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The bitter sweet “first woman to…”

18 Aug

First female winner for Fields maths medal – BBC

Nothing But Gold: First Woman Wins Math’s Nobel Prize – Forbes

Fields Medal mathematics prize won by woman for first time in its history – The Guardian

Math’s Highest Honor Is Given To A Woman For The First Time – NPR

Finally, a woman wins the Fields Medal – Vox


Every time I see headlines like these, I have a whole bag of mixed feelings. On one hand, this is quite an achievement to be celebrated. The Fields Medal is a big deal. Not to mention Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal since it was first awarded in 1936, is now a role model for those (particularly women) who are interested in studying mathematics.


Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal. Image credit: Wikipedia under public domain

As pointed out by Anushay Hossain in her article in Forbes:

Imagine the message that is sent to women and girls with Mirzakhani being awarded such a prestigious prize. The image of her on the stage receiving her honor from President Park Geun-Hye, the female head of state of South Korea, herself a pioneer for women, reminds us that we are breaking barriers across the board, around the world.

Maryam Mirzakhani shows us not only that there needs to be more women and girls in the academic disciplines of STEM, but that also we should not fear to go where not many women went before us.

Her win gives women and girls the message that not only can we enter these fields, but we can succeed and thrive in them, too, breaking century-old assumptions that women are naturally weak in math and sciences when in reality our accomplishments can make history.

And mentioned by Sir Tim Gowers, a Fields medallist and mathematician at Cambridge University, in his interview with the Guardian:

I am thrilled that this day has finally come…Although women have contributed to mathematics at the highest level for a long time, this fact has not been visible to the general public. I hope that the existence of a female Fields medallist, who will surely be the first of many, will put to bed many myths about women and mathematics, and encourage more young women to think of mathematical research as a possible career.

On the other hand, the headlines made me sad because they raised more questions in my head. Are we still surprised that women can achieve greatness in science? Or, are we finally realizing how women have been overlooked when it comes to scientific achievements? When will we stop having headlines like these?

In the coverage by BBC news,

Prof Sir John Ball, another British mathematician and a former president of the IMU, agreed that Prof Mirzakhani’s win was “fantastically important”. Speaking to BBC News from the congress in Seoul, South Korea, he said that a female winner was overdue and that Prof Mirzakhani is one of many brilliant women mathematicians.

So, who are these “many brilliant women mathematicians?” How “overdue” are we? Who else should be recognized?

Quoted by the Guardian during her talk to the American Mathematical Society last year, Maryam pointed it out herself that the situation is far from ideal,

The social barriers for girls who are interested in mathematical sciences might not be lower now than they were when I grew up. And balancing career and family remains a big challenge. It makes most women face difficult decisions which usually compromise their work

When the news came out, a friend of mine jokingly said, “Girls can do math!!” While it was meant to be a joke, it reflects the situation we are in. That time and time again we still need to “prove” that we can make it in STEM, particularly in male-dominated fields such as mathematics or physics.

When will a woman receiving her well-deserved recognition in STEM become normality?

Will we need to wait for much longer for the next female Fields Medal winner?

Will we need to wait for much longer for the next female Fields Medal winner? Image source: Wikipedia under public domain.


Postscript (September 7, 2014): I didn’t realize it at the time of writing this post, but what I wrote above was actually pretty much about the ‘The Finkbeiner Test’ – a set of “rules” (test) to follow when profiling female scientists. And if you are wondering why this matters, check out this project Catherine (aka @genegeek) gave to the high school students who are part of the Vancouver Science World Future Science Leaders Program – write about female scientists following the Finkbeiner Test, or write about male scientist while breaking all the rules in the test, and then see what happens. You would be surprised.

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