AWM in the 1990s
Issues of the 1990s

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AWM Presidents of the 1990s and Their Initiatives

AWM presidents spend much of their terms (including when they are president-elect and past-president) applying for grants, consolidating the initiatives of previous presidents, and responding to various crises. Nevertheless, each has managed to put her own distinctive stamp on the organization. Here are the AWM presidents of the 1990s, their terms as president, and a few of the initiatives from their terms.

Jill Mesirov, 1989-1991, began the ongoing AWM presence at SIAM Annual Meetings. She initiated AWM workshops, the Twentieth Anniversary Celebration, and the revision of the AWM Resource Center at Wellesley College.

Carol Wood, 1991-1993, stabilized the organization through crises due to the growth in its activities, increased the influence of AWM in national policy, and led the Executive Committee in formulating its policy statement on conflict resolution. The booklet Careers that Count was produced and distributed to schools. At the end of Wood’s term, AWM had about 2000 members. (The estimate of 2000 members is based on the dues data listed in the treasurer’s report at that time.)

Cora Sadosky, 1993-1995, organized the move of the AWM headquarters to the University of Maryland and the concurrent staff changes. She increased AWM’s international connections and involvement in science policy, in particular initiating (in coordination with other organizations) the first Emmy Noether Lecture at an ICM in 1994 and representing AWM at the International Congress of Mathematics Education in 1993.

Chuu-Lian Terng, 1995-1997, initiated a fund-raising drive (coordinated by Sylvia Wiegand), emphasized mentoring activities (including starting, with Karen Uhlenbeck and with liaisons to AWM, the Institute for Advanced Study/Park City mentoring program for women), and promoted discussion and writing about affirmative action. The Julia Robinson conference was held during this term.

Sylvia Wiegand, 1997-1999, joined with officers of the AMS and other scientific societies to promote government funding for science and mathematics. One of the few AWM presidents from the “heartland” of the U.S., she traveled and spoke on behalf of the AWM throughout the U.S., at the ICM, and elsewhere.

Jean E. Taylor, 1999-2001, while president-elect, was a midwife to the creation of the AWM web site, worked with others to strengthen the infrastructure of AWM, and is initiating a Corporate Task Force.

As we begin this section, it is important to note that some issues of AWM’s first twenty years seem to have almost disappeared in the 1990s. For example, in 1971 there were no invited addresses by women at the January Joint Meetings [ND91, p.12]; this was typical of the times, not an aberration. The “Milestones” section of this article demonstrates how different the 1990s have been in this regard. But some issues remain, and others have surfaced.

Affirmative Action. In 1992, with a bad job market, some universities were rumored to be trying to make up for past inequities by offering no position unless a qualified woman could be hired; AWM president Carol Wood found this awkward for AWM, and asked AWM members for advice on what stand to take [JF92]. Then, in January 1994, AWM president Cora Sadosky arranged an AWM panel on “Are Women Getting All the Jobs?”, which addressed the fear head-on that the job crisis, in Sadosky's words, “would be much better if it were not for all those women and minorities or all those foreigners who are taking all the jobs” [MA94]. She added, “We strongly believe that this is false and dangerous, that pitting one group of under/un-employed mathematicians against another is just the old tactic of dividing people with similar interests in order to exploit them all.” Women were apparently not receiving preferential treatment: 18% of Ph.D.s from group I mathematics departments went to women, but only 14% of those getting positions at group I were women. Overall, 22% of all mathematics Ph.D.s were earned by women, and 21% of all entry-level positions at Ph.D.-granting institutions went to women [JF95]. Marie A. Vitulli and Mary E. Flahive's article in the Notices (Vol. 44, March 1997) corroborates that women were not getting a higher percentage of entry jobs than men.

