbers around by helping girls and undergraduate
women feel comfortable in the male-dominated field.

The women here are part of a four-week boot camp called EDGE -- Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education -- sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Aimed at helping women survive graduate school in mathematics, it is believed to be the only math program designed for women who have already received college degrees. The program continues to counsel them throughout graduate school.

The two professors who started EDGE, six years ago, believe that such follow-up is crucial. At their own colleges, they have often encouraged bright young women to pursue degrees in mathematics, only to see them flounder in graduate school. "These students had been stars, and they'd go to graduate school and fall through the cracks," says Rhonda J. Hughes, a professor at Bryn Mawr College who created the summer program with Sylvia T. Bozeman, a professor at Spelman College. "They would just disappear."

Mentors in the program, says Ms. Hughes, have prevented many casualties by keeping in contact with students throughout graduate school: fielding mathematical questions, boosting students' confidence, and sometimes running interference when one has trouble.

"Rhonda makes sure nobody runs us over," says Patricia C. Picardo, who is in graduate school at the Georgia Institute of
Technology.

The EDGE program reached a milestone last month when one of its participants, at Dartmouth College, became the first in
the group to earn a Ph.D. Two others are poised to earn their doctorates in the next year or so.

But the program's results have been mixed. Of the 50 women who have attended EDGE sessions since 1998 and have enrolled in
doctoral programs, 14 have stopped at master's degrees, and 5 have dropped out of graduate school entirely.

With all of the programs to help girls and young women consider careers in math, why are the numbers of those who
earn graduate degrees still so low?

Getting Women Out There

Lenore Blum, now a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, was one of the pioneers of math programs
for women. In 1976, she helped begin Expanding Your Horizons, a series of one-day, hands-on math workshops for middle-school
girls. They are now held across the country.

In 1991, she helped start one of the first math programs for female undergraduates, the Summer Mathematics Institute, which
moved from Mills College to the University of California at Berkeley in 1994 and ended in 1997.

All of those programs work, says Ms. Blum. "We've known what to do for 30 years," she says, ticking off the key features:
"Getting a critical mass of girls or women together to do math, making math a positive experience, and having networking
and mentorship."

But even successful programs come and go, depending on the federal government's willingness to sponsor them. "There
hasn't been sustained funding," says Ms. Blum. Instead, she adds, the National Science Foundation has been "pouring money
into studies on why there aren't women in math."

Educators should take a cue from what Title IX did for female athletes, she argues. "In sports, people say: 'Just have a program. Get girls out there.'" The same is true in math. "Nothing works like getting them out there, together and doing math. You don't have to have a study" to find out why there aren't more women in math departments.

Robion C. Kirby, a math professor at Berkeley, notes that women have flocked to fields like medicine and law instead of math. It is tempting, he says, to blame the male culture of mathematics: "There is the thought that these mathematicians still haven't learned they've got to treat women right." But"I don't think that's true," he says, arguing that sometimes female graduate students are admitted to graduate programs in
which they don't belong.

"At Berkeley, we've probably increased by 50 percent the number of women graduate students who come here," he says."When we get somebody who would not be admitted under normal procedures, she might have gone to another university, where they have courses that move slower and there is more basic first-year material." At Berkeley, he says, she's bound to feel frustrated and possibly drop out.

All Math, All the Time

It is 7:30 on a Thursday morning, and a handful of women are in the lounge on the second floor of Millikan, doing homework problems that they hadn't finished the night before. The EDGE students typically gather in the lounge before class for a breakfast of fruit and bagels. They eat most of their meals together, and are often up until midnight in their dormitory, reviewing class notes and problems.

The program's three graduate-student mentors live there, too, and are always around to help. Even the jokes tend to be math-related. (You probably haven't heard the one about the mathematician, the biologist, and the statistician who go squirrel hunting.)

Classes start at 9 a.m. There's an hour and a half of abstract algebra or real analysis, followed by a problem-solving session, during which the students work in small groups. The classes are similar to those that students are likely to take during their first year of graduate school, and so is the pace.

