SIAM News Blog

Tribulations and Triumphs of Women in Mathematics

By Lina Sorg

In recent years, society has made great strides toward improving diversity and gender equality in the workforce. Even so, succeeding as a female in a male-dominated discipline is not without challenges. This is especially true in the field of mathematics, where demands and expectations for research, mentoring, and leadership are already high. At the 2018 SIAM Annual Meeting, held in Portland, Ore., this July, a panel of women from both academia and industry—sponsored by the Association of Women in Mathematics—spoke candidly about the difficulties and successes of being a female mathematician and fielded questions about gender bias, professional development, and work-life balance.

A recurring theme of discussion was the perpetual value of self-confidence and assertiveness, which are particularly important when searching for internships. “Be 10 percent shy of annoying,” Laina Mercer of the Institute for Disease Modeling said. Lalitha Venkataramanan of Schlumberger-Doll Research agreed, and encouraged attendees to approach companies directly and inquire about internship opportunities. She also emphasized that—contrary to popular belief—there is rarely an inappropriate time in one’s career for an internship; an acquaintance once postponed her thesis defense to accept a promising opportunity, then successfully defended her thesis afterwards.

Internship experience is crucial in helping early-career mathematicians determine the focus areas that best align with their research interests. Nina Amenta of the University of California, Davis originally received a B.A. in classical civilization, but turned to computer programming when she had trouble finding a job. She went back to school for computer science and ultimately earned her Ph.D. Stellar faculty connections led Amenta to an internship in computational geometry. “Here was a piece of computer science that was tailor-made for me,” she said. “Internships are a great way to dive into something in-depth and find out if you love it.”

An internship was also transformative for Mercer, who completed a Research Experience for Undergraduates program through the National Science Foundation and fortuitously ended up working with a biostatistician. “I thought I would go to grad school for math, but that experience changed my whole trajectory,” she said. Instead, Mercer earned a master’s degree in biostatistics and a Ph.D. in statistics. 

From left: Laina Mercer (Institute for Disease Modeling), Chiu-Yen Kao (Claremont McKenna College), Lalitha Venkataramanan (Schlumberger-Doll Research), and Nina Amenta (University of California Davis) address the audience during the Association for Women in Mathematics workshop panel, which took place at the 2018 SIAM Annual Meeting in Portland, Ore., this July. SIAM photo.

Other panelists found themselves pursuing unexpected career paths as well. “I am from a very traditional family,” Chiu-Yen Kao of Claremont McKenna College said. “My mom thought that females should get an education, but not a high education.” Undergraduate mentors, however, pushed Kao to seek out internships and pursue academia.

All four speakers urged audience members to thoroughly research salaries and benefit packages when applying for postgraduate positions. Candidates should prepare to negotiate. “In industry, the only negotiating power is the human resources manager,” Venkataramanan said. “You need to ask for the upper end of the cost distribution. They’ll want to put you at the lower end, so do your research. Ask for 20 percent more than what you’re worth.” If salary negotiation is impossible, she suggested bargaining for more vacation time or a flexible work-from-home policy. In fields such as the oil industry, female employees are particularly desirable and thus have high bargaining potential.

The value of negotiation extends far beyond the initial hiring process. When Venkataramanan felt that she was unable to properly commit to industry research in an office setting, she spoke to her manager and spent six months working regularly in the library to heighten her productivity. Mercer gained permission to work individually offsite—and without distraction—two days a week. While this type of freedom is not uncommon, candidates must ask about such flexibilities when interviewing. “I feel lucky that there’s support for that,” Mercer said. “As long as you can make the case that the work is applied and helpful to others, you do have some flexibility.”

Discussion then moved to the challenge of balancing research with administrative growth, as technical and managerial ladders exist in both academia and industry. For example, Amenta likes working with people and recognizes her own aptitude for organization. While this might imply administrative propensity, there is always a tradeoff. When working with students, for instance, one might begin to neglect her own mathematics. “If you get far into management, you lose the ability to do your own thing and your own research,” Amenta said. “There is a tendency for women in STEM to be drawn into management because of the stereotype of great people skills. Finding the right balance there is a difficult thing.”

