Just as I was finishing this article, a reporter from Science magazine phoned. He wanted to talk about the dearth of women in the top U.S. mathematics departments. I wanted to talk about the active presence of women in the American mathematics community. Implicit in our conversation was the (seemingly paradoxical) question: If women are doing so well in mathematics today, then why are they not represented in the top departments? Obviously, the answer is complex.
In the 1970s, when affirmative action came into being and government was enforcing the laws, we saw changes for women, not so much in academia, but in industry. In those years, government was putting pressure on industry to hire women. Industry in turn tried to hire women in technical fields and found there were not many. To remedy this situation, both government and industry started supporting educational programs to increase the participation of women in mathematics-based fields. These programs were remarkably successful and women started becoming more visible in technical areas, particularly in the fledgling computer industry. In the 1980s, when the political pressure let up, industry continued to hire women in technical fields. Why was this? For one, they had already had the experience of working with competent women. For another, it was in their interest: With the drop in Americans entering technical fields and the balance of technological expertise and industry shifting to other parts of the globe, increasing the numbers of women could help the U.S. maintain its technical edge.
What happened in academia? While government was enforcing affirmative action legislation in industry, it basically maintained a hands-off policy towards universities, responding to strong arguments of academic freedom and autonomy. One of the strengths of American institutions of higher education has been their long history of self-governance. So universities experienced minimal pressure from government to change. Then why did big changes take place in the mathematics societies and at many departments, but not in the top departments? During this period, the AWM and its members were certainly an omnipresent force within the math societies, both raising the consciousness of the community as well as wielding a fair amount of political influence. In the 1980s, many math departments were directly affected by the decline in Americans studying mathematics (and now in the 1990s, by the crisis in the job market for mathematicians). Thus, the problems of the larger society hit home, and these groups responded to the situation in much the way that industry had. That is, it was viewed as in everyone's best interest to increase the participation and visibility of women in mathematics. On the other hand, the top departments have been buffered by and large from the changes in society. Even in tough times, they have first pick of the top students (and in the current tough times, their students do better on the job market). These departments are not as viscerally aware of the problems affecting the rest of the community. And in the main, they have not taken a leadership role in changing the situation. This has come from elsewhere.
And changes have indeed occurred. The large numbers of active women researchers attest to that. The large numbers of women giving invited talks at national and international meetings attest to that. The large numbers of women in leadership positions in the mathematics societies attest to that. Before, when the numbers were small, the few women mathematicians available could not always satisfy all the criteria (not all professional--and not always as objective as might be claimed) for getting a position: Are they the top person in the particular field the department is hiring? Are they in the right professional circles? Are they at the right age or stage of their professional careers? Does their personal circumstance allow them to move? And so on. Now there is a near critical mass and an excellent pool of women mathematicians. I predict that within five years there will be vast changes in the top departments reflecting (and benefitting from) changes already in place within the wider mathematics community. One might call this the ``trickle up'' effect.