Celebratio Mathematica

Georgia Benkart

Reflections of AWM’s nineteenth president

by Georgia Benkart

Figure 1. Twelve AWM presidents: Barbara Keyfitz, Suzanne Lenhart, Bhama Srinivasan, Linda Keen, Carol Wood, Sylvia Wiegand, Carolyn Gordon, Jean Taylor, Georgia Benkart, Cathy Kessel, Jill Pipher, Mary Gray, 2011 AWM 40th Anniversary Conference, Brown University, Providence, RI. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Quinn.

On the oc­ca­sion of the centen­ni­al of the Amer­ic­an Math­em­at­ic­al So­ci­ety in 1988, AMS presen­ted AWM with a sil­ver bowl that has since been passed from the pres­id­ent of AWM to the pres­id­ent-elect at the Janu­ary Joint Math­em­at­ics Meet­ings (JMM). In Janu­ary 2009, then-pres­id­ent Cathy Kes­sel handed the sil­ver bowl and the pres­id­ency of AWM to me. The up­com­ing 50th an­niversary of AWM in 2021 caught me by sur­prise. Was it really that long ago that ideas for the 40th an­niversary began to emerge from our con­ver­sa­tions with Cathy, her pre­de­cessor Bar­bara Key­fitz, and former pres­id­ents Mary Gray, Rhonda Hughes, and Car­ol Wood? The 40th was a time for re­flec­tion and cel­eb­ra­tion (see Fig. 1), for hon­or­ing those who have played a sig­ni­fic­ant role in AWM, for car­ry­ing for­ward their vis­ions and cre­at­ing new ones, and for wel­com­ing those who will be its fu­ture. On this 50th an­niversary, it is my hope that the next 50 years will con­tin­ue these time-honored tra­di­tions.

Figure 2. AWM President Georgia Benkart and Web Editor Holly Gaff, 2010 SIAM Annual Meeting, Pittsburgh, PA.

Already un­der­way when I began my term in 2009 were a much-needed over­haul of the AWM web­site, pi­loted by Web Ed­it­or Holly Gaff (see Fig. 2), as­sisted by vo­lun­teers from Google, and an up­date of the on­line ap­plic­a­tion pro­cess for AWM work­shops and activ­it­ies, or­gan­ized by AWM Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or Maeve Mc­Carthy. AWM’s 20th an­niversary had ushered in a re­design of its news­let­ter and a new block-let­ter logo. The cur­rent golden-ra­tio in­spired design de­b­uted in the May–June 2009 news­let­ter. The Decem­ber 2010 is­sue marked the first time the news­let­ter ap­peared on­line. Gen­er­ous fund­ing by Jean Taylor (AWM pres­id­ent 1999–2001) to di­git­ize all of AWM’s news­let­ters saved early is­sues from de­teri­or­a­tion and made past news­let­ters ac­cess­ible to every­one on­line via the AWM web­site. What an es­sen­tial role the news­let­ter has played in the or­gan­iz­a­tion and in keep­ing wo­men in math­em­at­ics con­nec­ted and in­formed! Anne Leg­gett be­came ed­it­or of the AWM News­let­ter in 1977 and con­tin­ues in that role to this day. Words can­not ad­equately ex­press our deep grat­it­ude for her ef­forts. Who else could suc­cess­fully ca­jole a pres­id­ent’s re­port for each is­sue with such mild re­mind­ers?

