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She Does Math!

Marla Parker, editor
Mathematical Association of America
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
Classroom Resource Materials
[Reviewed by
Lynette Millett
, on

She Does Math is a collection of short career histories of women whose professions require mathematics to one degree or another. Following each article are problems submitted by the women profiled. These are meant to give a taste of mathematical aspects of the work that they do and of the mathematical problems that they need to solve.

This collection will be very useful for teachers, especially in high schools or lower-level college courses, who may be looking for a variety of practical problems to present. It does a good job at answering the question asked by many reluctant students: "But what will I ever need this stuff for?"

One problem with the book is that there may be slightly too much emphasis on engineering and practical applications. A bit more focus on math being fun and beautiful on its own would be nice. We do not generally answer the question about the usefulness of art with examples of jobs in graphics design, for example. Unfortunately, one of the women profiled mentioned that she felt that art was good for the heart and mathematics for the head, reinforcing the subliminal message that mathematics is all about practical problems. Overall, however, the people profiled exhibited excitement and interest in their work and enthusiasm for mathematical problem solving, providing good role models to young people interested in mathematical or scientific careers.

Also interesting to me was that roughly half of the women who submitted career histories made sure to mention the fact that they were married and/or had children. I am of two minds about this phenomenon. This can be seen as a good thing, evidence of a well-rounded life and career, a realistic approach to life for women in the late 20th century and an attempt to demonstrate balance. On the other hand, it is unfortunate that it is still necessary to reassure young women that it is possible to be professional scientists and still have a family. It's wonderful that these women can demonstrate that this is possible, but disturbing that young women still need the reassurance. I would wager that male scientists do not feel so compelled to point out that they are able to be scientists and still be happily married with children. There was at least one allusion to the infamous "two-body problem" in these articles, one woman noting that she ended up following her husband and switching career focus as a result.

Should the book be putting more emphasis on the difficulties facing women in the sciences? Would that be helpful or counterproductive? Upon reflection, I find myself reluctantly agreeing with the choices made by the editor. For the purposes of this text, inspirational and motivational career histories were probably the best choice. There are certainly other forums where some of the above problems can be addressed. For young women facing choices of what to study, what to major in, and what kind of career to pursue, the variety and diversity of women's experience chronicled here offers wonderful examples of the options available. This leads me to what I think is the primary strength of this collection, namely its diversity.

While most of the women profiled seem to be working in the United States, their backgrounds range from India to the former Soviet Union to the suburbs of New York city. Along with this personal diversity, Parker does a good job at choosing a broad spectrum of careers and fields to represent here, including a dietician, engineers, nursing specialists, computer scientists, astronomers and pure mathematicians. This variety is what makes the collection useful for not only young women and teachers, but anyone interested in scientific and/or technical areas. This includes young men who are thinking of technical careers, high school and college guidance or career counsellors and also teachers in other disciplines who may not have a good understanding of mathematics and its "uses." In fact, this book would be useful reading for the (not yet rare) career counsellors who may not have any idea that studying mathematics can lead to careers beyond teaching, or that women in particular can and do find satisfying careers in mathematics and related fields.

Overall then, Parker does a good job at fulfilling her objectives as stated in her preface. This collection is motivational and certainly answers the question: "Why should I take math?" The problem sets from a variety of disciplines offer educators useful examples to liven up mathematics classes that may not be available in standard textbooks. The short biographies demonstrate a variety of life paths which can lead to successful fulfilling careers in scientific areas. The diversity (both personal and technical) allows young people to see that many career options are open to people from a variety of different walks of life. Finally, addressing these issues from the perspective of specifically women scientists allows young women and girls the chance to learn about positive female role models in an area where there are still far too few.

Lynette Millett is a graduate student in Computer Science at Cornell University. Her undergraduate work was in mathematics and she also has a strong interest in Women's Studies and feminist issues.