Panelists also warned future academics about the unavoidable demands—both emotional and physical—of early-career academia. “The first few years of teaching were amazingly stressful,” Amenta recalled. “People are going to want as much from you as you’re willing to put into it. You’re going to have to set some boundaries on that.” She suggested that attendees have someone or something—i.e., a regular appointment with a research partner—holding them accountable for their time and keeping them on track.

Kao manages her calendar closely, blocks off designated times for research, and never gives that time away. As a budding mathematician, she initially set her alarm in the middle of the night to maximize research output — and quickly realized the ineffectiveness of this approach. Now that she has a family, Kao refrains from working at home to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Mercer employs a similar time management strategy. She knows that she cannot accomplish anything worthwhile without at least two uninterrupted hours, and thus arranges her schedule accordingly. She also removed her work email from her phone. “This way I don’t think about it,” Mercer said. “Because even if you don’t actually do work, having access to your email can affect your quality of life.”

Venkataramanan looks at each day as an optimization problem with an objective function to maximize the day and make the most of her time. When presented with an unexpected task, she determines whether it fits with her professional goals, moves her closer to a desired achievement, or involves mentoring or giving back to the community. If it does not fit any of these categories, she declines. “The first ‘no’ is the hardest,” Venkataramanan said. “Then you get used to it.” The women collectively agreed that waiting 24 hours to deny or consent to a request is sufficient; if the project is still appealing the next day, then it is likely a good choice.

While disappointing people can be tough, Mercer assured the audience that saying “no” becomes easier with time. “I had to get used to the idea that people won’t be happy with that answer,” she said. “But I also get fewer requests for things that aren’t as relevant to me, or things I don’t want to do.” She also pointed out that saying “no” can come with stipulations depending on one’s employment. “In an industry role, you’re not always in a position to have a strong ‘no,’” Mercer observed. “Segment your time and say, ‘if you want me to do this, what gets down-prioritized, bumped, or missed?’” This response alerts colleagues to the finite time in one’s workday.

Managing a busy workload is increasingly arduous if one has a family, and multiple attendees inquired about the gender stereotypes of motherhood. “Be ready for that,” Mercer said. “I have totally been asked inappropriate questions about whether or not I have a spouse, where their job might take them, and whether or not I’m going to have kids.” Though employers should not ask these types of questions in interviews, they do come up from time to time.

In an act of transparency, Venkataramanan keeps pictures of her children in her office and is happy to answer questions about work-life balance from curious students. Amenta stressed the importance of inquiring about policies, benefits, and parental leave at an early stage. “It’s very easy to let this benefit stuff wash over you, but universities vary quite a bit,” she said. “It’s really not at the top of your mind when you’re job-searching, but it’s something you should definitely consider. If you get a tenure-track position, there are almost universally well-defined parental leave policies that are there to support you.”

While all panelists agreed that their overall experiences were decidedly positive, succeeding as a female in a male-dominated field is often challenging. “One of the pros is that you’re very visible,” Amenta said. “Everybody knows you. But people are always questioning your competence in a way that I don’t think is justified.” She added that taking ownership of original ideas—which constitute one’s livelihood—is especially imperative.

Amenta encouraged attendees to persistently speak up for themselves when colleagues intentionally or inadvertently dismiss their contributions. “People assume that you can be intimidated because you’re female,” she continued. “I think you just have to realize what’s happening, breathe deeply, remain calm, and keep moving through it.”

As discussion wound down, Mercer reminded the audience to have fun despite the inevitable stressors. “I felt pressured to work all of the time in grad school, and I never appreciated the finishing returns,” she said, adding that she could not fully enjoy free time or non-work activities due to self-imposed burdens. Amenta asserted that the frustrations and pressures are offset by the satisfaction that accompanies the final result. “You are undergoing this crazy transformation from a lay person into a scientist and expert,” she said. “It’s very difficult, and you have to give yourself space for the transition from caterpillar to butterfly. There are a lot of painful parts to it; don’t panic.”

 Lina Sorg is the associate editor of SIAM News.
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