Mathematics: the excellence on the women side


Will a woman be crowned at last at the next International Congress of Mathematicians, to be held in Seoul in August? While we are waiting for the 2014 list of winners, Aline Bonami sheds light on the place of women in international ranking.

First, the Fields Medal.

Since its creation in 1936, fifty-two mathematicians were laureates of the Fields Medal, which is considered as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics. Among them… no woman. A statistics that is followed by all sorts of comments. "Above all, do not lower the level," some exclaim, implying that it is likely that the level drops if women candidates were seriously considered; "The jury is obviously male-dominated," exclaim others, implying that this explains it. Absence of female Fields medalists is recalled in the press each time that they report on a new study that compares male and female brains. It is a fact that most mathematicians consider that with the exception of Emmy Noether (1882-1935), who could not have been awarded the Fields Medal only because it was not yet created, all major past mathematical figures are male. This is not the place here to open the debate on the historical and social contexts, or stereotypes that haunt us all to explain this fact.

The moment when the names of new winners are discovered, every four years, is primarily a time of celebration for all mathematicians. It is usually preceded by various rumors, now relayed via the internet. Including this year, a question that fascinates men and women: will there at last be a woman amongst the winners next August in Seoul? Indeed, it seems like the mathematical community loves major international awards, which personalize research activity as it has become increasingly collective. To Fields medals have recently been added the Abel Prize (2002), the Gauss Prize (2006), and also the Clay Millennium prizes (2000), as well as "Clay Research Awards" ( Claire Voisin was one recipient in 2008). And now, the latest arrival, the "Breakthrough Prize" launched by Mark Zuckerberg Yuri Milner "and to communicate the excitement of mathematics to general public." Its ranking has just been announced on June 23, 2014. A ranking ... that is exclusively male, as those of the Abel and Gauss prizes. The Henri Poincaré Prize was an exception in 2012 by honoring two female French mathematicians, Nalini Anantharaman and Sylvia Serfaty

(Female) participants and lecturers..

If the announcement of the Fields Medal is the moment of greatest emotion, the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) is above all an opportunity to gather more than 3000 participants from all around the world. The Seoul Congress, this summer, is the subject of a special effort in favor of the less developed countries. One thousand mathematicians coming from these countries have been awarded funds to participate. Among them, the committee had to ensure that there are at least one hundred female mathematicians. 21 plenary lectures (with 2 female speakers) and 19 parallel sessions are the heart of the scientific program1. Being invited as a speaker to ICM (in plenary or parallel sessions) is considered not only as an honor but also a sign of recognition, while mathematicians as a whole show a great reluctance to the increasing use of bibliometrics. In other words, an invitation as a speaker to ICM is more important than a large number of publications in scientific journals. Among the 200 speakers of Seoul, there are 26 women. For comparison: at the Congress in Zurich in 1994, there were 10 female speakers in total.

An international congress for women mathematicians.

This list of successful female mathematicians should not eclipse the difficulties encountered in attracting girls to science or those female mathematicians face in their careers. This applies, in varying degrees, to all countries. Associations have been created in many countries as well as continental networks such as European Women in Mathematics. For the first time in 2010 was held the International Conference for Women in Mathematics, whose goal is " to bring together women mathematicians and supporters of women in mathematical sciences from around the world to showcase the mathematical contributions of women, to exchange ideas about supporting and encouraging active careers for women in the mathematical sciences, and to provide opportunity for mathematicians to meet and talk with women in the mathematical sciences from around the world". It will be held this year on the sidelines of ICM for three half days.

The situation in France.

The French delegation at Seoul (that is, mathematicians anchored in France) consists of 35 lecturers. Among them, there are 6 female mathematicians, as in the previous ICM in 2010. This number of 6 is also the number of speakers, men and women together, serving in Japan and Korea, and slightly less than that of Germany (8) and Italy (7), and more than that of many countries.

It would be inappropriate to draw too many conclusions, the bias of such comparisons being obvious. But it is clear that the "female French mathematical school" enjoys international recognition that contradicts the image that is often given to French mathematics. For example, the film "How I hated math"2, which otherwise deserves its success, gives the impression that there are no women mathematicians in France. Not that the French recognition is absent: Laure Saint-Raymond has just entered the Academy of Sciences and the last two silver medals of CNRS in mathematics were awarded to two women, Nalini Anantharaman and Mireille Bousquet-Mélou >

"Femmes et Mathématiques", in association with the French learned societies of mathematics and on the sidelines of the twentieth anniversary of the renovation of the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris, will celebrate the return of Seoul female speakers on October 17. This will give an opportunity to talk to women in terms of excellence while addressing the youth. If these marks of honor that are the Fields Medal or an invitation to ICM concern only a very small minority, they participate in the life of a community that gradually becomes aware of one necessity: increase the proportion of women among those who engage in research and training in mathematics, and that these women receive during their careers the recognition they deserve.

Aline Bonami

75005 Paris