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Vera Pless, University of Illinois at Chicago

Despite much progress it is still more difficult for women to become mathematicians than for men, and, as I have been concerned about this situation, my history might be useful to others.

I had no ambition to become a mathematician; girls at that time aspired to be wives (of successful men) and mothers. Maybe some ``unfortunate'' girls never married and pursued careers but, as far as women mathematicians went, I never saw one the whole time I was a student. However, I did know about the work of Emmy Noether and it may have influenced my choice of area, algebra, although I think the teaching of Irving Kaplansky was what really inspired me. I worked for my Ph.D. (under the direction of Alex Rosenberg) because it was a more interesting occupation than the job I had while waiting for my husband to complete his Ph.D. in high-energy experimental physics. After he got his degree, he received an offer from MIT and we moved to Cambridge. I had not finished my thesis but did have a good start. Alex was amenable to my finishing by correspondence. This occurred with many helpful, humorous letters from Alex. I only went back to defend my thesis, which was about two weeks before my first child, a daughter, was born (she was early). Fortunately, everything worked out alright; Alex had warned me not to have the baby during the defense, since it would upset the janitors.

It never occurred to me to work, not even in the Boston area. Going to another city was inconceivable. My oldest son Ben was born two years later. When Ben was in nursery school at the age of three, I taught two courses at Boston University in order not to forget everything I had learned. It never occurred to me then that I was teaching the same number of courses, at the same level as full-time faculty, for a graduate student stipend. Of course, I did nothing else except teach these courses, as I still felt my first responsibility was to my small children. Even with my teaching, I found this life stultifying. We had little money, so we could not hire babysitters or household help. My husband was very ambitious, worked long hours and did not feel he should help anyway, which was common then. When the youngest, Ben, was old enough for kindergarten, I decided to take the plunge and get a full-time position -- in the Boston area, of course. Naturally, I tried some of the many colleges and universities there. What were they to make of someone who had done no research but some teaching since her degree? Aside from that, I did not feel that the academic atmosphere then was conducive to women. Tufts asked me, ``didn't I know that it was a men's school'' and that all the calculus instructors graded exams in one room? I thought they considered it improper for a female to also be in that room. I heard at least one person say ``I would never hire a woman.'' Fortunately, there was an Air Force research laboratory, AFCRL, nearby. And fortunately, there were mathematicians there working in a new area, error-correcting codes, who thought my algebra background could be useful. I thought the atmosphere toward women at AFCRL was much better than in the academic institutions I had seen. That was how I started working on error-correcting codes, and I have never stopped.

I had to learn how to handle leaving home -- day-care was not so good or widespread then. My relatives said, ``What if a child has an accident while you are away at work.'' Guilt was added to my other concerns. A few of my husband's physicist colleagues were working mothers, and I followed their advice closely. We even formed an organization WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) to help others. I was president of WISE for a few years. Needless to say, I did not have the time for this in addition to my family and job, but I found our ``consciousness-raising sessions'' valuable in enabling me to regard myself as a professional and to develop confidence in my own work and opinions. When our third child (a son) was born, I only took a few months of maternity leave.

At AFCRL, we hosted monthly workshops in coding which were attended by many coding theorists. Andrew Gleason was a regular member of these sessions, which I found quite stimulating. I stayed at AFCRL for ten years until the Mansfield amendment was passed and the laboratory was unable to continue its basic research work. I decided to return to academic life, even though I found the transition very painful. I spent three years as a research associate in MIT's Project MAC until I got my present position at the University of Illinois at Chicago. So my first regular academic position was full professor. It was wrenching to leave the Boston area as my youngest son stayed there. After five years of separation, my husband and I divorced, and my son came to Chicago to live with me. I enjoy academic life very much now and am pleased that my department contains such good people.

In retrospect, I think I was very lucky. I worked in coding from its beginning and it has developed into a fascinating mathematical topic. I have appreciated the opportunity to work with many wonderful mathematicians, in particular Richard Brualdi, John Conway, and Neil Sloane. I was able to care for my children in their younger years in a low pressure environment. I would find child rearing difficult facing the pressures our assistant professors face. Our discipline is not the only one demanding a great deal. My daughter, a medical resident with a young daughter of her own, has plenty to say about the long hours required of residents. Unfortunately, our society is probably losing valuable contributions from women for these reasons. and many women are paying a great emotional toll either in forfeiting careers or in not devoting as much time to their families as they feel they should.

next up previous
Next: Jean E. Taylor, Rutgers Up: In Her Own Words Previous: Bhama Srinivasan, University of

Copyright ©1991 American Mathematical Society. Reprinted with permission.
Brought to you by the Association for Women in Mathematics.