On his first day in Mathematics 55, Stephen S. Wang '98 didn't notice anything unusual.
Then, before the class started, a student leaving the room from the previous course asked, "Hey, is this an all-guy class?"
Wang looked around. The top-level multivariable calculus course has 15 undergraduates, and all of them were, indeed, male.
The lack of women doesn't affect the class atmosphere, he says.
"It's just a math class, as far as I'm concerned," Wang says. "It might matter in a lit class, where you need different perspectives, but not in math."
None of the 21 women who tried were tested into the class; 68 men took the test, according to department administrator Ruby Aguirre.
And women are not just under-represented in upper-level courses; Math 25, the class most students take if they fail to get into Math 55, has only "at least 10 women" in a group of 50, says Math 25 TF Larry E. Wilson '97.
The all-male class, and its heavily male lower-level counterpart, are examples of what many see as a problem in several math and applied and physical science departments at Harvard.
"In the entire pool of undergraduate [math] concentrators, men far outweigh women," says Senior Preceptor in Mathematics Robin Gottlieb. "The math department is always concerned about the number of women undergraduate concentrators."
A 1991 report by the Faculty's Standing Committee on the Status of Women said that Harvard had a widespread problem recruiting and retaining women in science, particularly at the graduate and faculty level. A 1993 update reasserted most of the report's main points.
"The sciences present special problems for women at all levels," the report said. "Women students often find themselves actively dissuaded from doing work in certain areas of science."
In math, Gottlieb says she last week noticed a sign-up list posted in the department for the prestigious national Putnam Mathematical Competition. On a long list, there was only one female name, she says.
This year there are about 140 math concentrators, according to department undergraduate studies coordinator Svetlana Alpert. Less than 30 percent of those 140 are women, she says.
And while several professors say they seem to see more women in their classes, Alpert says the proportion of undergraduate women in the department has changed little in the past few years.
The math department faculty is also largely male: only five of the 36 teachers in the department are women. None of the department's 16 tenured professors are women.
Why the Dearth?
Professors say there's no conclusive reason for the dearth of women in math.
"There's been a great deal of discussion to try to come to some conclusion as to why it is, but I have not heard a convincing explanation," says Robinson Professor of Mathematics Wilfried Schmid, who teaches Math 55. In that class, he says, everyone was admitted based solely on an objectively-scored test and two homework assignments.
The gender imbalance in math may simply reflect a larger societal problem, says Professor of Mathematics Noam D. Elkies.
"Our society is still laboring under some misconception that tends to steer women away from fields such as math and physics," Elkies says.
Graustein Professor of Mathematics Raoul Bott blamed female students' high school experiences. Women may be discouraged, and not as well-prepared, because of these earlier classes.
"Math has always been perceived as a not very female occupation," Bott says, "and I think that comes from high school more than anything here."
Others say the dearth of women may perpetuate itself, as women feel isolated or alone in a largely male department.
"I think women are in many subtle ways discouraged from trying to excel in math," says concentrator Daniel Grossman '95, who TFs in Math 55.
"There's a lot of competition the first few weeks that takes its tolls, especially on women who come and see there aren't many female math majors," he says.
The math department, like several science departments, is trying to make women comfortable in a mostly-male atmosphere, and encourage more to choose the department.
"We make an effort to make sure students understand that the math department wants them," Schmid says.
Gottlieb says the department sponsors a dinner in the fall and a brunch in the spring to bring together female undergraduates, graduate students and professors. The gatherings discuss "relevant issues" to women, Gottlieb says.
Patricia I. Hersh '95, who helped organize last year's get-togethers, says the gatherings help case the sense of isolation for some women.
"I think the purpose is to encourage women, that they're not alone," she says.
Professors say the department is also working to recruit more female professors. It recently hired two women assistant professors, Schmid says.
"In recent years, we've tried two attempts to get women on the tenured faculty," Bott says. "We're always on the lookout for opportunities in this direction."
Female concentrators applaud the department's efforts, though some said wish the efforts were more effective in attracting students and professors.
"I think they do a lot," says concentrator Sulian M. Tay '95. "They bend over backwards."
For those women who do concentrate in math, the department is welcoming and comfortable, students say.
"All the professors I've had have been really encouraging and accessible," says Julianna S. Tymoczko '97.
And several say they see progress.
"I feel like the math department has done a lot for women," says Moon R. Duchin '97. "I like being a woman in the math department. It's not as oppressive as it's painted to be.