Affirmative action came under attack around the country in 1995. In response, the AWM published a series of articles in the Newsletter, the AWM Executive Committee passed an official AWM statement in support of affirmative action [JF96], and affirmative action was the topic of the 1997 January Joint Meetings panel discussion. A sampling of the opinions expressed follows: Mary Gray described how a program at American University had benefited many women and minority students; she asserted that such programs are necessary to combat years of discouragement [JA95]. Ronald Douglas observed that choices in hiring often are made to include less-represented disciplines and that when choosing speakers for conferences, a conscientious effort is made to achieve balance in fields and geography; these same arguments apply to achieve gender and ethnic balance [ND95]. Robion Kirby gave his view that “there is no significant discrimination on the basis of sex in mathematics” and thus that “affirmative action programs for women are unnecessary” [ND95]. Hugo Rossi discussed the dilemma of an imaginary mathematics department that is concerned about maintaining “standards” and finds that this strict adherence to standards and consequent critical look at candidates results in the rejection of females and minorities, because it is assumed they are considered solely for diversification reasons [JA96]. In response to Rossi, Karen Tonso wrote that rigid adherence to fixed standards has historically kept the status quo for departments; it is necessary to analyze the contributions of diverse people in a new way [SO96]. Beth Ruskai described the success of certain policies for women and then answered Kirby with some statistics: for example “women who received Ph.D.s [in] 1994 or 1995 were almost twice as likely as men to obtain their first position in a department [that offered only a bachelor's degree]” [Thoughts on Affirmative Action, MA96].

 Award Ceremony
San Francisco, January 1995. Teresa Edwards (left) and Sylvia Bozeman (right) accept the AWM Louise Hay award on behalf of Etta Falconer. Cora Sadosky (AWM president 1993-95) presents the award.

Two-Body Problem. The two-body problem of professional couples seeking jobs together is of particular concern for women mathematicians, who are frequently paired with men mathematicians. Enlarged and rephrased as “Is Geography Destiny?”, this topic was discussed by a panel at the San Antonio meeting in January 1993 [MJ93]. Susan Landau praised departments with programs to assist spouses in finding positions but concluded, “With rare exceptions, the problem of the two-career academic couple has been viewed as the problem of the individuals involved. That is a narrow view, as this complication affects a majority of women scientists” [MA94]. Beth Ruskai responded that single women also have difficulties and included some surprising data about their relative advancement, and James Humphreys pointed out the even greater difficulties faced by gay partners [MJ94].

Children. A central issue for nearly all professional couples, the child-care-maternity-leave policy issue has occasionally been addressed by AWM. In the beginning, when AWM was striving to be taken “seriously”, there were doubts about whether this was a relevant subject for AWM. Now that women are more numerous in mathematics study and at entry levels of careers, this problem has become identified as an impediment to their advancement. The prime child bearing years often coincide with the years in which a female mathematician is establishing her career and working toward tenure. There is no consensus on an appropriate resolution to this conflict. Some women decide not to have children; others choose to give family concerns priority while hoping their careers will survive. Some couples postpone having children until after a tenure decision is made. Others manage reasonably successfully to combine two careers, marriage, and children. To young female professionals, this decision about childbearing may be serious and all-consuming.

The January 1998 AWM panel on “Mathematicians and Families”, which featured men and women mathematician parents of different ages, was particularly helpful to some of these young women in considering how to balance their mathematical careers with family life [MA98]. A young female mathematician who wants a family but has postponed becoming a parent says, “Although I don’t know how I will resolve the tension between my desires to raise a family and to have a successful career, it was helpful to hear how mathematicians further along in their careers have dealt with the problem. I realized that legions of people have struggled with this problem before me and that [the panelists found] solutions that worked for them. It made me optimistic that I will find a workable solution.” Rhonda Hughes (AWM president, 1987–89) pleaded for society to adopt more humane policies for professional parents. One reason that solutions have not come forward might be that this is a temporary problem; when the parents are so immersed in their local aspect of childcare, they have no time to look for a global solution. Later they are too involved with other projects. The AWM welcomes ideas from the mathematical community on how to assist parents and how to attain more family-friendly policies in general.

From time to time, queries have come to AWM regarding child care at meetings, but the meetings staff at AMS say that the need for liability insurance has made the cost prohibative. Moreover, attempts by AWM to arrange cooperative child care have not received much business from parents. As for maternity leave, policies at most institutions have been nonexistent or haphazard; in 1991 a possible sample maternity leave policy to show employers was drafted by the AWM [MJ91].

Nature vs. Nuture. AWM members and supporters have continually been obligated to expose pseudo-scientific arguments that women have inherent mathematical deficiencies. There was a flurry of eloquent letters about this in the early 1990s, to the effect that cultural factors were sufficient to overwhelm any possible inborn component for differences in measured mathematical abilities between males and females [SO90, ND90, MA91, MJ91, JA91, JA92, MJ93, JA93]. AWM members, having fought to encourage young women in mathematics, were outraged when Mattel created a Barbie doll who said, “Math is tough”; the doll was eventually recalled (which probably made her especially valuable for collectors) [ND92, JF93].

