A woman finally wins the Fields Medal after 50 years. Why did it take so long?

Finally, after more than 50 male winners, a Fields Medal goes to a woman mathematician, Maryam Mirzakhani. If you tossed a coin 51 times, your probability of 50 tails then a head would be less than one in 2,250,000,000,000,000; but nowadays close to half of maths undergraduates are women. That is a pretty stark juxtaposition. Does Mirzakhani’s success mark a turning point in the battle for women to gain more recognition in mathematics?

All Fields medallists are outstanding in the literal sense of the word – their achievements surpass almost everybody else’s. Their confluence of raw ability, personality, upbringing, education, support and mentoring, as well as simple good fortune, is right out in the far tail of the distribution of such things. Data is scarce in this rarefied region, and hypotheses are hard to test; so, too, is the influence of the culture of their chosen field. Nevertheless, such astronomical odds of a woman winning the medal are disturbing, and they are just an extreme point of a range of evidence that women are underrepresented in mathematics at many levels.

An intellectually honest (albeit politically loaded) starting point is the question: is innate talent (whatever that means) even slightly different between women and men, perhaps especially at the very top? Even in ideal circumstances it would be very hard to answer – perhaps neural imaging techniques will eventually help – but even if there is a difference, detecting it is immensely complicated by the social and cultural setting.

For example, there is evidence that women with excellent mathematical skills are likely also to have excellent verbal skills, which is less so for their male counterparts; and so they have a greater range of opportunities in life, and may leave the quantitative careers to the men. In which case, does a predominance of men in quantitative jobs indicate a difference in quantitative ability? There are other social factors, too. Women can bear children, men cannot, and the demands of parenthood conflict directly with the need for the sustained concentration that is so often crucial in cracking a mathematical problem.

Moving away from any question of innate differences, people with successful careers have usually had a high degree of support from a mentor. As well as providing academic guidance and inspiration (as Mirzakhani freely acknowledges she had when a student), the mentor will introduce their charge to influential colleagues on the conference circuit and elsewhere, and arrange invitations to speak at seminars and workshops. That is one way for a young mathematician to get their work noticed, and to improve their chances of getting a position in a world-leading department where they can thrive. Is this perhaps (if only subconsciously) difficult for women in a community where the majority are men? Another confounding issue and one for us all to be aware of as we mentor our own younger colleagues.

Perhaps awareness is the main point. Despite rumours to the contrary, mathematicians are people too, and the community of mathematicians is part of society as a whole. Whatever issues we have are universal ones – magnified, perhaps, by our special milieu, but not unique. Like everybody else, we need to be conscious of our biases, and make adjustments accordingly. We can all agree that there is a huge amount of work still to be done on a whole range of fronts. This is widely recognised by mathematicians, and in recent years there has been a sustained effort by the mathematical community to support women at all levels. Maryam Mirzakhani’s award is tangible evidence that it is bearing fruit.

- Source: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/13/woman-wins-fields-medal-odds-maryam-mirzakhani


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