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In the 20th century, universities were opened up to women in most countries, but their enrolment in science and mathematics courses did not progress on a continuum. Rather, it increased during certain periods and held steady or decreased at other times. The situation has, of course, become more complex than in previous centuries, when women were almost entirely denied access to formal education and to scientific societies, the gatekeepers for the creation and dissemination of scientific knowledge since the middle of the 17th century. In contrast to that age-old arrangement, women could now take part in any field of their choice, at least in theory. Yet there were, and still are, relatively few women in such fields as physics or computer science, or, indeed, most of the engineering disciplines. When universities and colleges began to open to women, few of them chose these subjects, and, although, as we shall see in this chapter, the situation has improved overall, women still predominantly study to become teachers or nurses or to enter other fields that are still dominated by women today. Chapte r 8 R Women in Engineering, Mathematics, and Science in the 20th Century 0014_Frize_5x8_B_v09_16_11_2009.indd 131 16/11/09 6:19 PM 132 THE BOLD AND THE BRAVE In this chapter, the focus is mainly on women’s participation in engineering, mathematics, and science in the United States and Canada, since the data for these two countries are readily available (see also Appendix 2). Some information is, however, provided on developments in Europe. Women in Mathematics and PhDs in the United States Between 1862 and 1919, for example, colleges and universities awarded PhDs in mathematics to 474 men and 61 women. The question arises: why was the proportion of women in this group so low (just over 11 percent)? In her book Women Becoming Mathematicians (2001), Margaret Murray recounts the lives of thirty-seven women who received PhDs in mathematics in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s, a period of particular interest not only because the number of women receiving PhDs actually dropped, to almost half of the number in the 1920s and 1930s, recuperating only in the 1980s, but also because this drop seems counterintuitive in view of the effect that the waging of the Second World War had on mathematics: while the number and the prestige of mathematicians increased, along with government funding, the number of women entering and staying in the discipline decreased substantially. The life stories of the women who chose careers in mathematics at this time are all the more intriguing, and offer lessons and even role models for women today. As in past centuries, a common factor contributing to the success of many of these women was cooperation from fathers, teachers, or husbands. Women still faced a great deal of social prejudice as they attempted to move through the educational hierarchy, but a little support from the right people could go a long way. Other issues raised in Murray’s book include the importance of positive school environments; the need for mentors in the disciplines women were entering, above and beyond the best 0014_Frize_5x8_B_v09_16_11_2009.indd 132 16/11/09 6:19 PM Women in Engineering, Mathematics, and Science in the 20th Century 133 efforts of family members; and the detrimental effects of cultural stereotyping. Above all, as Margaret Murray points out, the women in her study of the 1940s and 1950s could not follow the traditional pattern for a mathematical career, in which a true mathematician discovered his (very rarely her) talent early, continued through school and college to the PhD level without a break, and did his (even more rarely her) best work before he reached the age of forty. Murray contrasts this with the career pattern of the women in her study, who had diverse interests and commitments, usually took relatively longer to progress from completing their undergraduate work to receiving their PhDs, and often did their best work when older, in addition to coping with family responsibilities, whether caring for children, managing a household, or supporting older relatives. The traditional, male pattern was simply not an option for these women. Sadly, this is still true today for most women in mathematics. A half-century on from Murray’s sample, women in the United States today account for about 25 percent of PhDs in mathematics, a level only slightly higher than in the 1920s and 1930s. Skill in mathematics obviously forms a good base for careers in science and...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780776618845
Related ISBN
9780776607252
MARC Record
OCLC
864851766
Pages
366
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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