International Women’s Day is dedicated to celebrating women’s achievements while raising awareness about the discrimination women face. The day strives to promote the need for gender parity and to work together to #EmbraceEquity. The history of women in maths is a fabulous lens through which to view this mission.
If you asked your students to name a famous mathematician, how many would know about Florence Nightingale and the difference she made as a statistician? Or Katherine Johnson and her contribution to space exploration? Or Ada Lovelace as “the first computer programmer”?
Hopefully, some will know of these amazing women and how they used maths to change the world, but what about Joan Clarke – instrumental in breaking the Enigma code but unrecognised in her lifetime? Or Emmy Noether, who made considerable contributions to the areas of abstract algebra and theoretical physics? Or Maryam Mirzakhani, the first female winner of the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics, in 2014?
It is a sad truth that women have historically faced challenges; women were even prohibited from studying maths. Many of those who did succeed were not recognised in their lifetimes or even afterwards for what they achieved.
Of course, thankfully, times have moved on and more recently we have a much larger number of female mathematicians being recognised for their contributions.
Who in the maths world has not heard of the phenomenal Hannah Fry – mathematician, author, presenter, and lecturer? The mathematician and poet Harry Baker said Fry helped him realise “you could be really smart and choose to use it to be silly and entertaining in a rigorous way, all at the same time”, something Harry demonstrates in his work.
Shakuntala Devi, who was called the “human computer” due to her spectacular mathematical skills, is less well-known but no less talented. For example, she could multiply two randomly chosen 13 -digit numbers together in 28 seconds! She was also an LGBQT+ ally and wrote a book in 1977 where she said, “Immorality does not consist in being different. It consists in not allowing others to be so” – an incredibly progressive idea for the time.
However, for our students, who may not see themselves as the next Ada, Hypatia, Hannah or Shakuntala, we need more relatable role models – people they can see as their possible selves in the future. When asked about women in maths, as well as Hannah Fry and Eugenia Cheng, Harry Baker mentioned his maths teacher Mrs Firth for showing him there was “more to maths (and life) than just getting the right answers”.
Andy Lumley, Head of Learning Technology at MEI, referenced his A Level Maths teacher Mrs Charnley whose “care and the non-stop enthusiasm were instrumental in what became my twenty-year teaching career”.
At the AMSP, we have vast numbers of incredible mathematicians working hard to support teachers and young people in their mathematical journey. I am lucky to be inspired by technology whizz Natalie Vernon, Further Maths superstar Sharon Tripconey, Core Maths lead Cat Van Saarloos, and too many others to name. Our students have countless influential, inspiring, and enthusiastic women around them, and we need to celebrate them all. By giving them role models to aspire to, only then will being successful in maths be seen as an achievable goal for young women.
Our female students have far more opportunities than their historic counterparts; – they are “allowed” to study maths, and many have successful careers in STEM. However, there is still a huge disparity in the number of women in STEM, which starts with the number of girls choosing post-16 maths. At the AMSP, we have a page dedicated to increasing the number of girls participating in level 3 maths: Encouraging girls’ participation – AMSP and run events designed to encourage girls into study maths, STEM and related subjects at university.
Check out the AMSP events page to discover what’s happening near you. You can also contact your local Area Coordinator via the Local Support page as well as sign up to our monthly Stay Informed bulletin to stay up to date on what going on.
Maybe together we can #EmbraceEquity because, as the great Katherine Johnson said, “Girls are capable of doing everything men are capable of doing.”