Proofs in high heels

Adding Up

I don’t think anyone would ever guess that I’m a math major.

It could be because some people never found any interest in studying math or because math seems frightening or boring. But it might also be that because I’m a woman, people think I just don’t give off the vibe of a “mathematician.”

When I tell people my major, they often give me a confused look and say something like, “Math, really?” as if they don’t expect me to be a math major. I’m not sure what they do expect me to study, but I know it’s not mathematics. For once, I’d like to hear someone say “Cool” or, even better, “I can see that,” when I tell them I study math.

I used to be frustrated that I didn’t fit people’s idea of a mathematician. And even though it’s still a little frustrating, now I’m not as worried about people’s expectations of who should and shouldn’t study math.

Last fall, I took Math 128A – “Numerical Analysis” — as one of my major upper division courses. On the first day of class, hundreds of students were waiting for our professor to walk in. When class finally started, I remember being surprised when I saw that my professor was a woman.

She was tall, elegant and seemed to have an interest in fashion, as evidenced by her black high heels, purse and matching plaid skirt and jacket. My inner fashionista was elated when she walked confidently to the front of the lecture hall and pulled out the textbook from her purse to begin the first proof of the semester.

Within weeks, my friends and family had all heard about my chic, incredibly smart and stylish mathematics professor. I thought she was a rock star — a fearless mathematician taking on the world of numerical analysis day after day in high heels.

In most of my math classes, I can usually find a group of females braving the “men only” field. But I can count on one hand the number of female STEM professors I’ve had in the past four years.

According to UC Berkeley’s “Diversity Snapshot” report from fall 2013, about 30 percent of faculty were women, with 24 percent listed as “full professors.” In the same year, 53 percent of undergraduate students were female. When will the faculty begin to reflect the trend of rising female enrollment?

Before “Numerical Analysis,” I noticed the disparity between the numbers of male and female professors, but I never thought about how that disparity affected me. The mathematical equations don’t change depending on who teaches them, so why should it matter how many female math professors I’ve had?

That class changed my perspective. Having a brilliant, engaging female professor — someone who I could see myself in — made a difference. Having a professor who could understand the trials of braving the male-dominated mathematical world made me more confident in my own ability to achieve success in the field.

I often wonder how my experience in the campus math department would have been different if I hadn’t been lucky enough to be taught by a brilliant female mathematician. Would I feel less connected with my major than I do now? Would I still be discouraged because I was one of the few girls in a lab?

It can be intimidating to be a woman in STEM classes. Other students and professors might not expect you to study STEM because of your gender. It’s frustrating that many people may think that your gender, by default, means you are less capable in the field than someone else.

Because there are so few women in STEM, the expectations for us are even higher, so it’s hardly surprising that my “Numerical Analysis” professor helped instill confidence in me. She made me realize that other people’s expectations for me are not important.

My professor was the ultimate confirmation that “looking” like a mathematician doesn’t even begin to tell the whole story.

I may not fit most people’s idea of a typical mathematician. My classes may be taught mostly by men and may be filled with male students, but I know that I can do just as well in the field as any man. Seeing how confident my professor was makes me more confident that I too can be a high heels-wearing, fashion-loving, female mathematician.

Clare Egan writes the Monday blog on her experience in STEM departments at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @cegan_dailycal.