“Women, Science and Mathematics-One Woman’s Struggle”

Women, Science and Mathematics “One Woman’s Struggle”
by C. Dianne Phillips (Notes) on Saturday, May 14, 2011, at 10:25 am
Revised, April 30, 2012 – from a facebook note, published on sciencegranny57@wordpress.com


Dreams do come true
Your article about the lack of women professionals in Physics inspired me to share my unique story and perspective with you and others. http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2011/05/on_being_what_you_want_and_big.php

Who am I? I am a white, English speaking woman, who has advanced degrees in both geology and physics. I am the mother of four beautiful grown children and am also a grandmother of 5 🙂

From a very young age, I was interested in the cosmos and dreamed of being a woman astronaut and hopefully astronomer. I followed the space program and loved Biology, Chemistry, Astronomy, Nuclear Physics….I had an insatiable need to know about ALL. My quest to meet my dreams and life goals was not easy and required determination, persistence, and tenacity to achieve.


Beginnings: This story begins over 50 years ago when women were socialized to think that their choices were limited to…

1) homemaker
2) teacher
3) nurse
4) secretary
5) nun

My parents were both teachers and they realized my extreme interest in science, especially the cosmos, and they made sure that our home had a set of encyclopedia.

Through this important scholarly resource was a world of knowledge that opened my mind to all possibilities. I studied the encyclopedia and wanted to know more. I was given permission to use the ladder to get to the roof so that I could chart the movement of stars in the night sky. My parents knew I was odd, in a “special” sort of way.

You’d think that this would have set me up to be very successful in the sciences. Wrong.

The Algebra Monolith Standing In the Way:
The monolith in the middle of my road was MATH. My 1st-12th-grade teachers were mostly elderly women and my middle and high school math and science teachers were coaches. They discouraged learning anything about metrics and facilitated in the socialization that ‘women’ are challenged in mathematics. Since being a mathematical genius was a pre-requisite to being able to be a scientist, WE – females were not well suited for professional careers in the sciences. A future in science, engineering and mathematics was doable, but way, way too difficult for ordinary people and definitely a waste of time for a future housewife.

Credits to J. Randall Phillips who first drew the sketch for me at a Red Lobster; Alex Stratigakis, who took the idea from me and made a slide for his students and C. Dianne Phillips, who edited the final version.

Credits to J. Randall Phillips who first drew the sketch for me at a Red Lobster after finally passing college algebra; Alex Stratigakis, who took the idea from me and made a slide for his students and C. Dianne Phillips, who edited the final version.

I was taught that only ‘Einstein’ could understand Physics and that my expectations should be lower because MATH was this magical tool that only smart people were capable of using and understanding.

My parents, however, believed that I could do anything if I just tried hard enough.
My father was a botanist and made sure that I had access to a microscope and to a full range of biology texts, including “On the Origin of Species,” published on 24 November 1859, almost 100 years before my birth.
My mother was a history teacher and athlete and she made sure that I had access to the public library, where I was notorious for late fees. I excelled in my science courses and floundered in my math courses. This was expected and accepted by everyone.

Expectations and Dreams: My desire, obsession, to know and understand more only increased as I matured. I did the things that society and my parents expected of me. I got a scholarship and began college, married, had children, worked part-time, and went to college part-time while I raised my family.

My husband -x now admired my intellect and encouraged me to pursue my dreams of college education, particularly in the sciences. He is a chemical engineer and a very progressive thinker. He did not see me in the role that society had socialized me to accept. For this, I am eternally grateful. It was his words of encouragement and inspiration that helped me to overcome my intense fear of failing in mathematics. He determined that it was my own perception of self, in relation to mathematics, that was the obstacle to performing in mathematics, not my capacity to learn and understand. God bless him for pushing me to fulfill my dreams. So, amidst my having a family and being a homemaker, I also pursued a college education on the side.

I took courses at a local community college, where I found excellent instructors, many who had their families after having achieved their college goals. They too inspired me and encouraged me to overcome my fear of failing.

It was in the community college, student-centered environment, with small classes and nurturing and motivational instructors, that I was able to begin to feel empowered to push on and to overcome my fears.

Pursuing Dreams: When I began my college education years earlier, my fear of math forced me to pursue a Music degree instead of a degree in science, engineering or mathematics. Music came easily to me, so I pursued degrees in Music Performance and teaching.

My love of astronomy persisted and I also took all of the astronomy courses that were available at the college I was attending.

I later found financial opportunities in the agricultural sciences where women were actively pursued. I could make money working in that field and continue my education.

Even though I found agronomy fascinating, it was not a science that inspired me. It was a means to an end financially.

My fascination was still in the cosmos and on planet earth. I dreamed of becoming an Astronomer.

Never give up: To make a very long story as short as possible, I never gave up. I continued to sacrifice in my role as mother and wife, but I never gave up my pursuit of eventually having a degree in the sciences.

As my husband worked as an engineer to make a living for our family, I stayed at home with the babies and took one class a semester at the local community college.

My course work included College Algebra, FORTRAN programming, College Algebra, College Algebra…sounds familiar to non-traditional students who have Math Anxiety .etc..

I had to take beginning, intermediate and college algebra. I eventually went on to take more advanced applied math courses through my degrees in the sciences.

My husband went back to school to pursue a Ph.D. in Engineering and I worked as a secretary at the college.

