When women count... or how women in maths rock the science!


Good Willa Hunting?

George Pólya, the world famous mathematician said in 1985: „Mathematics is the cheapest science. Unlike physics or chemistry, it does not require any expensive equipment. All one needs for mathematics is a pencil and paper.“ One could add, in one breath – and be a man. Historically, mathematics was socio-culturally perceived as one of the most masculine scientific disciplines. The gender stereotypical image of a mathematician standing by the big green chalk-defaced board is still very alive. Try google the word “mathematician”… As collective of authors in the paper National differences in gender–science stereotypes predict national sex differences in science and math achievement (2006)  showed, stereotypes that men are naturally more talented and interested in math and science are thought to influence the science, technology, engineering, and math aspirations and achievements of boys and girls, men and women. According to the study, women who endorse such stereotypes also report less interest in math and science, and are less likely to pursue a math or science degree. Authors pointed out that reminding women of the “math = male” stereotype, or just unobtrusively highlighting their gender, is sufficient to weaken their performance on a subsequent math or engineering examination. The idea of a mathematician “to be a woman” can still sound a bit weird, even in 2015... Could we maybe imagine a story about an unrecognised genius, the good Willa Hunting? Do the female mathematicians really exist? And did they exist before? 

Mathematic Herstory

Kendra D. Huff in her study Women in Mathematics: An Historical Account of Women's Experiences and Achievement (2011) wrote: “For years, women in the mathematics field have been overlooked, underappreciated and harshly judged based on their gender. Mathematics is seen as a male-dominated field and it has been an uphill battle for women trying to break into the field. Despite this, there have been several women throughout history who have made significant contributions to and impacts in the field of mathematics.” She chose four women from the ancient era to the present, to prove their importance in the field. There are actually many more women in mathematics who essentially contributed to the history of the field and thus created a mathematics herstory. The website Female mathematicians tries to put together all of them across time and countries. Similarly, the website Biographies of Women in Mathematics wants to illustrate the numerous achievements of women in the field of mathematics. Finally, the website Black Women in Mathematics shifts the issue further to the current discourse of intersectionality and notes that less than 1% of all mathematicians are black and 25% of these are women. All these efforts try to show that women have always been present in mathematics, and they still are. The question is why are they invisible then? 

Fix the Numbers

Catherine Hobbs & Esmyr Koomen in their paper Statistics on Women in Mathematics (2005) pointed: “…in many European countries the numbers of women in mathematics has doubled or even trebled. This may suggest a drift towards a mean of around 40-50% representation of women in mathematics.”, and this are really good news. But along with that they suggest: “…the data broken down by region shows that there are distinct profiles of the proportion of women in mathematics in different parts of Europe. There seems to be a clear difference between western/northern European systems and southern/eastern regions. The data for non-European countries is in some sense consistent with this as one could regard the academic systems and cultures of countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand to be more closely related to western European culture than to southern/eastern Europe.“ Londa Schiebinger and Martina Schraudner identified in their paper Interdisciplinary Approaches to Achieving Gendered Innovations in Science, Medicine, and Engineering (2011) three key approaches to gender equality taken by policy makers, institutional administrators, and scientists and engineers over the past three decades. These approaches include: 1. fixing the numbers of women in science, medicine, and engineering; 2. fixing the institutions by removing barriers and transforming structures;  3. fixing the knowledge by incorporating gender analysis into basic and applied research. To fix the numbers means also to have the gender statistics about women and men in science, as the first step of achievement gender equality in science on all the levels. European Commission provides systematic data collection on women in science and public and evaluates it on regular basis. According to the last report She Figures 2012, in EU-27, 861 women and 1854 men PhDs graduated from European universities in Mathematics & Statistics in 2010, and the proportion of female PhD in Science, Mathematics & Computing was 40% in 2010 for EU-27, while science, mathematics and computing (along with engineering, manufacturing and construction) continue to host mainly male PhDs. In addition, mathematics is currently discussed  in the context of educational policies and in a complex disciplinary box worldwide known as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). However, to find current and proper gender statistics specifically in mathematics is not an easy achievable mission.

