Contrary to popular belief, Alfred Nobel’s wife did not have an affair with a mathematician that discouraged Nobel’s commemoration of mathematics among the likes of physics, chemistry, literature, peace, medicine, and economics.
In fact, Nobel never even married.
The absence of mathematics from the long list of Nobel Prizes somewhat parallels another: celebrated women in STEM.
Recently, though, promise has surfaced.
On August 12th, the International Mathematical Union announced the four recipients of the prestigious Fields Medal (the “Nobel Prize” for mathematics) – among them, a female.
37-year-old Maryam Mirzakhani, a Harvard-educated Stanford professor, became not only the first Iranian to be awarded the prize given every four years, but also the first woman – a striking breakthrough in a discipline that has long been perceived as “a male preserve,” dubbed by Oxford Professor Dame Frances Kirwan of the medal selection committee.
Professor Kirwan, a female herself, points out that although 40% of undergraduates pursuing mathematics in the United Kingdom are women, the proportion of Ph.D. candidates rapidly declines.
U.S. statistics concur.
According to a 2010 Current Directions in Psychological Science publication titled “Sex Differences in Math-Intensive Fields,” Cornell Professors Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams cite that out of the top 100 United States universities, only “9% to 16% of tenure-track positions in math-intensive fields are occupied by women.”
Additionally, The College Board’s released data on the 2013 SAT results further illustrate these discrepancies at even earlier ages. Dating back to at least 1972, according to the American Enterprise Institute, high school boys in 2013 have again scored higher than their female counterparts on the SAT mathematics portion with an average score of 531 points compared to an average of 499 – a 32 point difference just one point shy of 2012’s.
This disparity, along with the 2013 Department of Commerce report highlighting a 74% male-dominated STEM industry, is highly unusual considering that females are by no means lower-quality or lesser-prepared students.
In fact, for the 2013 SAT test-takers, females occupied both the majority (56%) of the graduating students in the top 10 percent of their classes and the majority (59%) of the graduating students with an A+ GPA. The same group of female high school students were more over-represented in advanced/AP/Honors math and science classes as well.
So the remaining question is, why has this noticeable gender gap endured for so long?
After all, at least according to high school data, female students are actually better prepared to enter STEM fields, which includes mathematics, than their male peers.
University of Wisconsin psychologist Janet Hyde attributes these differences to psychological factors, including those involving self-confidence.
“Even when girls are getting better grades, boys are more confident in math. It’s important to understand what might be sapping girls’ confidence,” explains Hyde.
For Ms. Mirzakhani, who has since contributed a plethora of mathematical accomplishments stemming from her youth in Iran, self-confidence should have never been an issue (though it was).
Born in Tehran, Mirzakhani’s extraordinary gift for solving mathematical problems deterred her from initial dreams of becoming a writer. In her time at the Farzanegan middle school for girls, however, Mirzakhani’s confidence suffered after a lackluster performances in mathematics the first year. Her interest in math gradually declined as her confidence was seemingly undermined. Later, a more encouraging teacher would spark Mirzakhani’s mathematical gift that eventually led to gold medals and a perfect score at the International Math Olympiads. Like Hyde, Mirzakhani underlines the importance of self-confidence – a perfect example to help alleviate the gender gap that is undoubtedly partially caused by intangible factors.
Society needs to stress equitable opportunity (even if it’s not there at the moment) for women interested in disciplines such as mathematics, in hope of eliminating past trends and false, demoralizing stereotypes (i.e. boys are naturally better at math).
Maryam Mirzakhani would eventually attend graduate school at Harvard, where she was serendipitously mentored by Fields medalist Curtis McMullen, a man who vividly recalls her versatile imagination and curiosity with hyperbolic shapes.
In 2008, Maryam became a mathematics professor at Stanford, where her research into surface geometry continues.
Professor Mirzakhani’s theoretical work in the fields of geometry and dynamical systems, focused on understanding the symmetry of surfaces such as spheres and doughnuts, has boundless implications for physics and natural problems involving the Sun, Moon, and Earth. Mirzakhani found that certain dynamical systems that twist and stretch their shape “are tightly constrained to follow algebraic laws.”
“[Maryam’s example is] the sort of thing which will really catch the public’s imagination – and as a result I think it could have quite an impact on a new generation,” says Applied Mathematics Professor Alison Etheridge of Oxford.
Professor Mirzakhani also upholds this encouraging trend stating, “I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years.”
*flashback to Robin Williams’ scene in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting*
INT. OFFICE – DAY
“Oh, you arrogant shit!” Exclaims Sean Maguire (played by Williams).
“You and your kiss-ass chorus following you around going, ‘The Fields Medal! The Fields Medal!’”
Note: the ‘arrogant shit’ Williams (aptly?) refers to is a man.
Image Credit: International Mathematical Union: Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maryam_Mirzakhani#mediaviewer/File:Maryam_Mirzakhani_2014-08-12_18-14.jpg