Maths to award the Fields Medal, its Nobel Prize equivalent, but is there a numbers problem?

In a famous passage from his memoir, A Mathematician’s Apology, GH Hardy claimed that mathematics, “more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game”. 

Maths’ most coveted prize certainly reflects such an assumption: the Fields Medal honours recipients no older than 40.

The Fields Medal, the so-called maths Nobel, is awarded every four years, with next week’s ceremony to be held in Finland after being stripped from St Petersburg because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Geopolitics aside, there is another reason why the Fields has been in the spotlight, and it involves Hardy’s statement.

Hardy’s intended emphasis was on the word “young”, but the assertion that maths is a “man’s game” strikes modern ears as outdated, to say the least.

The Fields Medal features the bearded figure of Archimedes.(Wikimedia Commons: Stefan Zachow)

From schools to the Fields Medal, maths currently has a numbers problem: female under-representation.

“Sixty per cent of undergraduates in mathematics [in Australia] are men, and 40 per cent are women. But by the time we get to professorial level, 91 per cent are men,” said Amie Albrecht, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of South Australia.

“We know there are no innate differences between men’s and women’s potential to do mathematics.

An image of students heads with spread out cards picturing fractions
Boosting female participation in mathematics is a challenge confronting the nation’s teachers.(Supplied: Loreto College, Coorparoo)

Barriers and biases blocking progress

Hardy was hardly a bigot. By the standards of his day, he was commendably broad-minded, promoting the pioneering work of Indian number theorist Srinivasa Ramanujan, whose time in England in the early 1900s was marred by racism.

But his assumption might help explain why only one of 56 Fields Medals in 86 years has gone to a female.

Maryam Mirzakhani seated on a bench in a garden setting.
Maryam Mirzakhani, who died in 2017 at age 40, is the only woman to have won a Fields.(Supplied: Stanford University)

Dr Albrecht said women battled not only “unconscious bias” but “structural barriers” at various stages of their careers.

Two recent articles in Nature magazine have highlighted the extent of the problem.

According to the first, the Fields Medal is, in terms of a scarcity of female laureates, far from alone — the prestigious Abel, Shaw, Wolf, Crafoord and Breakthrough mathematics prizes have only two female winners between them.

The second reports that female mathematicians stand a better chance of winning awards if the awards are named after women, but even then, the odds are less than 50 per cent.

A man of South Asian descent wearing a brown-coloured suit with a white short and black tie underneath
GH Hardy collaborated with Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was played by Dev Patel in 2016 film The Man Who Knew Infinity.(Walt Disney Pictures)

It is not only at a research level that that women are under-represented in mathematics.

The Australian Mathematical Science Institute’s (AMSI) most recent report card on year 12 participation found that only 37.8 per cent of students “undertaking higher mathematics were female”, and that overall participation had actually declined compared to the previous year.

An earlier AMSI study sounded an even more urgent warning, stating that “gender imbalance in secondary school mathematics threatens to diminish the feasibility of a comparable contribution by future generations of female scientists in Australia”.

Prizes need a ‘rethink’

As a mathematician, Dr Albrecht is used to tackling real-world problems. Her professional interests include optimisation, and her PhD was about maximising train timetable efficiency.

UniSA mathematician Amie Albrecht. She is wearing a light-coloured jacket and has shoulder-length dark hair.
Dr Albrecht’s interests include industrial applications of mathematics, as well as promoting in STEM teaching.(Supplied: Amie Albrecht)

She had a clear affinity for maths at school, but battled self-doubt.

“As a little girl, I loved solving puzzles,” Dr Albrecht reflected.

She said research showed the same was true of other females — girls at a primary school level in particular.

“It is not ability that stops girls. It is mathematics anxiety and their confidence levels,” Dr Albrechts said.

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