Female Math Majors Multiply with Representation

By J. Harvard Feldhouse

At Youngstown State University, not only are there more women pursuing mathematics degrees, but there is an increasing number of women in leadership roles.

YSU’s student math organizations are chiefly led by women, and the Department of Mathematics and Statistics has many female educators.

With little encouragement and few role models in the past, female mathematics majors were scarce in higher education, but third and fourth wave feminism has empowered more women to enter traditionally male-dominated fields, such as mathematics. 

Alicia Prieto Langarica, associate professor in the mathematics department, started studying mathematics in her home country of Mexico, where sexism and social norms made the pursuit difficult. Female intelligence was discouraged and belittled, and female role models in math were lacking. 

“There was a lot of competition among the very few women that were there,” Prieto said “When there’s so few of you, it seems like there’s only space for fewer, so you kind of battle for those spaces.”

Much of the sexism Prieto and other women experienced was centered around beauty and intelligence. If she got a problem wrong, it was OK because she was still pretty. If she got a problem right, it couldn’t have been her idea.  

When Prieto moved to the United States to finish her bachelor’s and doctorate degrees, she realized that while society outside of mathematics got better, within the mathematics community didn’t change much.

When Prieto first came to YSU six years ago, she remembers at most five women involved in research and in mathematics clubs. Only three women accompanied her to the Nebraska Conference for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics.

“I think when women approach a system where they’re not well represented and in which the science on the outside is telling them, ‘You’re not good enough,’ yeah, we internalize our mistakes,” Prieto said.

However, as female representation in the mathematics department increased, so did the amount of female math majors.

“Last year, we had 16 girls wanting to go [to the conference],” Prieto said. “Right now, almost every single student organization that is attached to math has almost all-women leadership. I have a lot of research students, and I haven’t counted, but I think it’s something between 20 [students]. I have two men, the rest are women.”

Thomas Wakefield, professor and chair of the math department, noticed that women now are more comfortable and confident when speaking in class and seem more at ease than in his 15 years of prior teaching. He owes this increase in female math majors to the quality role models in the department. 

“I would like to credit it to our mentorship, our female faculty leadership and being very proactive about recruiting female math students,” Wakefield said. “They are very determined to create a supportive environment for female mathematics majors and really go out of their way to get their needs met.”

Shilpa Bhandari, a mathematics major, also didn’t have female role models in math to look up to as she studied math in Nepal. This lowered her self-esteem as she went to college, and she initially didn’t join as a math major.

“Fortunately, the math department at YSU has a great number of female students, faculty and staff,” Bhandari said. “I realized I was never happy in my life when I wasn’t doing math. All of them inspire me in so many ways and have boosted my self esteem by being incredible themselves. That’s why now I am a happy math major.”