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AWM fights sexist statistics on campuses

The Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) hosts events on campuses that support and celebrate women studying math. – Photo by awmmath / Instagram

Women only make up 28 percent of the STEM workforce, numbers that severely lag behind men. In graduate school, particularly in mathematics, women only earned 29 percent of doctoral degrees awarded in 2016 in mathematics and statistics. Most famous mathematicians are men, and many women report feeling unsupported in their pursuit to obtain a graduate degree in mathematics or statistics.

The Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) was established in 1971 as a way to support and encourage women in mathematics, as well as try to make mathematics more inclusive as a field. The Daily Targum had the chance to speak with two board members of the AWM chapter at Rutgers in an email interview about its mission, experiences being a woman in math and what they hope to see in the future.

Kayla Gibson, a co-organizer for the Rutgers chapter of the AWM and a third-year graduate student in the Department of Mathematics, talked about her journey to studying mathematics. She said she changed her major several times before deciding to major in math as an undergraduate.

"When I started taking upper-level math classes, I was unsure what you could do with a math degree. After speaking with some graduate students, I applied for a summer research opportunity called a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU)," said Gibson. "I participated in the Pomona Research in Mathematics Experience (PRiME). PRiME was such a great experience and focused on doing math as a community."

Gibson said that after these experiences, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Math, as she didn’t realize math could be this collaborative. Her graduate school experience has been challenging, but since returning to in-person learning, Gibson said she has discovered she has a passion for teaching.

Corrine Yap, one of the founders of the AWM Rutgers chapter, is a 6th-year Ph.D. student studying mathematics. She said that she chose math because she loved doing it as an undergraduate student and gained experience through an REU and a program in high school. Yap was initially skeptical about graduate school at first, but a mentor of hers encouraged her to apply.

Yap said she and two other graduate students (Yael Davidov and Tamar Blanks) founded the Rutgers chapter of AWM in 2018 to create a space for underrepresented groups, mainly women, to receive mentorship and advice from Rutgers faculty and older graduate students. She said that it has been rewarding to talk to more graduate students and provide a place to talk to others about the struggles they are all experiencing.

Yap also outlined a few of the challenges AWM has faced. The first was that it was difficult for them to expand their membership to undergraduates. To solve this issue, she, Davidov and Blanks emailed several of the undergraduate professors and personally encouraged several students to join AWM, which greatly increased the visibility of the club at Rutgers.

Gibson joined AWM as soon as she got to Rutgers, outlining similar challenges that Yap described, like reaching a rather "broad group of students." She said that graduate students could easily communicate with one another, but talking to undergraduates has been a bit more difficult.

"One way I have been trying to reach out to undergraduates is by doing joint events with the Rutgers Undergraduate Math Association (RUMA). One event we held together last semester was an Estimathon, which is essentially a math-ier version of trivia. The event was a big hit!" said Gibson. "The other way we can keep people coming is by having a wide range of events and by offering food."

Gibson added that her goal for next year is to be recognized as an official undergraduate club in order to secure more funds. Continuously hosting events has been difficult as there is no official source of money to fund them, she said.

"The second challenge, which is still ongoing, has been around funding. More in-person events have meant more funding requirements, and the bureaucracy of Rutgers has made it complicated to figure out the different paths for funding," Yap said. "But hopefully, this is something that will become easier as time goes on."

Additionally, Yap and Gibson talked about their negative experiences in the math community, particularly as they relate to impostor syndrome and feeling like an overwhelming minority in a male-dominated field.

Gibson said that she, on several occasions, felt like she had not belonged to the community. But she did add that through experiences like the REU she attended, she felt welcomed.

Yap said she felt like she had not belonged in several spaces, including in her program, research and in mathematics as a whole.

"My main reason for continuing in academia is to help shape the math community and make it a more inclusive and welcoming place," said Yap. "The encouragement and support of my mentors and advisors kept me going, and I hope to pay that forward to future students."

Gibson said that her goal for AWM is to be a source of mentorship and community in the Rutgers Department of Mathematics for women and underrepresented students. She is working on several initiatives, including hosting a "Sonia Kovalevskaya (SK) Day" at Rutgers in honor of the mathematician.

Yap said she plans to continue building relationships with other math organizations at Rutgers, like RUMA and the Rutgers Math Discord. Overall, both Yap and Gibson are hopeful for the future of AWM at Rutgers and hope to see it grow.

"Through AWM and continuing in academia, I want to help create more inclusive spaces in math where students feel a sense of belonging in the mathematical community," Gibson said.

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