Most women working in math today are used to being the “only” one.

The only girl who ignored the teacher who said boys are better at math. The only girl on the high school math competition team. The only female student in advanced college math courses. The only woman in her graduate school cohort, or even among fellow professors at a university.

So the fact that the UW-Madison Department of Mathematics has nine female faculty members — with two more about to join — is significant. The number is the largest in the department’s history. The UW-Madison math department now has one of the highest proportions of women among all major research universities across the country.

While they’re still a relatively small percent of the math department faculty, working alongside 39 male professors, the presence of these nine is felt throughout Van Vleck Hall. And don’t underestimate their power in paving the way for future female mathematicians. 

Adding up

Most public research universities have just two or three women in their math departments. That’s where UW-Madison’s average hovered until about five years ago.

When Leslie Smith became the first female department chair in 2005, she made a concerted effort to make the hiring process more inclusive. “I am proud of the fact that the department was successful in hiring for academic excellence and increasing diversity at the same time,” she says.

In 2011, Melanie Matchett Wood and Tullia Dymarz joined the ranks of Smith, Julie Mitchell, Autumn Kent and current department chair Gloria Mari-Beffa. Betsy Stovall came aboard the next year, followed by Lu Wang and Qin Li in 2015. Mariya Soskova will join this fall.

The university is also utilizing the Clare Boothe Luce Program, which is named after the first woman elected to Congress from Connecticut and awards grants to universities to support students and professors and encourage women in math, science and engineering. The math department is using it for the first time to hire Mihaela Ifrim, who also begins in the fall.

I am proud of the fact that the department was successful in hiring for academic excellence and increasing diversity at the same time.

“Things are changing fast,” says Mari-Beffa. “Every season now, the faculty bring first-rate candidates to the table — some of whom happen to be female. We have recruited an extraordinarily strong group of junior faculty.”

The diversity of a department can make a difference in hiring. Some newer faculty cite the number of women working here, and holding positions of leadership, as deciding factors in their acceptance of positions.

“This clearly indicates the inclusive climate in the department,” says Wang. “And the senior female faculty are great role models for young ones.”

Kent, meanwhile, is encouraged by the sense of support that’s been building as the department’s demographics shift.

“The strong female presence adds a layer of insulation against institutional sexism, and gives us strength,” she says. “A woman in the mathematics department at Wisconsin has more freedom to be a strong voice than she would at many other institutions.”

While Stovall wasn’t aware of the number of female faculty when she joined the department, she appreciates having women as professional peers. But she’s most inspired by the work of her colleagues.

“We have hired good mathematicians,” she says. “Some of these are women. Our department wouldn’t be as strong had we not hired these people.”

As Eric Wilcots, associate dean for the natural, physical sciences and mathematical sciences, points out, seeking excellent female and male faculty fosters intellectual diversity and improves the department’s standing as a math powerhouse — now ranked twelfth in the nation.

 “Strength begets strength,” he says. “When you’re only sampling half of the population, you’re really missing out on brain power.”

Critical Numbers

Research has shown that parents, teachers, even toys play a role in discouraging girls from studying math. This creates a pipeline issue that results in fewer women in undergraduate and graduate math programs, and even fewer in interesting, challenging and often lucrative careers in math and science.

According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, an organization that encourages girls to pursue careers in science and math, women earn 57.3 percent of bachelor’s degrees in general, but just 43.1 percent of the degrees in mathematics. And while women make up half of the country’s college-educated workforce, they hold only a fourth of the jobs in computer and mathematical sciences.

We have hired good mathematicians. Some of these are women. Our department wouldn’t be as strong had we not hired these people.

A key problem along the way is the notion of talent, the fantasy that for some people, math is effortless and that if you have to work at it, you’re simply not a “math person.” 

“Confusion doesn’t mean you’re bad at math,” says Mari-Beffa, adding that not understanding something in math pushes her to explore and solve it. She wouldn’t make discoveries without some uncertainty at the outset.

Modelling Change

When Anne Ulrich came to UW-Madison, she didn’t think she was good enough at math to pursue it as a career. But an honors course taught by Dymarz changed her mind.

“That was the one that inspired me, the one that made me want to go to class,” says Ulrich, now a sophomore math and computer science double major. “I realized that math is where I was called to be.”

Post-doctorate fellow Theresa Anderson says there are more female math students now than when she was an undergraduate at UW-Madison ten years ago. She took classes and conducted research with both Mari-Beffa and Mitchell, experiences that opened her eyes to the power of role models.

“I didn’t think about it much then, but I do realize the difference now,” she says. “I know that more female faculty encourages more women in the field.”

While Matchett Wood never had a female math professor, she understands the importance of setting an example to younger generations. As the first high school girl to compete on Team U.S.A. in the International Math Olympiad, she’s coached subsequent competitors and is cognizant of what it means to stand at the front of a lecture hall. “It’s really helpful to see people who look like you,” she says.

Because when students see a fellow woman leading class, or making research breakthroughs, or rising up in a competitive field, it becomes that much easier to see themselves finding the same success.

“Half of my math professors have been women,” says Hannah DeBrine, a sophomore double majoring in math and philosophy. “They’ve been really important in normalizing it, in showing that it’s an option.”

The women of UW-Madison math

Tullia Dymarz, geometric group theoryAutumn Kent, geometry and topology ● Qin Li, applied math ● Gloria Mari-Beffa, math physics and differential geometry ● Julie Mitchell, computational mathematics  Leslie Smith, applied math ● Betsy Stovall, analysis ● Lu Wang, geometric analysis ● Melanie Matchett Wood, number theory