Back in the day*, I had dreams of discovering the next prime number. Somewhere in my youth, I had been told that whoever could find a prime number that hadn’t been discovered yet was awarded up to $100000, along with being immortalized in mathematical history. I was in it purely for the search. Say what you will about art (?) that creates theorem upon theorem that ultimately leads nowhere but theoretical heaven–but there’s always been something about math that gets me every time.
*Note: when I say ‘back in the day’, I may or may not be talking about a couple days ago
Pure mathematics is something that most people give up after high school (and I am allowed to say most because of the single digit attendance rates in most of my courses) but it is an area that has recently been given some much needed attention in the form of an international conference. A few weeks ago, the International Congress of Mathematics was held in Hyderabad, India and this year its focus was on women.
The new addition was called the International Congress of Women Mathematicians. While I would argue that they shouldn’t have to divide (or separate) the congress in order to make women their focus (which reminds me of the similar TED situation earlier this year), I do appreciate their intentions. Last week, all five of my little sisters went back to school—one entered kindergarten, three returned to elementary, one entered high school. Now, I’m not the type of brother to say ‘you should go into mathematics because the numbers control your mind!’, but I do think its exposure to the youngsters could be upped (and perhaps made to not look so boring and or daunting).
The ICWM brought in 300 women in an attempt to ‘break the myth that women can’t handle maths’. One speaker, Subodh Varma, emphasized the importance of encouraging young people to pursue mathematics and also reminded the audience that the decrease in math majors was not merely a country specific phenomenon but one that exists in North America and Europe.
In most countries there are still many fewer women than men who are university mathematics professors, so it is correspondingly harder to find a woman who has the right level of international recognition and who is also willing to serve. In my case, this came at the right time, when my children have left the household, and I don’t have other obligations that would make it hard to accept the job. The relative scarcity of women is a cultural phenomenon. In Europe, for instance, it varies enormously, to an extent that surely cannot be explained by “intrinsic” factors. Once the pattern is broken, the field will start attracting more women who, in turn, will be role models for a new generation and make mathematics more of an obvious choice for women. – Subodh Varma, when asked why there are so few women in the top levels of mathematics
Varma makes a good point. While in my lectures, there didn’t seem to be a disproportionate amount of male to female students, I didn’t once have a female lecturer. In fact, there were only a handful of women professors in the entire department. With that in mind, it is difficult to see why there is such a large lack of women pursuing (or perhaps being accepted) into mathematics and it is equally as difficult to see where the solution lies. The key, I think, is to start young enough that stereotypes and expectations aren’t able to climb higher than their mathematical ambitions.
I think what bests sums up what I am trying to articulate are these three webcomics over at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. The point is that the ICWM shouldn’t be a one off. The spotlight on women mathematicians shouldn’t be a moving spotlight; it should be there from youth and continue onwards. Statistics shouldn’t tell me that likely none of my sisters will pursue the maths; likelihood should at least be an option.
For those unfamiliar with the ‘equation’ in the title… behold.