This is part of an on-going series.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) released a troubling statistic in 2007 from its Research on Gender in Science and Engineering: 66 percent of 4th grade girls said they liked science and math. But, as children grew older, their drawings of scientists largely showed white males in white lab coats and any women scientists looking severe.
By the time women reach college, many become discouraged and disinterested in historically male-dominated fields like science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).
“It can be alienating to be good at something in a male-dominated field,” said Rachel Epstein, assistant professor of math. “When there are not very many or no women faculty—something has gone wrong, because there are a lot of great women mathematicians.”
In 2016—only 37 percent of STEM graduates nationwide were female, according to college.factual.com. Women with higher-education degrees in STEM are twice as likely than men to leave a scientific or engineering job, the NSF states.
But, at Georgia College, women comprise nearly half of the math faculty. More than 40 percent of the department’s math majors are female as well.
This is a department that has worked hard to break the gender barrier.
Girls need encouragement and good role models—both things Epstein was lucky to have growing up in Seattle, Washington. Her parents were both good at math. Epstein’s father worked at an aerospace engineering firm and her mother—although being told in the 1960s that “girls don’t do math”—was a financial analyst.
“It’s part of overarching sexism that there are certain things girls are supposed to do and certain things boys can do,” Epstein said. “If it’s thought of as a boys endeavor, then girls are very much discouraged. They’re told, ‘You’re never going to need this; this is for boys.’”
Her parents played math and language games with their kids on road trips. Epstein would sometimes answer difficult math questions meant for her older sister. Seeing her knack for numbers, Epstein’s parents encouraged her.
In high school, Epstein attended the Canada/USA MathCamp. That’s where she was introduced to the theory behind mathematical objects like numbers, shapes or sets of numbers—things she said students don’t normally encounter until college.
It was “math that is more removed from the real world,” Epstein said.
And she loved it.
Elementary and middle school gifted programs reinforced Epstein's natural capacity for math. She had supportive teachers in high school--particularly in calculus. It wasn’t until college that she discovered real challenges in math.
“What I learned is math is a difficult subject,” she said. “It’s difficult for everybody. There isn’t anybody who says all math is easy.”
Sometimes, in junior high, male students would make comments about a “girl” in class. Women are held to a higher standard, Epstein said. But she doesn’t feel like a pioneer—women have been doing math and doing it well for a long time.
It’s important to have women faculty, she said. They attract more women into STEM majors and act as role models for female students.
Sophomore biology major Halley Wilson is one of Epstein’s pre-calculus supplemental instructor tutors. Wilson wants to be a veterinarian. She feels the atmosphere for women in STEM is getting better, and she feels supported at Georgia College.
“It’s more emphasized we go into math and science now. We’re not all told to be beauticians,” Wilson said.
Epstein also believes in teaching students math in a diversified way. She puts a homework assignment on the board, relating to the radius of the earth and Al-Biruni, the great mathematician from medieval Islam.
“I like to give my students problems that have to do with the contributions of mathematicians from different societies,” Epstein said. “Math was done all over the world and is still being done all over the world.”
“Every society has different ways of doing things,” she said. “I like to talk about how ancient Indian mathematicians came up with a lot of the trigonometric functions that we use today.”
It’s this math of all kinds—diverse, difficult, mind-bending and theoretical—that energizes Epstein. She claims anybody can find happiness by doing math.
“It can be enjoyable and almost recreational,” Epstein said. “Contemplative thinking about problems and doing math problems can be really gratifying. So, it’s important that anybody who’s interested in math be allow to do it.”