Maryam Mirzakhani is awarded the Fields Medal, marking a much-awaited break with tradition

While it is perhaps a sign of a revolution, this award certainly sends out a strong message. On 13 August 2014, the panel of the 27th International Congress of Mathematicians awarded the Fields Medal to a woman, Iranian Maryam Mirzakhani, for the very first time.

Never before in the history of the competition - which began in 1936 and, in the space of a few decades, became the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize - has this coveted prize been awarded to a female scientist.

Maryam Mirzakhani, 37, follows in the footsteps of 52 male recipients of the distinction, which is awarded every four years by the International Mathematical Union. She shares the 2014 honour with three other scientists: the Franco-Brazilian Artur Avila, the Austrian Martin Hairer, and the Canadian-American Manjul Bhargava.

Her outstanding scientific work, specifically on the geometry and topology of Riemann surfaces, has earned her this distinction, but the fact she is the first woman to receive the Fields Medal, after almost 70 years of the competition, is an extraordinary event in itself.

A small social revolution

“This is a milestone in the recognition of women’s work in mathematics. It is not a revolution for the discipline itself, but for the image it portrays to society,” explains Laurence Broze, President of the Femmes et mathématiques [Women and mathematics] association and lecturer in applied mathematics at the University of Lille 3. 

Sciences are generally thought to be a very masculine domain and mathematics is particularly affected by this disparity. In 2014, the glass ceiling is still there for all to see.

And prize winner Maryam Mirzakhani was quick to point this out too. “This is a great honour. I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians. […] I am sure there will be many more women winning this kind of award in coming years,” was her statement on the website of Stanford university, where she has lectured since 2008. 

Still very few women

It takes just a quick calculation to realise that Maryam Mirzakhani’s Fields Medal establishes the rate of women recipients at 1.8%. And the worldwide figures over the last few years are hardly more encouraging.

According to a report (in French) by the HR Directorate of the French Ministry for Higher Education and Research, covering the period 2012-2013, barely 15% of fundamental mathematics lecturers in French universities are women. This proportion of women is fairly standard across the majority of European countries, as confirmed in a study published in 2006 by Catherine Hobbs and Esmyr Koomen from the University of Oxford Mathematics Department.

“The situation differs greatly from one region of the world to another. In some European countries, Spain and Italy for instance, there are many female maths researchers. In others there are significantly fewer, and Japan has the lowest number of female mathematicians in the developed world with a percentage of less than 5% of the workforce,” explains Christiane Rousseau, professor at the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Montreal, Canada. Since 2011 she has also held the position of Vice-President of the International Mathematical Union.

The Fields Medal will get things moving

Even at the institutions which represent mathematics at international level, the change has been a long time coming. It was as recently as 2002 that the first woman, the Norwegian Ragni Piene, was voted onto the executive committee of International Mathematical Union.

The dynamic continued in 2006 when the Australian Cheryl E. Praeger joined her on the executive committee. “In 2010, three women were voted onto the executive committee, including Ingrid Daubechies, of Belgian/American nationality, who was the first female President, and myself, the first female Vice-President. Many other major mathematical societies have now broken down the barrier and elected female presidents,” Christiane Rousseau is happy to report.

Things did begin to move forward in the early 2000s, and awarding the Fields Medal to a woman for the first time should speed up the process. Will this help nurture aspirations? “We hope so,” Laurence Broze tells us. “Maryam Mirzakhani is an amicable, enthusiastic young woman. She will open up horizons for young girls looking for a career in the sector, even before they have left school. She will also help dispel the negative image of female scientists that society portrays.”

For Women in Science

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