Thursday, July 22, 2004

Further Notice

The Notices published all manner of facts and figures about diversity in mathematics, including two about women. See the original articles for all the data. (Everyone should read them.) The overall numbers for 2002 were that 31% of Ph.D.s in math went to women (24% at the best schools). More alarming are the numbers for tenured and tenure-track jobs. In the math departments of the best schools (taken as a group) only 7% of the tenured faculty are female. And 11% of the assistant professors are female. The numbers are better when a larger group of schools is considered.

I looked up on the Mathematics Genealogy Project what happened to my cohort from graduate school. We started with 6 women and 14 men, and 2 women and 9 men graduated. That would be about 18% of the degrees being earned by women. I'm wondering if we were an unusual year for the school or whether the article in the Notices (which places us much nearer the average) is based on data that includes some of the computer science students. To be fair, most of the people who left the program (both men and women) couldn't pass their quals.

My competetive streak and egotism were what propelled me to grad school even though my professors warned me of the dismal job situation at that time. What kept me going when grad school was a struggle? Force of will. My grad school was fairly gender-neutral. I neither experienced nor heard of any appalling events; there was the occaisional women in math potluck, and one faculty member was well known for agressively mentoring struggling female students. I have no complaints about the program.

I did have problems with the math department at my undergraduate institution (a place which is, at least in one measure, "above average" in graduating female Ph.D.s). They did many things well, but there are two experiences which continue to irritate me to this day. The professor in charge of placement would not grant me transfer credit for math courses taken at another college; I had to retake those courses. He said that the math department was trying to retain female math majors and that he didn't want me to get discouraged by taking courses which were too hard for me. (Retaking courses sucks; telling students to retake courses is bad advice. Don't do it.) The other took place in a class during the first (maybe second?) week of classes. I dropped my pen, and when I reached over to pick it up, I fell out of my chair. (Stop laughing.) I hit my head on the floor and cut myself. I tried to stop the bleeding with a kleenex, but it wouldn't stop. The professor kept teaching, as if nothing had happened. I picked up my stuff and left the classroom. He said to the class, "I guess she couldn't handle it." I needed seven stitches. (Obviously I switched to a different section of the course.)

On the other hand, I have nothing but good things to say about the physics department at Alma Mater. My physics professors would constantly urge me to become a physics major. When I told them that I couldn't take some of the required courses because they conflicted with math courses that I wanted to take, they proposed alternate ways to fulfill the major. They invited me to take independent study classes with them and suggested topics. They offered to arrange for funding for me to stay one year past graduation to to get a masters in physics. However, I did not love physics, so I declined their offers.

My current school does not have excellent numbers for women in math. I have not had any experiences which would lead me to speculate about why this is so.