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Gender And The Harvard Math Department

May 20, 2015

This is a guest post by Meena Boppana, a junior at Harvard and former president of the Harvard Undergraduate Math Association (HUMA). Meena is passionate about addressing the gender gap in math and has co-lead initiatives including the Harvard math survey and the founding of the Harvard student group Gender Inclusivity in Math (GIIM).

I arrived at Harvard in 2012 head-over-heels in love with math. Encouraged to think mathematically since I was four years old by my feminist mathematician dad, I had even given a TEDx talk in high school declaring my love for the subject. I was certainly qualified and excited enough to be a math major.

Which is why, three years later, I think about how it is that virtually all my female friends with insanely strong math backgrounds (e.g. math competition stars) decided not to major in math (I chose computer science). This year, there were no female students in Math 55a, the most intense freshman math class, and only two female students graduating with a primary concentration in math. There are also a total of zero tenured women faculty in Harvard math.

So, I decided to do some statistical sleuthing and co-directed a survey of Harvard undergraduates in math. I was inspired by the work of Nancy Hopkins and other pioneering female scientists at MIT, who quantified gender inequities at the Institute – even measuring the square footage of their offices – and sparked real change. We got a 1/3 response rate among all math concentrators at Harvard, with 150 people in total (including related STEM concentrations) filling it out.

The main finding of our survey analysis is that the dearth of women in Harvard math is far more than a “pipeline issue” stemming from high school. So, the tale that women are coming in to Harvard knowing less math and consequently not majoring in math is missing much of the picture. Women are dropping out of math during their years at Harvard, with female math majors writing theses and continuing on to graduate school at far lower rates than their male math major counterparts.

And it’s a cultural issue. Our survey indicated that many women would like to be involved in the math department and aren’t, most women feel uncomfortable as a result of the gender gap, and women feel uncomfortable in math department common spaces.


The simple act of talking about the gender gap has opened the floodgates to great conversations. I had always assumed that because no one was talking about the gender gap, no one cared. But after organizing a panel on gender in the math department which drew 150 people with a roughly equal gender split and students and faculty alike, I realized that my classmates of all genders feel more disempowered than apathetic.

The situation is bad, but certainly not hopeless. Together with a male freshman math major, I am founding a Harvard student group called Gender Inclusivity in Math (GIIM). The club has the two-fold goal of increasing community among women in math, including dinners, retreats, and a women speaker series, and also addressing the gender gap in the math department, continuing the trend of surveys and gender in math discussions. The inclusion of male allies is central to our club mission, and the support from male allies at the student and faculty level that we have received makes me optimistic about the will for change.

Ultimately, it is my continued love for math which has driven me to take action. Mathematics is too beautiful and important to lose 50 percent (or much more when considering racial and class-based inequities) of the potential population of math lovers.

  1. Nitin
    May 21, 2015 at 4:06 am

    It might be a good idea to interview the mathematician Sophie Morel (now at Princeton) about her experience as the first ever and so far only female maths professor who taught at Harvard.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sophie
      May 21, 2015 at 3:46 pm

      No, it’s a bad idea. I hate interviews, and I don’t particularly like talking about women and maths.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. kokuanani
    May 21, 2015 at 9:05 am

    Wow, what a flashback. I could edit the first sentence of this article as follows: “I arrived at Stanford in 1962 head-over-heels in love with math.” I too had a father who encouraged me from an early age and said there was no reason women couldn’t do well in math. I took every math course available at my high school and participated in math competitions. I wanted to be a math teacher or engineer.

    I took the most rigorous math course offered to freshman — calculus at 8 am M-F. It was my favorite class, and I tutored girls in my dorm [this was 1962] so they could get through the easier classes.

    In my sophomore year, I was one of 2-4 girls in the math classes. At least one professor asked us to “sit in the front row” so he could “look at our pretty faces.”

    Bottom line: I deserted math, went to ed. school, taught English, went to law school. Forty-five years later I found joy in tutoring 3rd & 4th graders in math at my local, impoverished school, and encouraging girls that they could do well.

    Considering the scant change that’s occurred over the last 50 years, I’m not so sure about the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gonzalo Lira
    May 21, 2015 at 11:33 am

    I’ve been hearing the “women under-represented in [insert STEM field here]” since I was at Dartmouth in the early 1990’s.

    The author claims that “it’s a cultural issue”. So did people back in 1993—a full generation ago—and women are still unrepresented.

    Could it be biology rather than culture? Is it beyond the realm of the possible to think that—maybe, just maybe—there is a biological component to the way men and women think? And that, therefore, a biological—as opposed to cultural—reason that men outnumber women in the STEM fields?

    I mean, no one gives much thought to the fact that at nursing schools, the vast majority of degree-seekers are women.

    I’m just sayin’ . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    • May 21, 2015 at 11:37 am

      Let’s say that if everyone looked into their heart of hearts, and independent of social norms, as if that were possible, and figured out what they really wanted to do with their lives, then we’d have a 30/70 split on mathematicians. More men than women. It’s possible. It’s also not the point.

