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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Prime Number: Women mathematicians speak about surviving in a man’s world

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Paromita Chakrabarti writes, "The mathematical tradition in India has been robust since the time of Aryabhata and contemporary women mathematicians occupy central positions in it."

The distance between Isfahan in Iran and New Delhi is a daunting 2,450 km. But on a July morning in 2007, when Farkhondeh Sajadi found herself in India to join the Indian Statistical Institute for her doctoral degree, she knew, even amidst the anxiety of new beginnings, this was the city that had the possibility of fulfilling her dreams of a career in academia. An MSc in mathematics from the Isfahan University of Technology, she had a few opportunities to go to the West, but India was closer home, with a reputation of being a heavyweight in mathematics, and it seemed more appropriate to come here.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, the educational system has undergone several changes, but the emphasis on academic and technical training remains. Participation in math Olympiads both at the national and international levels has become common. Every year, Konkur or the Iranian University Entrance Exam sees a steady stream of candidates eager for a chance at higher education.
“Since the 1990s, there has been a significant increase in Iranian women’s participation in higher education. In 2013, the number of girls among 36 top-ranked students at the Konkur was 14, but this year, it is 18 among 36, which means the male-female ratio is the same,” says Sajadi, 37, who completed her PhD last year.

But even if higher education is not an issue, continuing in research often becomes difficult. Many families are unwilling to let women travel abroad, and with marriage and children, a lot of women give up their research goals. India proved to be a happy outpost for Sajadi, and she had the occasion to bump into Maryam Mirzakhani, a 37-year-old fellow Iranian professor from Stanford, at the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) held in Hyderabad in 2010. The quadrennial mathematical meet organised by the the International Mathematical Union (IMU) draws top mathematicians from around the world for lecture sessions and to award the Fields Medals — considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for the subject — to two to four outstanding mathematicians under 40. During their student days in Iran, Mirzakhani was somewhat of an icon already, tales of her two gold medals — including one where she had a perfect score — at successive international math Olympiads was common knowledge among students.
“It was a brief meeting, but I told her how she was an inspiration for so many of us trying to make a career in maths,” says Sajadi, who has since moved back to Isfahan and joined Iran’s Social Security Organisation as a statistical expert.

Sujatha Ramdorai; Kavita Ramanan and Jennifer Chayes
Photo: The Indian Express

Four years later, when news of Mirzakhani’s Fields Medal win for her “outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces” broke last week at the ICM in Seoul, for mathematicians like Sajadi, it was something whose time had long come. Since its inception in 1936, the winner of all the 52 Fields Medals has been male, indicative of how, at its core, mathematics remains an inherently male bastion across the world. For every woman who succeeds in the intensely competitive field, there are many others who drop off the radar at an early stage, unable to keep up with the multiple roles they are supposed to play, the incessant pressure of self-doubt and the need to prove oneself time and again. There are other overt and veiled patriarchal binds as well, including often, the notion that boys are better at the sciences than girls.

There’s been perceptible improvement over time, with the IMU electing its first woman president, Ingrid Daubechies, in 2011. But even in the US, the land of equal opportunities, the ratio of women who hold tenured positions in mathematical sciences at top universities hasn’t risen significantly in the last decade, though many women now occupy top jobs at leading universities. 

“My experience as a mathematician has been positive. However, the percentage of tenured women faculty in higher-ranked mathematics departments in the US remains low. There have been concerted efforts in the US to promote equal opportunity for women in mathematics. Some of these have achieved moderate success, but there is still a minority that misconstrues these initiatives as preferential treatment,” says Kavita Ramanan, professor of applied mathematics at Brown University. “Some women find it harder to balance family and work, especially when they are expected to prioritise their partners’ careers over their own,” she says.

Like Ramdorai, Jennifer Tour Chayes, 57, distinguished scientist and managing director of Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which she co-founded in 2008, says it’s a problem that is not specific to maths alone, but to the sciences. During her four years at Princeton University, she recalls not seeing “one woman get a PhD before me in mathematics or physics. A few women were admitted, but all either dropped out, or took a very long time to finish. There just wasn’t a critical mass of women for a healthy or encouraging atmosphere,” she says.
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Source: The Indian Express