“I do feel a strong obligation to help the next generation,” award-winning mathematician Bryna Kra told Moneyish
This story is part of “Ceiling Smashers,” a series in which successful women across industries tell Moneyish how they broke down professional barriers.
Award-winning mathematician Bryna Kra, whose career has spanned Israel, the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, France, Penn State University and currently Northwestern University, never had a woman-taught math class past middle school. There were no female math faculty while she attended Harvard University, nor were there during her graduate studies at Stanford University, she said.
While Kra had ample support from her husband in juggling her career and two kids, she added, “it would’ve been nice to have some people to talk to at times.” So her dogged efforts to increase female numbers in math add up: Kra, 51, has run research conferences for women, for example, and launched women’s mentoring groups at both Northwestern and Penn State. (Women make up just 15% of tenure-track math faculty, per the American Mathematical Society.)
“I do feel a strong obligation to help the next generation,” she said. “I certainly feel like I could’ve benefited at times from talking to other women.”
Kra, who called her mathematician father “a strong supporter and influence,” became the first woman to chair Northwestern’s math department, serving one term from 2009 to 2012 — but chose not to seek a second term, opting to devote more time to her ergodic theory and dynamical systems research. Academia’s clamoring for female and minority representation at the top — however valid — can come at the expense of their research time and other priorities, Kra said, calling it a kind of “service tax.”
“If you are going to have representation by women and minorities on every committee, then women and minorities are doing more service, just because of the numbers,” she said.
She says she was also “treated somewhat differently” as a woman in math: People brought up her family more often and were more prone to unloading personal stories in her office. “When there’s an issue, for example, that affects a female grad student, it always comes to me,” Kra said. “A male colleague could deal with it just as well.”
But all told, Kra says she doesn’t feel those factors affected “where I’ve ended up and what I’ve done.” “I feel like I have been treated mostly pretty well,” she said.
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