Who’s the first female mathematician that you can think of?
If you’re drawing a blank, you’re not alone. And it’s about time we talk about why.
As a female with a science degree, I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t even heard of Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to ever win the Fields Medal (the maths equivalent of a Nobel Prize). It wasn’t until she died of breast cancer in 2017 that many heard her name for the first time.
You’re also not alone if you, a woman, dropped maths at school or university at the first opportunity. I dragged my feet unenthusiastically through years of algebra, statistics, and calculus, just enough to get me into a university science program. But what if I wasn’t as hopeless at maths as I thought I was? Things might have been different if I’d known how much evidence suggests girls like me are systematically pushed away from the subject. Despite huge achievements in gender-equality worldwide, equal representation in scientific fields, especially maths, lags behind.
In my girl’s-only high school, it didn’t occur to me that maths was “a boy’s thing”. In fact, it was something I excelled at. It was only when I was 16-18, in my majority male sixth form, where I felt I started to struggle. Now obviously, the difficulty of the calculations had increased as I progressed; nevertheless, for the first time I was compared to and influenced by male classmates.
In the past, it has been argued that male brains are wired in a way that justifies boys being ‘better’ at maths. However, there is little biological evidence to really support this. What’s more likely, and what concerns researchers now, is that the cultural stereotype of male superiority in maths has a massive influence on high-achieving girls abandoning the subject.
There are many factors possibly impacting this outcome. Psychological research shows the environment in the home and the classroom has a major effect. As traditional gender roles are accepted and encouraged, the gap between boys’ and girls’ maths scores grows larger.
While definitive evidence that male brains have superior mathematic ability has not been found, it’s still nearly impossible to separate the possible genetic and social factors at play. If girls are made to believe they aren’t as capable, they can end up perpetuating this stereotype regardless of real ability. This is a well-documented psychological phenomenon, known as stereotype threat. People can unconsciously act to fit in with their stereotype once they are made aware of it. In this case, girls who are perform just as well as boys may show lower maths results when they find out that supposedly ‘boys are better at maths than girls’.
Other studies have found that students invest the most effort in subjects where they see a future career. With relatively few famous female figures in science and mathematics, it is no surprise that girls may not see themselves represented.
The way that maths is marketed and taught is pushing women away from maths-based careers, and may affect other commonly observed problems in gender-equality. Because advanced maths qualifications are correlated with higher incomes, it may have a knock-on effect in increasing the wage-gap.
I doubt that I could ever have been the next Maryam Mirzakhani. And I’ve never claimed that maths was was my strong point. Gender-roles aside, if I’d had the motivation to pursue advanced level maths, I don’t doubt that with a LOT of work, I could have done so. However, its that lack of motivation which may have been perpetuated by the educational system in place. Many of the cases where women drop maths are influenced by multiple, invisible, or undefinable factors, so its near-impossible to set them all out. But given the lack of evidence for boys being better, this was certainly the impression we have been handed in school, and something we desperately need to fix.
Written by Fiona Batchelor