Letter from the Dean

Looking back at women in math at Waterloo

When I was young, I enjoyed all of my school subjects, but it was my math homework that I always started first. When it came time to choose a field of study at university, there was little question of which route I would take.

I would go on to later serve as Chair of the Department of Statistics and Actuarial Science at Waterloo and then as Acting Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics — I was the first and only woman to serve in that role at Waterloo to date. I am now one of the University’s Distinguished Professors Emerita. It is an honour to be asked to write this opening message to this special issue on women in math, and to reflect on where we have come from, and where we are now.

Mathematics, and more broadly the mathematical, statistical and computing sciences, are fields for women as well as men. This has always been true, but the math world is now rediscovering and celebrating it — see the latest issues of the Notices of the American Math Society, which feature several women, including centenarian Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson of Hidden Figures fame. 

The increased visibility of women in math, and the increased acceptance of the many roles we can and do fill, are remarkable. Only five years ago, we witnessed the first time a Fields Medal was awarded to a woman, Maryam Mirzakhani, and what a tremendously important event that was. So significant was this achievement that, at the recent World Meeting for Women in Mathematics, (WM)^2, Mirzakhani’s May 12 birth date was designated as the international day for celebrating women in mathematics. Only days ago, Dr. Karen Uhlenbeck became the first woman to win Abel Prize, math’s top award. And it was still unusual for a woman to receive an honorary doctorate for mathematics when Canadian Cathleen Morawetz (DMath Waterloo 1993) received her first honorary degrees in the 80s. Firsts are always historic.

The advancement of women in the Faculty of Mathematics at Waterloo has also been remarkable. When I first came to Waterloo, there were only a few women faculty members in the Faculty of Math. Now both the numbers and the proportions are noticeably higher. The first person to cross the stage to accept a Bachelor of Mathematics degree at Waterloo in 1967 was a woman, Jean Elizabeth Anthes. Last year we saw 621 women complete degrees from the Faculty of Mathematics, accounting for roughly 36 per cent of our total 2018 graduates.

All of this positive change at Waterloo is the result of the hard work and ongoing dedication of many. Past and current members of the Women in Mathematics and Women in Computer Science committees have been responsible for a great deal of the progress that we have seen.

When I served on the Women in Math committee in its early days, we used to talk a lot about the “chilly climate” for women in math. The more optimistic sometimes referred to it as a “bracing climate.” Maybe it’s just that I’m older now, but to me, the climate seems noticeably warmer than it was in those days. And perhaps safer. It may be that students of all gender identities are freer to be who they are as mathematicians, statisticians, actuarial scientists, computer scientists, bioinformaticians, software engineers, accountants and the like. I hope so. Let’s keep working to make sure that it is so.

I am inspired by the internal advocates who have been drawn to this issue over the years. The faculty, students, and alumnae who have given time and talent to support the work of the Women in Mathematics (WiM) committee, created to encourage and advocate for women interested in studying mathematics and who seek careers in mathematics. The vision of Professor M. Tamer Özsu who, while serving as Director of the David R. Cheriton School of Computer Science (2007–10), was concerned by the diminishing number of women entering into computer science studies. In 2007, he launched the Task Force on Gender Equality in Computer Science education, led by Therese Biedl. The committee produced a comprehensive report that guided the development of the Women in Computer Science (WICS) committee that continues today.  

And, Elana Hashman BMath ’15. While an undergraduate and active member of the WICS committee, she saw the need to create a supportive community of her peers – a committee of female undergraduate computer science students for female computer science students. She received quick and enthusiastic approval from the larger WICS committee and by Fall 2014, the student-run WiCS Undergraduate Committee began offering programs focusing on career development, technical skills, and networking.

In 2018, Canada saw the first-ever team of female mathletes compete in the European Girls Mathematical Olympiad earning one Silver medal, two Bronze medals, and one Honourable Mention. These incredible young women were sponsored in their efforts by the Faculty of Mathematics.

Mathematics has always been a woman’s field. In honour of International Women’s Day, this special issue gives an inside look at the impact Waterloo women are having on mathematics today.

Read on to meet Women in Computer Science’s new Director, Maura Grossman, and to hear from alumna Aries Lee who reflects on how her BMath prepared her to become a successful entrepreneur. You will learn about the outstanding career of Professor Anita Layton, Canada 150 Research Chair in Mathematical Biology, about a new border-security privacy app co-developed by PhD candidate Erinn Atwater, and learn about recruitment specialist, Amelia Burton’s dual ambitions of both inspiring the next generation of mathematicians and computer scientists, and ensuring diversity to each incoming class. 

These articles share only a slice of the incredible work being done by graduates, faculty, students and staff of the Waterloo math community.

I invite you to read on, and to celebrate with me.