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Uncommon Numbers

The Department of Mathematics surpasses its peers in recruiting women to its faculty and graduate program

By Arthur Evenchik

Published in spring 2013

Clockwise from top: Daniela Calvetti, chair of the mathematics department, and assistant professor Weihong Guo celebrate the success of four doctoral candidates who successfully defended their dissertations this spring—Debra McGivney, Jing Qin, Taina Immonen and Laura Homa.

Clockwise from top: Daniela Calvetti, chair of the mathematics department, and assistant professor Weihong Guo celebrate the success of four doctoral candidates who successfully defended their dissertations this spring—Debra McGivney, Jing Qin, Taina Immonen and Laura Homa.

Laura Homa was a third-year graduate student when she attended her first mathematics conference to make a presentation. To her surprise, less than 10 percent of the conference participants were women.

In the math department at Case Western Reserve, Homa had never encountered this kind of gender imbalance. When she enrolled in 2008, women made up nearly a quarter of the research faculty; this fall, they will make up more than a third. In the graduate program, the numbers of women and men pursuing advanced degrees were nearly equal.

Homa admits that before she went to the conference, she took this state of affairs for granted. “I didn’t realize that having so many women in a math department was uncommon,” she says.

It didn’t happen by accident. In recent years, department chair Daniela Calvetti and her colleagues have taken the initiative in recruiting women and creating an environment in which they can flourish. At the same time, the overall numbers of faculty members and graduate students in the math department have grown—especially in applied mathematics, where researchers are modeling cognitive and biological processes and contributing to improvements in medical imaging.

This spring, the department had special reason to celebrate its gains. Five of its students successfully defended their dissertations—more than in any previous year. And four of the five candidates were women. Homa, Jing Qin, Taina Immonen and Debra McGivney all appeared before their dissertation committees during an eight-day period in March. Each had a female faculty member as an advisor or co-advisor.

“The large representation of women among the research faculty inspires the female graduate students,” Calvetti says. And the gender balance within the graduate program was also to their benefit.

“Having roughly equal numbers of male and female graduate students makes for a more welcoming and comfortable atmosphere,” McGivney says. “If I had been the only woman, or one of only a few women, I would have been reluctant to seek help from my classmates. The mix of men and women allows more people to feel a sense of belonging within the department.”

One impetus for the math department’s transformation came from Academic Careers in Engineering and Science (ACES), a five-year, $3.5 million program at Case Western Reserve funded by the National Science Foundation in 2004. The program sought to recruit, advance and retain women in science and engineering departments and improve the climate for female faculty members across the university.

For the math faculty, Calvetti says, one critical task was to develop a more nuanced approach to evaluating job applicants. She has found, for example, that men tend to emphasize their achievements as individuals, while women often cite their contributions to team efforts. In a conventional selection process, this difference can work to women’s disadvantage; their strengths are more likely to be overlooked. But the math faculty has grown increasingly receptive to diverse styles of self-presentation.

“When we’re looking at applications, we can read better, between the lines,” Calvetti says. “And the more women we have on the faculty, the more we can relate to female applicants and recognize what they have to offer.”

Until recently, the math department had only two female faculty members: Professor Elisabeth Werner, appointed in 1989, and Calvetti, appointed in 1997. Since 2007, however, six of eleven new hires in mathematics have been women: Elizabeth Meckes (2007), Weihong Guo (2009), Alethea Barbaro (2012), Wanda Strychalski (2013), Longhua Zhao (2013) and Julia Dobrosotskaya (2013).

Each new appointment makes the university more appealing to women seeking faculty positions in math. The department attracts outstanding female candidates even when recruiting in research areas where women are greatly underrepresented. Moreover, Calvetti says, “the offers we’ve made to women have been accepted. They would rather come to a place that has a few more people like them.”

Absolute Faith

Even before the department began adding more women to the faculty, it was taking steps to expand the ranks of female graduate students. This was a decisive break with the past. Between 1998 and 2006, there were no women among the 17 students who earned doctorates in the department. In 2007, however, the numbers started to move. Of the six candidates who completed their degrees between 2007 and 2011, four were women who are now working in their chosen fields.

Rachael Hageman Blair (GRS ’07) is an assistant professor of biostatistics at the University of Buffalo. Amy Kuceyeski (GRS ’09) is an instructor in the Department of Radiology at Weill Cornell Medical College. Rossana Occhipinti (GRS ’09) is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine. Xiaoxia Wang (GRS ’12) is a postdoctoral associate in the Mathematical, Computational and Modeling Sciences Center at Arizona State University.

Seeing women complete their degrees and land academic jobs encourages students who are still in the program, Calvetti says. So does the mentoring they receive from female faculty members, who talk of their own experiences at different stages of their careers.

“I share stories about my life in graduate school,” says Calvetti, who received the John S. Diekhoff Award for Graduate Teaching and Mentoring this spring. “I tell them that I was scared, that I had hard times, that I wasn’t always sure I would make it through. And I think this gives them confidence. If I made it, even though I had the same doubts and the same problems that they do, then they will make it.”

As Immonen points out, women in advanced mathematics are not alone in needing reassurance. “I think a lack of confidence is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for a lot of students struggling with concepts at any level,” she says. Research shows, however, that in fields where women have traditionally been underrepresented, they face challenges that men do not.

For example, the social psychologist Claude Steele and colleagues have shown that women’s performance on a difficult math test can be influenced by what Steele calls “stereotype threat.” When female research subjects worry that they will confirm negative stereotype about women’s mathematical abilities, their test performance suffers. On the other hand, when they are told that women do as well on the test as men do, the gap between their performance and that of their male counterparts disappears.

On the subject of confidence, Immonen says, she received valuable advice both from Calvetti and from her second advisor, Professor Erkki Somersalo. “Solving a problem,” she says, “requires absolute faith in being able to come up with the solution, and then simply pushing through calmly until it becomes apparent,”

Immonen also looked to Calvetti and other mentors for guidance concerning her future in academia. “I found it very beneficial and comforting to discuss my concerns about balancing a career and a family openly with women who either have done this in the past or are currently doing so,” she says. “Knowing personally many women who have successfully accomplished this balancing act makes it a much less daunting endeavor to pursue a career of my own.”

At this point, Calvetti believes that the gender diversity among the math faculty and graduate students is “self-sustaining.” Her next objective is to persuade more undergraduate women to major in mathematics. Calvetti and physics department chair Kathleen Kash are planning a joint outreach effort to alert young women on campus to the opportunities their departments offer.

Calvetti believes that the prospects for recruiting women are especially bright in applied mathematics. The reason, she says, is that “women want to change the world.” She just needs to let them know that one way to accomplish this is to become a mathematician.

Page last modified: February 9, 2017