Panel Discusses Gender Gap in Harvard Math Department

UPDATED: April 1, 2015, at 10:35 p.m.

Female mathematicians discussed ways to alleviate the potential barriers facing women in math at the College at a panel discussion, which was organized by the Harvard Undergraduate Mathematics Association on Wednesday evening.

The panel discussion followed the results of a survey, distributed by HUMA and the Mathematics Department, suggesting that gender-based challenges might deter female undergraduates from pursuing mathematics at Harvard. An audience of about 150 students and faculty members crowded into Emerson Hall for the discussion.

Women in Math
“There’s a lot of math out there, and there’s not much of us to understand it,” said Alison Miller, right, a Harvard mathematics postdoctoral fellow, “We need you to keep doing it.” Miller, former Crimson editor Rediet Abebe ’13, left, and Hilary Finucane ’09, center, discussed the role of women in the Harvard math department on Wednesday at an event hosted by the Harvard Undergraduate Mathematics Association.

The survey suggested that women experience more discomfort due to their gender and perceive themselves as being less involved than their male counterparts in the department. According to Cherie Z. Hu ’17, vice-president of HUMA, the data prompted HUMA to organize a direct discussion with input from current members and alumni of the Harvard math department.

Meena K. Boppana ’16, former president of HUMA and one of the students who conducted the survey and organized the panel, said she was motivated to conduct the survey because she noticed that there was a huge gender gap in mathematics that was not being openly discussed.

“There was an elephant in the room, and so I really wanted to get people to start talking about it,” she said. She added that the organizers tried to invite panelists with a variety of experiences in mathematics.

“We wanted a range of experiences among people who we knew cared about the issue...we have a couple of graduate students, a postdoc, and a tenured faculty [member],” she said.

The panelists included Gigliola Staffilani, professor of mathematics at MIT; Rediet T. Abebe ’13, a graduate student at in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a former Crimson editor; Hilary Finucane ’09, an MIT graduate student; and Alison Miller, a postdoctoral fellow in the Mathematics Department. Answering questions posed by the moderator and the audience, the four women described the challenges they faced as aspiring mathematicians and offered possible approaches to decrease the gender gap in mathematics.

Among numerous anecdotes, Finucane recounted how her roommates had discouraged her from taking Math 55 as a freshman while her male peer, who had the same background in math as she did, was told to persist by his roommates.

“People expect a little less of you than they would if you were a guy,” she said.

The four panelists stressed the importance of raising awareness about the issue and promoting gender equality by creating a welcoming and nonjudgmental environment for all.

In her concluding remarks, Miller told the audience comprised of both males and females to not be intimidated by the tendency for some students to boast of their knowledge.

“There’s a lot of math out there, and there’s not much of us to understand it,” said Miller. “We need you to keep doing it.”

—Staff writer Jessica Kim can be reached at jessica.kim@thecrimson.com

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