The centuries-long fight for gender equality in maths

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Maths is an inherently male-dominated subject. Hundreds of years of discrimination means there are considerably fewer notable female mathematicians in history than male, and why we are still seeing fewer women involved in maths at a high level even now.

Two years of a maths degree has taught me almost nothing about female mathematicians. Out of hundreds of theorems and results I have used so far, only one has been named after a woman: Noether’s Theorem. I was so excited about this that I put a picture of Emmy Noether into my lecture notes. She is, however, a rarity in the world of maths. The majority of content taught at an undergraduate level is well over a century old, and most of the names I come across daily belong to white male mathematicians from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. This is a feat almost unique to maths. Year upon year, a new cohort of students are taught the same material necessary to have a comprehensive knowledge of mathematics, most of which was discovered by men. Diversifying the curriculum to include the work of more female mathematicians is not straightforward, as the majority of the maths they are noted for is beyond the scope of an undergraduate degree.

Two years of a maths degree has taught me almost nothing about female mathematicians

But why were the fundamentals of mathematics predominantly discovered by men? Europe was the centre of mathematical research for hundreds of years, with countless important results originating there from the 17th century onwards. However, Europe at this time was steeped in sexism, particularly regarding the education of women. Many institutions discouraged or even banned women outright, resulting in the few female mathematicians we know today having to go to extraordinary lengths to learn and research mathematics. Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831) assumed the identity of a former male student to study at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, an institution that did not admit women until 1972, almost 200 years after Germain studied there. Germain revolutionised the study of Fermat’s Last Theorem and adopted the same male pseudonym to write to Gauss about her findings. She revealed her true identity after years of correspondence, stating she feared the “ridicule attached to a female scientist”.            

It is only through wider reading and research that I have discovered the names and important legacies of these women. Emmy Noether’s famous theorem describes the conservation of physical quantities for actions with symmetry, and is often cited as the most beautiful result in mathematical physics. Whilst Noether was able to procure a degree in mathematics in her own name, she was denied an official lectureship at the University of Göttingen on the grounds of her sex. Instead, she taught unofficially for no pay by advertising her courses under the name of a male colleague.

[Noether] was denied an official lectureship at the University of Göttingen on the grounds of her sex

The lack of exposure to female role-models in maths, both historic and current, must surely impact the number of women who choose to pursue it further. In 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani became the first and only female recipient of the Fields Medal, the highest award in mathematics. Whilst her accolade is ground-breaking, the fact that the 59 other recipients are men highlights the modern-day gender disparity in maths. What does this mean for the current generation of aspiring female mathematicians?

The decrease in women’s participation in maths is alarmingly high. With insufficient inspiration, encouragement and advice, the gender imbalance becomes larger at each stage of progression. Females accounted for 29% of A-Level Further Maths students, and for the current academic year, 27% of undergraduates and 21% of postgraduate research students are women in Durham University’s maths department. Furthermore, the HESA reports that 22% of maths academic staff in the UK are female.

Contrary to these figures, there is no biological reason for men to be better at maths, yet they have flourished whilst women have been left in the minority. Whilst the percentage of girls who pass GCSE maths is higher, research undertaken by the OECD found they have a lower maths self-concept than boys of the same ability. The reasons for this are largely unknown but could stem from negative gender stereotypes imposed from a young age.

Mathematics’ rich history means the social barriers in place for females hundreds of years ago are still having repercussions now, despite discrimination being far less explicit. How much talent has been lost over this time by limiting mathematical research to only a fraction of the population? Breaking such a deep-rooted system is difficult, and I too am still witnessing these repercussions. Transitioning from a very inclusive school to the predominantly male world of university mathematics highlighted this to me. It seems as though we are in a cycle that has yet to be fully broken by each generation.

Image: Jeremy Mikkola via Flickr

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