Female Students, Staff Share Notes to Boost Each Other’s Spirits
Photos by Stephanie S. Cordle
Women generally don’t flock to the mathematics department; despite ongoing efforts to open the field to all, they’re underrepresented in the discipline around the nation and at the University of Maryland. But William E. Kirwan Hall, headquarters of math on campus, has one place guaranteed to draw a crowd: the restroom.
Two of them are now neon oases of encouragement, as a riot of purple, pink, yellow, blue and orange sticky notes brighten the beige-tiled wall and mirrors with rallying cries: “Take one day at a time,” “I can and I will” and “In the words of Dory: Just keep swimming.”
These dozens of tiny boosts are the results of a project spearheaded by Jessica Sadler, a program manager in the Department of Mathematics, to foster a sense of camaraderie among women in STEM. Inspired by National Do Something Nice Day, she bought a stack of Post-its and pens and left them in the first- and third-floor bathrooms in November with instructions for visitors.
“Almost immediately, students started participating and the walls filled up,” she said. “The reaction was very welcoming and enthusiastic.”
According to the Annual Survey of the Mathematical Sciences (which, ironically, was last administered in 2017), women earn only 38% of undergraduate degrees in math and 29% of doctorates. At Maryland, women constituted 29% of math majors and nearly 30% of doctoral students in math, applied math and statistics programs in 2022.
The math department has been bolstering its resources for women, said Sadler, hosting open houses for women and developing relationships with women’s colleges to boost the presence of women graduate students. And the department is home to Women in Mathematics, an active chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics.
“We’re trying to build a very inclusive environment,” said Doron Levy, professor and department chair, noting that the project is reaching not just math students, faculty and staff, but also students from other disciplines who have classes in the building and external visitors.
The notes are a reminder that in the world of math, science and technology, women are present and in one another’s corner, said Sadler.
Students agree. “It can be isolating to be in a male-dominated field,” said Valerie Wray, a math doctoral student and vice president of Women in Mathematics at UMD. “The Post-its helped me see that everyone’s supporting each other.”
Around final exams, “there were a bunch of messages that went up like, ‘You got this,’ ‘You’re going to do great on your finals,’ which was sweet,” said math doctoral student Maeve Wildes, co-president of Women in Math.
The sticky notes will remain in the bathrooms through the spring semester, said Sadler, who did some culling to take down final exam-related notes that are no longer relevant—and to make much-needed room for new notes. (If you want to use the mirror, consider visiting the second-floor bathroom.)
“I wasn’t aware that there were all these women walking around with all these encouraging thoughts they want to share with each other,” said Sadler. “Even if I don’t know who wrote the notes, it’s nice to know there’s a community of women out there who want to encourage each other.”
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