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

by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
Pages 40-43
Black Issues In Higher Education Magazine
May 19, 1994

Add It Up | A Safety Net
Persistence, Strength Required | Early Ambitions | Measures of Success
Add It UpBack to Top
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 recipents.

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 comparision, 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 Commision 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 1991.

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 gack 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 faculy in 1968.

The second thing we do is spend a lot of time worrying about their kinds of support...we have a safety net, she said.
A Safety Net Back to Top
The safety net - which students and graduates said is a critical factor in their persistance - 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 womens colleges throughout the country each year about the benefits of earning a mathematics degree. She relies on former students to recommend their colleages 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 rigorus 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 convice women that they can do it, and that it's worth putting the time and effort in.

Dr. Linda Hayden was one of those conviced she could achieve her dream of a Ph.D. in mathematics. As a member of the math faculty at Elizabeth City State 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 ECSU, and, like Gray, encourages them to pursue doctorates. Hayden has recommened two students to the AU program.

Current students said the personal advising, and a strong sense that advisors want them to succeed, have kept them on a steady course througout their studies. Joyce Higginbotham, a math teacher at Alice Deal Junior High School in the District of Columbia, had given up plans for an advanced degree after a divorce left her financially strapped. She received funding through the Department of Education's Patricia Robers Harris Fellowship Program - which provides tuition costs for up to three African American women annually - and has attended classes while continuing to work.
Persistence, Strength Required Back to Top
A doctoral program is never easy, and getting a Ph.D. while working full time is suicidal, Higginbotham said. In general, the culture and the philosophy of the department is one that will reach out and encourage students. Once, when I was going through a difficult period, I told my advisor that I would drop out, and she told me that wasn't to be discussed again. She threw that thought out the window with force.

Peggy Winfield, who is entering the dissertation state, also remembers the times she was ready to quit. Although she earned a bachelor's degree in math, she chose to get her master's in communication. That decision put her somewhat behind when she chose to pursue her doctorate in math.

I've stayed here by the support of teachers who put up with me...They want me to enter into the field of mathematics, without a doubt, Winfield said.

Linda Lewis, who teaches math at the University of the District of Coulmbia, said the programs emphasis on teaching has translated into big benefits in her own classroom. Balancing the roles of student and teacher, however, have left her with virtually no free time.

Dr. Martha Brown worked as an administrator in Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland while attending the program part time. The process was painful and grueling, but the encouragement of some faculty members, and support of fellow students, helped her complete the degree in 1989.

Linda Hayden was my rock. There were times when I was her rock. We supported each other, Brown said. But desire is not enough for any student to sustain the level of intensity, commitment and concentration necessary to develop the sophistication and understanding of mathematics required for advanced study.

Only the most talented women can succeed. If you don't come with something, your not going to get anything, Brown said. These are all strong women. You can't get up there if you are weak, the faculty and other students will eat you alive and spit you out. You really have to have a sense of who you are; you have to have some backbone.
Early Ambitions Back to Top
Like many of the students, Brown's determination to excel in mathematics started as a child and was nurtured by teachers as early as elementary school. She attended a segregated school in Indianapolis where teachers motivated all students to learn math and science. Today, as supervisor of mathematics in Prince George's County, Brown works with elementary school teachers to ease their discomfort with math. She urges them to see the potential in all students, and combat any stereotypes about their students' abilities in the subject.

I have a particulary keen interest in young women who opt to enter elemenary education and do so because they want to avoid the mathematics...that's not a good reason. We need strong math teachers in elementary education, Brown said.

Cecile Kahan, a mathematics teacher coordinaor at suitland High school, also in Prince George's, remembers setting her goal for earning a doctorate early in life.

Mine was a burning desire from the time I was a one day obtain a Ph.D. It just happens, that my interest was in mathematics, said Kahan. When I was going to school, you always had to be better than the best, and you always had to aim high.

Winfield knew all through high school that she wanted to be a mathematician. She attended an all-girl high school in Baltimore, where she was tracked through a rigorous schedule of advanced math courses. For her, the lack of women, and in particular black women, in the field is telling of the general low numbers of students who are drawn to the discipline. According to her research, the first black woman to earn a doctorate in the field was Evelyn Glanville, who graduated from Yale University in 1949.

We're not talking 50 years of my people competing in mathematics at the top academic levels, so I feel privileged to be among the small few. You don't find many people in math, period. Math is not easy. Math is painful, and those who succeed are those who perserve, Winfield said.

When I actually learned about the black women who were before made me grateful to have the support, it made me mad that other people didn't have that support.
Measures of SuccessBack to Top
This support has not made the program any less rigorous, insists Gray. Black women graduates have met the department's high standards, have completed and published outstanding dissertations, and have been awarded grants for their research and innovative program.

They all said that they were pushed very hard, occasionally to their irritation, Gray said. All their work has been published. That's the academic community's way of saying whether it is good enough...they have been able to follow the usual academic measures of success.

Hayden recently received a $1.2 million grant from the Office of Naval Research to supplement the gradaute program at ECSU. Dr. Joan Sterling Langdon, an associate professor of computer science at Bowie State University, who earned her doctorate in 1989, has directed student training programs at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Dr. Ann Taylor, dean of faculy at Bethune-Cookman college, who earned her education adminstration degree in 1988, is a candidate for several top adminstrative posts, Gray said.

Dr. Elaine Smith, a 1988 graduate, teachers math at Washington, DC's Wilson High School, where she directs The Math Center, and after-school tutoring program.

Officials from four year institutions have approached Gray to find out how to boost the number of women and minorities in their math programs, but they usually do not follow through on her suggestions, she said.

The federal budget recently approved by Congress discontinues funding of the Patricia Roberts Harris fellowships, thereby leaving Gray scrambling for alternate funding. Maintaining the financial incentives, as well as professional and emotional support are crucial if the persistence of minority women in mathematics is to continue.

I know that a lot of African Americans love mathematics. The low number of Black women definitely says to me that there is not the commitment to recruit them. There is a big leak in the pipeline, said Hayden.
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