Where The Boys Are

Elizabeth Mann left high school determined to show that women can make it in the male-dominated world of advanced math. Now, she's got little left to prove.

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In the spring of 1993, writer David Finkel of the Washington Post spent time following a brilliant young woman named Elizabeth Mann as she wrapped up her senior year at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. In an article that appeared in Teacher that summer, Finkel eloquently chronicled this 17-year-old's struggles in Blair's math, science, and computer magnet program. The coursework, though rigorous, was not her biggest challenge. The hardest thing for Mann--what she worried about most--was earning the respect of her male classmates. In small classes dominated by smart, competitive boys, Mann could hardly get a word in edgewise. And when Mann outperformed them, as she often did, they would find ways to belittle her and accuse her of getting a disproportionate amount of their teachers' attention.

But Mann knew the truth, and that fall she headed off to Harvard University with a bit of a chip on her shoulder, ready to prove to any doubters that women can more than hold their own in the male-dominated world of math and science.

It didn't take her long, she says now, to realize that working from spite wouldn't cut it at that level. "We all have silly ideas when we first go to college, and mine was that I was going to do things to prove points," Mann says. "You can't do it for those reasons. You can't have a chip on your shoulder, if only because it distracts you from the work you're trying to do."

Refocused on what she wanted to do, Mann finished a degree in mathematics from Harvard in four years. Then she was off to England, where she earned the equivalent of a master's in math at Cambridge University. While there, she began working on her Ph.D., which she now plans to complete at Oxford University over the next two to three years. So much for proving herself. As a woman, Mann is still in the minority in her classes, only it's worse now. Very few women study mathematics at her advanced level. She has never studied under a tenured female math professor. "Every time I have a chance to meet or talk with an older woman at a math conference, I can't tell you how it feels," Mann says. "You really don't realize how starved you are for that kind of companionship."

These days, Mann is doing a little mentoring herself, but her studies don't allow her as much time for it as she would like. Once she "establishes" herself in math, she says, then she'll be in a better position to nurture and counsel other young women trying to make their way.

And what advice would she offer? "You have to have thick skin," she says. "You have to do what you love doing. You have to know that it's worth your time and that you're good enough to do it. Don't let anyone tell you you're not good enough."

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 79

Published in Print: August 11, 1999, as Where The Boys Are
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