By Francis Su
Los Angeles Times.
Last month, Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman in history to win a Fields Medal, “math’s Nobel Prize.” This is a cause for celebration, but also for reflection.
Things are definitely better than they once were for women in mathematics. In the late 18th century, Sophie Germain, who made significant contributions to number theory despite having no formal schooling, had to use a male pseudonym initially to get the attention of renowned scholars Joseph-Louis Lagrange and Carl Friedrich Gauss, who later mentored her.
Sonia Kovalevsky, a 19th century Russian mathematician now known for her work in mathematical analysis, was only allowed to audit university courses because she was a woman. Ultimately, she earned her doctorate through the private tutoring of a mentor who recognized her talent.
And in the early 20th century, German universities initially refused to hire Emmy Noether because of her gender, even though Albert Einstein spoke on her behalf. As a result, she lectured for several years, unpaid and untitled, while doing the research in symmetry and abstract algebra for which she is still known.
Women may not face such blatant impediments to doing math and science today. But Mirzakhani’s achievement aside, we are still a long way from adequately recognizing the outstanding work of women.
Data gathered by the Association of Women in Science in 2010 show that women in the sciences and mathematics do not win peer recognition at a rate commensurate with their numbers in the profession. For instance, in 2010, women made up 24 percent of all tenure-track mathematics faculty at colleges and universities, but in the decade from 2001 through 2010, they won just 8.7 percent of the research and writing awards from the three major mathematical societies.
The disparity is similar across other sciences. In more than a century of Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics, for example, only six have gone to women (and two of those were to Marie Curie).