Home > math education, women in math > What’s it take to be a woman in math?

What’s it take to be a woman in math?

June 11, 2011

One of the first things I’d like to set people straight on is what it takes to be a woman in math.  The short answer is, a warrior.  The longer answer starts like this.  At least in this country, in this culture*, it required near-constant resistance to the niggling feeling that you don’t belong, that you are an outsider, and that you will always be an outsider.  It takes the belief in yourself as an abstract thinker, as a scientist, and as a _source_ of wisdom.  This is completely counter to how the average woman has been taught to behave: demurely, modestly, quietly.  Unleaderly.  And the above description refers only to the psychological barriers, not the underlying mathematics.

Considering how difficult the material itself is, it’s not surprising how many women drop out eventually.

To be fair, we are seeing many more women finishing college degrees in mathematics and Ph.D.s in mathematics, and that is frigging awesome.  But we are still not seeing that many professors, not in the numbers you might think from the Ph.D. programs.  Why is this?  I think I can explain this at least in part.  When one decides to become a math major, it’s a difficult decision in terms of the surrounding cultural expectations, but there’s very good, very consistent feedback (at least outside of Harvard), namely in the form of homework and test grades from undergrad classes.  In other words, it may be a weird decision to be a woman in math, but you can *see* your success whenever your homework comes back with a good grade.  It’s proof positive that you are doing ok.  To some extent in grad school this feedback loop continues, and with luck you have a good advisor who is encouraging and nurturing.  However, once outside of grad school the feedback loop all but vanishes and you are left to decide, *within yourself* whether you are good at what you do.  This is when you as a woman (and of course this happens to men too but for whatever reason, maybe just hormones, maybe culture, not as often) question yourself, and then look to the outside world for affirmation, and to be honest that’s a pretty tough moment.  Many women leave at that moment.

In some sense I am one of them, because I did leave academics.  But I left because I decided I wanted more, so more of a moment of strength than a moment of fear.  I got a Ph.D. at Harvard, went to M.I.T. for a post-doc, then became an assistant professor at Barnard College.  I got to the point where I was pretty sure I’d be able to get tenure, or in other words to the point that I was sure I deserved tenure, and I looked around and decided, this isn’t the kind of feedback loop I want in my life.  I need actual feedback, in real time.  I left to be a quant in finance (and since then a data scientist at an internet ad company).  I feel very lucky that I could make that decision without fear, and I still consider myself a woman in math, and I still encourage women in math to stay in math or at least stay mathematical.

I think if people understood what women in math need to do in order to just be themselves every day, they would be treated less like anomalies and more like superheroes.  It’s a tough thing to do, and they should be respected for it.  And they are cool.  I mean, what’s cooler than someone who lives as an outsider and has come to terms with that?  It’s a strength that not everyone has.

Here’s the thing, I don’t want to end this post on a negative note.  In spite of everything I’ve said, being a math babe totally rocks, because math rocks.  I hope to convincingly illustrate just how much math rocks in future posts.

* I’ve talked to women outside the US about being mathematicians in their country.  One thing that commonly comes up is that in Italy, and to some extent France, it is much more common to see women mathematicians.  Why is this?  One of my Italian women mathematician friends described it to me like this:  in Italy, the academic track to become a mathematician is identical to that of becoming a high school math teacher- indeed the two tracks diverge only after a masters degree.  The outcome of this system is that it is not seen as a particularly glamorous or even difficult profession- perhaps similar to that of an engineer.  According to her, truly ambitious Italians become politicians, not mathematicians.

  1. Michelle
    July 3, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    Hi Cathy! Just pointed to your blog by Jordan Ellenberg’s, and happy to see it.

    I am one of those few women math professors (one of two in my department of nearly 30). I have lots, lots, lots of friends who have left academics, and one big reason is the model of moving around every few of years through most of your 20s, and the difficulty of making this work with a partner. Academia is still based on the model of the lone genius or the genius with a trailing spouse who takes care of everything at home. Very few men, much less women, fit that model any more. But until the system somehow changes to reflect modern relationships, I don’t think the ranks of women at the professor level will grow greatly. (It will grow… it is growing. But not a lot.)

    But, yeah, math rocks. And I think I have the best job in the world.


  2. Epsilon
    June 24, 2012 at 10:53 am



  3. Epsilon
    June 24, 2012 at 10:56 am

    A correction: \sigma+\ldots+!


  4. Epsilon
    June 24, 2012 at 11:06 am

    This time, a real correction: [pmath] \sigma+\ldots+! [/pmath]. In other words,


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