What Does It Mean to be a Woman in Mathematics?

The following blog post was written by Jessica Matthews, Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites (CICS-NC).

room full of women watching presentation

Workshop for Women in Mathematics held April 6-8, 2016.

When offered the invitation to speak at SAMSI’s Opportunities Workshop for Women in Math Sciences, I gladly accepted. When it came time to actually prepare the presentation, I realized that I had never attended, let alone presented, at this type of workshop ever before. I am well versed in putting together a scientific presentation, but this was different. So I myself was faced with the opportunity to consider what it meant to be a woman in mathematics. I had the opening talk time slot, which inherently carries with it the pressure of setting the tone for the entire event. I chose to draw from my personal experiences and to discuss career possibilities beyond the classroom, skill sets I have found necessary (beyond math), and a few key challenges faced by women in our field. A spirited discussion regarding the pay gap and the importance of negotiation entailed. I enjoyed the free-flowing discussion, and felt like this open and welcoming atmosphere was present for the rest of our gathered time.

Throughout the two and half days of the workshop, we had the privilege of hearing from a number of women who have successful careers in academia, industry, and government. They shared their lessons learned, fielded questions, and led discussions about career opportunities and challenges experienced. I cannot possibly capture a comprehensive account of all the great talks and conversations that took place in this workshop, so I provide merely a few personal highlights.

two ladies talking in the hallway

Amanda Goldbeck (R) talking to a participant of the workshop.

Amanda Golbeck introduced the concept of viewing one’s career path as a jungle-gym rather than a ladder. We tend to have the ingrained view of the traditional (and linear) career path, while in reality, to maintain a healthy life–work balance, flexibility is required.  Another grain of wisdom she offered is that being a strong leader is important, but being a valuable team member is paramount. I think this is often forgotten in our power-hungry society, but the truth is that more can be accomplished via cooperation and we should value the cultivation of teamwork skills.

Panel at the women in math workshop

L-R: Ulrica Wilson, Lea Jenkins and Amanda Goldbeck.

Drawing on her experiences at a historically black university, Ulrica Wilson offered a great explanation as to why having workshops such as this one is not only relevant, but important for increasing and maintaining diversity. When we take the time to create this space, we are able to stop focusing on what makes us different and just focus on the math—which is really what we were all drawn to when we chose this pursuit in the first place!

Marie Davidian gave a fascinating overview of notable women in the mathematical sciences, both in the past and the present. I was captivated with the story of the trailblazer Gertrude Cox, founding head of the (then-named) Department of Experimental Statistics at NCSU in 1941. Her recommendation for the position came in the way of a footnote appended to a letter containing a list of recommended male peers: “Of course if you would consider a woman for this position, I would recommend Gertrude Cox of my staff.” This truly puts into perspective how far the community has come with regard to gender equality.

The workshop attendees were energetic and engaged, which made the panel-led discussions and breakout sessions (not to mention breaks) both stimulating and fun. The participants were largely graduate students and early career scientists, who had plenty of thoughtful questions for the expert representatives from academia, industry, and government. Even though I may have been cast as one of the experts, I found that I learned a lot and left the workshop with a to-do list of actions I am interested in taking. In particular: joining a mentor network, engaging more in professional society events, and advocating for family leave benefits.

I am glad to have had this opportunity to consider the challenges, and solutions to those challenges, faced by women and minorities in the mathematical sciences. I’d like to thank SAMSI for hosting this event and allowing us to gather and reflect on both the progress that has been made, and the issues that remain. It is only through this type of directed intention that we may continue to move towards equality.


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