I am not sure when my first experience being the only woman in the room occurred. While girls have been shown statistically to have the same aptitude as boys in math but persistence in higher level mathematics is lower in middle and high school, I was aware of my gender in relation to math by high school. My teacher, Mr. Grimm, was excellent but difficult. He was also known to have an unspoken view that girls could not do math and that any girl on the math team was a token.
I was not on the math team.
This continued in college. I distinctly remember, as an undergraduate, looking around the room in my Computer Science Theory class, a cross-listed math and computer science class, and being glad that while I was the only woman, at least I was not the only mathematician in the room.
For me, the attitudes about what I could or could not do because of who I was were motivating, in the “I’ll show you” fashion. So I persisted, and I enjoyed the truth and beauty of mathematics so much that I went to graduate school. According to a recent study, the percentage of women in mathematics doctoral programs is currently 32 percent. In my incoming class, there were about 20 people, of which five were women. However, I stood out more for my love of teaching than I did for my gender.
There is still work to be done to get more women to choose mathematics. I notice that my non-majors classes have a higher percentage of women than my classes for majors. In fact, I have taught an upper-level math class as the only woman in the room.
So how do you thrive even if you are the only woman in the room? For me, the main tools are community, mentorship, and outreach, leavened with a sense of humor and aided by stubbornness. Community was always part of my mathematical experiences, from working with my best friend, Iris, in high school math, setting up study groups within my classes in college, holding the beginning of semester party and running the math seminar for graduate students in grad school, to running workshops for new math faculty now. Community you make can be a “Team You.”
Mentors helped me find my way. Jim Walsh, my undergraduate adviser, encouraged me to go to graduate school. In grad school, Florence Newberger helped me write application materials for teaching jobs and encouraged me to join the new math faculty program, Project NExT. Project NExT provided me with a professional network that still provides me support and advice.
Also, outreach helps me give back. I review grants for programs encouraging girls and women in mathematics as part of my duties on the Committee on the Participation of Women for the Mathematical Association of America. Working and mentoring in programs that I participated in as a young professor allows me to pass on the experiences that helped me. I encourage and help my women students to do what they want, making sure they are aware of jobs and have a realistic view of graduate school.
Some of you may be the only woman in the room, but communities and mentors can help you through.
Do not forget to pass it on.