06 Jan 2020

Women in mathematics: cultural and context influences.

Article by Francesca Gregorio and Sara Presutti

In French-speaking Switzerland, the number of women studying mathematics is significantly lower than the number of men. In this article, we provide possible interpretations of this phenomenon and seek to understand what effects cultural influence might have by interviewing some women in this field.[1]

Moving to a foreign country can be challenging; for example, one needs to learn the local language(s), understand and adopt the local habits as well as to adapt to many cultural differences. However, this also gives them the opportunity to observe certain phenomena from a different perspective, which might lead to new reflections.

We are two graduates in mathematics from Italy, currently doing PhD in mathematics education at HEP Vaud, Switzerland. In our shared experience, the very first difference can be seen at the workplace, where most of our colleagues who graduated in mathematics are men. This fact can not be neglected, given that the number of men and women was almost equal during our studies in Italy.

This impression was supported by the official data from EPFL, that states that the percentage of women enrolled in mathematics (bachelor and master combined) was 22.4% (source: EPFL) for the academic year 2016/17, while it was 51.6% (source: MIUR, Italian Ministry of University and Research) in Italy for the same course and academic year.

Nevertheless, as Kathryn Hess, a professor in Mathematics at EPFL, points out: “it is very important that women feel involved, feel welcome in […] scientific fields […]. It would be a shame to lose what they could bring”. A striking example is Karen Uhlenbeck, who became the first female mathematician to receive prestigious Abel prize[2] for the year 2019.

These observations lead us to question this clear disparity: what could be the reasons for such a difference? Are there any cultural factors that could explain this phenomenon? Are there any gender stereotypes in this field?

In order to find some answers, we surveyed some female students and graduates in mathematics.

“I have always loved [mathematics]. In my family we always liked it, although my mother never studied math, it was the subject she liked the most. We used to play games in the car; like adding up the numbers of the car plate or these kind of things…”, says Jennifer.

The passion for this discipline is common among the interviewees, who told us that they have always liked mathematics since childhood due to its playful and algorithmic side, its accuracy, the challenging aspect with oneself, both at school and at home: “my father invented small problems, which I then tried to solve” (Magali). A passion that has evolved over time, that, for some, has been combined with the desire to transmit this knowledge through a career in teaching, or has given others, a taste for research in mathematics.

“Gender stereotypes? I don’t think so. Except once at high school, when my teacher implied that girls were less gifted in spatial thinking capability than men, I have absolutely no memory of being told that women could not like mathematics. Or anything in that sense”, says Mélanie, a future Swiss teacher.

According to Océane, a PhD student in mathematics, “the fact of being a woman did not influence my relationship with mathematics until the end of the Master’s degree. Now, I am doing a PhD, and am starting to feel its influence. Especially, when I have to defend a new idea in front of an audience composed of a very large majority of men […], I feel that it requires a lot of courage and self-confidence. In addition, when choosing an academic career, I would have liked to have more female role models to follow, especially women, who have successfully reconciled an academic career with family life”.

Hence, it seems that gender stereotypes exist, but they are rarely expressed explicitly. This feeling is shared among the interviewees, but the non-explicit nature of these stereotypes makes it difficult to identify the main origin of the problem. This is rooted in our culture and is not specific to mathematics: “I know that there are about 30% of women at EPFL in the first year, but then I never met anyone who thought «I am a woman, so I can’t do mathematics»” (Delphine); “But in reality, women are very few [in mathematics], and I think this comes mainly from a mentality that has not changed with regard to how we manage private and professional life at the same time” (Océane).

One of the aspects to consider is related to perseverance when facing failures. Gender bias can generate a sense of incompetence and self-exclusion: “I think that when girls have problems with maths, they can more easily say to themselves «it’s because I’m a girl». As a result, they drop out more easily. I have the impression that it is not the others who will influence you, but it is yourself: «I am a girl, I won’t even try anymore because I know I’m not made for it»…” (Jennifer).

