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Why are there so few women mathematicians?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 26-07-2017 Livemint

The 2014 International Congress of Mathematicians held in Seoul received significant attention in India. Among the four winners of the Fields Medal—widely regarded as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in the field of mathematics—was Manjul Bhargava, the first Indian-origin mathematician to achieve the feat. But there was another glass ceiling broken simultaneously. Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University became the first woman to win the Fields Medal since the institution of the prize in 1936. Earlier this month, Mirzakhani succumbed to breast cancer at the relatively young age of 40.

According to Stanford’s news release, the Iranian-born mathematician specialized in moduli spaces, Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry. Her primary area of interest was geometry of curved surfaces like spheres and doughnuts. Mirzakhani was a pioneer in many ways. In 1994, Mirzakhani and her friend Roya Beheshti were the first two women from Iran to participate in the International Mathematical Olympiad. Mirzakhani won a gold medal that year and backed it up with a perfect score next year. Her dissertation at Harvard University solved two long-standing mathematical problems. Unfortunate as her passing is, it also provides an opportunity to examine why women are under-represented in the field of mathematics throughout the world. Mirzakhani’s life is not just an inspiration in itself but can also indicate the way forward for increasing the number of women in mathematics.

The numbers are terrible. According to the 2015 survey by the American Mathematical Society, only 14% of full-time tenured positions in the doctoral math departments are held by women in the US. The numbers in most other parts of the world are likely to be much worse. Chad Topaz and Shilad Sen examined the editorial boards of 435 math journals to find the representation of women in positions of academic leadership. The results were not encouraging: Women occupied only 9% of some 13,000 editorial positions. In fact, one out of every 10 journals did not have a woman editor at all.

A lot of this has to do with a widespread belief among men and women alike that the latter are not good at mathematics. There are a number of studies which show that such a stereotype can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just a question at the beginning of a test asking the gender of the participant can stimulate “stereotype threat” and lead to women performing worse than they are capable of. In a 2008 paper, Stereotype Threat In Applied Settings Re-examined, Kelly Danaher and Christian S. Crandall found that asking the participants their gender after the test substantially improved the women’s test scores. In another paper the same year, Anne Krendl, Jennifer Richeson, William Kelley and Todd Heatherton found that just reminding women of the stereotypes about math ability hampered their capacity to recruit the neural networks that are associated with mathematical learning. Moreover, the reminder actually induces performance anxiety among women, thus negatively affecting their output.

A number of researchers have arrived at the conclusion that a lot depends on the kind of counselling girls receive in their formative years at home and in school. Constant encouragement from parents and teachers can help overcome the stereotype threat. In Mirzakhani’s case, the role of the school principal was crucial. She was determined to send Mirzakhani to the Olympiad despite knowing that no girl from the entire country had been there before. Researchers also recommend regular highlighting of female role models in tackling the stereotype threat.

In an article for The Mathematics Teacher journal, Loretta Kelley argues that teaching biographies of women mathematicians in classrooms can also help. In her article, Kelley does a brief survey of the works of prominent women mathematicians over the centuries and the challenges they had to face. Hypatia (370-415), one of the earliest known mathematicians, was demonized as a pagan woman and killed by a Christian mob. Émilie du Châtelet (1706-49) had to dress like a man to be admitted into a café meant for mathematicians and scientists. Sophie Germain (1776-1831) had to make do with lecture notes as women students were not admitted to the École Polytechnique that was established in Paris in 1794.

Sonya Kovalevsky (1850-91) struggled for the same reason: The Russian universities did not admit women. When she finally secured a position at the University of Stockholm, a Swedish author wrote that “a female professor of mathematics is a pernicious and unpleasant phenomenon”. Emmy Noether (1882-1935), known as the mother of modern algebra, was denied a paid position at the University of Göttingen because—in the words of one of the faculty members—“what will our soldiers think when they return to the University (from World War I) and find that they are expected to learn at the feet of a woman?”

The stereotypes have long been in the making. In India, the situation is exacerbated by social norms that position the girl child as a burden to be gotten rid of by marrying her off as early as possible. Given this context, the Fields Medal, given to below-40 mathematicians, is practically out of the question. But examples like Mirzakhani’s can inspire entire societies. After her death, several Iranian newspapers broke with national tradition and published her photographs without the hijab. India needs a few of its own Mirzakhanis.

What can be done to encourage more women to pursue a career in mathematics? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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