Math group encourages more women to remain in STEM fields

Angela Patini, a senior at Penn, always knew she wanted to pursue a career in math. Her mom, who was also a math major, encouraged her to do well in math, and it was the only subject in which she actually enjoyed doing homework.

At Penn, Patini says every math class she has taken reaffirmed her love for the subject. A research program she participated in this past summer made her fall in love with it even more.

Now, Patini is president of Penn’s Association for Women in Mathematics chapter (AWM), a subset of Penn’s Women in Math group, which seeks to create a more inclusive atmosphere for women in math and encourage them to continue to pursue it as a career.

The Penn Math Department has a long record of activities over the years to encourage women, and many visits by women researchers were supported in the past by Penn’s Fund to Encourage Women (FEW) Grants. The AWM Chapter was founded by undergraduate Caitlin Beecham and faculty mentor Antonella Grassi, who served in this capacity for several years.

After a recent period in which the group had been less active, Julia Hartmann, a math professor at Penn, and her postdoc Valentijn Karemaker recently spearheaded AWM’s reactivation, organizing events and recruiting several undergraduates to take leadership roles. At the recent Undergraduate Activities Fair, the group garnered around 60 subscribers to their email list.

The broader Women in Math group includes women at all career stages, from undergraduates to grad students, to postdocs and professors, with the goal of creating a safe and supportive environment for women in the community.

“We’re really trying to make an effort to recruit more female graduate students in the math department,” Hartmann says. “Women are still underrepresented in STEM. There’s a leaky pipeline where it’s not that too few women are starting out, but somehow circumstances discourage them from continuing. I think it’s important to widen this pipeline, giving women more role models and more opportunities to network. Female applicants for grad programs are usually interested in whether such a group exists, and are happy to hear we have a structure like this.”

This past fall, the group organized several events, including a meet-up to attend a showing of the film “Hidden Figures” in Clark Park. They also organized an event where a speaker from the National Security Agency discussed careers for women in math.

Penn also granted the Women in Math group a FEW Grant to support a visit of Angela Gibney, a professor of mathematics at Rutgers. During her visit, Gibney delivered several lectures and shared her experiences, giving students the opportunity to ask her questions about the trials and tribulations she experienced while pursuing a career in mathematics. One of the questions asked addressed the hardships she faced as a woman in the field.

According to Patini, the Women in Math group is valuable because it provides female students with a support system and encourages them to stick with the major.

“Women have been taught that they’re not that great at math,” Patini says. “It’s just engrained in society, so often times they don’t develop any interest in it. I think having groups like this is important because women are encouraged to get involved in math and it offers them a community where they can be with a bunch of other women who are going through the same things they are.”

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