An event in George Dantzig’s life became the origin of a famous story in 1939 while he was a graduate student at UC Berkeley. Near the beginning of a class for which Dantzig was late, professor Jerzy Neyman wrote two examples of famously unsolved statistics problems on the blackboard. When Dantzig arrived, he assumed that the two problems were a homework assignment and wrote them down. According to Dantzig, the problems “seemed to be a little harder than usual”, but a few days later he handed in completed solutions for the two problems, still believing that they were an assignment that was overdue.
Six weeks later, Dantzig received a visit from an excited professor Neyman, eager to tell him that the homework problems he had solved were two of the most famous unsolved problems in statistics. He had prepared one of Dantzig’s solutions for publication in a mathematical journal. As Dantzig told it in a 1986 interview in the College Mathematics Journal:
A year later, when I began to worry about a thesis topic, Neyman just shrugged and told me to wrap the two problems in a binder and he would accept them as my thesis.
Years later another researcher, Abraham Wald, was preparing to publish a paper which arrived at a conclusion for the second problem, and included Dantzig as its co-author when he learned of the earlier solution.
In 2009, about 32% of PhDs awarded in mathematics were to women, compared to evolutionary biology, in which 48% of women were awarded PhDs. Women likewise are relatively equal in biochemistry, statistics, neuroscience, and molecular biology.
But why are we behind in the hardest of the ‘hard sciences’? Mathematics, physics, astrophysics, computer science, engineering? Less than 20% of physics PhDs were awarded to women in 2009.
That statistic is almost hard to believe because I come from a women’s school where a great majority of students I know personally are math and science majors. You’re looking at one of them– an economics and mathematics double major. At my college, 51% of tenured faculty are women, when you’re looking at a nationwide average of only 31%; research suggests that in the sciences, the more females there are on the faculty, the more likely their female students will pursue the sciences. I am surrounded by smart, driven women, 80% of which make it to graduate school in the next 10 years after graduation. Additionally, after MIT, my college was the home of the second established undergraduate physics lab in the United States.
But these are anomalies, by and by. This does not happen in other schools, not even in some Ivy Leagues and other top-notch schools. In general, women simply do not dive for physics, mathematics, and engineering. In an era where we say that a woman can do anything a man can, we are still far behind in matching men in the hard sciences. I will not go into the details why, but you can read these following articles if interested:
- Bias Called Persistent Hurdle for Women in Sciences, NYTimes
- Daring to Discuss Women in Science, NYTimes
- Explaining the Complicated Woman + Math Formula, Time Magazine
- Girls are Smarter Than Boys, So What Goes Wrong in Math and Science?, Fast Company
- Psych-Out Sexism, Slate Magazine
- Top Five Myths about Girls, Math and Science, LiveScience
- Why Pretty Girls Can’t Do Math, Psychology Today
- Women opt out of math/science careers because of family demands, study concludes, Cornell Chronicle
Maybe not all of us females can be like Mr. George Dantzig and solve ‘unsolved’ conjectures for homework, but we can still shoot for those physics, mathematics, engineering PhDs and excel. I am begging you, if you have any interest in the sciences, especially the hard sciences, please continue to explore that in college.
Perhaps we all do not need to study pure mathematics and go to math grad school, but females can all certainly branch out to biomedical engineering, pharmacy, and computer science, all high-paying disciplines that require higher than average mathematical skills and reasoning. From the way the world economy is going, the majority of jobs will be located in a sector that utilizes science and technology. Mathematics cannot be overlooked. Even for women who would like to head out into the service sector– being savvy in mathematics and economics would help lead to an even cushier retirement.
I came into college looking to major in history, but I ended up with mathematics. However, many of my female friends from high school are the opposite, at the onset, they proclaim allegiance to engineering, but some (not all) find the environment too daunting and difficult that they gravitate towards cinema studies, and god forbid, biology. Not all of us have the good fortune to be inspired and surrounded by so many women who are driven in the hard sciences, but just know, you can do it. Even if you are not the brightest banana in the bunch, but you like mathematics a hell of a lot better than reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles in English, just go for it. Please do not fall into the “I’m too pretty to do math” trap. Weather through middle school and high school, and trust me, you will find many females like you in college.
If you love it, you will always be able to find a way.