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Member Spotlight Jean Dickinson Gibbons

1 November 2009 1,240 views No Comment
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Jean Dickinson Gibbons with her husband, John S. Fielden

As an elderly female statistician, I was pleased that Sally Morton requested some gender data analysis of the ASA Fellows. Specifically, I learned that 31% of current ASA members are female and, in 2005, 26.8% of ASA Fellow awards went to females. As the saying goes, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” just in my lifetime. A male colleague once told me I was at least 10 years ahead of my time, and that really is close to the truth.

I earned my BA and MA in mathematics from Duke University in 1958 and 1959. I did not much enjoy higher math because I could not see its applications. As an undergraduate, I took a course in business statistics, but had no other exposure. Then in 1959, I was fortunate to receive an NSF [National Science Foundation] grant to attend the Southern Regional Education Board Summer Session in Statistics at North Carolina State University; this began my lifetime love affair with statistics, my vocation and my avocation. I went on to earn a PhD from Virginia Tech in 1962. I was never the only female student, but there weren’t many of us.

My career in academia lasted 35 years at three universities, and I was always the only female in the department. Starting in the 1970s, we had a few female graduate students; over the years, the number grew dramatically and I enjoyed the opportunity to serve as both a role model and mentor for many young ladies. I authored a chapter on statistics for the book aptly titled Nontraditional Careers for Women, edited by Sarah Splaver and published by Julian Messner in 1973.

I was always very active in the ASA and am a life member. I was extremely proud to be elected a Fellow in 1972 at age 34. I was the chair of the Committee on Women in Statistics from 1972–1974, and we put together the Roster of Women in Statistics, published by the ASA in 1974. I will never forget the tough grilling I received from the male members of the ASA Board of Directors when I presented the request from COWIS to publish a roster. I served four terms on the board—the first as representative at large from 1972–1974—and was program chair for the 1976 JSM in Boston, among many other ASA activities.


“Several of the faculty and I went to lunch at the Faculty Club and were told females were not allowed.”

I was fortunate to receive scholarships that completely paid for my graduate education and am currently funding several students. My husband, John S. Fielden, and I have made provisions in our wills to endow scholarships for PhD students in statistics through the ASA and Virginia Tech. I retired as chair of the applied statistics program and Russell Professor at the University of Alabama in 1995 and live in Ft. Pierce, Florida, with my husband and dog, Judgie. I am currently preparing the 5th edition of my book with Subha Chakaborti, Nonparametric Statistical Inference.

Three anecdotes will be of interest to females today. When I was searching for an academic position in the Philadelphia area in 1963, I wrote to the chair of the statistics department at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Even though I received no answer to my request for an interview, I visited the department unannounced and met with the chair. He said he hadn’t answered my letter since he never thought he would be interested in hiring a female. We had a pleasant interview, although he did ask me whether my husband and I planned on having children. I received a letter offering me a position as assistant professor two weeks later.

So there I was at age 25 on the faculty at Penn. On my first day, I very hesitantly walked into the classroom of 35 all-male students. Apparently, one young man thought I was a coed and grumbled loudly, “There goes the curve.” Everyone was quite dismayed when I walked up to the lectern at the front of the room.

Later that same year, I was invited by Joe Gastwirth to give a paper at The Johns Hopkins University. Several of the faculty and I went to lunch at the Faculty Club and were told females were not allowed. They sneaked me in to eat, and I suspect the rules were changed shortly after my visit to the campus.

A few bits of advice to females planning an academic career in statistics:

    — Keep your maiden name for professional purposes, no matter how much you love your husband.
    — Spend all of your spare time writing; the more writing you do, the easier it becomes.
    — When you work with a co-author, do at least 70% of the work.
    — Seek out opportunities to actively participate in as many ASA activities as possible; you will be richly rewarded, both personally and professionally.
    — Always behave as a professional person, which is not the same as a professional woman.

And advice to all, especially journal editors: The word “data” is plural.

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