Promoting Diversity in the Mathematical Sciences

The AMS recently endorsed two bills that are part of Senator Mazie Hirono’s (Hawai’i) plan to promote women and minorities pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professions and careers. Companion bills were introduced in the House of Representatives by Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX 30) and Carolyn Maloney (NY 12). One of the two bills, the STEM Opportunities Act, will be especially important to the AMS and its members as it provides universities and nonprofits with opportunities to receive competitive grants and recognition for mentoring women and minorities in STEM.

We are working with other Congressional offices on the language of similar bills that aim to remove barriers and increase opportunities for women, first-generation and other students in underrepresented communities.

Thus, it was timely that last week I had the privilege to participate in a meeting of stakeholders at the University of Nebraska. This was part of the NSF INCLUDES Women Achieving through Community Hubs in the U.S. (WATCH US) grant. This project seeks to increase and diversify the number of professional mathematicians in the United States by identifying and proliferating best practices and known mechanisms for increasing the success of women in mathematics graduate programs, particularly women from under-represented groups.

WATCH US leaders are Ruth Haas (Hawaii), Deanna Haunsperger (Carleton), Ami Radunskaya (Pomona), and Judy Walker (Nebraska).  Importantly, they brought in a great team of social science researchers, led by Trish Wonch Hill who, along with grant evaluator Mindy Anderson-Knott, is part of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Consortium (SBSRC) at Nebraska.

The research team collaborated with six successful conferences and programs who have collectively served more than 5,000 participants over the span of 20 years to collect data for their report. The six programs are:

  1. Carleton College Summer Mathematics Program for Women (SMP)
  2. Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics (NCUWM)
  3. The EDGE (Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education) Program
  4. Smith College Center for Women in Mathematics Post-baccalaureate Program (CWM)
  5. The Women and Mathematics Program (WAM) at the Institute for Advanced Study
  6. The Infinite Possibilities Conference (IPC)

These programs have targeted women in mathematics at different stages in their undergraduate and graduate education, with different strategies to building community, creating a sense of belonging, and promoting a growth mind set. Which elements of enrichment programs/conferences in mathematics are critical to success? Do programs work differently for women of color or for first generation women than for majority women?

Sadly for many of us, several of these programs have lost their federal funding and now face an uncertain future. The WATCH US workshop was part of the NSF INCLUDES program; the impetus behind NSF INCLUDES is that broadening participation in science and engineering is a national challenge that requires national solutions. The approach of NSF INCLUDES is to develop networks and partnerships that involve organizations and consortia from different sectors committed to a common agenda.

After identifying elements from the above six program that are most effective, prototypes will be implemented at several sites chosen to represent a diversity of constituencies and local support infrastructure. The group will solicit proposals for prototype events this fall. While we can see in the table that the number of US citizen female recipients of the PhD has stagnated, the right end of the graph shows that without these programs a significant decrease may instead have occurred (I know these visuals don’t match years, and of course the graph is telling a related but different story!).

The numbers in the table can also be compared to the percentages of women receiving PhDs in mathematics and statistics in Europe where, according to the recent She Figures report, 35% of PhD recipients in these fields are female. It is vital to our nation’s competitiveness that we confront our deficit.

Working toward a more diverse mathematics community is not new undertaking and in particular the directors and other leaders of the six programs above have worked tirelessly and helped many in significant ways. However, with funding to these programs uncertain; Title IX under scrutiny in the Department of Education, as well as in Congress and in the courts; and flatlining numbers of PhD’s going to women and individuals in underrepresented groups, it is important that those of us fighting this fight join forces with a shared endgame.




About Karen Saxe

Since January 1, 2017, Karen Saxe is Director of the Washington Office of the AMS which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who impact science funding. Before joining the AMS, Karen was DeWitt Wallace Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Over many years she has contributed time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS-AAAS Science & Technology Policy Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and loves to talk about redistricting. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking, skiing, and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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