AWM in the 1990s
Why AWM is Still Needed

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Since Blum’s article, the participation of women in the mathematical community has in general increased. The percentage of women earning Ph.D.s in mathematics in the U.S. reached its highest level (25% overall, 29% of those granted to U.S. citizens) for the year of the latest published survey. Many more women hold entry-level positions now. Many more women speak at major meetings. In view of these improvements in the status of women in mathematics, is AWM still needed?

 AWM Panel
AWM Panel “What it takes to have a successful career in the mathematics sciences", San Diego 1997. Left to right: Mary Gray (AWM president 1971-73), Audrey Terras, Lesley Sibner, Nancy Kopell, and Lynne Butler.

The answer is yes! Problems—sometimes more subtle than in the past—remain for women in mathematics at all levels. For example, the high point in the percentage of women receiving Ph.D.s in mathematics cited above masks the fact that percentage varied considerably for the rest of the decade—about a mean several percentage points lower. Furthermore, the percentage of women entering graduate study has recently dropped at several institutions, as noted below. In spite of the description from Blum’s article of women’s participation in mathematics as “everywhere dense”, sometimes it is “measure epsilon”; one young woman commented, “I was the most senior woman at the conference I just attended,…and I was the only woman from the U.S. None of the twenty-plus speakers were women.” As the data below indicate, the prediction at the end of Blum’s article—that there would be significant numbers of tenured women in the U.S. top ten departments within five years—has not been realized. Although there is a welcome increase in numbers of new women mathematicians with academic positions, women are still scarce among tenured and full professors at most institutions, particularly those in the U.S. top ten. There remains evidence of discouragement, disparities, and lower expectations for women in mathematics at various levels, as the following snapshots reveal.

Social Unacceptability. Young women in high school and college still hear that “math isn’t cool for women.” Girls at a high school math camp for girls at Nebraska said they “could not” tell their peers that they were going to a math camp; it would be “socially unacceptable”. Some high school guidance counselors still steer girls away from mathematics.

Teaching vs. Research. Many undergraduate women mathematics majors plan to become elementary and secondary teachers. Teaching is a rewarding and valuable occupation that both men and women should be encouraged to pursue. But sometimes even women who think their contribution would be greater or their life more rewarding with a research career are pressured to choose a career in teaching; this happens far more often for women than for men. Mathematically talented undergraduate women should be permitted to develop their talents and to pursue the career that suits them best.

Promotions and Rewards. Although entry-level job opportunities for men and women now seem equal,1 women are neither promoted nor rewarded as often as men. Generally, women are more numerous at the lowest levels of mathematical activity. AWM past-president Chuu-Lian Terng reported that in 1995 that women in the U.S. earned 45% of the undergraduate degrees in mathematics and 23% of the Ph.D.s, but constituted only 6% of all tenured faculty. That is, of the 4,500 tenured faculty in 170 Ph.D. granting departments, only 274 were women, or 1.6 per department [JF96]. Currently, published data show that 63 out of 1,231, or 5%, of tenured doctoral full-time math faculty at Group I public institutions are female; for Group I private institutions, the numbers are 22/506, or 4.3%; and for Groups I, II, and III combined, 305/4714, or 6.5%.2 This represents a welcome increase of 31 tenured female faculty in the combined groups, but the ratio of the increase in tenured women to the total increase in tenured faculty is still only 31/214. By contrast, the numbers of part-time faculty for Groups I, II, and III combined are 347 female out of 941 total, or 37%.

An AWM panelist in January 1995 on the topic “AWM: Why Do We Need It Now?”, Susan Landau located 65 of the 80 people awarded MIT Ph.D.s during 1980-84. Of these 65, 13 were women (plus 1 of the 15 she could not locate). She reported that 14 of the men were tenured at Group I institutions, but only 1 of the women; 25 of the men were tenured at Group I, II, or III institutions but only 2 women, and overall 39 (out of 52) of the men had tenure, but only 7 (out of 13) of the women [MA95].

At the beginning of this decade there was roughly a 20% discrepancy between salaries for men and women in the mathematical sciences in the U.S. (see Table 1).3

  1990 Salaries for Ph.D.s
  Men Women
Science & Engineering $54.5K $44.4K
Mathematics  52.4K  43.8K
Statistics  51.7K  48.3K
Comp. Sci./Inf. Sci.  60.1K  50.0K
Table 1. Salary data from Women in math update, Science, Vol. 257, July 1992, p. 323, as reported in [ND91].

