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BOOK REVIEW

Against All Odds

Evelyn Sander

Women Becoming Mathematicians: Creating a Professional Identity in Post–World War II America. Margaret A. M. Murray. xviii + 277 pp. The MIT Press, 2000. $29.95.

Women are still underrepresented in mathematics, as well as in most other hard sciences and engineering. As careers in these disciplines become increasingly important and prestigious—and as careers involving quantitative thinking become ubiquitous—there is much research and speculation about this gender disparity and how to fix it. Rather than concentrate on what is going wrong, Margaret A. M. Murray takes the point of view that we should learn from success stories. Women Becoming Mathematicians is based on Murray's interviews with 36 women who completed a Ph.D. in mathematics between 1940 and 1959; the ratio of women to men among those granted that degree was lower during this period than at any other time in the 20th century.

The book illustrates many of the significant changes that took place in academia (and in society as a whole) during the careers of the interviewees. In some cases, the women benefited: After receiving their Ph.D.s, several of them were able to make important contributions to new disciplines, such as statistics and computer science. In addition, in contrast to women college professors of the previous generation, who were under pressure to stay unmarried and to dedicate all of their time to teaching and to the college, three-quarters of the women interviewed were married, and half had children.

Alice Schafer helped organize women mathematiciansClick to Enlarge Image

The women interviewed tell of encountering pervasive and overt sexism at the beginning of their careers. After graduate school, they were given less prestigious jobs and correspondingly less pay than their male cohorts.

Several participated in changing the sexist culture of academia: Vera Pless (Ph.D., Northwestern, 1957) was one of the cofounders of Women in Science and Engineering (WISE), and Alice Schafer (Ph.D., Chicago, 1942) was the second president of the Association for Women in Mathematics. Both organizations have had some success in beginning to eliminate some of the barriers placed before women in the sciences.

Several of the women describe being negatively affected by the shift toward a focus on research at the expense of all other academic roles. After graduate school, they had joined faculties at colleges where teaching loads and service expectations did not permit time for mathematical research. This was typical, since women were recruited almost exclusively by women's colleges, where little research was expected. However, during the 1960s, many of these colleges became universities with research expectations. As a result, many of those who had conformed to the old standard found that they did not garner the same respect and remuneration as their younger, research-oriented colleagues. It is important to note, though, that by no means all of the women suffered this fate. Many of the interviewees made important research contributions in mathematics, including one who is now a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

The book is interesting and informative. In deciding which women to include, Murray appears to have chosen a representative sample of those who have remained mathematically active. She does a good job of putting personal accounts in a broader historical context and of explaining the details of academia for those who have not been part of it. However, she sometimes overinterprets the content of the interviews rather than allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.

The presentation of the interviews is somewhat distracting: Murray has chosen to divide the book into stages of mathematical development. Although that does give an opportunity to compare the women's experiences at each stage, it is very difficult to keep track of the individual biographies. Without leafing back through the book, one is never sure whose college experience goes with whose professional experience or family background.

But on the whole, the book gives an interesting perspective on the changes in academic life in the second half of the 20th century. It also illuminates some of the factors that allow women to succeed in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field; these include encouragement from adults at an early age, a stimulating intellectual environment, an inspiring teacher in high school or college and a determination to succeed in the face of obstacles.—Evelyn Sander, Mathematical Sciences, George Mason University


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