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Thursday, April 25, 2019

Women in Maths | Interviews - The Saint

Deputy Features Editor Alice Bessonova speaks with Kamilla Rekvényi, School President of Mathematics and Statistics, and other mathematicians, about the representation of women in the field, highlighting false assumptions about role models and entrenched stereotypes.

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?  asks Deputy Features Editor Alice Bessonova, The Saint.
Photo: Alice Bessonova
Although nowadays such stereotypes may seem outdated, a study by the University of Washington found that these stereotypes resulted in children applying it to themselves, and made many boys identify themselves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...

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.  

Source: The Saint