Kristin Laut­er (AWM pres­id­ent 2015–2017) and I were in­vited to speak at the In­ter­na­tion­al Con­fer­ence for Wo­men in Math­em­at­ics hos­ted by the Korean Wo­men in Math­em­at­ic­al Sci­ences (KWMS) in Seoul in June 2009. The first in­ter­na­tion­al joint meet­ing of the Amer­ic­an Math­em­at­ic­al So­ci­ety and the Korean Math­em­at­ic­al So­ci­ety was to be held in Decem­ber of that year at Ewha Wo­mans Uni­versity, the world’s largest wo­men’s uni­versity. In the dual roles of AWM pres­id­ent and of AMS as­so­ci­ate sec­ret­ary for that meet­ing, I col­lab­or­ated with KWMS pres­id­ent Wansoon Kim and Kye­won Koh Park to or­gan­ize the first-ever joint AWM–KWMS event in con­junc­tion with the Decem­ber meet­ing. Activ­it­ies in­cluded a pan­el, Em­power­ing Wo­men Math­em­aticians for Ex­cel­lence, fea­tur­ing Ruth Char­ney, Jane Hawkins, Heisook Lee, and Hee Oh as pan­el­ists. They re­coun­ted their own ca­reer stor­ies with a healthy dose of ad­vice shared by each, fol­lowed by dis­cus­sion and a ban­quet.

It was not sur­pris­ing to learn that wo­men in math­em­at­ics in Korea face many of the same chal­lenges as wo­men in the US. Here, one chal­lenge we con­front is the stag­na­tion of the per­cent­age of US doc­tor­al de­grees in math­em­at­ics awar­ded to wo­men, which has hovered between 25% and 30% for the past 10 years1 Yet an­oth­er is a re­cent trend of law­suits tar­get­ing pro­grams de­signed to ad­dress the un­der­rep­res­ent­a­tion of par­tic­u­lar demo­graph­ic groups among US math­em­aticians.

In 2009, the As­so­ci­ation for Wo­men in Sci­ence (AW­IS) re­ceived a three-year grant from the Na­tion­al Sci­ence Found­a­tion for a new pro­ject, Ad­van­cing Ways of Award­ing Re­cog­ni­tion in Dis­cip­lin­ary So­ci­et­ies (or AWARDS for short). Al­most all the ma­jor US math­em­at­ics and stat­ist­ics so­ci­et­ies par­ti­cip­ated by hav­ing their award pro­cesses re­viewed and eval­u­ated with re­spect to gender bi­as. Cathy Kes­sel and Maura Mast rep­res­en­ted AWM (as an AW­IS part­ner), and Charles Ep­stein, Frank Mor­gan, and I rep­res­en­ted AMS at the AWARDS work­shop, where or­gan­iz­a­tions were asked to eval­u­ate their prize pro­ced­ures. This res­ul­ted in re­vi­sions of nom­in­at­ing pro­cesses, great­er clar­ity in prize cri­ter­ia, and more aware­ness of best prac­tices (see Betty May­field’s art­icle in this volume). Al­though there sub­sequently has been growth in the num­ber of prizes awar­ded to wo­men, the num­ber is still not rep­res­ent­at­ive of the per­cent­ages of wo­men who qual­i­fy for the prizes. However, AWM’s in­crease in the num­ber of prizes des­ig­nated for early-ca­reer math­em­aticians has helped to bring more aware­ness to their achieve­ments and boost their chances of find­ing pro­fes­sion­al op­por­tun­it­ies worthy of their tal­ents. Former stu­dents of M. Gwen­eth Humphreys at Ran­dolph-Ma­con Col­lege pro­posed and fun­ded a new AWM prize to re­cog­nize a teach­er of un­der­gradu­ate math­em­at­ics (in­de­pend­ent of gender) who has had a sig­ni­fic­ant im­pact on one or more fe­male stu­dents through ment­or­ing. The Ex­ec­ut­ive Com­mit­tee of AWM ap­proved this award in 2009, and in spring 2010 I sub­mit­ted a form­al re­quest on be­half of AWM to the com­mit­tee man­aging the Joint Math­em­at­ics Meet­ings that it be ad­ded to the oth­er AWM prizes con­ferred at the Joint Prize Ses­sion at the Janu­ary JMM. The re­sponse I re­ceived was totally un­ex­pec­ted, es­pe­cially in light of the AWARDS ef­forts. The de­cision was to re­move all AWM prizes from the ses­sion. After much back and forth, the AWM prizes were re­in­stated to the ses­sion, and the Humphreys award was to be in­cluded in fu­ture prize ses­sions. The first M. Gwen­eth Humphreys Award was presen­ted to Rhonda Hughes (EDGE Pro­gram2 co-founder and AWM pres­id­ent 1987–1989) at JMM 2011, one of the many in­spir­ing events that cel­eb­rated the 40th an­niversary of the found­ing of AWM.