Percentages at Elite Institutions. The percentages of women in mathematics departments at the elite institutions remain dismal, with a few bright spots. In 1991–1992 there were five tenured women total in all of the top ten departments (National Academy of Sciences ranking), versus 288 tenured men, and a total of 27 untenured women versus 192 men [JF93]. There were no women at Caltech, and no tenured women at the University of Chicago, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, or Yale. (See Table 2.) Since then there have been notable changes at two institutions: Princeton University now has two tenured women and the University of Michigan has four; MIT has an increased number of untenured women. Still the total number of women is small. (See Table 3.)

Department Tenured Untenured Tenure-Track
 Total   Female   Total   Female   Total   Female 
UC-Berkeley   60  2*  12  3  2 0
Caltech  13 0   6  0  1 0
Chicago  25 0  24  2  6 0
Columbia  14   1**  12  0  0 0
Harvard  17 1  14  3  1 0
MIT  40 0  38  4 12 1
Michigan  49 1  38  6  3 1
Princeton  31 0  28  7 22 5
Stanford  23 0   9  1  2 0
Yale  16 0  11  1  3 0
Total 288 5 192 27 52 7
Table 2. Women in Mathematics, 1991-1992, from [JF93].
“Untenured” includes all full-time members of a department who do not have tenure — both tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions. “Tenure-track,”, a subset of the untenured group, includes members of a department with appointments at the end of which the member must automatically be considered for tenure.
* Joint appointment with UCLA. ** Tenured at Barnard.

Department Tenured Untenured Tenure-Track
 Total   Female   Total   Female   Total   Female 
UC-Berkeley   60 2  12  3  2 0
Caltech  12 0   3  0  3 0
Chicago  31 0  24  3  8 0
Columbia  17   1**  13  2  0 0
Harvard  16 0  14  2  0 0
MIT  36 0  40 10 12 4
Michigan  58 4  44  9  1 0
Princeton  23 2  20  3 14 1
Stanford  22 0   9  1  2 0
Yale  15 0   8  0  1 0
Total 288 9 183 31 42 6
Table 3. Women in Mathematics, 1998-1999.
“Untenured” includes all full-time members of a department who do not have tenure — both tenure-track and non-tenure-track positions. “Tenure-track,”, a subset of the untenured group, includes members of a department with appointments at the end of which the member must automatically be considered for tenure.
** Tenured at Barnard.

Graduate School Attrition. Proportionately more women still drop out of graduate school than men. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence suggests that in some areas where the participation of women once increased, it has lately decreased. Although the percentage of women entering graduate school in mathematics has increased to 50% in some schools, at others it has decreased; in particular, at the top ten institutions it decreased considerably in 1997–98, according to data compiled by Joan Birman [ND97]. Some universities, such as Northeastern and Rutgers, also have markedly fewer tenured women in mathematics now than twenty years ago.

Disparaging Comments and Discrimination. It may seem that outstanding new women Ph.D.s who obtain jobs at top institutions no longer encounter any discrimination, but at least some of these women notice differences in their treatment from that of men. They report that male students and even colleagues accuse them of getting jobs, awards, and attention just because they are women. Some female students, perhaps expecting perfection when they finally see a role model, are also quite critical of women faculty. As for women who are not in top positions, they feel their faults are magnified and they are disparaged far more than comparable men.

As Mel Rothenberg observed, “Thirty years ago discrimination against women was rampant and open. More than one distinguished colleague vowed never to accept a woman as a student. Now discrimination is not open, if only out of fear of legal action. At the same time I wonder how much better it is for women. The top five research departments have literally less than a handful of tenured women.…There is no doubt that there exists an environment and attitude at our leading mathematical institutions that many women find hostile and alienating.…This environment is deeply discouraging to women graduate students and is a significant factor in limiting their careers.…We can and should regard the absence of women in our ranks as a weakness and take appropriate action” [ND93].

For these and other reasons AWM is still needed. Rather than emphasize negatives, however, this article focuses on the accomplishments and the spirit of AWM. Although there may be some catharsis value gained by comparing notes and consoling each other, most of us prefer not to dwell on discouragements, but rather to appreciate where we have come and to dream of more success, for ourselves and for society as a whole. AWM programs have been enormously helpful to younger women in mathematics; as Cheryl Grood says, “AWM helped bring me into the mathematical community at each different stage and level in my mathematical career.” Those interviewed for this article describe their experiences with AWM as “exciting and inspiring”.


  1. Marie A. Vitulli and Mary E. Flahive, Are Women Getting All the Jobs?, Notices, Vol. 44, No. 3, March 1997.
  2. 1997 AMS-IMA-MAA Annual Survey, Notices, October 1998, p. 1158–1171.
  3. The authors have been unable to locate current data.

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