My boss, another brilliant, older woman, who had long given up her personal dreams of being a universal scholar, recognized that I was ‘too smart to sit behind a typewriter’ the rest of my life. She encouraged me to go back to school and take one class-semester. She actively researched scholarships that would allow me to go to school full time and to stop being an administrative assistant-secretary.

Thanks to Ms. Edna Baker, I went back to school full time and after 14 years of going to school part-time, I finally finished my first science degree, a BS in Geology, with a minor in physics and music.

Why Geology? Of the sciences that I found interesting, it had the least requirements for mathematics. I only needed through Cal II.

Geology allowed me to study planet Earth and had the least mathematical requirements for a degree in the sciences. I gave up on my dream of the cosmos but found a new passion in the planet on which we all live EARTH.

Awakenings: What I discovered in the pursuit of my BS in Geology was that the math had become easier. As I was allowed to apply the tool of mathematics to solving ‘real’ problems in science courses, like Physics and Chemistry, I gained confidence in using the tool.

I began to see that Math was only a tool that I needed to solve problems in the sciences. My instructors realized that I had ‘math anxiety,’ and they accommodated my special need by allowing me extra time on exams. True freedom to learn came when I realized that being an ‘average’ engineering-physics student was indeed OK.

When I accepted the fact that I would never be perfect or that I didn’t need to be Einstein to understand Physics, the entire world of pursuing knowledge opened up for me.

What was important was my desire to understand the concepts, not how good I was at mathematical manipulation.

Math became a tool, not unlike a screwdriver. It was a necessary tool to unlock the mysteries and concepts that I desired to understand. Alleluia!!!!

My eyes were opened!
I allowed myself to be exactly who I was, an outstanding geologist and musician, who would eventually be an average engineering-physics student. In my pursuit of a BS in Geology, I rediscovered my love of physics and astronomy. I took all of the engineering physics courses I needed to pursue a BA in Physics as well and discovered a love of Chemistry too in this pursuit. In fact, it was the quantitative aspects of many of the sciences that inspired me the most.

I was no longer afraid but instead had my eyes opened to the utility and beauty of computational modeling (before complex computer programs) in the sciences. I was able to quantify and discover realities beyond what I could just sense or sketch in 3 dimensions!

Mathematical inquiry in the sciences opened my eyes to other dimensions, realities and a deeper and more heightened understanding of the workings of the universe.

from slideshow on the Krafts, C. Dianne Phillips, Geology Lecture http://hilobrow.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/katiamaurice.jpg

from the slideshow on the Kraffts, C. Dianne Phillips, Geology Lecture http://hilobrow.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/katiamaurice.jpg

I then went on to pursue advanced degrees in Geology, Chemistry, and Physics. I kept my eyes focused on my love of the sciences and women like Katia Krafft, who fearlessly blazed a trail for women interested in the study of volcanology, and Madam Curie, who was honored for her work with a shared Nobel Prize in physics with her research partner and husband.

These women and their husbands were such an inspiration to me.

What have I learned?
It is not just the bias in academia that has kept the number of women in Physics and Engineering to a minimum. It is our social structure and our socialization of young girls and boys in public schools.

  • Words DO Matter: Children must hear from TV first, parents second, teachers and schools third and peers last, that they are able to do anything if they set their mind to it. I put TV first, not because I place importance on TV, but because one of the greatest influences on children, especially toddlers, IS the TV.
    • Phrases like “when you go to college, when you become a scientist,” “you will and can do,” instead of “if you go to college”, “if you can do math,” “if…maybe…”
    • “CAN DO,” must become part of our daily vocabulary when speaking to girls and boys, especially young girls.

We need female role models that are not the stereotypical, ‘ugly duckling, uncool, nerdy’ scientists.

  • We can all make a difference: I spent two years as a GK-12 fellow in the Master of Physics program at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR. I was a visiting scientist who went to public schools and did inquiry-based activities with middle and high school students.
  • Perception Matters: When I asked the students to draw pictures of a scientist and to define a scientist, I got pictures of nerdy ‘men’ who wore lab coats, were either bald or with wild hair like Einstein, had pocket protectors, etc.
  • At the end of the school year, when I asked them to tell me again, I was astounded at the results. Most of the children drew a woman with glasses and kinky hair, ME. The girls, in particular, drew me. I had become their perception of a scientist. They drew me with peace signs on my shirt and wicked high heels….none of which I wore. They drew me as a rock star too. I was completely blown away.
  • Motivation for others: I finished my degrees and I now teach at a Community College, where I feel I really make a difference. I have 26 years of teaching experience in the sciences. I have taught at 4-year colleges, junior highs, high schools and now the community college level.
  • Guess what? I did not become Carl Sagan, but I have taught Astronomy, Chemistry, Engineering Physics, the list goes on…and also, I teach future teachers how to not fear science and mathematics.
  • A pebble dropped in a large pond and my experience is propagating.

I now give motivational speeches to nontraditional students who are struggling with Math and Science.


One person seriously can make a difference. I pray that I am.

Inspiration: Thanks for inspiring me, Ethan. Your science blog is a much-needed outlet for my insatiable desire to continue to know and learn more. Thank you for making a difference.

“So go after your own dreams, whatever it is that you love. Work hard for it, and don’t let anyone discourage you. If you’ve got the ability (and believe me, more of you have it than you know) and the sustained drive to do it, you can make it happen for yourself, regardless of what anyone else says.
Don’t dream it, be it!” Ethan Siegel

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