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Breaking the glass ceiling in math

Photo credit: EPA

Photo credit: EPA

In 2005, Larry Summers unwittingly brought criticism upon himself by suggesting that the lack of women at the top in STEM fields could be explained by innate (biological) differences in mathematical ability.

Although women are gaining ground at the undergraduate and even graduate level in certain STEM fields (e.g., biological sciences–but not in math or engineering), they remain under-represented at the highest levels (e.g., tenured professors).

The evidence for continued under-representation of women is pervasive, although the causes are complex. Women publish less and are less likely to be in the coveted position of last author on scientific publications (http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/in-science-it-matters-that-women-come-last/).

In a recent analysis of the probability of becoming a professor, it was found that women remain less likely to become PIs than men with exactly the same credentials (http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2014_06_02/caredit.a1400136).

Women continue to face obstacles in the form of subtle biases (http://www.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.short) as well as overt discrimination and harassment (http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0102172).

So it is terrifically exciting that for the first time in the 78-year history of the Fields Medal—the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for mathematicians—a woman has won the award. Maryam Mirzakhani of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, was awarded the prize for solving numerous problems related to Riemann surfaces and their associated “moduli” spaces (http://news.sciencemag.org/math/2014/08/stanford-mathematician-first-female-winner-fields-prize?rss=1).

She leads the way in the struggle of women’s representation in science and her example will surely encourage and inspire young women in STEM research to pursue their careers to the highest level.

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