Feb Mag - Women in Math

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s math department strives to support its female mathematicians, and the numbers add up.

Out of 31 tenured math faculty, nine are women — or 29 percent. The American Mathematical Society puts the national average of tenured positions secured by women at 15 percent.

In recent months, many of these women have received accolades and fellowships from prestigious societies. Though male professionals tend to be hired more and receive greater accolades, in recent years UNL has been doing better than most in terms of hiring practices and female representation.

Petronela Radu said she’s seen the support for female students and faculty grow over the years since she was hired as a postdoctoral fellow in 2004.

Radu, who had three children before she received tenure, said that she received support from the math department during her pregnancies, something that worries many female professors.

She said UNL was open to hiring both her and her husband. According to Radu, many couples who both work in academia face the “two-body problem,” where it’s often hard for both parties to find jobs in competitive fields at universities or foundations in the same place, much less the same department.

Jim Lewis, former chair of the math department, said UNL’s openness has changed since the 1970s, when he began teaching and researching at the university.

Lewis remembers barely any female faculty in the math department at that time, much less any female students.

To solve this problem, Lewis made it a mission to hire couples who could both work at UNL, which would also help retention efforts.

“The fact that we were supportive of couples when they were first coming allowed us to be more competitive for them,” he said. “Sometimes it’s paying attention to little things, or things like this, that create a culture and an environment of success.”

The number of female faculty in a department can inaccurately represent their influence and power, according to Lewis. He said the slow nature of the tenure process tends to make it look like there is no progress.

Lewis said it would be more indicative and encouraging to look at the number of doctorate degrees awarded to women at UNL.

Between 1988 and 1991, the first five women received doctorates from the UNL math department. Lewis boasted that between 1991 and 2003, his last 12 years of chairmanship, 26 women received doctorates.

In 2018, more than half of UNL students receiving doctorates in math were women.

Lewis said while it was and is important to support faculty members, there must be resources put toward graduate students, who are future scholars and doctoral candidates.

The support for women in the math department is not just external; Radu said female faculty also support each other within their small community.

Judy Walker, associate vice chancellor for faculty and academic affairs and tenured math professor, heads the UNL Association for Women in Mathematics chapter, which helps foster intergenerational support among female mathematicians.

“As a member of the UNL AWIS chapter, I can see more senior faculty members develop plans and seek new ways to support junior female faculty members,” Radu said. “Mentoring is one of the key ways to help advance women and STEM, and I believe that is happening at higher rates than ever before.”

Laurel Lund, a senior math major, said it is reassuring to learn from the nine women in the math department and see the support for female success in the department.

Lund, who was originally a pre-nursing major, said the intimidation she felt when she made the switch to math was partly because of her gender.

“I definitely feel more comfortable around female professors, because I kind of feel like I don’t have to justify why I’m there,” she said. “I don’t feel so aware of my gender.”

Lund said she was not surprised to hear about the influx of recognition for the female faculty in math, which she said was gratifying.

Radu said she hopes female graduate and undergraduate students in math can see they have the ability to achieve what they want.

“I would like our female students to see what wonderful contributions they can make in mathematics and science, and to see them supported in their efforts,” she said.


This article was originally published in the February 2019 edition of The DN.