The American Mathematical Society recognized the Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics last week with its Programs that Make a Difference Award, which honors the conference’s work in encouraging undergraduate female mathematics students to pursue graduate school or a professional career in the field.
Women have always been underrepresented in the sciences, according to Judy Walker, professor and chair of mathematics at UNL. The annual conference, held in late January in downtown Lincoln, presents undergraduate women with examples of women who have been successful in mathematics, either in academia or the professional world.
“It’s better for the field to have a diverse group of people working in it,” Walker said. “You get more perspectives, you get more progress, and you lose potential talent if you’re excluding whole classes of people from a discipline.”
The conference has been providing examples of role models since its inception in 1999. The conference began as a result of a President’s Award that the UNL mathematics department received in 1998 for excellence in mentoring. The department was then awarded a $10,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for the department to continue the work that earned its President’s Award.
The weekend-long conference is the premiere conference for encouraging women to seek graduate degrees in mathematics, Walker said. The conference features lectures from women faculty from across the country, as well as presentations from professional mathematicians. The professionals and faculty also mingle with around 250 undergraduate women at the pizza dinner held Saturday night.
UNL represents an anomaly in the academic world of mathematics. According to Walker, 40 percent or more of Ph.D.s in mathematics at UNL have gone to women since the early 1990s, “which is a phenomenal number and way above the national average.” Also, UNL’s mathematics faculty is about 26 percent female.
Amanda Croll and Ashley Johnson, two graduating Ph.D. students at UNL, attributed their decisions to continue studying mathematics after their undergraduate degrees to the conference.
Croll said there were women mathematics majors at her undergraduate university, but most of them were going on to teach mathematics in high school. Attending this conference opened her eyes to the possibilities for success in a graduate degree in mathematics.
“I thought that it was really amazing to see so many women who were interested in math and went to graduate school in math,” said Croll, who attended the conference twice as an undergraduate and has been involved with the conference every year she has been at UNL. “It’s a really neat networking experience to meet other women in mathematics and to talk to other people who are pursuing careers you might be interested in too.”
Before attending the conference, Johnson said she did not realize mathematics was a field women worked in, considering she was one of four women out of 50 students who graduated with degrees in mathematics.
“I came to this conference and I was like, ‘Wow, there are a lot of women in mathematics, look at all these graduate students and all these faculty members,’” said Johnson, who also attended the conference twice as an undergraduate and continues to be involved.
The question of why women are underrepresented in the sciences and in mathematics is a large issue, and one that has no clear answer. According to Walker, the issue is a historical one.
“There’s a lot of bias, there’s a lot of prejudice, there’s a lot of tradition,” Walker said. “If the field is not particularly welcoming, then you are not going to choose to enter the field.”
One barrier that stands between women and a graduate degree could be the lack of women faculty who work at an institution, according to Walker.
“If you have a department in which there are no women faculty, it’s really hard for a female student to get through that program,” Walker said. “It’s hard to imagine yourself as succeeding when you have nobody who looks like you that has succeeded.”
This year, Johnson and Croll have been on the job hunt. Johnson said she and a few of her colleagues have talked to universities where their mathematics faculty is entirely male.
“Who wants to be one of seven faculty members and you’re the only female?” Croll said.
Johnson said it’s hard to be the first female member of a department.
“You want to see somebody that’s like you being a mathematician,” she said. “And so if we have a lack of female faculty members, then you have a lack of female role models.”
The conference will continue to attract students from universities across the United States, and, much like the cases of Croll and Johnson, change perspectives of women’s role in the discipline by showing them women who have been successful.
“You can’t overestimate the importance of role models,” Walker said.