Last week, American mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck won the Abel Prize, one of the top international honours in the subject. It is important not only as recognition of her work but also as a statement in a field traditionally been associated with men.
Women in mathematics
History has several examples of outstanding women mathematicians. Hypatia (370-415) of Alexandria remains legendary even though her entire work is lost. So does Emmy Noether of Germany for her work in abstract algebra and physics, while Ada Lovelace is credited with writing the first ever computer program. The Hollywood film Hidden Figures (2016) shows the gender and racial struggles of three black women prodigies in NASA of the 1960s — Katherine Johnson who calculated flight trajectories for NASA missions, mathematician Dorothy Vaughan and engineer Mary Jackson.
Yet the number of women achievers compares poorly with those for men. Before Uhlenbeck, 16 male mathematicians had won the annual Abel Prize. The Fields Medal, awarded once every four years, has had 60 recipients since 1936, and only one of these mathematicians has been a woman. Maryam Mirzakhani of Iran, who won the Medal in 2014, died in 2017. The Chern Medal has been presented to three male mathematicians in 2010, 2014 and 2018.
Women have had a low representation in the science Nobel Prizes too. Of the 607 Nobel Prizes awarded to 604 Laureates in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine, 20 have been won by 19 women. The double Laureate is Marie Curie, the only scientist, male or female, to win in two different subjects (Physics and Chemistry).
Various studies have been done on the gender gap in mathematics-oriented fields. An analysis of PISA scores by OECD in 2015 found that the difference in maths scores between high-achieving boys and girls was the equivalent of about half a year at school. But when comparing boys and girls who reported similar levels of self-confidence and anxiety about mathematics, the gender gap in performance disappeared. In other words, when girls were more anxious about maths, they tended to perform poorly.
In 2017, a study published by American sociologists in Frontiers in Psychology found that beliefs in mathematical ability also shapes choices in higher education. Although girls are excelling in maths at school, boys still believe they can do better.
In India, the proportion of women in higher education courses in mathematics decreases as the degree pursued gets higher. The latest All India Survey on Higher Education, published last year, shows that women actually outnumbered men in PG courses (92,000 to 63,000) in maths in 2017-18. The gap narrowed in M Phil (2,700 to 2,100) before women were overtaken by men in PhD Courses (1,700 to 2,100).
Uhlenbeck, 76, is acclaimed for her work with partial differential equations, which she has used to solve problems in geometry and topology. Her breakthrough work, with mathematician Jonathan Sacks, was on “minimal surfaces”, such as the spherical surface taken by a soap bubble. This becomes complicated when additional dimensions are added, such as soap film forming around a wire; Uhlenbeck’s work covered minimisation problems in higher dimensions. Her diverse fields include gauge theory, which has applications in particle physics and general relativity.
The Abel Prize, first awarded in 2003, includes an award of 6 million kroner (about $700,000). It is named after Swedish mathematician Niels Henrik Abel (1802-29). The International Mathematical Union and the European Mathematical Society nominate members of the Abel Committee, who in turn recommend recipients to The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, which awards the Abel Laureate.