Of the 60 Fields Medal winners since it’s launch in 1936 only one is female.  Even in such male dominated fields this is an appalling statistic.  Of the eight awards announced at this year’s International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM 2018), no woman was among the winners.  Of just over 200 speakers at the meeting, over 9 days, only 15% are female.  The reasons for this are many, and it seems, still slightly unclear.


The numbers of women participants at the ICM, and indeed mathematics and other sciences in general, has been growing steadily in recent years, but the difference in opportunity compared to men is still stark and troubling.  The speakers at the ‘The Gender Gap in Mathematical and Natural Sciences from a Historical Perspective‘ on Thursday evening did an excellent job of highlighting and explaining the myriad factors that have contributed to why there still is, and has always been, a lack of women at the top of mathematics and physics.


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Chair of the Women’s Committee on Mathematics (CWM) of the International Mathematics Union, France’s Marie-Françoise Roy, cited advances such as holding the first World Meeting for Women in Mathematics here at Rio Centro on Tuesday.  “We had the 350 women from more than 60 countries. The focus was especially on Latin America, since the ICM is taking place in Brazil ‘, said the mathematician.


Marie-Françoise asked math professionals to answer a questionnaire and received 45 thousand replies from all over the world.  The idea is to measure the differences between men and women in science according to regions, countries and areas of activity.


Caroline Series


June Barrow Green, from the UK, told the history of the presence of women in Mathematics since the 18th century, who have faced a series of obstacles and much discrimination. “There were men who rejected us and others who did not even believe in the existence of mathematical women,” said the researcher, who revealed the highest numbers of female participation among mathematics professionals are in Western Europe, while the lowest rates are in developing countries.


Argentine physicist, Silvina Ponce-Dawson, presented the actions of the International Conference of Women in Physics, which takes place every three years.  The gulf between men and women is the same as in Mathematics, according to Silvina. Surveys of women physicists cited by the researcher have revealed that they believe they have advanced more slowly than men.  The interviewees pointed out the difficulty of reconciling motherhood and career and the discriminatory attitudes causing barriers in their chosen profession.  “Even so, the vast majority say they do not regret choosing physics,” Silvina said.


After the talk, the microphones were given over to the audience who were at first hesitant in coming forward with questions but after the ball got rolling it turned into quite an impassioned discussion.


The question of a distinct lack of females winning top prizes was the main point of alarm. The numbers of women on award panels seems to be improving (there are three on the Fields’) but moderator and CWM vice-chair, Caroline Series, also from the UK, took this moment to urge the audience to get nominating more women for big awards.   Silvina, meanwhile, reminded the audience of the unconscious bias in the promoting and hiring of women that is practiced by both genders as another important obstacle to be negotiated.