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Merit Matters Most: Meet Jean D. Gibbons

1 July 2014 No Comment
Amy Munice, ALM Communications

Jean Gibbons

Jean Gibbons

At 34, she was probably the youngest female ever elected as a Fellow of the American Statistical Association. She also was an ASA board member for four terms and the first chair of the Committee on Women in Statistics, but you would make a big mistake in suggesting to Jean D. Gibbons that she is a “woman’s woman.”

“Statistician’s statistician” would be the more apt moniker.

She graduated in 1958 magna cum laude with an AB in mathematics from Duke University, and then earned her master’s from Duke and PhD from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Statistics in 1962 (at age 24). While working on her PhD, she also taught at Mercer University and the University of Cincinnati. Her publication history is legion. An expert in nonparametric statistical inference, her first book on that subject was published in 1970 and is now in its fifth edition. She has penned 10 scholarly books on statistics and published nearly 100 articles on topics as wide ranging as statistics in sports to tourism. Many articles focused on statistical methods.

Gibbons states, “I’m happy to be a role model for young women, but I also like being a role model for young men. One of my pet peeves is that some women expect special consideration just because they are women. It’s not appropriate. If a woman wants to succeed in any career, she has to do it on her own merits.

“As a role model, I want to show women that it can be done. You have to be exceptional to succeed in a male-dominated world. Today’s women statisticians have the opportunity to be hired at salaries commensurate with their male counterparts. But then they disappear from the scene. My feeling is that they do so because they don’t wish to compete.

Gibbons has little sympathy for women who are not willing to give their all to their career. Gibbons, who made her mark in the profession without any help from the affirmative action laws, says, “The difficulty for women statisticians today is in competing for advancement and tenure. You have to be willing to give up an emphasis on certain things that you hold dear, like advising students and acting as a mentor. You need to be more self-centered and concentrate on advancing your career.

“The way some women behave gives women as a whole a bad image. My brief experience with the AAUW (American Association of University Women) has reinforced this view. I was appointed to an office that offered legal advice to women who felt they were being discriminated against because they were female. I very much am against discrimination of any kind. However, I discovered that AAUW expected to support all women who made such claims. The assumption was that if you were female and not promoted, the only reason could be discrimination. This kind of thinking gives women as a whole a bad mark. I think now and will always think—the merits of any case must be investigated before support can be given.”

This is no small matter to Gibbons and an area in which she will not brook compromise, even if there is a personal cost to her in refusing to do so. Years ago, she lost a dear friend—a fellow female faculty member—who was incensed that Gibbons voted against granting tenure and promotion to a female who had not published enough. Her friend never spoke to her again. But to Gibbons, the idea of supporting a candidate simply because she is female was and is absolutely unthinkable.

You—male or female—can look to Gibbons’ life story as an example of how merit matters most with hard work sealing success. She reached the heights of the profession without any special treatment. She’s smart enough to be at the top and she knows it. And she also knows her hard work and thick skin got her to the top, or as she puts it, “You’ve got to be willing to give more than 100% of yourself to be successful, and you have to be willing to sacrifice a lot.”

There is no happy memory of her parents encouraging her to succeed. Quite the contrary, her exemplary math skills were of no interest to them. Rather, they expected her to pursue a more feminine career such as nursing or teaching and devote herself to giving them grandchildren. Even when she earned her doctorate in statistics from Virginia Tech, parental approval was not forthcoming. Gibbons shares, “It didn’t change their attitudes. … They weren’t interested in my career and wanted me to devote more time to traditional female activities. They weren’t impressed.” She continues, chuckling, “Of course, this just made me work harder for the approval that would never come.”

The shyness Gibbons now says plagued her younger years was nowhere to be found when it came to her profession. Imagine the moxie of a recently minted PhD walking uninvited into the Wharton offices and asking why she hadn’t received a response to her job application. The department chair confided that he’d never considered hiring a female. Meeting Gibbons changed his views, however. She was hired, a rare young female faculty member in 1963. She was so young that she could easily be mistaken for one of her students—except they were all male.

Yet, Gibbons will tell you she made several mistakes in her life that affected her career, and they were the kind of mistakes that only women make. She says, “The thing I regret most in my career is not keeping my maiden name of Dickinson. No matter how much you love your husband, you just shouldn’t change your name. It was especially terrible that when I married for a second time, I had to change my name again.

“I accepted a secondary role in my marriages and I regret this. I had a much better position at the University of Pennsylvania, but instead of staying there, I followed my then husband to teach at the University of Alabama. I resented it terribly. If it had been five years later, when divorce was more acceptable, I would never have considered the move, but instead would have chosen to remain at the better university.”
That said, it would be wrong to think of Gibbons as a hard-boiled woman who never knew marital bliss. As circumstances would have it, she met her second husband in Alabama and decided to stay on as a bigger fish in a smaller pond because that was where he was. Because he was 15 years her senior, she took an early retirement at the age of 57. No regrets there, as it allowed a decade of constant companionship. During that time, they wrote together the self-help book on writing Throw Me the Bottom Line, I’m Drowning in Email.

Unfortunately, their joy was robbed when her husband developed Alzheimer’s. She says, “He was 15 years older than I. I knew when I married him that I would likely outlive him, but I didn’t expect the Alzheimer’s. He was brilliant, and you tend to think that a brain like that will continue forever. It’s a terrible disease, making an adult into an infant, and it’s difficult to watch.”

In hopes that she can help other older people avoid Alzheimer’s by keeping their minds active, Gibbons now devotes some of her time to a life-long learning program. She endowed the Fielden Institute for Lifelong Learning at Indian River State College in Florida to honor her late husband, John Fielden. There, she teaches not statistics, but a course on books and their film adaptations.

She has not forgotten her roots in statistics, however. Gibbons gives annual scholarships to students in statistics at Virginia Tech. These awards are for both males and females and are based solely on merit.

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