Viveka Brown, Spelman College – Black Girls and Women in Mathematics

On Spelman College Week:  Black women majoring in math can feel very isolated.

Viveka Brown, associate professor in the department of mathematics, explores why.

Viveka Borum Brown, Ph.D. has been teaching and tutoring mathematics since 2000. Her primary research focus looks at various equity issues in mathematics. In particular, she explores issues pertaining to Black females and mathematics. Dr. Borum Brown examines why there seems to be a dearth in the number of Black women who pursue the mathematical field.

Her goal is to create avenues and solutions in order to increase the number of Black women and thus the number of women entering mathematics.

Due to her research focus, Dr. Borum Brown states, “I am truly blessed to be at Spelman teaching mathematics, which is truly my passion. What excites me about mathematics is that the logic and reasoning skills one can learn from various math courses can also be used in other areas of life. Mathematics isn’t just about numbers; mathematics teaches students how to think critically.”

Black Girls and Women in Mathematics

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Increasing diversity has been a phrase used for many years in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (what we refer to as STEM). Focusing on the M in STEM, we notice a story that is often untold on the experiences of Black girls and women in mathematics. A quantitative look often provides a daunting view on the number of Black women obtaining undergraduate and advanced degrees in math. Thus, it is important to view the qualitative factors and examine the lived experiences of Black girls and women during their mathematical journey.  

My research takes an anti-deficit lens and explores the stories of Black women who have completed an undergraduate and/or advanced degree in math. In a recent study, I interviewed four Black women who had currently majored in math. Their stories provided insight that numbers cannot. Themes of support, encouragement, and exposure were evident. They shared how parents and other relatives provided an outlet for their informal learning in math. They discussed the importance of teachers acknowledging and not ignoring their curiosity and math abilities. All of these women were placed in either an honor or advanced placement course. However, some felt isolated in these spaces. Often, being the only Black student, they sensed an “outsider within” status. This status was heightened by the lack of support and derogatory comments from their teachers and peers. For the other women, having a cohort of friends taking the class with them made a difference. It allowed for mathematical conversations outside of the classroom to take place. 

In continuing this conversation, more studies must explore the informal and formal learning experiences of Black girls and women in math.  

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