A Great Place for Women Who Love Math

This fall Xavier marks 50 years since the University opened its undergraduate day program to women, breaking a 138-year, men-only tradition. Since then, Xavier women have continued to enrich campus life and achieve greatness. They are valedictorians, Brueggeman fellows and student leaders; Division I athletes and members of the Army ROTC; and leaders within the faculty, University administration and Board of Trustees.

Xavier’s Department of Mathematics is an especially vibrant and welcoming place for women. Today, six of the 16 permanent faculty members and about 40 percent of current math majors are women. What makes Xavier such a welcoming environment for females who happen to love math? We asked some experts on the subject, including math Professor and Department Chair Dena Morton, PhD, Associate Professor Minerva Catral, PhD, and math majors Kathleen Buch and Rhea Elcock, who are planning to go to graduate school in a math-related field next year.

HAVE YOU ALWAYS LOVED MATH?

Buch: My mom is a middle school math teacher, and she always said, “You don’t have to like math, you just have to do it.” I hated math for a while, but when I became a junior in high school, I realized I was really good at it. I am triple-majoring in math, political science, and Philosophy, Politics and the Public. All of those fields are male-dominated, but to be honest, I have felt more accepted as a female in math spaces than I have in political ones.

Morton: Math is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do since I was 8 years old. My dad was a math professor at the State University of New York-Buffalo, and we both loved math so much, my mom had to outlaw math talk at the dinner table.

Catral: Growing up in the Philippines, I felt that I was really good at math. But I struggled with calculus in college, and I realized that I did not have the same math background as most of my classmates. I worked hard to catch up and ended up graduating with honors.

Elcock: My dad is an engineer, and that influenced my interest in math. Calculus and geometry are my favorite subjects.

HAVE YOU EVER FELT “LESS THAN” IN A MATH SETTING?

Morton: The only time I felt inferior was in grad school, when there was not one female on the math faculty. So I had no female role models in the department. I would hear male grad students talking about math problems and think, “Wow, I just am not getting this.” I was terrified that I was going to flunk out—in fact, 10 women started the program with me, and only two of us completed it. It took me years to understand that men and women talk about math differently, but men aren’t necessarily better at math.Associate Professor Catral

Catral (right): I was in a graduate program that had an extremely competitive environment. There was an emphasis on being fast and first, and students did not like to help each other. It seemed like a lot of the men thrived in that environment. But I am a more deliberate thinker. The experience really made me second-guess myself. Now, as a professor, I tend to be aware of students who are struggling in this way. Along with other faculty members, I try to reach out to these students to make sure they feel included. 

Elcock: In high school, being a female who likes math wasn’t a problem. But being a Caribbean-American female who likes math was really against stereotype. I hope I can inspire other black women who like math to think about it differently. In fact, one thing I hope to do after graduation is develop a multicultural math curriculum so that people from all cultures with any learning style can learn math. This summer, as part of a Brueggeman fellowship, I am going to spend time in Japan and Singapore to study how they teach math there. 

HOW DOES XAVIER PROMOTE A WELCOMING ATMOSPHERE FOR WOMEN IN MATH?

Morton: One of the cool things about Xavier is that women hold many positions of authority at the University. I came here in 2000, and up until 2016, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences was Janice Walker, who also is a mathematician (and current chief diversity and inclusion officer). She always expressed a lot of confidence in my abilities and encouraged me to pursue different opportunities here.

Buch: I think Xavier men have a lot to do with it, too. Male math majors are very accepting of the women in our program, and so is the faculty. My research advisor is math Professor David Gerberry. I’ve been working with him since freshman year. He has always encouraged me to present my projects at various conferences. Last year, for instance, another female math major, Kara Schatz, and I flew to Denver and presented at MathFest, one of the biggest math conferences in the world.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO WOMEN WHO WANT TO PURSUE A MATH-RELATED CAREER?

Morton: It’s important to find a place where you are accepted for who you are. I had all three of my children while working at Xavier, and I never felt people were asking me to choose between my career and family.

Catral: I hope more women go into teaching math at the master’s and PhD levels, because they will serve as role models for younger female students. The academic track can be very challenging on your personal life, so part of the job is being able to balance these aspects. I feel fortunate to be at Xavier, where there is a very supportive environment for faculty. I feel like part of a community where my contributions really matter.

Feature Image: Professor Dena Morton, chair of the Department of Mathematics.