Why Are There so Few Female Mathematicians?

The 18th and 19th centuries saw the emergence of several eminent female mathematicians in Europe. Yet mathematics today remains a largely male field.

Hannah Fry, an associate professor in the mathematics of cities at University College London, has been chosen to present the 2019 Royal Institution’s Christmas lectures. Fry is undoubtedly a good choice to present such an abstruse subject to a lay audience. She’s one of the few mathematicians who is known outside the mathematics tower, having appeared on many BBC programs and YouTube videos. She has written three popular books in addition to the ten professional papers on her résumé. The Institution’s annual science lectures stretch back to 1825, and Fry’s talk will be only the fourth that deals with mathematical issues.

A Mathematical Doctor's Oath

What’s rather odd is that Fry’s lectures seem geared more to warn people about mathematics rather than celebrate it, or at least her subject is being pitched that way. According to the Institution, she will be examining “how our unwavering faith in figures can lead to disaster when we get the sums wrong” and asking “big ethical questions” such as “Are there any problems maths can’t or shouldn’t solve?” In an interview with The Guardian, she argues that mathematicians should be made to take some equivalent of doctors’ Hippocratic Oath because

We’ve got all these tech companies filled with very young, very inexperienced, often white boys who have lived in maths departments and computer science departments.

Now, Fry is the furthest thing from an ideologue. Indeed, her book, The Mathematics of Love, has none of the standard flaws that define many third-wave feminist tracts; the book is dispassionate, witty, and statistically accurate. So why would Fry throw out this sexist and racial language without even a beat for thought? Perhaps her perspective on privilege has been skewed by her being a minority female member of a very exclusive male group.

Even top women mathematicians, despite being highly successful within their chosen field, tend to attribute the gender disparity in mathematics to masculine bias. Karen Uhlenbeck, who in March became the first woman to be awarded the Abel Prize, the second most prestigious honor in mathematics after the Fields Medal, said,

I remain quite disappointed at the numbers of women doing mathematics and in leadership positions. This is, to my mind, primarily due to the culture of the mathematical community as well as harsh societal pressures from outside.

Does the research back this up? Historically, while the first female mathematician is generally held to be Hypatia of Alexandria, who lived 1600 years ago, it was the 18th and 19th centuries that saw the emergence of several eminent women mathematicians in the supposedly inflexible patriarchy of Europe.

Female Mathematicians 

These included Maria Agnesi (1718-1799), an Italian philosopher and mathematician who was the first female to be appointed as a mathematics professor; Sophie Germain (1776-1831), whose paper on elasticity theory made her the first woman to be awarded by the Paris Academy of Sciences in 1816; and Emmy Noether (1882-1935), a German mathematician who worked on non-commutative algebras, hyper-complex numbers, and commutative rings and was awarded the Ackermann-Teuber Memorial Award in 1932. Considering high mathematical ability is always rare, the fact that these women’s work was recognized centuries ago suggests that the bias narrative is at least somewhat exaggerated.

Nonetheless, it remains a fact that even after decades of special programs to get women more involved in STEM fields, females are still under-represented in science, technology, engineering, and especially high-level mathematics. Lists of the world’s top mathematicians typically include just one woman, if any at all, even when those lists are compiled by female mathematicians or left-leaning newspapers. The best evidence suggests that top mathematicians are born rather than made and that more boys than girls are born that way.Indeed, feminist websites often pad their lists of female mathematicians by including celebrities like Big Bang actress Mayim Bialik, whose PhD is in neuroscience, not mathematics; Channel 4 presenter Rachel Riley, who has only an undergraduate degree in the subject; and even Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who went no further than A-Level Maths.

While social factors do explain some of the gender differences, the best evidence suggests that top mathematicians are born rather than made and that more boys than girls are born that way. In a 2008 essay in Scientific American, Diane F. Halpern, probably the world’s second-leading researcher in cognitive sex differences (after Simon Baron-Cohen), and her colleagues note that in America’s Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs), twice as many boys as girls score  500 or above on the math portion, and there are 13 times as many boys with scores of at least 700.

Halpern et al write:

Boys shine on the math part of the SAT – resulting in a difference of about 40 points which has been maintained over 35 years…the difference in average quantitative ability between girls and boys is actually quite small. What sets boys apart is that many more of them are mathematically gifted.

Thus, we find that in the UK, fewer than 20 percent of female students are pursuing engineering or computer science, and fewer than 40 percent are doing mathematics. The gender disparity is three to four times larger for post-graduate students. And because both sexes prefer to work in fields that they’re better at, women and men make different career choices. As a 2014 US study that tracked a top 1 percent cohort of mathematically gifted 13-year-old boys and girls to adulthood found:

Men were more likely than women to be chief executives and to be employed in information technology and STEM positions, whereas women were more likely to be found in general business, elementary and secondary education, and health care (below the doctoral level), and were also more likely to be homemakers. Yet in some demanding fields—finance, medicine, and law—men and women were represented to about the same degree.

So, in a field dominated by white (and Asian) males, The Guardian reports that Ms. Fry wants mathematicians to take an ethical pledge that will

commit them to think deeply about the possible applications of their work and compel them to pursue only those that, at the least, do no harm to society.

Had Albert Einstein taken heed of this advice, would he have suppressed E=mc2?

Further Reading