The distance between Isfahan in Iran and New Delhi is a daunting 2,450 km. But on a July morning in 2007, when Farkhondeh Sajadi found herself in India to join the Indian Statistical Institute for her doctoral degree, she knew, even amidst the anxiety of new beginnings, this was the city that had the possibility of fulfilling her dreams of a career in academia. An MSc in mathematics from the Isfahan University of Technology, she had a few opportunities to go to the West, but India was closer home, with a reputation of being a heavyweight in mathematics, and it seemed more appropriate to come here.
Ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, the educational system has undergone several changes, but the emphasis on academic and technical training remains. Participation in math Olympiads both at the national and international levels has become common. Every year, Konkur or the Iranian University Entrance Exam sees a steady stream of candidates eager for a chance at higher education. “Since the 1990s, there has been a significant increase in Iranian women’s participation in higher education. In 2013, the number of girls among 36 top-ranked students at the Konkur was 14, but this year, it is 18 among 36, which means the male-female ratio is the same,” says Sajadi, 37, who completed her PhD last year.
But even if higher education is not an issue, continuing in research often becomes difficult. Many families are unwilling to let women travel abroad, and with marriage and children, a lot of women give up their research goals. India proved to be a happy outpost for Sajadi, and she had the occasion to bump into Maryam Mirzakhani, a 37-year-old fellow Iranian professor from Stanford, at the International Congress of Mathematicians (ICM) held in Hyderabad in 2010. The quadrennial mathematical meet organised by the the International Mathematical Union (IMU) draws top mathematicians from around the world for lecture sessions and to award the Fields Medals — considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for the subject — to two to four outstanding mathematicians under 40. During their student days in Iran, Mirzakhani was somewhat of an icon already, tales of her two gold medals — including one where she had a perfect score — at successive international math Olympiads was common knowledge among students. “It was a brief meeting, but I told her how she was an inspiration for so many of us trying to make a career in maths,” says Sajadi, who has since moved back to Isfahan and joined Iran’s Social Security Organisation as a statistical expert.
Four years later, when news of Mirzakhani’s Fields Medal win for her “outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces” broke last week at the ICM in Seoul, for mathematicians like Sajadi, it was something whose time had long come. Since its inception in 1936, the winner of all the 52 Fields Medals has been male, indicative of how, at its core, mathematics remains an inherently male bastion across the world. For every woman who succeeds in the intensely competitive field, there are many others who drop off the radar at an early stage, unable to keep up with the multiple roles they are supposed to play, the incessant pressure of self-doubt and the need to prove oneself time and again. There are other overt and veiled patriarchal binds as well, including often, the notion that boys are better at the sciences than girls.
Anita Winter, 43, professor at the University of Duissburg Essen, Germany, says the sexism in the system is often subtle and so deeply ingrained that many peers do not even realise when they practise it. As an exceptionally bright student in mathematics, she moved to specialised training when she entered the ninth grade. By the time she was in the 11th grade, she was already being supervised by an assistant professor from the Humboldt University in Berlin. But she never attended a class taught by a woman. Because she was quiet, her performance at oral examinations often surprised her male teachers. “More than one said that though I seemed to have ‘memorised’ everything in minute detail, they were worried until the last minute that I may just forget what I had learned. After… giving presentations in a very applied field like operation research, during my undergraduate years, I requested the supervising professor to get more into theoretical approaches. He responded that he would not recommend this to a woman as I probably would like to have a family,” she recalls. Nina Gantert, a probabilist at the Technical University of Munich spoke of how some of her older colleagues tend to give the credit of joint papers to the male colleague. “But this applies only to few colleagues in my field,” she says.
There’s been perceptible improvement over time, with the IMU electing its first woman president, Ingrid Daubechies, in 2011. But even in the US, the land of equal opportunities, the ratio of women who hold tenured positions in mathematical sciences at top universities hasn’t risen significantly in the last decade, though many women now occupy top jobs at leading universities. “My experience as a mathematician has been positive. However, the percentage of tenured women faculty in higher-ranked mathematics departments in the US remains low. There have been concerted efforts in the US to promote equal opportunity for women in mathematics. Some of these have achieved moderate success, but there is still a minority that misconstrues these initiatives as preferential treatment,” says Kavita Ramanan, professor of applied mathematics at Brown University. “Some women find it harder to balance family and work, especially when they are expected to prioritise their partners’ careers over their own,” she says.
The mathematical tradition in India has been robust since the time of Aryabhata and contemporary women mathematicians such as Raman Parimala, 66, professor at Emory University, Atlanta, and her student Sujatha Ramdorai, professor at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, occupy central positions in it. Ramdorai, recipient of the 2004 Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award and the only Indian to win the prestigious ICTP Ramanujan Prize in 2006, says, as a student, mathematics seemed liberating because “there was no need for rote-learning. It was a pleasure to have to use your mind.” She does not consider a career in academia different from any other high-pressure job where only a handful of women occupy top positions, but says a lot remains to be done. The percentage of women mathematicians in India is currently around 10 per cent, and fewer are joining academia. “Apparently, this is a recent worldwide phenomena. There should be more women-friendly policies, like integrated childcare at the work place, more travel support for women to participate in summer schools and conferences, more women as decision-makers to understand the challenges from a gender perspective,” she says.
Rohini M Godbole, chairperson of the Indian Academy Panel for Women in Sciences, a branch of the Indian Academy of Sciences, says that the representation of women in faculty, institutions of higher education and research is not commensurate with their participation in the education process. The Panel, which maintains a database of Indian women scientists, recently conducted a survey along with a the National Institute of Advanced Studies to find out what fraction of trained scientific women power India is losing and why. The result, Godbole believes, can help “various agencies and governments suggest policy changes”.
In a telling essay, A Career in Mathematics, in the volume Lilavati’s Daughters, brought out by the Panel in 2008 to celebrate Indian women in scientific research, Mangala Narlikar, wife of celebrated Indian astro-physicist Jayant Narlikar, talks of her struggle in the ’50s to build a career. She was studying for her master’s degree at TIFR, when she got married to Narlikar at 20. They moved to Cambridge, England, where Narlikar was then working. Mangala was encouraged to study, but not at the expense of her family. Over the next decade-and-a-half, the birth of three daughters and a move back to India, she managed to complete her research and teach when the opportunity arose. She writes, “My story is perhaps a representation of the lives of many women of my generation who were well-educated but always put household responsibilites before their personal careers.”
Like Ramdorai, Jennifer Tour Chayes, 57, distinguished scientist and managing director of Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which she co-founded in 2008, says it’s a problem that is not specific to maths alone, but to the sciences. During her four years at Princeton University, she recalls not seeing “one woman get a PhD before me in mathematics or physics. A few women were admitted, but all either dropped out, or took a very long time to finish. There just wasn’t a critical mass of women for a healthy or encouraging atmosphere,” she says.
All of them expect Mirzakhani’s win to lead to a tectonic shift in their professional universe over time. “Many women who used to tell me that they never liked maths in high school expressed their excitement about a woman winning the award. I am sure many young women, still in high school, will start thinking of a career in it. The image of a genius mathematician as white, male, heterosexual, nerdy, having a strong educational background is now losing its validity,” says Winter.