Figure 3. Peng Zhong, Erin Bodine, Cammey Cole Manning, Priya Shilpa Boindala, Georgia Benkart, AWM workshop, 2009 SIAM Annual Meeting, Denver, CO.

The AWM Long-range Plan­ning Com­mit­tee, which had been dormant for al­most five years, was re­sur­rec­ted in 2009 and began plan­ning in earn­est for AWM’s 40th an­niversary. It was de­cided that there should be en­hanced AWM activ­it­ies at JMM 2011; that the AWM-SIAM work­shop and So­nia Ko­va­levsky lec­ture should be moved from their usu­al home at the an­nu­al SIAM sum­mer meet­ing (see Fig. 3) to ICIAM (In­ter­na­tion­al Con­gress on In­dus­tri­al and Ap­plied Math­em­at­ics), as the SIAM meet­ing was not held that year be­cause of the con­gress; and that there also should be a stand-alone meet­ing of AWM apart from JMM and ICIAM. In­creas­ing vis­ib­il­ity and build­ing a wider com­munity were at the fore­front of these ef­forts. Events at JMM 2011 in­cluded three minisym­po­sia fea­tur­ing win­ners of AWM’s Hay, Michler, and Schafer prizes as speak­ers and a ban­quet with some fine New Or­leans jazz, where Bettye Anne Case, AWM’s long­time meet­ings co­ordin­at­or, and Anne Leg­gett were honored for their ex­cep­tion­al ser­vice to AWM.

With deep sad­ness, AWM had learned that one of its founders and its second pres­id­ent, Alice Schafer, died on Septem­ber 27, 2009. AWM could not have got­ten off the ground without the fear­less de­term­in­a­tion, the un­waver­ing com­mit­ment to pro­mot­ing the equal treat­ment of all math­em­aticians, and the bound­less en­ergy of its found­ing moth­ers, es­pe­cially Mary Gray, the first pres­id­ent, and Alice Schafer, the second. Alice, who had con­trib­uted in count­less ways to the or­gan­iz­a­tion and to wo­men in math­em­at­ics, con­tin­ued to do so through an ex­traordin­ary be­quest of \$50,000 that AWM re­ceived from her es­tate. One of the en­hanced activ­it­ies at JMM 2011 was the Schafer Minisym­posi­um, where Mary Gray in­aug­ur­ated the 40th an­niversary cel­eb­ra­tion with a talk, Life in the Trenches with Alice: The Early Years, a ret­ro­spect­ive on the found­ing of AWM. Alice would have taken great pride in the Schafer Prize win­ners who spoke in the minisym­posi­um. The math­em­at­ic­al world suffered an­oth­er im­mense loss when Cora Sa­d­osky (AWM pres­id­ent 1993–1995) died on Decem­ber 3, 2010. The AWM busi­ness meet­ing at JMM 2011 was largely de­voted to a quickly ar­ranged, heart­felt re­mem­brance of Cora that her col­leagues and I or­gan­ized. Cora was both a strong ad­voc­ate for wo­men in math­em­at­ics, and, as a fac­ulty mem­ber at Howard Uni­versity, an act­ive pro­ponent of the great­er par­ti­cip­a­tion of Afric­an Amer­ic­ans in math­em­at­ics. I can only mar­vel at the tenacity and wis­dom of Mary, Alice, Cora, and all who pre­ceded and fol­lowed me in this role of pres­id­ent. The 40th an­niversary activ­it­ies at ICIAM 2011, which in­cluded an em­bed­ded AWM meet­ing, co­in­cided with the start of Bar­bara Key­fitz’s term as pres­id­ent of the In­ter­na­tion­al Coun­cil for In­dus­tri­al and Ap­plied Math­em­at­ics. Bar­bara (AWM pres­id­ent 2005–2007) be­came the first wo­man to as­sume that role. A re­cip­roc­al mem­ber­ship agree­ment between AWM and SIAM fur­ther served to strengthen AWM’s ties with the in­dus­tri­al and ap­plied math­em­at­ics com­munit­ies. In the sum­mer of 2010, SIAM pres­id­ent Douglas Arnold con­tac­ted me about the pos­sib­il­ity of such an agree­ment. At the time, only about 15% of SIAM’s mem­bers were wo­men, and AWM had few mem­bers who worked in in­dustry. The mem­ber­ship agree­ment he and I hammered out is still in force. With the re­duc­tion of aca­dem­ic job op­por­tun­it­ies, it will be­come in­creas­ingly im­port­ant for AWM to reach out to those work­ing in gov­ern­ment and in­dustry in or­der to be fully rep­res­ent­at­ive of wo­men in math­em­at­ics. A big step in this dir­ec­tion oc­curred in 2015 when Kristin Laut­er, Prin­cip­al Re­search­er and Re­search Man­ager of the Cryp­to­graphy Group at Mi­crosoft Re­search, be­came AWM’s first pres­id­ent from in­dustry since Jill Mesirov (1989–1991).

