It’s March 14, which means it’s Pi Day!
(For our readers whose nerdiness manifests in non-math arenas: pi, or π, is the ratio of any circle’s circumference to its diameter. This works out to be approximately 3.14, but not exactly; the true value has been being calculated for literally thousands of years, and has raised all sorts of questions about what a weird universe we live in. But for our purposes, 3.14 = March 14.)
Since we’re talking about math today, let’s talk about a less inspiring numerical constant: the number of people of color and women in STEM fields. In 1999, black women made up less than one quarter of one percent of mathematicians; in 2009, only two percent of math and statistics doctorate degrees were issued to black women. The numbers aren’t much better for anyone who isn’t a white man, and in some cases are getting worse. And yes, the ‘overachieving Asian’ archetype is more complex than it looks.
Back in 1943, Euphemia Lofton Haynes became the first ever black woman to receive a PhD in mathematics, at the age of 53. (Her dissertation, which I won’t attempt to decipher, is titled “The Determination of Sets of Independent Conditions Characterizing Certain Special Cases of Symmetric Correspondences.”) A fourth-generation Washingtonian, she spent 47 years teaching math in D.C.’s public schools; in 1959, she became head of the city’s Board of Education, and was instrumental in desegregating the very high school she attended four decades prior. She also established a mathematics department at her teachers’ college, and established a scholarship fund upon her death. In other words, she was an outspoken critic of injustice, and a creator of new opportunities for young people to enter the field that she saw so much beauty in.
The race and gender disparity in STEM fields is caused by a lot of factors, both financial (disparities in school funding) and sociological (bad media representation), but one thing it’s not caused by is a lack of real-world role models. You can celebrate math today by helping bring these role models into view where they belong.
Thanks to Kevin Lin for his help on the math involved in this post.
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