The Status of Women in Mathematics

Gloria Hewitt published The Status of Women in Mathematics in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science in 1979. We present below a version of the beginning of that article:

The Status of Women in Mathematics

Gloria C Hewitt
Department of Mathematics
University of Montana
Missoula, Montana 59812

Less than a decade ago, the phrase "the status of women in mathematics" was rarely, if ever, used. Instead one heard the phrases "the absence of women in mathematics" and "the absence of their impact on mathematics," despite the fact that women had not been altogether absent and had participated in many great and lasting achievements in mathematics.

Traditionally, only casual recognition is given to mathematicians of either gender, and students rarely learn anything about the originators of mathematics unless they are in a history of mathematics course. However, the omission of the mention of women even in history texts, is glaring. When many women mathematicians are mentioned at all, it is for their more secular activities, particularly when related to the lives of famous men. This undoubtedly helps to perpetuate the myth that mathematics is a male domain. It is not clear how much the existence or nonexistence of role models inspires women to become mathematicians, but surely the recognition that women have had an impact on mathematics cannot be hindrance. The writings of this decade that explore the role of various women in the history of mathematics, making this history available to a large audience, instil a mathematical pride which cannot be overlooked and which must be counted in a list of positive results of this decade.

Positive changes have occurred within the mathematical professional organizations. The Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), formed about 1970 under the pioneering work of Mary Gray, has brought women mathematicians together in a sense of community and provided a medium through which their concerns and ideas could be discussed. Women now serve as editors, officers, and members of the Council, and are on various committees of the American Mathematical Society (AMS), the professional organization of research mathematicians. They also serve as editors, officers, and members of the Board of Governors and on various committees of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA). In fact, at present Dorothy Bernstein is president-elect of MAA and Julia Robinson is vice-president of AMS. The number of invited women speakers at annual, summer and regional meetings of both the AMS and MAA has increased greatly. To a large extent, I believe, these changes are the result of the efforts of AWM. This has been a decade for efforts directed toward developing and utilizing the scientific and technical talents of women and ethnic minorities. A specific demand for women and minority women scientists resulted from the need of potential employers who receive federal funds to meet affirmative action requirements. The potential employer of a woman mathematician declares he would be happy to hire a well-qualified woman mathematician, but he can't find one. Yet, during the period 1966-70, women earned seven per cent of the doctorates, 25 per cent of the masters', and 36 per cent of the bachelors' degrees awarded in mathematics. Further, employment of mathematicians was enjoying one of the highest growth rates of any science. It always amazes me when the request that "qualified" women not be overlooked gets interpreted as a request that "less qualified" women be chosen. It reminds me of a 1973 committee of the National Academy of Science where I sat listening to the complaint that they could not find "qualified" minorities for service on the various boards and committees. I was horrified (as were other members) when Percy Julian stated that he was not a member of the National Academy of Science (he was later elected to membership). Only one black person (a mathematician) had been found "qualified" for membership at that time. It was not until 1976 that a woman mathematician was elected to membership.

Once we set about the task of determining the actual availability of women mathematicians and how to increase that supply, we are forced to direct our efforts toward not only creating equal opportunities in employment, but toward eliminating the sexism which extends through all educational levels, as well as professional levels, and acts as a deterrent to women entering mathematics. The latter takes on added importance when we consider the higher attrition rate for women than for men at various levels of mathematical training, and that career options are severely limited by the avoidance of disciplines calling for the use of mathematics.

Last Updated November 2017