"They overwhelm you here, because they expect that you will be overwhelmed in grad school," says Chandra L. Erdman, who was in the EDGE program last summer and came back for a refresher this year after earning her master's degree in statistics from Columbia University. She's headed to Yale University to start work on her Ph.D. in the fall.

This is the first summer that the EDGE sessions haven't been held at Bryn Mawr or Spelman. Ms. Hughes and Ms. Bozeman wanted to acknowledge the program's growing national reputation by moving it across the country. Forty-five women applied for this summer's 13 slots.

Each of the participants receives a $2,000 stipend for the month, plus $900 to buy books and travel to academic meetings during graduate school.

Ami Radunskaya, an associate professor of math at Pomona, coordinated the program this summer. While other math programs for women focus on "fun stuff," like chaos theory or encryption, EDGE is centered on the basics, she says. "The math we do is very fundamental," says Ms. Radunskaya. Ms. Hughes says EDGE emphasizes mathematical proofs that "hold together and will stand up to careful scrutiny at the graduate level."

The classes have put some of the students at ease about what they will face this fall. "My analysis is weak," says Kathryn Zuhr, who is headed to the University of Wisconsin at Madison."But this reminded me that I actually know how to do problems. I'm not going to go into my graduate-level analysis class and just die."

Isolation and Failure

The female math instructors and graduate-student mentors here act as role models. Ms. Hughes and Ms. Bozeman have been careful to choose women from different backgrounds -- about of half the students, instructors, and mentors here are black, Hispanic, or Asian.

One of the instructors, Gloria C. Hewitt, is an emeritus professor of math at the University of Montana. When she earned her Ph.D., in 1962, she was the just the fourth African-American woman in the country to do so. She encourages the women here to ask questions during her course on abstract algebra, and even to argue with her when they disagree -- something she knows will help them challenge male professors later on.

EDGE tries to prepare students for the isolation and sense of failure they may well encounter in graduate school. Naiomi Cameron, an African-American instructor here, talks about the "shock" she felt on her first day of graduate school at the University of Maryland at College Park, in 1995. "There were so many people just ripping through all of this material," she remembers. Her reaction was: "I've got to do all of this myself." But shutting out other students was not the answer.

"Mathematics is 50 percent working with the door closed on a problem, but the other half is discussing it with other people," says Ms. Cameron, who earned her Ph.D. in 2002 and will start her first tenure-track job, at Occidental College, in the fall.

Convincing women that they belong in a male-dominated field is a tricky matter. For a woman who is already feeling out of place and overwhelmed, sometimes all it takes to put an end to a graduate-school career is one discouraging comment from a professor.

It happened to a fellow graduate student of Ms. Radunskaya's at Stanford University. When the woman went to a professor for help, he told her, "Not everyone belongs here," recalls Ms. Radunskaya. "She burst into tears and never came back."

Mr. Kirby, at Berkeley, says he finds it hard to believe that professors make such comments anymore. Still, he says, "the question is why one or two comments make such a big deal. You just have to sort of forget that and move on."

Karoline P. Pershell, an EDGE student, is used to being surrounded by men. She rode bulls in college rodeo competition while an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee at Martin. But she wonders whether she is "cut out to be a mathematician," someone she pictures as "a really nerdy-looking guy." She admits to thinking: "I don't read math magazines at night. Maybe math is not my thing."

Ms. Radunskaya calls this "the impostor's syndrome." She adds: "We tell the students here over and over again, 'We believe that because you all got accepted to graduate school, you can succeed.'"

Making young women feel comfortable is apparently not a strong point of most graduate programs in mathematics. "So often students get totally ignored," says Ms. Bozeman. "Faculty don't give much attention to any student until they know that student is there to stay."

EDGE tries to help by finding at least one professor in each student's graduate program who will be her mentor. The program's founders themselves stay in close contact with each student after she completes the summer program.

It's not unusual for Ms. Bozeman to drive a few hours from Spelman to meet a graduate for lunch. Sometimes that can make all the difference.

Ms. Hughes recalls one former participant who "started a graduate program and had a huge crisis of confidence." When Ms. Hughes spoke to the student's mentor, however, she learned that the young woman was doing fine in class. "The professor called her in and said, 'You belong in this program.' She was like a new woman. Now she's close to finishing."

