Accidental activist Lenore Blum changes formula for women in math
Blum said she spent the early years of her academic life with "blinders" on, shielding her from recognizing discrimination against women.
Throughout her early academic life, eminent mathematician and computer scientist Lenore Blum “had blinders on.”
Blinders that kept Blum from seeing — or acknowledging — the barely veiled discrimination against women in the fields of math and science.
“The blinders served me well until they didn’t,” reflected Blum, distinguished professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, who has been working for decades to bring more women into the fields of math and science.
Blum recalls having her sanity questioned, circa 1960, as an undergraduate at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now, Carnegie Mellon University) when she asked to transfer from architecture to the more male-centric major of mathematics.
She remembers too well having to sign into her dorm — as every woman did — each night by 8:30 or 9:00 p.m.; the early curfew prevented her from working in the evenings on projects with her male colleagues.
She shakes her head as she recounts being unable to follow her doctoral advisor from MIT to Princeton, because “no women were allowed to apply to graduate programs at Princeton until 1968.”
“I didn’t think twice about it,” Blum said. “Blinders.”
While Blum, who was born in 1942, was coming of age, “women in math and the sciences were not treated the same as men. That was treated as normal. You didn’t question it. You’re sort of angry about it, but you don’t know how to frame it.”
Flash forward four decades, and thanks in large part to Blum who has worked tirelessly to change the culture at CMU and beyond, more women are now able to realize their potential in math and computer science.
Under Blum’s stewardship, women at the School of Computer Science at CMU now comprise 50 percent of the class, compared to a nationwide average of 18 percent.
In the business world, it is still a male culture, a fraternity-like culture. Almost everything I do, I want to make sure there are more women involved.
Blum, who is Jewish, was born in New York City and moved with her family to Caracas, Venezuela, in 1952, when she was 9 years old. Early on, she realized she had an affinity for math.
She graduated at the top of her class from high school at the age of 16 and decided to head back to the U.S. to begin her college career in the architecture school at Carnegie Tech, where she could combine her aptitude for math with a love for art that had been nurtured since she was a child.
She soon realized, though, she “wasn’t so passionate about architecture,” she said. “I wanted to know where the formulas came from. The art was too rigid, the drawings were mechanical. I didn’t like what I was studying.”
The men in charge at CMU were resistant, but after some persistence, Blum was able to transfer to the math department, where she felt more at home and found her true calling.
In 1961, she married Manuel Blum — now a renowned computer scientist who also teaches at CMU — whom she had known since she was a child in Caracas. She moved to Boston, where her husband was a student at MIT, and completed her Bachelor of Science at Simmons College. She earned her Ph.D. from MIT before heading out to Berkeley, where both she and her husband had been hired to teach.
The blinders came off at Berkeley where after teaching for two years, Blum was not rehired — no women at the university had permanent positions in the math department.
While 20 to 30 percent of doctorate degrees in math were being awarded to women at the time, “you didn’t see that in the hiring,” Blum said, and women were not being asked to speak at professional meetings at a rate commensurate with their presence in the field.
That is when Blum “became an activist,” she said. “That was a turning point for me. I didn’t see myself as an activist, but as a research mathematician. I was forced into it.”
Her reputation as an expert on women in math had its genesis at a lecture in Berkeley on math and social responsibility in 1971, where Blum was asked to speak about women. She assembled a panel of experts, including famed statistician Betty Scott, who addressed the packed room on the disparity of treatment between the sexes in math and the sciences — presenting facts like how female astronomers were prohibited from using a telescope at Caltech until the mid-1960s.
“That was the first time I heard about some of these things — from my own panel,” Blum said.
So, she got busy changing the paradigm. In 1971, she helped found the Association for Women in Mathematics, an organization that helped women in math pursue better careers, and in 1973, she joined the faculty of Mills College, where she founded the Mathematics and Computer Science Department — the first one of its kind at a women’s college.
“I saw how I could change the world through education,” Blum said.
Realizing that to get women to study math in college, they would need to develop skills and confidence in high school, in 1975 Blum helped start the Expanding Your Horizons network for girls in middle and high school.
That organization still exists, providing female STEM role models for young women and giving them the chance to participate in relevant hands-on activities at conferences.
“In a way, this all took over my life,” Blum said. “It takes a total commitment and thinking about it all the time.”
Blum came to CMU in 1999, following two years of doing research in Hong Kong.
Seeing the disparity in the number of men and women in computer science, she established Women @SCS (School of Computer Science), a program based on research showing that women can perform as well as men in science if only they are provided with the same sorts of support that men naturally have — things like role models of their own sex, roommates in the same field, opportunities for leadership, mentoring and networking organizations to help find employment.
In other words, for women to succeed in computer science at CMU, “we needed to change the culture, not the curriculum,” Blum said.
Women in math and the sciences were not treated the same as men. That was treated as normal. You didn’t question it. You’re sort of angry about it, but you don’t know how to frame it.
Women @SCS is currently headed by Carol Frieze, a former student of Blum’s.
“Lenore made a very significant move when she came here,” said Frieze. “She is a visionary. She knows what needs to be done and makes it happen.”
Thanks to Blum, CMU “certainly has a reputation as a school that has paid attention to the issue of women in computer science,” Frieze added.
The formula, Blum said, “works everywhere. It’s not rocket science; it’s just common sense.”
Although working to improve the landscape for women in math and science has been a central focus of Blum’s life, she has also made significant contributions in mathematical research, including model theory and differential research and computation theory.
She is the founding director of Project Olympus at CMU, which she launched in 2007 to help bridge the gap between university research and business to promote commerce in the community using technology coming out of CMU.
There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that women can thrive once in the workforce, Blum said.
“Are we preparing them enough socially, so they can continue to be successful in the non-welcoming environment that Silicon Valley is?” she queried. “In the business world, it is still a male culture, a fraternity-like culture. Almost everything I do, I want to make sure there are more women involved.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at