AWM’s stand-alone meet­ing was the grand fi­nale of the 40th an­niversary. By some amaz­ing align­ment of the plan­ets, the new In­sti­tute for Com­pu­ta­tion­al and Ex­per­i­ment­al Re­search in Math­em­at­ics (ICERM) at Brown Uni­versity had just re­cently re­ceived the good news that it had been chosen to be­come an NSF-fun­ded in­sti­tute. It would be open for busi­ness start­ing in 2011, and AWM pres­id­ent-elect Jill Pi­pher was to be its found­ing dir­ect­or. Jill, Kristin Laut­er, and I or­gan­ized 40 Years and Count­ing: AWM’s Cel­eb­ra­tion of Wo­men in Math­em­at­ics, which was held there in Septem­ber 2011 with enorm­ous help from the ICERM staff, fund­ing from an NSF grant, and ad­di­tion­al sup­port from AMS, Brown Uni­versity, ICERM, MAA, Mi­crosoft Re­search, Pear­son Edu­ca­tion, SIAM, and the US De­part­ment of En­ergy. Modeled on AMS sec­tion­al meet­ings, the two-day con­fer­ence had an at­tend­ance of over 300 wo­men and men and fea­tured 4 in­vited talks, 18 ses­sions on a wide range of top­ics in pure and ap­plied math­em­at­ics and math­em­at­ics edu­ca­tion, with a total of 135 speak­ers. Sub­sequent stand-alone AWM re­search sym­po­sia have been an ex­cel­lent way to per­petu­ate the spir­it of this meet­ing. A day-long re­treat at ICERM just pri­or to the 40th an­niversary meet­ing en­abled the AWM Ex­ec­ut­ive Com­mit­tee to re­flect on AWM’s ac­com­plish­ments, re­view its pro­grams, and stra­tegic­ally plan for the fu­ture. With the gray­ing of so­ci­et­ies, re­new­al of the AWM mem­ber­ship has be­come a crit­ic­al is­sue. Is AWM still rel­ev­ant? We would like to think the an­swer is an em­phat­ic “yes,” but what can be done to make AWM more at­tract­ive to early-ca­reer math­em­aticians and en­cour­age them to be­come in­volved?

Sylvia Boze­man (EDGE Pro­gram co-founder and twice an AWM Ex­ec­ut­ive Com­mit­tee mem­ber) provided an in­sight­ful an­swer that res­on­ates yet today in her AWM news­let­ter art­icle:3

