Celebrating Our Sisters in STEM

The first professional computer programmers hard at work, and oh yeah, they're women.

The first professional computer programmers hard at work on the ENIAC, and oh yeah, they’re women.

Did you know that a group of six women programmed the first ever electronic computer? Just one of the interesting facts I’ve learned this March, and in honor of Women’s History Month I wanted to give a well-deserved tip of the hat to math blogs about, by, and for women.

Several years ago on this very blog, we posted about Grandma got STEM, a blog maintained by Rachel Levy of Harvey Mudd College. After more than two years, I am happy to report that the blog is still actively receiving submissions about our badass foremothers in STEM, many of whom are mathematicians. Recently there have been profiles of Else Hoyrup, a Danish topologist turned women’s science historian, and Fannie M. Gordon, the woman behind Lanczos’ algorithm.

Obviously, a major part of what makes profiles of women in math so compelling is that they seem to be relatively rare. And while women have certainly gained a larger footprint in the field — according to the most recent AMS annual survey nearly 30% of 2014-2015 math PhD recipients were female — there are still serious hurdles to clear.

Some of these obstacles are discussed in great detail in award-winning mathematician Izabella Laba’s blog, The Accidental Mathematician. Laba writes thought provoking pieces about gender policitics in the mathematical sciences. In her most recent post Laba discusses how matters of gender discrimination shape the world of math conferences, a topic also covered very eloquently by blogging physicist Athene Donald (not a mathematician, per se, but one of our sisters in STEM nonetheless).

On calling attention to the problems at hand, Laba says, “We sure talk about gender. In terms of pure volume, we may be close to the saturation point already. It is not clear that this is helping.” Rather, her post is a call to action for the men and women of mathematics to treat fairly the “women and minorities who are absent, hypothetical, or nonexistent,” as well as those women who are already there, by considering our implicit biases.

And sometimes, as male mathematician and veteran blogger Jordan Ellenberg expresses so poignantly, seeing the gender imbalance swing in the opposite direction allows us to see the subtle biases that we — otherwise good people — allow to inform our actions.

To all of the pioneering women in math who have done so much to advance the field and our collective standing it it, we are proud to walk in your well-heeled footsteps. Hear more about the ladies of ENIAC on Science Friday, keep up with the latest gossip on twitter with #womeninSTEM, and if you see a mathematician hard at work today, be sure to tell her you admire her work.

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