How often have you heard the recurring stereotype that mathematics is for boys, and not for girls? That boys are faster at maths? That boys are good at maths and girls are good at reading? That studying maths is difficult for girls? Although nowadays such stereotypes may seem outdated, a study by the University of Washington found that these stereotypes resulted in children applying it to themselves, and made many boys identify themselves with maths, while girls did not.
The gender gap in maths achievement has been widely studied since the 1960s. Since then, the idea that girls are innately worse at maths than boys has been scientifically debunked. However, the gender disparity in quantitative fields remains significant and grows from high school to university. In university-based mathematical research, it is even more pronounced: from 2014 to 2015, data from the London Mathematical Society showed that although 40 per cent of UK mathematics undergraduates were female, only 9 per cent of UK mathematics professors were female.
Historically, although women had been able to achieve notability in mathematics for centuries, as demonstrated by distinguished mathematical figures such as Elena Cornaro Piscopia, Emilie du Châtelet or Sophie Germain, the field remained largely closed to women prior to the twentieth century. Since then, progress has been achieved, albeit at a slow pace. For instance, in 2014, Maryam Mirzakhani was honoured with the Fields Medal, while in 2019, Karen Uhlenbeck won the Abel Prize. Both were the first and only women to win each prize, which are among the most prestigious awards in mathematics. Yet, women still encounter recurrent obstacles in the field, stemming mostly from these deeply embedded cultural attitudes.
Inspired by Kamilla Rekvényi, School President of Mathematics and Statistics and fifth-year student at the University of St Andrews, I turned to some St Andrews students who study mathematics to inquire about the various aspects of how it feels to be a woman in such a male-dominated field.
What do you imagine when you picture a mathematician? Chances are that if the first image that comes to your mind is one of a man, certain stereotypes do prevail. On that topic, Ms Rekvényi recalls, “Last year, we learned a very substantial theorem called the MacWilliams Theorem. I immediately imagined MacWilliams to be a man and was stunned to find out from my professor’s anecdote that Jessie MacWilliams, was, in fact, an incredibly talented woman mathematician. To me, this confirms that the typical image of a ‘mathematician’ is painted as a picture of a man. The stereotype influenced even me, another woman mathematician, to picture a mathematician as a man whenever I hear a new name.”
Some students also noted the lack of female role models in mathematics, which contributes to the disparity. Everyone knows how important role models are for children and teenagers, especially when they start thinking about their plans for the future. “Mathematics can be wonderful, as it has so many applications and I think these should be shown to students at a young age. However, most girls simply don’t consider it, as they often do not know any female mathematicians,” highlighted fifth-year student Ellen Drexler.
Fifth-year student Clara Henry extends the lack of female role models beyond mathematics to encompass all STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects. “The lack of female representation is a problem across all STEM subjects. Girls and young women often get the impression that it isn’t ‘normal’ to pursue a career in STEM because of the shortage of female role models in these areas. Personally, I have missed out on several opportunities in male-dominated subjects at school because I was either discouraged from partaking or felt out of place,” she said.
When I asked St Andrews maths students about their own role models, they quickly came up with many names. Third-year student Kathleen Pitches, along with others, listed Sophie Germain as one of their inspirations in the field. “She was a self-taught mathematician of the 18th century and wrote to her contemporaries under a male pseudonym. She gained the respect of Lagrange, Legendre, and Gauss alike. She faced many obstacles because of her gender, but it didn’t stop her from learning and excelling in the subject and making significant contributions to the fields of number theory and elasticity theory,” declared Ms Pitches.
Thus, the problem is not that role models in the field do not exist. However, the deeply rooted stereotypes, along with the underrepresentation of these figures in the media, history books and general knowledge can cause a vicious cycle which can perpetuate the lack of women in STEM fields. Having hardly any women maths and science role models can dissuade girls from taking part in those careers, which will consequently leave a lack of role models for the generation that follows.
However, it must be noted that the disparities in university-level mathematics are not uniform. “I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never felt out of place within the mathematics community because of my gender. There’s a fairly even split between male and female undergraduate mathematics students here at the University of St Andrews and I haven’t experienced any direct sexism,” stated Ms Henry while highlighting that indirect sexism and subconscious bias are a lot more difficult to identify. However, she added, “St Andrews is an exception in this regard as most other universities have a far greater gender imbalance.”
On the other hand, Ms Rekvényi recalled more pronounced disparities during her past two summers while doing mathematical research at the University. “Both summers, when I did research in pure math, I was the only woman,” she observed. “I enjoyed the uniqueness most of the time, but I did receive a quite unsettling comment: someone told me that he thought that analysis wasn’t for me and that I should maybe try combinatorics instead, because ‘girls are usually better at that’.”
Thus, what can be done to change the status quo—and bring more women into mathematics, and STEM fields in general? On the academic side, Ms Rekvényi believes that “creating more research grant options specifically for women mathematicians would be amazing, as seeing smart women succeeding in mathematics would inspire young girls to step into their footsteps.”
Additionally, “Teachers should be trained to create a more equal environment in the classroom and to leave aside any biases they have. Young people should be encouraged to take subjects that align with their abilities and interests, regardless of their gender. As well as this, more girls could be encouraged to pursue a career in STEM by making them more aware of women in the field who can act as role models. Personally, I think this would have helped me make a more informed decision when choosing a career path,” emphasised Ms Henry.
However, these academic changes will only be effective if changes are made within society itself, starting with teaching people to not perceive mathematics as a male subject. In Ms Pitches’ opinion, “the non-gendering of children’s hobbies and interests will go some way in allowing girls to foster an interest in Maths and STEM subjects without them wondering if it’s the ‘done’ thing to do.”
It is undeniable that progress has been made when it comes to including women in mathematics. “Even though there is still a glass ceiling to be broken, this is a fascinating time for us female mathematicians as we get to witness huge successes of women in the field,” declared Ms Rekvényi. However, determination and active engagement are required to change the culture as a whole, along with many embedded stereotypes. The same phenomenon occurs in many subjects and walks of life—not just mathematics.