Maryam Mirzakhani became a professor at Stanford University at the age of 31.

Women take up more space in mathematics

Svenska 2015-01-08

The Iranian-American Mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani has become the first woman to be awarded the Fields medal – the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize.”This is a big breakthrough as women have had a hard time claiming their rightful place within the field of mathematics,” says Gerd Brandell researcher in Mathematics Education.

The field of mathematics is one of the last male strongholds in the world of research. Therefore, Maryam Mirzakhani has received widespread attention upon becoming the first woman to receive the Fields medal, which is awarded every four years to young researchers.

“This will mean an awful lot. It is an enormous honour and a great breakthrough,” says mathematician Gerd Brandell, at Lund University who researches gender issues within the field of mathematics.

Very Fortunate

Maryam Mirzakhani received the award for her research on sophisticated calculations of geometric structures and curved surfaces.  In interviews she has expressed how much the permissive attitude she experienced during her upbringing in Tehran has meant for her as a mathematician.

She grew up during the First Persian Gulf War, in a family where the children were encouraged to be creative, despite the difficult circumstances in the external world.

“I was fortunate in many ways. The war ended during my first years at school and had I been born ten years before, I would not have had the same opportunities.  I attended a prominent elementary school in Tehran and I had good teachers. Our principal was a strong-willed woman who went a long way to ensure that the girls and the boys had the same opportunities”, Maryam Mirzakhani has said in an earlier interview.

Her talent was recognized as early as in her teenage years when she won the gold medal two years in a row at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). After achieving a Bachelor’s degree from the Sharif University of Technology, she moved to the United States where she carried out her doctoral training at Harvard. In 2008, at the age of 31, she was appointed as a professor at Stanford University in California.

The increasing participation of women

Mathematician Gerd Brandell has noted that since the 1980s, women have become more involved in mathematical research. It is not happening quickly, but she argues that there has been a clear development. When she started her career in the 1960s there were only two female senior lecturers in Mathematics in Sweden, and not a single professor.

Many countries have progressed further than Sweden. There are still very few female professors of mathematics in Sweden – despite Sweden being home to the first ever female mathematics professor: Russian-born Sonja Kovalevsky.

When Gerd Brandell reviewed a number of mathematics professors a couple of years ago, she demonstrated that only about ten per cent of around 100 Swedish professors were women and many of them had written their theses abroad. And of senior lecturers, only one in five are women.

“Mathematics is perhaps one of the most male dominated subjects, it is very strongly associated with masculinity. You have to be logical, rational and clear-minded. This stands in contrast to femininity which is related to emotional, illogical behaviour – the exact opposite of what mathematics stands for.”

She argues that there is a myth that, in the name of logic, you should not allow your emotions to interfere with your research.  However, this is not how it works in practice; there are a lot of emotions in research such as competition, disappointment, or handling creativity.

Prevailing differences in attitude

In a newly released anthology from Lund University, Gerd Brandell discusses different gendered aspects of mathematics, such as attitudes, learning outcomes and participation in advanced education. She concludes that the differences in performance between the sexes has practically disappeared, however differences in attitude and participation prevail.

One example of this is that girls are less confident and have lower self-esteem than boys when it comes to learning mathematics and solving mathematical problems – despite having good, or even better results. Studies from many different countries demonstrate this fact.

In Sweden, fewer girls than boys take advanced mathematics courses at upper-secondary school.  Therefore, fewer girls go on to take “math-intensive” programmes at University. Only a third of the students on these programmes are women and, like in most European countries, there is a low percentage of women that have a PhD in mathematics.

Gerd Brandell believes that one reason why women are beginning to stake their claim in the field of mathematics is because they are working in active networks. One of the first was the Association for Women in Mathematics, AWM, that was founded in 1971 in the United States. The International Organization of Women and Mathematics Education, IOWME, started in 1976 and European Women in Mathematics, EWM, came ten years later. In Sweden, the network “Kvinnor och matematik” [Women and Mathematics] started in 1990.

Losing talented women

Gerd Brandell has worked at KTH and at Luleå and Lund Universities. She has had good experiences at most of the departments where she has worked. However, she knows that there are many mathematics departments where women have not felt welcome and have not felt like they fitted in. She has seen many examples of women that could have become good mathematical researchers but who left the academic world.

“It is a shame that the development process is so slow, because we are losing a lot of talented women along the way.”

Text: Helena Östlund
Photo: Stanford University / Maryam Mirzakhani

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