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Women and math, what’s the big deal?

May 12, 2023

This Friday, May 12, marks International Women in Mathematics Day. It is an opportunity to recall that the mathematical talent of women has long been sometimes minimized, sometimes stifled by the education system and a society often too confined to gender prejudices.

The date is significant and above all commemorative: it corresponds to the birthday of Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017), an Iranian mathematician and professor at Stanford University, whose work in topology and geometry earned her the distinction of being the first woman to be awarded the Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics. Since then, only one other woman, the Ukrainian Maryna Viazovska, has obtained the same award in 2022.

Yet the numbers speak for themselves: in kindergarten, according to French national education figures (2017), 86% of girls get very good results in mathematics, in comparison to 76% of boys. There is a decline from primary school onwards that deepens post-secondary school: only 30% of girls take the math speciality in the baccalaureate, compared to 54% of boys. They then become the minority in mathematics-related training (engineering schools, DUTs in computer science, etc.), whereas they represent 55% of those enrolled in higher education.

How then can this discrepancy be explained? Studies point to gender bias against girls in school and at home. Researcher Michela Carlana (Harvard) has shown that girls with math teachers who implicitly associate science with men, perform worse than those whose teachers are not sensitive to this stereotype. In France, the national education system deplores the compensation mechanisms in favor of boys in math, to counterbalance the better performance of girls in literary subjects. Their impact? The self-exclusion and internalized lack of legitimacy of girls in math and boys in French.

These trends are not systematic. International Women in Mathematics Day reminds us that there are brilliant women scientists, researchers in mathematics and science, who embody true female models of scientific success.

This is a fight led by associations like Digit’Elles and Femmes@Numérique!

Make sure to visit this site!  https://femmesenmaths.org/

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