Women abound in mathematics . . no bounds

Years ago in the mid 1970's I had a remarkable young woman in my calculus class. There were not that many women in calculus classes then. She told me that she chose mathematics because, “No one expected anything of me.” She was a breath of fresh air, arriving on the first day of class and going around my back, she put her finger on the top of my head and said, “Hi, Winkee Dink.” My wife and I were camp counselors and she was in my wife’s cabin. With a name like Winkel we were prone to cute nicknames and that was ours. The class was aghast. She went on to fully engage mathematics and her coursework. She corrected the teacher’s grammar in class! She gave bullet proof presentations when asked to do so in class. Later in her career she corrected the lack of inclusive language at an engineering honor society induction at Annapolis! She has risen high in a pseudo-government agency as a lead engineer.

A distinguished member of the MAA leadership told me of his first mathematics department  at his new position at a Research I institution back in 1964. The issue for debate was whether or not to allow women to major in mathematics. A senior member of the faculty (male, needless to say) said, “Everyone knows women cannot do mathematics. So to let them try to major in mathematics would only do harm to them.”

A young woman with whom I taught years ago had an operations research PhD, but when I looked at her vita for some proposal we were writing I noted she majored in French, not mathematics. I asked her about it and she said, “My school had just admitted women and I did not want to push the boundaries too much, so while I loved mathematics I majored in French as that would be more acceptable.”

I am not simple enough to suggest women were not present in our culture, but I am simply saying that their presence is increasing, obvious, and much appreciated. . . . long overdue!

Indeed, in The Chronicle of Higher Education section of 12 April 2019, “The Chronicle Interview,” entitled, “Much More Normal,” Karen K. Uhlenbeck, the first woman to receive the Abel Prize in mathematics,  when asked, “Was there anything that helped you come to terms with your success?” said, “Having other women around. First of all, I have to say that throughout my career, I’ve had a series of male mentors who’ve been wonderful to me. But I think the thing that makes me feel best is to see the success of the other women. That makes me feel just much more normal.”

I personally have benefitted from friendship, ideas, exchanges, and support from Lida Barrett, early president of the MAA, and Tina Straley, more recent Executive Director of the MAA. And now I benefit greatly from Jacqueline Jensen-Vallin, Editor of MAA FOCUS, who brings forth the many experiences and success of women in mathematics in each issue. When one examines the magazine FOCUS the images are different, women in active leadership and engagement, but even better the articles are about the growing contributions of women to our field we all love so much, mathematics. Currently, I benefit from my work with three women Co-PI’s in a team of five on our SIMIODE NSF Grant and I am so grateful to them for inspiring, driving, leading, arguing, and excelling.

So yes, women abound in mathematics and there are no bounds. We have more than doubled our energy because of the roles women are playing in our field. I am grateful for that.

Examine the group of leaders in the MAA and other mathematical organizations, read MAA FOCUS, see the Keynote speakers at meetings, look around you at a session at a regional or national mathematics meeting, look out at your class, etc. – women abound! And that should make us all feel much more normal!

PS – A very big PS is the fact that other underrepresented groups are also engaged and more visible, African-American, Hispanic, LGBT, and more are finding their proper place, opportunity, belonging, normality, and platform in order to contribute.




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