It would be dif­fi­cult to meas­ure the im­pact of AWM since it was es­tab­lished in 1971 if we tried. Dur­ing that peri­od the per­cent­age of wo­men among the US cit­izens who earned doc­tor­ates in math­em­at­ics has doubled; there is great­er vis­ib­il­ity of wo­men on na­tion­al pro­grams and in pro­fes­sion­al lead­er­ship po­s­i­tions; and more vis­ible at­tempts have been made to in­terest young wo­men in math­em­at­ics. AWM has ad­dressed each of these areas through its pro­grams. But as long as wo­men are un­der­rep­res­en­ted in any as­pect of the math­em­at­ics com­munity, and as long as the reas­ons for that un­der­rep­res­ent­a­tion are not ad­equately ad­dressed by the lar­ger math­em­at­ics com­munity, we will con­tin­ue to need AWM. As a young and de­vel­op­ing or­gan­iz­a­tion, it has an op­por­tun­ity to es­tab­lish a pat­tern of in­volving wo­men from all groups in ar­tic­u­lat­ing and ad­dress­ing is­sues of com­mon con­cern. If AWM does not, who will?

Draw­ing on the en­thu­si­ast­ic re­sponse to 40 Years and Count­ing, AWM de­veloped a series of bi­en­ni­al re­search sym­po­sia. I co-or­gan­ized the first in the series with Hélène Bar­celo, Es­telle Bas­or, Ruth Char­ney, Frank Far­ris, and Jill Pi­pher at Santa Clara Uni­versity in 2013. The sym­posi­um fea­tured plen­ary talks by three dis­tin­guished math­em­aticians: In­ez Fung, Pro­fess­or of At­mo­spher­ic Sci­ences at UC Berke­ley and an ex­pert on the math­em­at­ics of cli­mate; the late Maryam Mirza­kh­ani, 2014 Fields Medal­ist; and Lauren Wil­li­ams, the Dwight Park­er Robin­son Pro­fess­or of Math­em­at­ics at Har­vard Uni­versity and the Sally Starling Seaver Pro­fess­or at the Rad­cliffe In­sti­tute (as of 2020). There were also in­vited and con­trib­uted ses­sions on a wide range of sub­jects in pure and ap­plied math­em­at­ics, a poster ses­sion for gradu­ate stu­dents, and a dis­cus­sion of the im­poster syn­drome mod­er­ated by Hélène Bar­celo with pan­el­ists Ruth Char­ney, Bri­an Con­rey, Jill Pi­pher, and Car­ol Wood. A per­sist­ent prob­lem that dis­cour­ages wo­men from pur­su­ing ca­reers in math­em­at­ics, lack of con­fid­ence is com­mon for both men and wo­men dur­ing the de­vel­op­ment of their ca­reers. Yet wo­men are more likely to feel their self-doubts are unique and to give up as a res­ult. The pan­el con­sequently was de­signed to show young­er wo­men that even some of the most suc­cess­ful, well-es­tab­lished wo­men and men in the field have had, and may of­ten still have, sim­il­ar feel­ings of be­ing “an im­poster” and not de­serving of the status they have at­tained.

One at­tendee wrote, “This event was a mag­ni­fi­cent ex­per­i­ence for me. I am so glad that AWM is do­ing this, and I’ll make sure to tell the oth­er wo­men in my de­part­ment about what a fant­ast­ic op­por­tun­ity these are.” AWM was grate­ful for the fin­an­cial sup­port from Santa Clara Uni­versity, NSF, NSA, and the in­sti­tutes AIM, ICERM, and MSRI that en­abled this meet­ing to launch the highly suc­cess­ful series of AWM re­search sym­po­sia.

Dur­ing my term, AWM made a con­cer­ted ef­fort to widen its out­reach with such activ­it­ies as par­ti­cip­a­tion in the in­aug­ur­al USA Sci­ence and En­gin­eer­ing Fest­iv­al in Oc­to­ber 2010. This was spear­headed by Ex­ec­ut­ive Com­mit­tee mem­ber Ir­ina Mitrea, co-or­gan­izers Tai Melch­er and Kath­ar­ine Ott, and a phe­nom­en­al group of un­der­gradu­ate stu­dent vo­lun­teers from uni­versit­ies in the Wash­ing­ton, DC, area. With few re­sources, the group cre­ated activ­it­ies in­volving cryp­to­graphy and ciphers, such as Thomas Jef­fer­son’s wheel cipher used dur­ing his pres­id­ency for en­cod­ing dip­lo­mat­ic secrets, to test the skills of par­ti­cipants young and old and to in­spire girls to get ex­cited about math­em­at­ics. Par­ti­cip­a­tion in this fest­iv­al event in even-numbered years and in the Na­tion­al Math­em­at­ics Fest­iv­al in odd-numbered ones has since be­come an im­port­ant AWM pro­act­ive tra­di­tion. In 1993, AWM pres­id­ent Cora Sa­d­osky noted the many gains already achieved by the as­so­ci­ation as it was about halfway to the mile­stone we now cel­eb­rate. But then she ad­ded:

