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Plus at the International Congress for Women Mathematicians

To kick off our ICM adventure, Plus attended the International Conference of Women Mathematicians, which started yesterday in Hyderabad. Women from around the world gathered to present their mathematical work to each other, but mostly to network and exchange experiences. It was great talking to women whose experience as professional mathematicians is quite different from what we're used to in Europe. One Indian delegate told us that the immediate problems facing women are not things like glass ceilings or sexual harrassment, but far more elementary challenges like university departments that don't have toilet facilities for women. Another difference between India and Europe, which we're really jealous of, is the fact that mathematics in India doesn't suffer an image problem. People see it as a solid career foundation which allows people to prove they've got brains, rather than a subject for boring geeks.

You can hear our conversations with conference delegates in our podcast, which also contains conversations with Ulrike Tillmann who's on the ICWM organising committee and Gwenoline Michaud from sponsor Schlumberger.

The day of maths talks was rounded off by a panel discussion on the state of female mathematics around the world. Sylvie Paycha from European Women in Mathematics asked which European country would be best for female mathematcians to work in. The answer is difficult. While the proportion of female mathematicians is higher in the South and East of Europe, women in these countries receive lower wages, have a higher teaching load and less time for research, and enjoy less prestige. In the North and West, opportunities, money and prestige are better, but child care is often scarce and expensive and women who leave their children with carers all day might feel stigmatised. So there's no easy answer.

The situation in India is similar, as Geetha Venkataraman described. Although there are now more female maths undergraduates (a proportion of 40% to 50%) and a high proportion of women teaching maths undergraduates (in some departments over 50%), there seems to be a glass ceiling. You don't actually need a PhD to teach undergrads. The proportion of female maths PhD and those actively persuing research is nowhere near the positive figures for undergraduates.

Delegates from other continents described similarly depressing pictures, though at least in some places trends are pointing upwards. Perhaps the most shocking statistic of the day came from Paraguay: here for every 100 men who can read and write, there are 88 illiterate women! The delegate from Japan, Basabi Charkraborty, reported on improved efforts to achieve gender equality in maths, but for a curious reason: due to Japan's ageing population, the work force is shrinking, so it's been decided that women might actually play a useful role in it.

The overwhelming message of the day was that young female mathematicians need more role models from their own countries and better support structures. These might involve improved child care, but also national female mathematicians' networks, conferences and seminars. Perhaps the fact that the International Confernce for Women Mathematicians is an integral part of this year's ICM is a step in the right direction.

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