In addition, it is necessary to take into account one of the particularities of the Swiss education system: in order to enter into a university in mathematics, it is strongly recommended to have taken an advanced level mathematics in secondary school, or even better to have completed the specific option of mathematics and physics. But usually, these choices follow the decision of choosing an advanced level maths in middle school, which involves very early decision in the school career and does not encourage reorientation. Because of this, to have interest in science after a certain age is rarely feasible. A young girl interested in science or mathematics must be highly motivated to overcome stereotypes, and in doing so at every level of her education. For example, a 12 years old girl might not want to join a class filled with boys, a dilemma that she may not necessarily face at 18 years of age. Therefore, a special attention to solve this issue is needed from primary school onwards.

Susanna Terracini, a full professor of mathematical analysis at the University of Turin (Italy) and holder of an ERC Advanced scholarship[3], has helped us go further in the analysis of this phenomenon. Terracini is a member and former president of the European Women in Mathematics Association, an organization that supports and encourages women undertaking studies or professional careers in mathematics. In practice, she operates in secondary schools, with the aim of motivating girls to move into science-related fields and sensitizing teachers to gender issues in schools.

Professor Terracini, the question of women in mathematics is not a simple problem…

No, it is not simple, but as mathematicians, even though we are aware that this is a complex and difficult question, we do not abandon it. In this specific matter, we faced problems that are neither close nor easy to solve and that require time.

The good thing is that the world of mathematicians is becoming increasingly interested in this topic.

The gender issue has an impact on mathematics, but it is rooted in prejudices and unconscious conditioning of women’s image in society: about their leadership role and their creative potential in solving complex problems.

The image of women is still linked to the art of know-how or the transmission of knowledge that is already developed by men, rather than to abstraction and the creation of new knowledge. We need to work on the image of women not only in mathematics, but in society as a whole.

In addition, we need to change the image that society has of women, but also the image that women have of themselves, because today the mechanism of self-exclusion is very present.

Some countries such as Italy and Portugal are historically virtuous cases in terms of the number of women enrolled in mathematics, but isolated at European level, as statistics show (source: EWM).

What do you think is the reason for these exceptions?

To answer this question, we must take into account several sociological and cultural aspects. One of the factors common to both countries is the presence of a single university paths for studying and teaching science, an organization that can allow a flow of interests and a possible transition of motivations. Many women who enroll in Mathematics in Italy have teaching as their objective, they do not see themselves as scientists, but want to reproduce a role they already know. But if, during their studies, they realize that they love and succeed in mathematics, interests in the scientific aspect can take over.

What role can the school play on gender issues?

The role of school is fundamental, because it provides role models for young students. Mathematics teachers can provide a classroom model that is not based on competition or speed, but rather on reflection. Mathematical concepts are difficult, and it takes time to acquire them. In mathematics, it is not speed and intuition that bear fruit in the long term. On the contrary, this topic requires formal and rigorous work, continuous improvement and a high level of self-reliance.

Recently, our society has adopted competition as a positive value, and this vision is also reflected in the school world. This structuring of teaching might work well for some categories of pupils and students, but it might also pose problems for people who are not competitive or who do not want to be. This should not be interpreted as a deficit, but rather as a characteristic, especially since it is not a necessary or sufficient aspect to be a good mathematician.

The overcoming of a dualist categorization of oneself – between brilliant and nil – is necessary. I think that avoiding this competitive side, while encouraging reasoning and reflection, could encourage women, but also men, to develop a passion for mathematics and science.

Addressing gender issues is a long and slow process. It is fundamental to address the question of schoolgirls and their relationships with mathematics, as there is a risk of losing important contributions to scientific progress. The gender issue in mathematics is not a women’s problem, it is a problem of the world of science.

[1] This article is a translation of the original French version.
Reference: Gregorio, F., & Presutti, S. (2019). Femmes et mathématiques: quel genre de problèmes? Educateur (L’), Numéro spécial 2019, 7-9.
[2] One of the most important prizes in Mathematics, often seen as equivalent to Nobel Prize.
[3] Prestigious scholarship awarded by the European Research Council.