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Saturday, November 04, 2017

Women in maths: why the numbers don’t add up | Varsity Online

"Varsity speaks to Cambridge academics to get to the bottom of why women are so underrepresented in the subject" notes Stephanie Stacey, Varsity Online.

Concerns have been raised about the low proportion of female maths graduates.
Photo: Louis Ashworth

127 years after Philippa Fawcett became the first woman to top the Mathematical Tripos, women remain largely underrepresented in mathematics, making up only 17% of undergraduates admitted to Cambridge in 2017.

Although Cambridge’s admissions statistics may seem particularly shocking, they reflect a broader lack of participation in maths by female students. Even at secondary school level, certain subjects show large gender imbalances, with women making up less than 30% of students taking A-levels in further maths, physics, and computing. The low visibility of women in maths “simultaneously reflects and reinforces the stereotype of these being ‘male subjects’,” according to the Emmy Noether Society, which works to support women studying mathematical sciences.

Professor Julia Gog, director of studies at Queens’ College and member of the Maths Undergraduate Admissions Committee, spoke to Varsity about the early factors which influence a woman’s later career. She suggested that “gendered interests and roles are shaped by external forces from even the first few months of life, and I firmly believe this is limiting the number of women in STEM subjects in this country.”

“While we can and do work hard in our outreach in attracting applicants of all kinds, clearly that can’t cut through a lifetime of being implicitly (or occasionally explicitly) told that maths is not for people like you.”

The gender imbalance in mathematics is greater at Cambridge than at most other UK universities, with women making up an 41% of students achieving an undergraduate qualification in mathematical sciences across the UK in 2013/14, according to figures published by the WISE Campaign. Over the same period, the proportion of female mathematicians graduating from Cambridge was less than half the national figure.

In response to this disparity, Dr Orsola Rath Spivack, an admissions officer for the Mathematics faculty, said that “because of the combination of the discouragement for women towards appropriate pre-university qualifications in maths and science, and the high entry level we require, the pool of female candidates that we can address is small compared to most other UK universities.”

She noted, however, that “even when comparing with Oxford who have similar pre-requisites, Cambridge’s proportion of female undergraduates is lower.”

Source: Varsity Online