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Overcoming Gender Biases in Mathematics: An Interview with Dr. Linda Sons

posted Jul 8, 2010, 6:09 PM by Glenna Buford   [ updated Jul 8, 2010, 6:11 PM by AWM Web Editor ]

2001 AWM Essay Contest:
Honorable Mention in the Graduate Student Category

by Amanda Mahmoud

Born in Illinois, but raised on a grain farm in Crown Point, Indiana with her older brother and parents, Dr. Linda Sons followed her talent in mathematics. Her experiences as a woman during her education contrasted to those she encountered as an educator. As a student, she met little gender discrimination. As a new professor in 1965, however, the playing field changed. The interview I conducted with Dr. Sons on October 10, 2001 revealed the sequence of events which led to her current teaching and research position.

Dr. Sons excelled in many scholastic areas throughout her schooling. Despite her academic success in high school, she did not initially consider attending college. She, like many women of the time, planned to work in a local business. During her senior year, though, a high school guidance counselor recommended that she apply to college. Dr. Sons hesitatingly complied, and by graduation, she had received several scholarship and grant offers totaling one-year's worth of college tuition and living expenses.

That fall, Dr. Sons entered Indiana University in Bloomington to pursue a teaching career. She planned to minor in mathematics and major in English. With encouragement from her trigonometry teaching assistant and her advisers who believed in her talent, Dr. Sons agreed to enroll in both Analytic Geometry and Calculus during the spring semester. The next two math courses she completed, Calculus II and III, were led by the same professor who taught her Analytic Geometry course, Dr. Max Zorn. Although he shied away from offering Dr. Sons words of encouragement, he knew that she would succeed. (He expressed this belief to her years later.)

A professor during Dr. Sons' junior year at Indiana University steered her even further along the path of mathematics. Dr. Seymour Parter asked Dr. Sons why she had enrolled in a 400-level statistics course when it was not required for her degree. She replied that she enjoyed mathematics. Impressed by her knowledge and motivation, he invited her to work in the university's research computing center. She accepted the offer. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Parter encouraged her to complete a B.A. in Mathematics and apply to graduate school. She hesitated at the thought of applying to a master's program and dismissed the idea of working towards a doctorate. "I had no illusions that I was at a level that represented anything like a Ph.D.," she recalled. Ultimately, Dr. Sons earned a B.A. in Mathematics from IU, and applied to the master's program and accepted a teaching assistantship at Cornell University.

Dr. Sons experienced no gender discrimination during her entire education up to, and including, graduate school. "[At Cornell,] there was no atmosphere in the math department which was anything other than, ‘we're studying mathematics.’" She continued to state, "There was never a notion of ‘you're a woman, you can't do mathematics,’ or anything of the sort …on the other hand, and I never paid any attention to it in those days, there were no women [math] professors. It didn't bother me." At Cornell, this gender ratio did not represent the mathematics graduate student population. Although there were fewer women than men, the graduate students never created a "women versus men" environment — a rarity amongst other universities at the time.

The atmosphere and the encouragement Dr. Sons received at Cornell University led to her completion of a Master's in Applied Mathematics and a Ph.D. in Complex Analysis under the direction of Dr. Wolfgang H. J. Fuchs. Upon receiving her doctorate, she soon became aware of the gender biases that existed at the post-secondary teaching level.

In September of 1965, Dr. Sons came to Northern Illinois University to fill a one-year, temporary position. As a professor, she began to notice that she was a woman in mathematics. She recalled the awkwardness she felt at departmental gatherings: At the department parties and things like that…who do you stand and talk with? Do you stand and talk with the men, who are really your colleagues and the ones with whom you have everything in common, or do you stand and talk with their wives, with whom you have practically nothing in common?

At research conferences, the gender differences were even more extreme. "There were 75 guys and me," she described, "that was a little intimidating, to put it mildly." Presenting at conferences produced a further challenge. During a talk as a young faculty member, one male member of the audience bombarded Dr. Sons with questions in order to make her appear inferior. This was not the only gender discrimination that occurred: There would be a lot of things that would go on at conferences and meetings where people would run off to the bar and sit and talk and throw around mathematics, and I wasn't inclined to join that … So, there were strange, little, subtle things that represented a level of ‘you were on the outside,’ and it was part of what made you have to be better than a certain set of folks in order to succeed, because you weren't going to have all that inside conversation. You didn't have the opportunity to discuss things in quite the same way…there were a certain set of things that you were kind of left out of.

As a result of her experiences, Dr. Sons started publishing research under the gender neutral name, L. R. Sons. Although this tactic was clever, her publisher recognized the work of Dr. Fuchs' student and, therefore, identified her gender. This recognition had no negative consequences, and the tide began to turn — she was beginning to receive respect for her outstanding work.

Dr. Sons ultimately gained respect from both genders as the years passed. Her one-year temporary position at Northern Illinois University turned into 36 years and counting. As new faculty slowly replaced the retiring professors, Dr. Sons served as a link between the two groups. She also helped develop the undergraduate curriculum, as well as the research and Ph.D. programs currently in place in the mathematics department. Because of her experiences and influences, Dr. Sons has helped create and mentor a diverse and well-represented female population of professors in the mathematics department at Northern Illinois University. In addition, she has encouraged both graduate and undergraduate students of mathematics as opportunities have arisen.

About the author: Amanda Mahmoud is currently working towards her M.S. in Mathematics Education at Northern Illinois University. Simultaneously, she is completing the Illinois teaching certification requirements. She received a B.S. in Music, with an emphasis in piano performance, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1999. She plans to integrate her education by teaching mathematics at the secondary level and becoming involved in the school's music program.

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