The 2019 Abel Prize, also known as the ‘Nobel prize for mathematics’ was won by Karen Uhlenbeck last Tuesday, the first woman to ever receive the award. The award makes her one of the pioneers for women mathematicians, alongside Maryam Mirzakhani, the Iranian who was the first woman to win another prestigious prize in 2017, the Fields Medal, awarded by the International Mathematical Union.
Dr Uhlenbeck is an American professor emeritus of mathematics at the University of Texas at Austin and won for her “pioneering achievements” in various fields of mathematics. In one of her interviews she acknowledged the gender imbalance in her field of research and the barriers she faced to continue with her passion. Of graduate school she said: “It was evident that you wouldn’t get ahead in mathematics if you hang around with women. We were told that we couldn’t do math because we were women”. “Even when I had my Ph.D. for five years,” she said later, “I was still struggling with whether I should become a mathematician. I never saw myself very clearly.”
She is not alone. In many countries, although women outnumber men as graduates, they lag behind men in completing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees. In Chile, Ghana and Switzerland, women account for less than one-quarter of all STEM degrees.
Stereotyped gender roles and expectations in school and at home partly explain educational and occupational segregation. Socialization processes, including poor career counselling, lack of role models, perceived inability in mathematics and fear of being in the minority, may influence girls’ willingness to choose specific disciplines.
Lessons should help students critically reflect on gender norms to break occupational stereotypes and address gender segregation. Teaching content should cover equal numbers of examples of female to male personalities being cited in textbooks. It would help break the mould if more famous female scientists were taught in schools, including Lise Meitner, the female physicist who helped discover nuclear fission in the 1930s, Rosalind Franklin, who helped us understand the inner-workings of DNA and viruses, and Dorothy Hodgkin, who helped us understand molecules. There are plenty of pioneering female inventors who could make the syllabus too, such as Sophie Wilson or Mary Lou Jepson.
To address the lack of gender balance in subject choice, governments should consider promoting apprenticeship programmes, mentorships, networking or scholarships for women in STEM degrees. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the Women in Science and Engineering campaign, launched in 1984, has been promoting engineering apprenticeship programmes, scholarships for women studying engineering, workshops on careers in construction and engineering, resources for teachers of STEM subjects in schools, and regional networking opportunities to help develop links between schools, universities and industry. ‘Success with STEM – New chances for women’, an ongoing programme of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, promotes STEM occupational opportunities for girls and women and funds 50 projects with educational and research institutions, businesses and associations in areas such as career guidance, coaching and networking.
Alternatively, the TechWomen programme uses mentorship, knowledge exchange and networking to connect and support women in STEM from Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. Participants engage in project-based mentorships at leading technology companies in the United States and are encouraged to inspire other girls and women in their communities to follow their ambitions. Since 2011, 333 women from 21 countries, including Algeria, Cameroon, Lebanon, Kazakhstan, Kenya and Zimbabwe, have participated.
Thankfully, gender segregation in STEM careers is attracting more global attention, which, in itself, may go some way to challenge perceptions. Prizes, such as that received by Dr Uhlenbeck, also help to rock the boat, and alter stereotypes and generalisations about who can or cannot carry out certain tasks amongst us.
For the G7 Ministerial Meeting on Education and Development being held in Paris later this year, we have been working with the G7 countries, international organizations and civil society to identify strong best practices for gender equality in education, tackling a list of core challenges, including the lack of gender equality in STEM education. We look forward to sharing the results with you.