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Root of gender gap in math
is low self-esteem, says speaker
March 2, 1998

The rapid decrease in the enrollment and retention of women in mathematics is related to low self-esteem, Sylvia Wiegand, president of the Association for Women in Mathematics said Tuesday.

Wiegand, a professor of mathematics at the University of Nebraska, led a lunch-time discussion in the Student Union on "The Special Problems of Women in Mathematics."

Wiegand said gender inequality in the field of mathematics is related to differences in the perception of success and failure by men and women.

"Women are more sensitive to failure. They are more skeptical about their abilities, and that is why a large number of women drop out of mathematics at an early age," she said. "They often lack role models in their lives and need to establish contact with women who have succeeded in math."

Wiegand recommended offering workshops, panels and support groups and developing educational and outreach programs to create awareness about the importance and rewards of studying mathematics in order to inspire, encourage, and retain women in the math arena.

Wiegand's research on commutative ring theory explains the breaking up of algebraic structures into their smallest components. The field has applications in chemistry, physics, biology and other natural phenomena related to symmetry and is also useful in areas involving systems and coding theorie.

She urged the recruitment of women teachers and faculty at all levels to provide role models to women students who have a love of mathematics.

Sarah Glaz, an associate professor of mathematics at the Torrington campus, said she is optimistic.

"One problem facing women is that mathematics was traditionally, and still is, perceived to a large extent as a 'man's discipline' by society," she said. "Social changes are slow to occur, but eventually the perception will change and sooner or later there will be an equal number of men and women in mathematics, because women are just as qualified and talented as men."

Tina Morrison, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in math, said lack of awareness about job opportunities is a disincentive to students who might want to major in math. "I love math and enjoy engineering, but I chose to major in engineering because I think an engineering degree will create many more job opportunities than a math degree," Morrison said. "It would be helpful if the existing opportunities were made more clear or publicized more to the students."

Kristen Moore, a graduate student in math, plans to start a local chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics at UConn, in order to encourage the recruitment of women at undergraduate and graduate levels. She said she plans to host colloquia talks by eminent women in mathematics.

Usha R. Palaniswami