Nebraska hosts math leaders to spur women earning doctorates

Nebraska hosts math leaders to spur women earning doctorates

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A mathematician might express the situation like this: 0.25 XY(PhD) = XX(PhD). In linguistic terms: American women earn four times fewer doctorates in math than do men.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Judy Walker has spearheaded a gathering of leaders from more than 20 universities and colleges, several prominent math societies, the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency to help rewrite that equation.

From June 8-10, Walker’s team will drive conversations and share results from its ongoing NSF-funded research into the strengths of existing female-oriented math initiatives. Identifying those strengths will inform the design of educational models that more effectively recruit women to math and keep them in the discipline.

The meeting, which takes place at Brace Laboratory, will begin the process of brainstorming “prototype projects” that incorporate the lessons Walker’s team has gleaned from existing initiatives.

Judy Walker (left) has spearheaded a gathering of leaders from more than 20 universities and colleges, several prominent math societies, the National Science Foundation and the National Security Agency to drive conversations and share results from its ongoing research into the strengths of existing female-oriented math initiatives.

“We want to empower the meeting participants to act on what they’ve heard,” said Walker, the Aaron Douglas Professor of Mathematics and vice chancellor for faculty and academic affairs.

Walker co-founded one of those existing initiatives, the annual Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics, in 1999, a year after the university’s Department of Mathematics became the first to win a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

“Nebraska’s mathematics department has a strong national reputation for being a department in which women can, and do, succeed,” Walker said. “It is not uncommon for me to hear things like, ‘Unfortunately, not every math department is like Nebraska’s,’ when people are talking about support for women in math. We really are the exemplar nationally for mathematics graduate programs that are successful with women students.”

In late 2016, Walker’s team earned one of 37 grants funded through the NSF’s new INCLUDES program, which aims to address the underrepresentation of women and minority leaders across science, technology, engineering and math. The result: a two-year project named Women Achieving Through Community Hubs in the United States, or WATCH US, that spurred the formation of the June meeting.

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Participants of the 2017 Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics.

Walker credited Patricia Wonch Hill, Mindy Anderson-Knott and the university’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Consortium with helping to bring the project and meeting to fruition.

“A few of us who have been involved in these types of programs for many years realized it would be an opportunity for us to join forces, learn from each other, and, ideally, move forward with new ideas that could reach a wider audience and really move the needle on this problem,” Walker said.

The WATCH US meeting will assemble department and graduate chairs from the Big Ten universities of Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Purdue and Rutgers, alongside other doctorate-granting institutions that include the University of California-Irvine and the University of Virginia. Representatives from the historically black Spelman College and Howard University will attend, as will those from undergraduate institutions such as Harvey Mudd College, Bryn Mawr College and Loyola Marymount University.

Walker’s team also recruited the participation of leaders from the nation’s most prominent professional societies for doctorate-holding mathematicians: the American Mathematical Society, the Mathematical Association of America, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, and the Association for Women in Mathematics.

“One goal of our project is to transfer ownership of the problem from a select group of mostly women mathematicians to the mathematics community as a whole,” Walker said. “Bringing this group together will be a first step in that direction.”