'Endurance Test'

Predicting which students will succeed and which won't is not easy. "It is not the best student who gets through -- it is the one with the inner strength," says Ms. Hughes.

Dorea Claassen, who was in the EDGE program last summer, just finished her first year of graduate school at Boston University. "This is by far the most stressful year I've had in my life," she says. On top of her course work, she spent 20 to 30 hours a week studying for her qualifying exams -- something that all graduate math students must pass to advance. "Most of the time, I feel like I can do it, but then
there are the times when it just seems too hard," says Ms. Claassen. "It's an endurance test."

Some students, even with help from EDGE, just don't make it. Shylynn Loften, who attended the program in the summer of 1998, lost her father to cancer after one semester in graduate school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and never went back. Eventually she enrolled at Wayne State University, earning a master's degree in 2002. She now teaches high-school math in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Even if her father hadn't died, Ms. Loften isn't sure she would have lasted at UMass. "Once I got there, I knew it wasn't a place I wanted to be for six years," she says.

One experience in particular stands out in her memory. After the second week of classes, she visited a professor during his office hours. "I asked a couple of questions, and then I asked a couple more. He said, 'Listen, I really don't have time to help you. If this is too hard for you, perhaps you should drop the class.'"

Ms. Lofton ended up "bombing" the final exam, she says, and taking an incomplete for the course.

Not all of the students here are comfortable with the idea that they might need special help in mathematics just because they're female. "I've traditionally scorned women-only math programs, because they're not representative of the mathematical world at large," says Naomi Utgoff, who graduated from Brandeis University last spring and is headed to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania this fall. She
wonders whether programs like EDGE are "kind of unfair" to men.

Math Girlfriends

Still, a little female bonding with mathematics buddies can't hurt. One afternoon, the EDGE students put their studies aside and took an hour's drive to Hollywood, and through the streets of Beverly Hills -- past Rodeo Drive and Sunset Boulevard. They looked like any other tourists, hanging out the windows to shoot pictures and calling each other on cellphones from car to car.

Math came up hardly at all during dinner in Santa Monica, where the students chowed down on hamburgers, cheese-steak sandwiches, and French fries. Some even sneaked out for a few minutes and caught the lingerie sale down the street at Victoria's Secret.

"I would have only one math girlfriend if I hadn't come here," says Farrah M. Jackson, a mentor who is in graduate school at North Carolina State University. She was an EDGE student herself in 1999. With math girlfriends, she says, you can go to the movies or the mall. "You don't have to talk about math. But you can if you need to."

NETWORKING WITH NUMBERS

Over the years, a number of special programs have been developed to help women in mathematics. Some have survived, some haven't. In addition to EDGE, sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, these are the major programs now being offered:

Program for Women in Mathematics
Sponsored by Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study

"Many female students and young researchers have encountered discrimination in certain situations and have concerns about entering a field with few senior women visible," says the program's Web site. "Often women have not had the opportunity to work with other serious women in their profession or listen to more than an occasional lecture or course given by a woman."

This program brings together women at all levels of mathematics -- undergraduate juniors and seniors, graduate students, and professors -- for two weeks each summer. This year's theme was mathematical biology. Participants attend courses, lectures, and seminars, and get lodging, meals, and transportation to and from the institute.

Summer Program for Women in Mathematics
George Washington University
Sponsored by the National Security Administration

A five-week program designed for 16 undergraduates who have completed their junior year. The program's Web site says it tries to "communicate an enthusiasm for mathematics, develop research skills, cultivate mathematical self-confidence and independence, and promote success in graduate school."

Students take five courses taught by research mathematicians. They also visit working female mathematicians -- in universities, businesses, and government agencies. Each students receives a $1,500 stipend.

Carleton College Summer Mathematics Program for Women
Sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Security Administration

A four-week program for 18 women who have just finished their first or second year of college. The goal is to introduce students to new areas of mathematics, improve their proof-writing and problem-solving skills, and increase their awareness of careers in math. Each student takes two courses and receives a $1,300 stipend.