AMS panel on math and motherhood

To top off JMM, I went to the AMS panel discussion on mathematics and motherhood hosted by Carrie Diaz Eaton of Bates College. Panelists Karoline Pershell, executive director of the Association for Women in Mathematics, Karen Saxe, the associate executive director of the AMS, and Talithia Williams, an associate dean and professor at Harvey Mudd, discussed everything from how having children affected their careers, family leave policies and informal support networks, role models, and accepting outside help. Here are some highlights from the panel, edited for clarity:

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the intertwining of leadership positions and having children?

SAXE: I was pretty young when I had a stillborn child, 29. I had a great-aunt who did not know about that child and when I turned 30 she kept asking when I would have kids. Another relative said I was waiting until I got tenure and my aunt said, there’s no right time to have kids. For me, I don’t feel like I was making choices, it was just that I was going to be a mom and I was going to be a math professor and that was my goal. Becoming chair of my small department was natural—I was the first woman hired full-time by my department and I liked doing it.

WILLIAMS: The Harvey Mudd president had an ACE fellow shadowing her who was there to learn about leadership. She told me about the program and I decided I wanted to do it. I didn’t think about the kids, I was just like, “Mommy’s got a vision and the whole family’s going to move to Maryland so I can do this program.” We homeschooled our kids on top of that. My husband is the primary homeschool person because he works from home. We moved to Maryland as a family and the kids were 4, 6, and 8. That was my first foray into thinking about leadership and it was also my sabbatical year, so it wasn’t like this was unexpected. We just made my career a priority.

PERSHELL: I had kids late, which wasn’t really planned—I met my husband when I was 36. We had just gotten pregnant when the position I’m in now became available and I let him know that I thought this type of work would be my dream job. Mine wasn’t a choice to think about one job or another, it was more like, what are the opportunities that are in front of me?

Q: What kinds of support mechanisms have you observed or been involved in?

WILLIAMS: When we got to California, we shared a nanny with another professor who had just had a baby. Sharing a nanny was cheaper than childcare in California. We had never really thought about having a nanny, it was very unusual for us. As we had more kids, the nanny became a steal. The benefit was that when they were napping she would clean and cook. Basically, I had a stay-at-home wife for the first nine years. We just let her go this summer, reluctantly. It taught me that it was okay to hire help. It brought so much peace to the day-to-day operation of our life.

Women faculty have been very transparent with what they’ve negotiated which has bumped up the salary of all the women. We also share resources in terms of family support. We try to make campus a place where kids are welcome. So I’ve tried my best to merge work and life and try to let students see that I’m also a mom. I also give myself two days a semester to call out and cancel class.

SAXE: I’m thinking more about what I did as chair. I wanted the department to be a place where people brought their families and felt comfortable. Not just the women, anybody who has kids. About two years ago, one of my male colleagues’ four-year-old son wanted to have his birthday party in the math department and ride up and down in the elevator with his friends and have his birthday cake in the department.

In addition to hiring help, your house can be dirty. Your kids can be dirty. You’re not going to remember that in thirty years. You’re going to remember the great times you had with your kids.

PERSHELL: One very small thing that I thought was a beautiful business model: this woman opened up a coffee shop on the top floor of a daycare. You pay by the hour so you’re paying someone to take care of your kids while you check email. It was the most amazing workspace. I think there’s a problem across the board with regard to work-life balance, especially in academia. AWM is trying to make it visible that it’s okay to take time away. When we held our own research symposium, I looked at the “Childcare Conference Conundrum” and translated the recommendations into implementable items. If you’re uncomfortable taking on the HR at your university, what you do for a special event is a nice way to break the ice.

A lot of these are one and done: lactation rooms, places to park strollers. There was recently a conference in Italy that AWM was part of, so I self-funded to go there and took up the ICP on their offer to support families. I worked with them and got a translator who helped me find an Italian daycare. I took them up on everything from being housed as a family in the dormitory with all these theoretical physicists which is terrifying. You’re so scared of the kid being noisy. I made it a point to get it on the newsletter that of course we did this and these are the options. I met with several directors and tried to help them review their policies.

Q: Where can people benefit from your work and data?

PERSHELL: The AWM has something called “in cooperation status” which means we give your organization or event starting tools. We give you a checklist to make your event accommodating to parents, and a checklist to make sure you’re building an inclusive environment.

Q: Can you talk about your role models or lack of?

SAXE: In college I didn’t have any female math professors and I was the only female math major my year. In grad school, my department had only 1 female faculty member. In our class of 14 graduate students, I was the only woman who got my Ph.D. there—one transferred and got her Ph.D. elsewhere. I was the first female hired in a full-time position in my tenure-track job. I have had great male mentors.

WILLIAMS: When I was at Rice, there was one female on the statistics faculty and she was my advisor. She had two children, she was divorced, and she was stressed all the time. It didn’t make working at an R1 institution appealing. I didn’t see any other women faculty who modeled it well. The year I was graduating, we had a panel with a woman who said she had decided to put her family before her career, and if Rice didn’t adjust she would go somewhere else. That moment was so freeing for me. I will say for the women faculty who came before me there was no family leave policy and the men didn’t understand the problem because they all had a partner who stayed at home.