      The point is, there are plenty of reasons to believe that there are women who actually do want to do math and are being pushed away. Do you understand that this is a different issue? And that this is problematic?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gonzalo Lira
        May 22, 2015 at 9:44 am

        What of men who want to pursue a career in math, but are being “pushed away” (i.e., failing out)?

        Isn’t this equally “problematic”? Or is failing out of STEM fields “problematic” when it involves women, but “normal” when it involves men?

        This hand-wringing about the under-representation of women in STEM fields has been around for three decades already. Everyone claims it’s cultural, because the thinking is, if it’s cultural, it can be fixed.

        But what if it’s biological?

        In over thirty years of trying to “fix” the problem with all sorts of programs to “encourage” women in the STEM fields, the imbalance remains.

        The underlying assumption—that it’s a cultural issue—has been accepted without question.

        My thinking is, that underlying assumption should be questioned—and questioned closely.

        I mean, isn’t that the essence of science? Questioning base assumptions when your results don’t add up?

        Or are we dealing with a sacred cow . . .


        • May 22, 2015 at 10:13 am

          Actually, that is a concern (men who want to be in STEM field X getting pushed out). Even if someone wanted to be purely focused on men, it is still worth understanding and addressing the factors that push women out as they could (can and do) affect men, too.

          Some other points of caution: beware the false dichotomy. I know, it has bitten me before and it is painful. Also, cultural biases can take a very long time to address. As a father of small children, I’ve been really surprised by how persistent small gender biases still are in STEM-related media.


      • susan
        May 22, 2015 at 9:15 pm

        in a world of seven billion people, I am sure there are enough talented women to fill the Harvard math dept.


      • captain obvious
        May 27, 2015 at 5:00 pm

        It’s also possible that women are better than men at noticing the obvious-to-most-nonmathematicians reasons for preferring CS, statistics or other mathy subjects over math itself. There need not be any “pushing” of anyone out of the field, all that is needed is greater awareness.


  4. scott
    May 21, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    > there are plenty of reasons to believe that there are women who actually do want to do math and are being pushed away

    One would need to compare the rate at which this happens to the same rate for men “who actually do want to do math and are being pushed away” in order to establish this as a gender issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Zathras
    May 21, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    The aspect here I have wondered about for years is in the delta between math and other fields. The story does not give much in the way of details, but the author ended up in CS instead of math. CS is at least as a male-dominated field historically as math, yet CS was for some reason better for the author than math was. It’s not just that math is bad; it’s that math seems to be worse for women culturally than other quantitative fields; I have noticed this from my own experience. The question is why this delta exists. What is it about math culture that uniquely push women away. I know women can be pushed away in other fields, but the problem from the story and my own limited experience is that math is uniquely bad here. Why.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Meena
      May 22, 2015 at 2:42 pm

      I have no idea why, but here are some theories. In the case of Harvard, the CS department is really committed to supporting women and there is an incredibly active women in CS club (http://www.harvardwics.com/). Another theory is that women may drawn more to fields that have more social impact (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/27/opinion/how-to-attract-female-engineers.html), which CS probably has over pure math.


    • May 22, 2015 at 2:45 pm

      I have no idea why but one theory is that women are attracted towards fields with more social impact (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/27/opinion/how-to-attract-female-engineers.html). Also in my case, the Harvard CS department is particularly committed towards creating a positive environment for women and there’s an active women in CS club (http://www.harvardwics.com/), something that I’m trying to create for math.


      • May 25, 2015 at 3:32 pm

        I am happy to hear that Harvard is making an effort to attract women to CS. What is disappointing to me is that the percentage of women in Stanford CS has remained flat since i earned my MS there in the ’80s. Similarly, the percentage of women in Berkeley’s MBA program has not increased since I earned that degree in the early ’80s. Is it STEM or is it fields with high paying jobs?


  6. EMB
    May 23, 2015 at 12:15 am

    Why does Math 55 exist in the first place? At most schools, sufficiently well-prepared students just skip the first year (or more) of classes and there’s no particular need for a special “opportunity for freshmen to show off how smart they are” class.

    Liked by 1 person

    • arithmetica
      May 26, 2015 at 1:54 am

      Hear, hear.


  7. Laocoon
    May 25, 2015 at 10:30 am

    It wasn’t any better for me at a prominent women’s college 45 years ago. After placing out of freshman calculus when not a lot of people did, about mid-semester I asked the prof (also the math dept head, male) if I might come by his office to talk about majoring in math. He told me that unless I was planning to get a PhD then I shouldn’t even consider it. Because of family and financial instability I wasn’t even sure I’d be back the next semester, much less going on for a doctorate. This elite college offered no other math-related fields except for a one credit computer programming course that no one has any idea about where it would lead. Fast forward and this college only several years ago finally graduated a handful of computer science majors and the administration’s head techie is a man.

    The point is, there are significant structural barriers that have been in place in the academy that also need to change. Most students are not going to become academics and there may not be room for them all. But there is no reason why we need to turn talent away because of gender bias or an overly rigid structure that can’t help less affluent or first-generation students.


  8. AC
    May 29, 2015 at 4:40 pm

    Really happy to hear that you are including male allies. Too often women in math are only encouraged to speak about the gender gap among women only.


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