A random walk through women’s (math) history

Today is the last day of Women’s History Month. I thought this would be as good a time as any to share some (maybe random) thoughts I’ve had on the topic in the past month.

A few weeks ago, I started watching a TV show called the Bletchley Circle. It is a British show about women code-breakers who become detectives, so I said, why not? And indeed it is a fun mystery, without a ton of math but some implied mathy-ness and problem-solving skills are used. What struck me the most about the show, though, was the personal connection I felt with the main character, and how well-developed her story was. In particular, the show did a really great job of showing how frustrating and horrible it would be if I were not allowed to do math. Here is a woman, who solved complicated puzzles in the war, who is somehow expected to go back to being a housewife and mother. She starts trying to solve a string of murders, but mainly because she is so bored she needs something intellectually stimulating to do. Part of the conflict comes from the fact that she can’t even talk about her work at Bletchley Park because it was top secret. But I think that is a great metaphor for being an intelligent woman and having to hide it. I was telling a friend about this, and how awful it would be if I was just told one day that I can’t be a mathematician anymore. I thought also about how lucky I am to have been born when I was, and that it is OK for me to be a mathematician. More importantly, that it is OK for women to be smart and have jobs! I think the lead actress (Anna Maxwell Martin) also did a great job conveying her character’s intelligence and frustration. Anyway, Women’s History Month is almost over, but in honor of all the smart ladies who couldn’t be smart in public, watch this show (or if you like British crime shows).

Having gushed over how good we have it, though, I must say there is still a lot to be done. My collaborator and friend Ursula Whitcher recently gave a talk at Bates entitled “Where are the women? Looking for women authors on the math arXiv”. In it she explored the notion that there are less women writing papers in some areas of mathematics compared to others. This is something she and other people had observed in some conferences, and so she decided to explore this idea more scientifically. She and two of her colleagues decided to explore the number of women authors on the math arXiv , and classify them according to area. This was a preliminary report, and much could still be refined, but I found it interesting that the more abstract fields seemed to have less women represented. Although the worst category in terms of representation of women was “General Mathematics”, where most “proofs” of Fermat’s Last Theorem go. Does this mean women are less likely to submit crazy and wrong papers? Anyway, I thought this was a cool talk. And in particular, I think the representation of women authors (at least on the arXiv) does not quite match the number of women mathematicians. Not that this is proof of a problem, but it is certainly evidence that there could be a problem.

I wrote a blog post a while ago about the IBM “Minds of Modern Mathematics” iPad app, in particular criticizing the representation of women in the app. Only one woman was listed (even though there are many women before 1950 who contributed to mathematics) and she was the only person who got a physical description in the little blurb about her. It seems like that app hasn’t been updated in a few years, and is super buggy with the new OS. Maybe they decided it was not that good after all? Maybe they read my blog post and realized their huge mistake? Anyway, it would be nice if it was revisited (it did have some good features), but with a bit more care for representation of women and minorities.

So, we (women mathematicians) are much better off than we were, but there is still work to be done. Nothing new here, I guess, but it’s good to think about both of these issues together, I think. I, personally, feel very lucky to be here. I grew up in a country that doesn’t particularly value intellectual achievement by women (Venezuelan women are famous for winning the most Miss Universe pageants, not for begin awesome mathematicians). I even had professors and classmates in college who told me I should not be studying math because women were just not good at it. I did have a very smart mother, some very supportive professors, and the chance to get into a graduate program that really cared about their women. This is where I met Karen Uhlenbeck, an amazing mathematician and even better person.  It was really during grad school and thanks to Karen that I realized how women could also be leaders in their field, not just participants.

Anyway, here’s to all the women mathematicians, and to smart women everywhere.

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