PERSHELL: I transferred during my undergraduate so I could pursue something that I wanted to do. I transferred from St. Mary’s College to the University of Tennessee at Martin because of the rodeo program. I was the first female bull-rider in the collegiate circuit. Towards the end of my college I realized I couldn’t make a career out of this. So I didn’t have this long career plan either with academia or with my family. I didn’t need role models because I was at a school where there was a collegial environment and family was important.

Q: What do you do when you don’t have a partner who works from home or works in the department? One who has a 9-5 and can’t travel with you?

SAXE: My husband is also an academic but not in the same school. I did have a lucky thing where we could arrange our teaching on different days. However, I really think it’s important that we don’t let that be the norm. We really have to make policies to address all parents.

PERSHELL: In my role now, I’m in a place where I’m supposed to speak up. I am subscribed to MSRI’s email list about coming events and I look for what I can share with the AWM membership. If you’re there for a semesters’ worth of programs, you can apply for childcare. But their email said “mothers” can apply. I emailed them and said “don’t you mean parents?”

Q: How have you established credibility as mothers in academia?

WILLIAMS: When I was pregnant with my youngest son, the first time I went to the doctor at 3 months she acted like I had put my baby in danger by coming so late. On the day before delivery, we went in for an ultrasound and there was a slightly wonky heart rate trace. They wanted to induce me and I asked why and asked to see the heart rate trace. The guy said “I just don’t want you to have a stillborn.” I’m asking for numbers and he’s getting perturbed. He was clearly getting frustrated. The next day I went into labor and my doula, my colleague in the math department, is coaching me. The nurses were irritated that I wasn’t getting an epidural. So my doula started calling me Dr. Williams and they immediately were waiting on me hand and foot. There are times when I don’t even notice people are treating me in a way that invalidates my authority. She gave me validation and I noticed how people’s treatment of me changed. This happened when I had a white colleague observe my class. I was excited about all the questions I was getting and he said he didn’t get those questions, and they were questioning my authority.

SAXE: I still feel that I’m questioned that way. Paul Dirac came to visit my college. My professor introduced me to him and said “She’s our best math major. Well, our best female math major. Well, actually, the only one.” Dirac asked me if I was planning to go to graduate school and my professor said “It’s too bad she won’t ever be able to be a mathematician.” In the 70s and 80s you wouldn’t say anything back to that. When I graduated, I was getting married that summer, and I asked one of my professors for a job reference. He was surprised and said he didn’t think I would apply for jobs since I was getting married and asked me a lot of questions about whether I would have kids and so on.

PERSHELL: My normal method of dealing with this is just to diffuse the situation and move on. One day after bull-riding practice we were watching tapes of the practice. They had a sign on the door that said “No girls allowed”. I just went in and said “Andy, did you see this sign? You better get out.”

One of the beautiful things about leaving math and going to work somewhere else is that people think you’re a wizard. When I worked at the Department of State I probably unfairly got credibility and so I had to be very careful with that. I had to evaluate how effective our training for diplomats was. Someone had written that we were putting lives at risk by teaching Arabic poorly. I was sent to five Arabic consulates to evaluate how we were using Arabic. But I don’t speak Arabic. In my current job I’m supposed to organize a tiny two-person office. And they questioned me because I had never had tenure.

SAXE: Listening to you guys I realized we’re all telling stories about when we didn’t feel credible. I’ll tell one success story. This is from a male senator from New York. I was going to see him with another female mathematician. We were sitting in his office and he said, “Before we start, I just want to say I can’t believe I’m in a room with two women who have Ph.D.s and it’s so wonderful.” It was great to have him notice that about us.

Q: Did you publish prior to getting married and did you change your name or not?

PERSHELL: Our son has a joint name and we each have our own name.

SAXE: I did not change my name, however my first paper has my husband’s last name because my coauthor assumed I had taken my husband’s last name.

WILLIAMS: I did change my name and I was excited to.

DIAZ EATON: I tried to take a second last name which is the tradition for Latinos and the Social Security office in Maine twenty years ago couldn’t figure it out and told me that I couldn’t. But I realized that I could still publish that way.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Funny story about name change. In Germany when you get a doctorate it becomes part of your name. I took my husband’s last name because my maiden name was Menger, the name of a famous mathematician who I was not related to, and I was told that I couldn’t add his doctorate to my name too. Then I said, it’s my own doctorate.

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1 Response to AMS panel on math and motherhood

  1. Avatar Christina Sormani says:

    I find it so sad that in 2020 so many universities still don’t get it. Or are we going backwards? I had my first kid in 1999 as a postdoc and two of my best friends in my doctoral program were women with children already. Even back in the 1980’s when I was in high school I knew of women mathematics professors with kids, including famous ones like Mary Rudin and Cathleen Morawetz. How can it be that in 2020 I’m hearing these stories?! It is so disheartening. In fact most every married woman mathematician I know has kids and they are doing very well. There are literally hundreds of role models. It isn’t easy. Having kids is never easy. But there is a huge support network out there. If your university doesn’t have professors that are mothers and leave policies in place in 2020, there is something seriously wrong with your university.

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