A voice of reason in CiF

It would have to be a mathmo, wouldn't it? Sam Howison, an applied maths professor, looks at why the first 50 Fields medal winners were uniformly male and, refreshingly, comes up with a range of explanations with the starting point that there just aren't many female mathmos:

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.
It's indisputably true that you don't find anything like a 50% proportion of women at the top level of maths, or theoretical computer science for that matter. On the other hand, in my experience the women that you do find there aren't obviously any less smart and capable than the men, so if you were making randomized choices based on intellect you'd expect women to be far more frequent in Fields medal holders than they are.

This year, Stanford professor Maryam Mirzakhani won a Fields medal. She's clearly a hard-core pure mathmo; I defy anyone with anything less than a Ph.D. in maths to read about her research interests and not have their brain leak out of their ears. This is not just "I don't understand what this is about", this is "I can't even picture the most basic explanation of this in my head". Compared to that, even Fermat's Last Theorem was a walk in the park - solving polynomial equations is standard A-level fare, and even if you can't understand what Andrew Wiles did to prove it you can at least understand the problem. With Mirzakhani's work, you have no frame of reference, you're like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie.

Howison's point about the astronomical odds of the Fields medal award gender distribution (50 tails in 51 unbiased coin tosses) is a nice point of probability, but of course the first place you'd start is to look at the eligible pool - top-flight mathematicians, generally at (UK) professor level, with a substantial track record of publishing. That will tell you your bias; if 1 in 10 people in the pool are female, you're tossing a biased coin which will show tails 9 times out of 10. Still, it's pretty clear that even with that pool the Fields medal gender split is way out of line with what you'd expect.

Howison makes an interesting point that I hadn't considered up to now:

[...] 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?
The usual reason for explaining the lack of women in senior positions in Fortune 500 firms (banks, Big Pharma etc.) is that they're not as good at men at talking their own book, preferring to be more even-handed in giving credit for the achievements in which they'd participated. However, Howison tantalisingly hints at a squaring function in gender representation here - will junior female mathmos only get good support and PR from a senior female mentor, and do such senior female mathmos pick up juniors with a blind eye to gender? It would be fascinating to get some data here.

I do wonder whether that perennial topic in gender discrimination, motherhood, plays a role here. Because the Fields medal only goes to people younger than 40 - Andrew Wiles, who cracked Fermat's Last Theorem, was a notable omission from its holders due to his age - if you take time out from academe to have children then this disproportionately affects your time where you're eligible for a Fields medal. The Guardian interviewed this year's sole female awardee, Maryam Mirzakhani but she didn't make any comment about her family life so I have no idea if she has kids.

So mad props to Maryam Mirzakhani for being the first female winner of the Fields medal, and here's to hoping for many more. Apart from anything else, if we can start to get some data on what factors determine female Fields medal winners we might have a hazy glimpse of what we need to fix in the academic lifecycle to get more top-flight women choosing to follow it.

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments are subject to retrospective moderation. I will only reject spam, gratuitous abuse, and wilful stupidity.