Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Success Is in the Numbers: African American Women Excel in Math Ph.D. Program

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Success Is in the Numbers: African American Women Excel in Math Ph.D. Program

Article excerpt

Success is in The Numbers: African American Women. Excel in Math Ph.D. Program

by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

WASHINGTON, DC -- It doesn't take a mathematician or even an adding machine to calculate the numbers. In just a few seconds, using 10 fingers and a couple of toes, it can be shown that the African American women in the entire country who received doctorates in mathematics, between 1986 and 1991 number an even dozen.

In a field still dominated by white males, they represent less than 2 percent of doctoral recipients.

So when four Black women earned Ph.D.s in mathematics from American University (AU) in a two-year period, it was no small accomplishment. They represented a third of those who had done so nationwide during the six-year span. A fifth student at the Washington, DC, institution earned a doctorate in education administration, with a concentration in teaching mathematics.

By comparison, 1,887 white men, 470 white women and 27 Black men earned doctorates in mathematics during that same period, according to Professional Women and Minorities, a 1992 report by the Commission on Professions in Science and Technology. Howard University, the only historically Black institution with a doctoral program in the discipline, awarded two Ph.D.s in mathematics to women between 1986 and 1993.

Five more women of color are close to completing their coursework at AU, making the program the most successful in the nation with regard to minority women.

"We give people personal attention. We look at their background to see where they should start, so that if they need to, they can go back and finish some of the background courses," said Dr. Mary Gray, former chair of the math and statistics department who has led efforts to attract more women and minorities to the program since joining the faculty in 1968.

"The second thing we do is spend a lot of time worrying about other kinds of support...we have a safety net," she said.

A Safety Net

The safety net -- which students and graduates said is a critical factor in their persistence -- includes accommodating the busy professional and personal lives of the women, many of whom are working mothers.

Gray has paired single mothers to help them save money on child care and housing. The department, at Gray's urging, established a loan fund to help cover the cost of books. And the university approved several paid instructorship positions for those students who do not hold outside jobs during their course of study, but have outstanding teaching records.

The first step, however, is recruitment. Gray speaks to women at high schools, historically Black institutions and women's colleges throughout the country each year about the benefits of earning a mathematics degree. She relies on former students to recommend their colleagues for the program. She also works closely with HBCUs to identify talented math students with the potential for earning a higher degree.

All of these factors have both attracted talented mathematicians to the school and encouraged them to stick with the rigorous program. Most finish within five years, less than the national average, according to Gray.

"Trying to attract women or minority students to math by pretending it's easy is a big mistake, because it isn't easy for most people," Gray said. "So what you need to do is convince women that they can do it, and that it's worth putting the time and effort in."

Dr. Linda Hayden was one of those convinced she could achieve her dream of a Ph.D. in mathematics. As a member of the math faculty at Elizabeth City University in North Carolina, Hayden knew that a terminal degree was a necessity for her to continue teaching at the college level. She took a four-year sabbatical to work on her doctorate full time and earned her Ph.D. in 1989.

"Mary Gray was a very good role model. I call her my role model for life, my advisor for life," said Hayden, who now works with graduate students at Elizabeth City, and, like Gray, encourages them to pursue doctorates. …

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