Black Women Beginning To Count in Mathematics

By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tasha Inniss's math career was sparked in fourth grade, when long division won her heart. She was thrilled to conquer denominators to two digits, then three, then more, scratching out the descending columns of figures that would lead, with satifying logic, to an answer.

Every year, the numbers got bigger, more elusive. But she stuck with math, through the hurdles of calculus, statistics, optimization and operations research, through a bachelor's degree, then a master's. With the finishing touches on a dissertation called "Stochastic Models for the Estimation of Airport Arrival Capacity Distributions", she made it to a PhD.

But this doctorate was more than a personal milestone. Inniss, along with Sherry Scot Joseph and Kimberly Weems, yesterday became the first black women to receive PhDs in mathematics from the University of Maryland.

Three at once. Which is all the more striking considering that of the 1,119 math PhDs across the entire country last year, only five were received by African American women.

The year before that: seven.

Numbers too small even for long division.

Inniss herself, now an assistant professor at Trinity College in the District, borrowed another of math's blunter tools --top-of-the-head estimation-- to describe the field yesterday:

"If I don't know all the female African American mathematicians in the country", she said, "I must know 90 percent."

The once-segregated campus in College Park has worked hard in recent years to recruit and support women and minorities. This year, the Quality Education for Minorities Network lauded Maryland as national leader in doctoral degrees by minorities in the sciences and engineering.

Yet that Maryland is only now graduating its first black female PhDs says much about the slow and late-coming progress for women and minorities in this discipline.

Both groups have seen their numbers surge in the sciences. In 1997, African Americans earned 607 doctorates in science and engineering, up from 319 a decade earlier, according to a National Science Foundation report. Women made similar gains, from 4,424 to 6,814. Black women claimed 290 PhDs in the sciences, up from 130.

But for black women in math, the gains have been almost negligible. Throughout the 1980's and 1990's, the number of math doctorates received each year by black women remained in the single digits.

Mathematicians, who are now trying to promote their discipline to girls and minorities starting at the middle school level, say it's a matter of time. A racial gap still lingers between white and black in the percentage of students who enter college and then go on to graduate. Math, meanwhile, holds up unique hurdles.

"Its one of those disciplines in which your progression through the academic pipeline is very hierarchical", said Jim Maxwell, associate executive director of the American Mathematical Society. "You can't skip mathematics for three years and then decide you want to get back in...By the time, with the help of elementary and middle school teachers who encourages their youthful interest by sending them to local math contests, high school math bowls.

Yet they look back on academic careers in which they were often the only one of their race or gender in the room.

Joseph, 30, is a visiting assistant professor of statistics at George Washington University. She is a native of Rome, Ga., and majored in math at Ohio State University. "There were a couple other women" in the program, she remembers, "but of African descent?"

She Pauses, thinks. "No."

Inniss, 29, had other women in her math classes at Xavier University, a historically black college in Louisiana. But any black female professors, ever? She pauses too, thinks hard.

"No", she murmurs.

Weems, 29, alone of the three, had female African American professors at ther undergraduate college, Spelman, a historically black college for women in Atlanta. She said she had always wanted to pursue some kind of studies in math--but was to intimidated to actually major in it--until a "wonderful" calculus professor coaxed her into it.

"Its strange to know you're coming out of school, and you're representing your race and your gender", said Weems, who is using statistical analysis in a classified job at the Department of Defense.

Innis received a master's degree at a university where, she said, "There are some people who belive that women, especially women of color, are not supposed to do math".

Maryland, she said, was a more supportive environment. Twenty-one African American students are currently enrolled in the math doctoral program, and at least one other black woman will graduate next spring.

Still, she said, mathematics needs to produce more female black doctorates to serve as mentors to another generation of girls who she says tend to be "socialized" against the sciences.

"We give the little boys the blocks, the things to construct and build. We give the girls the dolls", she said. "When young women get into these classes where the teachers are men, the teachers call on the men more often. It's not that women don't have a knack for it, it's that they're not encouraged".
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