Still, wo­men con­tin­ue to face for­mid­able prob­lems in their de­vel­op­ment as math­em­aticians — from ele­ment­ary school to gradu­ate school to the Na­tion­al Academy and bey­ond. To suc­cess­fully con­front these prob­lems, we need the ideas and the work, the en­thu­si­asm and the com­mit­ment of all — stu­dents and teach­ers and re­search­ers and in­dus­tri­al math­em­aticians — of every wo­man and every man who stands for wo­men’s right to math­em­at­ics.4

Figure 4. AWM Executive Director Jodi Beldotti, Lee Lorch, AWM President Carol Wood, 1992 JMM, Baltimore, MD.

Over the years, men such as Chand­ler Dav­is and Lee Lorch have been ded­ic­ated and loy­al al­lies who have giv­en mor­al and fin­an­cial sup­port to AWM. In­deed, a non­trivi­al per­cent­age of AWM’s mem­bers are men. At his re­tire­ment con­fer­ence in 1992, Chand­ler was presen­ted an AWM mug, and Cora Sa­d­osky, pres­id­ent-elect of AWM, sent a mes­sage from Bar­celona:

While our found­ing moth­ers were cre­at­ing AWM, 21 years ago, Chand­ler was at their side. […] It has giv­en all of us who have the joy­ous priv­ilege of his coun­sel and cri­ti­cism, the op­por­tun­ity to learn how one can be at the same time level-headed and un­com­prom­ising, pa­tient and ar­dent, tol­er­ant and un­yield­ing.5

At the JMM in 1992, AWM made a sur­prise present­a­tion of a cita­tion to Lee for his ef­forts as a cham­pi­on of hu­man rights (see Fig. 4):

To Lee Lorch, a found­ing mem­ber of AWM, with thanks for his act­iv­ism on be­half of wo­men and minor­ity math­em­aticians. Lee has of­ten been a thorn in the side of the math­em­at­ics es­tab­lish­ment. But then, to its cred­it, so has AWM…When AWM helped to open up the AMS Coun­cil to pe­ti­tion can­did­ates, Lee was elec­ted and pushed tire­lessly on is­sues of spe­cial con­cern to wo­men and minor­ity math­em­aticians.6

It was won­der­ful to re­cog­nize Lee Lorch again in 2010, on the oc­ca­sion of his 95th birth­day, with a spe­cial news­let­ter re­mem­brance.7 Throughout his ca­reer, he was an un­flag­ging ad­voc­ate for edu­ca­tion­al op­por­tun­it­ies for wo­men and un­der­rep­res­en­ted minor­it­ies. Vivi­enne Malone Mayes, an un­der­gradu­ate stu­dent of Lorch at Fisk Uni­versity whom he en­cour­aged to pur­sue doc­tor­al stud­ies in math­em­at­ics, was the first Black per­son elec­ted to AWM’s Ex­ec­ut­ive Com­mit­tee.

AWM has been a force for pos­it­ive change and an ef­fect­ive voice on be­half of the ad­vance­ment of wo­men in the math­em­at­ic­al pro­fes­sions. With only a few paid staff mem­bers, AWM ex­ists and thrives be­cause of the ex­traordin­ary ded­ic­a­tion of its thou­sands of vo­lun­teers who have com­mit­ted time and en­ergy to AWM over its 50 years of ex­ist­ence. I am honored to be coun­ted as one of those thou­sands.