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The Mathematics of Discrimination : Since 1986, Jenny Harrison has been fighting for tenure in the male-dominated UC Berkeley math department. She says it's a matter of sexual discrimination; the university says she's just not good enough.

May 02, 1993|Margy Rocklin | Contributing editor Margy Rochlin is working on an NEA-funded radio documnetary, "Ambos Nogales: The Mingling Cultures on the Border."

LAST SPRING, AN AUDIENCE COMposed mostly of earnest-looking young female students gathered in a small auditorium to hear a panel discussion entitled "Women Scientists at Work: Opportunities, Obstacles and Challenges." Among the speakers were a bookish-looking research physicist, a computer-engineering researcher and a pregnant professor of civil engineering whose faded blue maternity smock couldn't conceal her third trimester fullness.

Most of the speeches took the form of arm-patting confidence-boosters, 10-minute sharing sessions structured to impress upon the audience that, although no one was saying it was going to be a breeze, women could make their way in the male-dominated sciences. The lone dissenting opinion was provided by mathematician Virginia C. (Jenny) Harrison. Pale-skinned, wearing a long black skirt and a baggy purple sweater, Harrison read off a catalogue of the indignities she'd suffered while teaching in the math department at UC Berkeley. After each point on her humiliation checklist, Harrison paused as if to provide her listeners time to gasp.

It wasn't that she put a complete damper on things, it was just that those who had to speak after her seemed self-conscious about their sunnier experiences. To be fair, Harrison was the only participant far enough along in her career to have bumped her head against the glass ceiling. In fact, as the civil-engineering professor finished her talk, she occasionally craned her neck toward Harrison, flashing her quick smiles, as if to apologize for her upbeat outlook.

The truth was that anyone in the crowd who read the Bay Area newspapers could have hardly been surprised by Harrison's wet-blanket contribution. She had to be the most well-known tenure rejectee at Berkeley. To win this pleasureless title, Harrison worked for eight years as an assistant professor. Then, in 1986, she received the first thumbs-down tenure decision that the university's math department had made in nearly 15 years. Harrison vainly spent the next three years exhausting every fix-it process the university offered. Finally, in 1989, Harrison filed a lawsuit charging that the university's decision to deny her tenure, and what she claimed was the bungling of the subsequent appeals process, proved that her civil rights had been violated, that she had been discriminated against because of her gender.

The legal slamdance was still dragging on last spring, leaving Harrison with a drained bank account, a wall calendar scribbled with court dates and a career as a full-time litigant and part-time, unpaid, work-at-home mathematician. The suit would continue for another year before a mediator hammered out a settlement that gave her at least one thing she wanted: another run in front of yet another tenure review board.

On the face of things, it is easy to take up Harrison's cause. For starters, over the years, the Berkeley mathematics department has barely managed to keep itself out of the so-called Zero Club--a group of universities including Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Yale, that have no tenured women math professors. Out of a full-time staff of 52, Berkeley's math department has just one tenured female, a Russian emigre named Marina Ratner, whose skills dwarf many of her male counterparts. Another Russian woman, Vera Serganova, was recently hired as an assistant professor, which puts her on tenure track. The professors also like to point to Alice Chang and Julia Robinson. Was it their fault that Professor Chang, who worked at Berkeley and UCLA, chose to settle in Southern California? (The rumble was that it was.) And they lamented the loss of Julia Robinson to leukemia in 1985. (What they didn't say was that she had gotten tenure only after a quarter-century of work at Berkeley, and only after becoming the first woman mathemetician inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.)

Harrison also gets points for her undiluted relentlessness, though it also sheds light on her tendency toward molar-grinding tunnel vision. Over years of battling, she received scant indication that her struggle would end rosily. In fact, of the five tenure dispute cases that have been waged at Berkeley since 1986, hers is the only one that has gone to court. It has resembled, over time, a brutal and predictable call-and-response, with Harrison requesting reinstatement and Berkeley bluntly replying, "No." Yet Harrison has never faltered from her game plan: To keep insisting that she is qualified until the University of California listens.

But judging Harrison's case is hardly simple. Even by her own assessment, she isn't a star. Her work hasn't shaken the fundaments of math. Instead, her more or less midway position on the bell curve makes Harrison about the same as many other good mathematicians. What it doesn't do is assure her a lifetime job at Berkeley, which has one of the top math departments in the country.

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