(In)Visibility and (Under)Representation

But if women are as capable mathematicians as men,  why aren't there more women in mathematical research? Are female mathematicians as ambitious as men? Are the accomplishments of female mathematicians as recognized as those of men? Ask the mathematician Lynne Walling in her YouTube video lecture Women in Mathematics: Ambition in an ambivalent society (2015). Another relevant issue has been discussed by the authors Nicole M. Else-Quest, Janet Shibley Hyde and Marcia C. Linn in their paper Cross-National Patterns of Gender Differences in Mathematics: A Meta-Analysis (2010). They emphasise that a gender gap in mathematics achievement persists in some nations, but not in others. In light of the underrepresentation of women in careers in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering, increasing research attention is being devoted to understanding gender differences in mathematics achievement, attitudes, and affect. Also Greg Martin in his paper Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Mathematics Conferences (2015) pointed out: „Despite significant improvements over the last few generations, the discipline of mathematics still counts a disproportionately small number of women among its practitioners. These women are underrepresented as conference speakers, even more so than the underrepresentation of women among PhD-earners as a whole. This underrepresentation is the result of implicit biases present within all of us, which cause us (on average) to perceive and treat women and men differently and unfairly. These mutually reinforcing biases begin in primary school, remain active through university study, and continue to oppose women’s careers through their effects on hiring, evaluation, awarding of prizes, and inclusion in journal editorial boards and conference organization committees. Underrepresentation of women as conference speakers is a symptom of these biases, but it also serves to perpetuate them; therefore, addressing the inequity at conferences is valuable and necessary for countering this underrepresentation.“ 

Self-empowerment, agency and action

Obviously “pencil and paper” is not enough for being and becoming the mathematician and this fact has many wo-men in mathematics realised. Women in mathematics are actively engaged in encouraging, networking and a wide range of actions and activities. European Women in Mathematics (EWM) as an international association of women working in the field of mathematics wants to encourage women to study mathematics, support them in their careers, and giving prominence and visibility to women mathematicians. EWM has established many national groups and organized national meetings, for instance in Finland or Slovakia. The EMS/EWM Survey Lectures 2016 at the 7th European Congress of Mathematics in Berlin will be held under its leadership. Similarly, the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), an American non-profit organization, wants to encourage women and girls to study and to have active careers in the mathematical sciences, and to promote equal opportunity and equal treatment of women and girls in the mathematical sciences. Also The London Mathematician Society deals with Women in Mathematics / LMS as their priority and actively addresses the issues facing women in mathematics. It is concerned about the loss of women from mathematics, particularly at the higher levels of research and teaching, and at the disadvantages and missed opportunities that this represents for the advancement of mathematics. LMS regularly organizes The Women in Mathematics Day that is an annual event for women in mathematics to get together for a day of talks and discussion groups, while the talks are given by women mathematicians from a range of disciplines who are at various stages in their careers. Some good practices how to support women mathematicians at universities are presented also in the LMS report Advancing Women In Mathematics: Good Practice in UK University Departments (2013). Nevertheless, involving more women in mathematics has to start from the early age at primary schools, and the organizers of European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad (EGMO) definitely knew it when they established this event in 2012 with the aim to encourage girls to develop and pursue their interest in mathematics. Forthcoming EGMO 2016 will be held in Romania. Also from Women in maths videos it is obvious that women in mathematics understand that supporting, encouraging and inspiring each other is that what counts. This quick overview clearly demonstrates that women mathematicians can be inspiring and motivating for researchers across all academic disciplines. Women in maths definitely rock the science.

Do you know about other good practices; are you an author or are you familiar with other interesting resources, projects, initiatives or events about women in maths, which should definitely not be missed on genderportal.eu? Register on the portal for free, become the part of the worldwide on-line community and show that women in maths really count!

PS: Do you know that no woman has been ever awarded the Nobel Prize for mathematics? ­:) 



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