One of the reasons we love maths is that at its core it doesn't care about who you are, where you are from, the language you speak, the colour of your skin or your gender. Mathematics is a universal language. We feel this as people doing mathematics. But as we attend conferences, read journals and interview the many wonderful mathematicians we meet, we are reminded that as women we are in a minority.
This is not to say, however, that there are not brilliant women mathematicians. Quite the contrary. We have been lucky enough to with and reported on the work of many – Corinna Ulcigrai, Julia Gog, Helen Mason and Nathalie Vriend to name just a few.
Maryam Mirzkhani, the first female Fields medallist
But currently in the UK only 6% of maths professors are women, despite women making up over 44% of maths undergraduates (see this paper from the London Mathematical Society). The reasons for this are not well understood but the problem seems to be exacerbated by the small number of women itself: fewer women in the community mean they are overlooked when names are sought for speakers or prizes and the relatively few women are disproportionally asked to sit on committees and participate in other non-research activities at the detriment of their research time. And of course this can be compounded by the broken career patterns and other challenges that stem from child-rearing and family responsibilities.
The under-representation of women at the highest levels of maths has been recognised by learned societies, universities and government resulting in many initiatives, such as the Athena Swan Charter in the UK. Thankfully we now rarely hear of experiences of direct sexism from female mathematicians. Instead for many women, particularly young female mathematicians, there remains an uneasiness about being one of a very few women in a maths department. They have spoken of being "the odd one out" or feeling like "the other" in their work places. More role models – high profile women in the mathematical community – are needed both for younger and established female mathematicians.
So we are thrilled that the brilliant mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani has been awarded the Fields Medal at the ICM 2014 in Seoul, Korea – the first women to be so recognised. Mirzakhani's work is on investigating mathematical surfaces and the geometric structures they can have. She has been recognised for her "rare combination of superb technical ability, bold ambition, far-reaching vision, and deep curiosity" which led to "striking and highly original contributions to geometry and dynamical systems".
Now that the IMU has finally recognised a woman for her mathematical achievements with a Fields medal, we hope that more female mathematicians will be nominated and recognised in the future. It seems fitting that Mirzakhani received her prize from a female head of state, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea, in a ceremony led by Ingrid Debauchies, the president of the International Mathematics Union, and mc-ed by Seon-Hee Lin, a professor from Seoul National University. These four women made up a third of the guests on the stage at the opening ceremony – we hope the recognition of women in mathematics stays at at least this level in the future.
The prizewinners and guests on stage at the opening ceremony of ICM 2014