Trailblazing in mathematics

To mark International Women’s Day, this post was contributed by Professor Sarah Hart, Head of the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics at Birkbeck.

Here, she explains why there is more to do to ensure representation of women in mathematics – and how that can be achieved

Today is International Women’s Day – a day which as well as celebrating the achievements of women also serves as reminder we still have work to do to achieve gender parity. In my field of mathematics, the last century has seen a series of women pioneers who have blazed a trail for future generations. An example was highlighted in the recent film “Hidden Figures”, which tells the story of the female African-American mathematicians and engineers working at NASA in the 1950s and 1960s. Those women overcame many obstacles, including having to go to court to gain the right to attend graduate classes in engineering. We have come a long way in the last 50 years, but not as far as you may think. For example, in mathematics it is still the case that fewer than 10% of the professors are women.

Could it be the case that women just aren’t as good at maths on average? No. Girls do just as well in maths at school – what happens is that the proportion who choose to pursue maths as a career is lower. This question isn’t even asked in most other areas where women are under-represented – are women “not as good as men” at being MPs? Or judges? The issue is certainly wider than mathematics. As Head of the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics at Birkbeck, I’m very aware that women are underrepresented in the UK in all three of these disciplines. This matters because these fields are missing out on the contributions of those women who aren’t there but could be.

So what can we do? Research has shown that role models are very important. With that in mind, this month the department is involved with organising two events around women in maths and economics. Today, Birkbeck’s student-run Economics and Finance Society is putting on a Women in Economics Event with two eminent economists – Vicky Pryce and Oriana Bandiera – discussing barriers and opportunities, leadership and recognition, quotas and pay gaps. All are welcome to attend.

At the end of March we will be holding an event in collaboration with global investment management firm Winton, aimed at encouraging girls and young women to consider pursuing a career in mathematics. The Winton Women Trailblazers in Mathematics conference will be a two-day event. The first day is for girls in years 11-13 at school, where they can meet women working in mathematics and statistics and get an idea of what it’s like to take the subjects further. The second day, which is also supported by the London Mathematical Society, is a Women in Mathematics day, bringing together postgraduate and postdoctoral students to meet fellow mathematicians and hear from established women mathematicians from academia and industry about their work and careers.

Why are these activities important? Because it is our collective responsibility as a society to do what we can to further gender parity. “But things are changing”, you say. “Professors are old and there are more women doing maths and economics now, they’ll become professors eventually”. The World Economic Forum has calculated that yes, things are indeed changing, but that gender parity will not be achieved until 2186. I’m not prepared to wait that long. Are you?

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