Hidden Figures in Math

The star-studded film Hidden Figures tells the story of three African American women mathematicians at NASA—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson—who were instrumental in “doing the math” that allowed John Glenn to be the first American to orbit Earth. Margot Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures, on which the film is based, revealed that these three belonged to a group of women known as “computers” in the days before computers were machines.

The movie promises to be an uplifting story of gender and racial progress within the U.S. scientific community circa 1962. However, it also begs the question: How are women, particularly underrepresented women, faring in the U.S. math community more than 50 years later?

To be clear, the stakes are high. Just as math was the key to asserting superiority during the Space Race, math is also the body of knowledge driving our current global innovation economy. If there exists a U.S. population of untapped mathematical talent, then educators and policy makers must take note to maintain an edge and to protect national interests.

The American Mathematical Society’s Annual Survey of the Mathematical Sciences offers mixed reviews of the math community’s gender and racial profile. By 2014, approximately 30 percent of new math doctoral recipients were women, an improvement over the 10 percent when record-keeping began in 1975, yet well under parity. However, only 1 percent of new math doctoral recipients were underrepresented U.S. women, including American Indian/Alaskans, Black/African Americans, Hispanic/Latinas, and Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders. As underrepresented women comprise approximately 16 percent of our population, this statistic shines a harsh light on a sizable pool of untapped mathematical talent.

Of course, with domestic news stories reporting violence against minorities in cities and against women on campuses, our nation has many pressing discrimination problems. Nonetheless, the underrepresentation of women in mathematics has serious consequences and, fortunately, straightforward solutions. The American Association of University Women, in its report Why So Few: Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), encourages citizens, parents, educators, and policy makers to support girls’ and women’s achievements in math, to teach students that intellectual skills are acquired, to assist girls in identifying career-relevant skills, to encourage high school girls to pursue calculus, and to recruit college women into STEM majors. The Association for Women in Mathematics has long led the charge for such actions among girls and women while the National Association of Mathematicians provides leadership in promoting underrepresented American minorities in math.

An individual with a math doctorate is a mathematician, no modifiers necessary. However, many women we know in this position, including ourselves, are identified as “women mathematicians,” often in response to being the only woman in a room of male mathematicians. Sometimes women embrace the label, as evidenced by the “Pure and Applied Math Talks by Women Math Warriors” session offered at a recent national math professional conference. Other times, the label feels constricting, as when a university committee expects the only woman to address the gender imbalance in a math department.

Nonetheless, there exist “hidden figures” at work ensuring that girls and women feel not only welcome but prepared to succeed. The Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE) program has a decades-long tradition of offering an intensive summer session and ongoing mentoring for women in pursuit of math doctorates, nearly half of whom are underrepresented. In fact, from 2005 to 2010, EDGE participants made up 27 percent of U.S. African-American women mathematics Ph.D. recipients. Other small, exemplary programs making a difference include the George Washington University Summer Program for Women in Mathematics, the Carleton College Summer Mathematics Program for Women, and Smith College’s Post-Baccalaureate Program.

Gender and racial discrimination within the math community has deep, historical roots. As recently as 1971, a major professional society barred women from attending its council meetings. In A Mathematician’s Apology—a widely read classic on the nature of mathematics—G.H. Hardy wrote, “No mathematician should ever allow himself to forget that mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game.” We trust that a preponderance of evidence of U.S. women doing math will amass over time proving Hardy wrong.

While the impact of longstanding programs and organizations supporting women in math is undisputed, we are concerned that these programs are frequently under threat of reduced or eliminated funding. Citizens, parents, educators, businesspeople, philanthropists, and policy makers may assist by offering moral, practical, and financial support for girls, women, and the programs that support them in math. Doing so benefits not just women but the nation as a whole.

About and

Sylvia Trimble Bozeman, Ph.D., is Professor Emerita at Spelman College and Co-founder of Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education (EDGE), a national program to assist women in earning Ph.D. degrees in the mathematical sciences.