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The Status of Women in Mathematics

Rhonda Hughes, Former President of AWM and Cofounder of EDGE

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of the Notices or the AMS.

Throughout the 1970s, women were virtually invisible on the national level in mathematics. For most of us coming of age in that decade, the only woman mathematician we had ever heard of was Emmy Noether. Women mathematicians at the time were often underemployed and some received recognition only after achieving fame beyond the mathematics community. Julia Robinson, the most notable example, was finally granted a full-time professorship at Berkeley after she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. With the founding of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) in 1971, women were somewhat reluctantly offered a seat at the table in professional organizations, and the stories, struggles, and achievements of women became more widely discussed. In the 1980s, women began to be properly recognized for their work.

If we judge purely by the numbers, the status of women in mathematics may not appear to be substantially different from the era when I served as AWM president from 1987–1989. The most quoted percentage is usually that of US citizen women obtaining PhDs in the mathematical sciences. In 1989, that figure was approximately 24% 6, and in recent years ranges from 25%–29%, depending on the source 78.

If we look, however, at some other metrics, we do see progress. Some of the standard markers of success in mathematics have been Fields Medals, AMS Colloquium Speakers, and tenured professorships at the leading research universities. As is widely known, two women have now won the Fields Medal, Maryam Mirzakhani (2014) and Maryna Viazovska (2022). Since 1896, when the AMS Colloquium Lectures began, there have been eight women speakers, most in the twenty-first century. The first was Anna Pell Wheeler of Bryn Mawr College in 1927. The second was Julia Robinson, nearly 60 years later, in 1980, followed relatively quickly by Karen Uhlenbeck (1985). There were none until the 2000s, which brought Alice Chang (2004), Alice Guionnet (2013), Dusa McDuff (2014), Ingrid Daubechies (2020) and Karen Smith in (2022). (There is anecdotal evidence here that once a woman is recognized one year, people realize the universe is still in operation, and another is chosen the following year.) In 2019, Karen Uhlenbeck was the first woman to win the Abel Prize 2.

In the 1980s, there were virtually no tenured women in the mathematics departments of the leading research universities. Today, that has changed. With some exceptions, those departments now have tenured professors who are women, and some departments have more than one. However, most mathematicians, regardless of gender, will not attain this level of accomplishment, so these are perhaps unfair measures of success. Instead, we should look more broadly at the progress of women and other underrepresented groups who have historically been marginalized.

One of the areas where we see impressive change is in the professional organizations. One special case worthy of note is the American Statistical Association (ASA), which had its first woman president, Helen Walker, in 1944, and has had a total of nineteen women presidents since its founding in 1939. Among the other professional organizations, none had a woman president until 1979, when Dorothy Bernstein became president of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). Julia Robinson was the first woman president of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) in 1983, and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) elected Margaret Wright in . It is truly remarkable that the current presidents of AMS, MAA, ASA, the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM), the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), and the Society of Mathematical Biologists (SMB) are all women 345. Moreover, the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) had Cora Sadosky, a Hispanic woman, serve as president in 1993 and currently has a Black president and president-elect: Talitha Washington and Raegan Higgins, respectively. Through the work of professional organizations such as SACNAS, AWM, NAM, and Spectra, the Association for LGBTQ+ Mathematicians, we see progress in inclusivity for all groups in the mathematical sciences.

New faces

One of the most welcome changes is the presence of women of color and other historically underrepresented groups at all levels of professional activity. When I became AWM president in 1987, there were few voices that championed the cause of women or people of color in the mathematics community. In 1969, Johnny Houston and Scott Williams organized a gathering that would formally become NAM in 1971. Lee Lorch, the civil rights icon 9, mentored a generation of Black women mathematicians in the short time he was at Fisk University, and Mary Gray, a lifelong champion of women’s and human rights, was one of the founders of AWM 10. Richard Tapia is a visionary under whose leadership the Computational and Applied Mathematics Department at Rice has become a national leader in producing women and underrepresented minority PhDs 11. The Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE) Program (disclaimer: I am one of its founders, along with Sylvia Bozeman of Spelman College) boasts many prominent women in positions of research and professional leadership among its alumnae. The website Mathematically Gifted and Black 12, which each year features Black mathematicians during Black History Month, has showcased hundreds of Black mathematicians and brought their stories to light.

New voices

While most mathematicians of my generation read the same classic (often excellent) textbooks in graduate school, the internet has provided new and exciting ways of bringing mathematics to a wider audience than could possibly be reached by conventional teaching methods. Innovative ways of explaining mathematics have taken hold. Many of these voices belong to women. Tai-Danae Bradley’s Math3ma website 1 offers clear explanations and synthesizes disparate themes in mathematics in an exhilarating way. Lillian Pierce brings her musician’s sensibility to bear on her approach to exposition 13. Her 2022 ICM slides, exceptional in their clarity, invite us to understand her research and give us access to her work 14. Susan D’Agostino’s book, How to Free Your Inner Mathematician: Notes on Mathematics and Life, offers a fresh new perspective on how the lessons of mathematics can have bearing on the way we navigate our lives 15. As the world consumes the content these masterful expositors produce, we can only hope that a new and diverse generation feels more welcome than in the past and embraces all that mathematics has to offer.