Making Women + Math = Opportunities

Despite advances in women studying STEM fields, a gender gap still persists among mathematics degree-holders and job-seekers. Columbian College students and faculty are searching for formulas to solve the women and math equation.

Senior math major Isabelle Berger is a board member for the GW Association for Women in Mathematics
Senior math major Isabelle Berger is a board member for the GW Association for Women in Mathematics (Photo: William Atkins)
April 12, 2017

As a 6th grader, Isabelle Berger was convinced she hated math. When her middle school teacher used baseball batting averages to explain statistics, Berger’s eyes glazed over with confusion. She brought home one poor homework grade after another. Finally, she confessed to her mother that it was simply no use. She just wasn’t any good at math.

“Luckily, my mom wouldn’t let me quit on myself,” Berger recalled. “She told me that I wasn’t bad at math—I was just bad at baseball.”

By her junior year in high school, Berger was acing her AP calculus courses and developing a love of math that would follow her through her undergraduate studies at Columbian College—and even led to her board membership on the student-run GW Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) . This spring, she will graduate with a degree in mathematics and embark on a research fellowship with the National Institutes of Health.

“All it took to get me started were a few words of encouragement and the right teachers,” she said.

That’s the exact message AWM and the Columbian College Department of Mathematics want to convey to young women who are considering a career in mathematics. With women persistently trailing men in both math degrees and STEM-related professional positions, students and faculty are trying to engage future female math majors and counter the long-held stereotype that science and math are typically male fields. From AWM networking events and study sessions to department outreach efforts, the mathematics community at GW is searching for a solution to the women and math equation and trying to make the numbers add up.

“Our goal is to see more confident women in math, more role models for women in math and more opportunities for women in math—whether on a university level, in research or in the workforce,” said Maria Gualdani, associate professor of mathematics and AWM faculty advisor. “I see many female math majors now who are extremely good and extremely hard-working. Most of all, they are stubborn and won’t let anyone tell them what they cannot do.”

Closing the Gender Gap

Researchers have long struggled to explain the dearth of women in STEM-fields. A 2016 U.S. Commerce Department report sited factors like “a lack of female role models, gender stereotyping, and less family-friendly flexibility in the STEM fields.” While the last 30 years have seen an exponential growth in women's representation in scientific careers, the progress has been uneven across the math-intensive fields. Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, according to the Commerce Department, but hold only 29 percent of science and engineering jobs—and only 25 percent of them represent computer and quantitative sciences positions.

The figures are similarly unbalanced in higher education. Women hold more than half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, but they are concentrated in psychology, biology and social sciences, according to a 2016 National Science Board survey. Only 43 percent of mathematics BAs go to women. A Cornell University study revealed that, within the 100 U.S. universities, as few as 9 percent of tenure-track positions in math-intensive fields were occupied by women. Female mathematics professors numbered just 7 percent.

“It’s certainly an advancement compared to 20 or 30 years ago. But does this mean our work is done? Of course not,” Gualdani said.

Three of GW’s 19 math professors are women: Associate Professor Maria Gualdani and Associate Professor Svetlana Roudenko, both of whom are National Science Foundation CAREER award recipients, and Valentina Harizanov, professor of mathematics and recipient of the Oscar and Shoshana Trachtenberg Prize for Scholarship. About 40 percent of GW’s 100 math majors—and about an equal percentage of math minors—are women, noted Mathematics Professor and Department Chair Murli Gupta.

In the last few years, the department has launched several initiatives to attract female math majors, including establishing chapters of SIAM (the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics) and the Pi Mu Epsilon honor society; 16 of the society’s 24 GW members are women. Since 1995, Gupta has overseen the GW Summer Program for Women in Mathematics, a five-week long retreat to help undergraduates cultivate math skills. (The summer program was put on hiatus in 2014, but Gupta hopes to revive it soon.)

“We are committed to increasing the participation of women at all levels—from undergrads to grads and faculty,” Professor Gupta said.

AWM President Samantha Sadiv, a senior math major and geography minor, never doubted that she would one day pursue a math or science related career—and she has already lined up a position with a D.C. nonprofit accountancy firm after graduation. “No one ever told me there was a stereotype of women being bad at math,” she said. Through AWM, she strives to offer the same kind of inspiration and encouragement to her classmates. “There are a lot of women here who are not deterred by people telling them they aren’t supposed to be good at math,” she said. “We see girls who are excelling at math and a lot of it has to do with their parents, their peers and their teachers pushing them to keep at it.”

AWM, which has about 40 members, aims to promote women pursuing careers in math-related fields. While the organization mostly benefits female undergraduate students majoring in math, the club welcomes students of all genders, majors and ages. AWM holds weekly study sessions to help students adjust to college-level math. (“Making the transition from high school calculus to college calculus is much harder than it looks,” Berger said.) The group regularly participates in charity events like the Nerd Olympics, a math-themed competition benefiting For Love of Children, a tutoring initiative for D.C. students who fall below grade level in math.

AWM also hosts an annual student-alumni networking dinner, featuring a panel of GW math alumni now working in research, graduate school or math-related careers. “Our goal is to facilitate a one-on-one conversation with alumni to give students an open honest insightful view of the opportunities  that are available to them,” Sadiv said. This year’s alumni guests included Marissa Wiener, BA '14,  a financial analyst at Geico; former AWM President Katie Willard, BA '16, a social media consultant; and Kendall Moffett-Sklaroff, BA ’16, a research assistant at the American Society for Engineering Education.

“When people hear ‘math,’ they think about spending all their time doing math theory and proofs on the chalkboard,” Moffett-Sklaroff said. “But there are so many ways to apply math. You can be a stock trader or a game designer or an astronaut.”