Sexual Harassment. An AWM statement on sexual harassment was published in the Newsletter [ND93] and again in [MJ97]. The prominent case of Anita Hill, a female law professor at Oklahoma who testified at the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas that he had once sexually harassed her, was discussed in some Newsletters. In [JF92] a letter from Marjorie Senechal and Jean Taylor asserts: “Why did women mathematicians wait all these years to say anything about this issue, even to one another? Because, until Anita Hill’s testimony, sexual harassment has been a private embarrassment.”

Teaching Evaluations. In an article “Are student ratings unfair to women?” [SO90], Neil Koblitz analyzed data on student ratings of instructors by gender and concluded that students often rate the same performance differently for women and men. Women will be rated highly “only if they are especially accessible to the students and spend a lot of time with them, while men can receive equally high ratings while remaining more aloof.” Also, “if an instructor feels compelled to put students under pressure [assigning a lot of homework, giving challenging exams], then…most students are inclined to ‘punish’ the instructor [by giving low ratings]. There is considerable evidence that the ‘punishment’ is more severe if the instructor is female.” A psychologist agreed, “Female professors…appear to be evaluated according to a heavier set of expectations than are male professors, and these expectations affect student ratings.…Those of us who evaluate female faculty must be alert to the various and subtle ways in which gender bias can affect perceptions and evaluations” [SO94]. Koblitz’s article has been widely circulated by women mathematicians, who have found it useful in conversations with chairs, deans, and other administrators, not to mention graduate students and their fellow mathematicians.

Policy Matters vs. Individual Cases. The case of Jenny Harrison, a University of California at Berkeley mathematics department faculty member who was denied tenure and fought the decision, shook up the academic community and commanded media attention. AWM members were divided about the case but were united in the opinion that AWM takes positions on policy matters, not individual cases [ND92, SO93, ND93].

Lobbying. The 1990s have been marked by increasing activism within AWM to encourage adequate funding for mathematics by the U.S. government. In 1997 AWM officials joined with officials of the AMS, SIAM, MAA, and a hundred other scientific societies in a concerted effort to lobby the U.S. government in support of science (including mathematics) and education. AWM representatives participated in a press conference; spoke to congressional representatives, senators, and aides; and encouraged AWM members to help with this effort. Before this lobbying effort, funding in stable dollars had been decreasing for science and technology. Some legislators adopted science as something positive to promote, something which inspires general approval by the public, and as a result the NSF fared better than expected with a 4.7 % increase (in real dollars) for 1998 over 1997. (For research the increase was 5%) [MA97].

International Issues. AWM’s membership is international, and many of the issues it addresses are of concern outside of America. European women were inspired by AWM activities at the ICM in Berkeley in 1986 to found a sister organization, the European Women in Mathematics (EWM). At many ICMs, AWM has discussed problems encountered by women with other groups of women in mathematics. As a result of one of these discussions, EWM compiled a list of the percentages of women mathematicians as of 1994 in each of the various European countries [ND94]. The highest percentages of women in mathematics were in Portugal (40-50%), Georgia (40%), Italy (35%), Poland (30%), and Bulgaria (30%). The lowest were in Iceland (0%), Finland (2%), Switzerland (2%), The Netherlands (4%), Ireland (5%), and Sweden (5%).1 In the Italian education system, typically a mathematics student begins advanced, specialized work at an earlier age; this makes it easier for women to combine a career in mathematics with having children.2 Terng described her impressions of the situation for women mathematicians in China, where changing education and other policies seem to have caused the percentage of women in mathematics to decline [JA95]. There are few women in mathematics in South Africa [SO97] and Morocco [JF98].

New! Fundraising. The AWM is always short of operating funds, especially with so many programs. In 1996, the Long Range Planning Committee asked Wiegand to chair a 25th Year Fund Drive, which raised about $18,000. Much of it came in small amounts from students. The AWM presidents (past and present) also contributed generously. Grant solicitation is a major endeavor of AWM finances and grants administrator Douglas Farquhar (staff) and the president, along with other officers and volunteers.


  1. The only data found for West Germany were from 1987, when the percentage was 3%.
  2. Some Italian women have added that mathematics in Italy has less prestige than in other countries and mathematicians' salaries are low, and this could be a result of or a reason for more women.

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