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How Maryam Mirzakhani Broke Age Old Gender Barriers: The First Woman To Win Nobel Prize In Mathematics

Posted on August 21, 2014 in Education, GlobeScope, Taboos, Women Empowerment

By Veda Nadendla:

On the occasion of The International Congress of Mathematicians, an award is rendered upon a pioneer in mathematics every four years; to recognize their outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future success in the field. The first award was given in 1936, and up until 2010, 52 men had successfully received the most prestigious international award in mathematics. Number 53 broke the long running bastion of male supremacy. In the 80 years of its extant, Maryam Mirzakhani is the first woman mathematician to win the Fields Medal.

Maryam Mirzakhani1

Maryam Mirzakhani was born and raised in Iran and is a professor at Stanford University since 2008. Not only is she the first woman mathematician to win The Nobel Prize in mathematics, she is also the first Iranian to make it. Truly a day to commemorate in the history of gender equality, for a woman has emerged winner in a predominantly male society of academicians.

The Fields Medal is given out every four years to individuals who are not above the age of 40. The other three recipients of The Fields Medal given away at a ceremony in Seoul in 2014 are Manjul Bhargava, a Professor at Princeton, Martin Hairer from Austria and Artur Ávila from Brazil. Ávila, who works in Paris, is also the first South African to receive the medal.

The medals were conferred by South Korea’s first woman President, Park Geun-Hye. In an interview with Discovery News, Park said, “I congratulate all the winners, with special applause for Maryam Mirzakhani, whose drive and passion have made her the first woman to win a Fields Medal.” Mirzakhani was born in Tehran in 1977 and earned her PhD from Harvard University in 2004. She has previously won 2009 Blumenthal Award for The Advancement of Research in Pure Mathematics and the 2013 Satter Prize of The American Mathematical Society.

In an interview with TIME, Ingrid Daubechies, President of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), said that Mirzakhani’s success was “hugely symbolic and I hope it will encourage more women to get into mathematics because we need more women. I am very happy that now we can put to rest that particular ‘it has never happened before’.”

Women across the globe are applauding the achievement by Mirzakhani especially because she has been able to break the barrier that held women back from the world of mathematics. The world believes that this might be a much needed push for women to wilfully enter and conquer the scientific and empirical fields, giving the men some much needed competition. So the question really is why are we not applauding more women taking leadership in academic and creative fields? What is stopping us?

For starters, women are coaxed into a double grind right from a young age, being told to take more household responsibilities, get married and raise a family, add this to having a job or pursuing their own interests- nightmare much? As soon as I hit 21, my family started talking about looking for a groom for me; and when I asked ‘What about my studies and my career?’ they said “I can complete it where my to-be husband decides to live.” India is a country filled with engineers and doctors and with careers in the social and creative fields within reach, more girls are getting out of their homes to pursue careers in Engineering or becoming doctors, film makers, social workers, dancers, musicians and more. Yet, the real question is, why are men more successful than women, even though there are plenty of women doing an exceptional job?

The women who continued in the science pipeline leading to the Ph.D. were less likely to date or have a social life than the women who stepped out of the pipeline. Those who continued also had lower self-concepts than the other women”, says Jane Piirto in her article about gender and the arts, sciences and mathematics. She found that her statement corresponds with the findings of Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, and Whalen who discovered that the teenage students who continued to develop their talent were less precocious in sexual behaviour, tended to date in groups, and liked to work alone on projects. Other evidence that girls may be influenced by the urge for popularity with peers and for acceptance by attractive males, urges which may cause them to downplay their intelligence and eventually drop out from developing their science, mathematical, and other academic talents was shown by Tomlinson-Keasey and Little when they found that a pursuit of social goals and popularity had a negative effect on the development of intellectual skills.

How many times have you been called a nerd for getting higher marks than anyone else in the class? How many times have you felt like that boy won’t talk to you because he’s only into glamorous girls? Growing up, I made the mistake of paying more attention to socializing with my girlfriends that studying because I knew that I wouldn’t make any friends if I took the alternative route. I had to take to reading The Mallory Towers over talking about the writing I secretly enjoyed in Anna Karenina. So yes, it’s not just the men instigating us women, us women, we undermine ourselves. The world has managed to ostracize women who take to the academic field, so then the women decide to dumb down in order to fit in with their peers and become more acceptable.

The most arduous example of the stereotypes that shape the attitudes of people around the world about science, maths and research is the American sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Two of the scientists on the show are women, who are portrayed as the more remotely unattractive ones on the show, while the world finds the four under co-ordinated, socially awkward and ill-mannered Caltech physicists cute and funny. The actress who plays Amy on the show, Mayim Bialik, has a PhD in Neuroscience in real life and is quite attractive compared to her portrayal on the TV show.

Now, I understand that the show is a sitcom and the characters are mere portrayals, yet, which girl would choose to enter the field of science only to become the stumpy and awkward girl portrayed by Amy as opposed to becoming the sexy, clueless-about-math and extremely attractive Penny?

This inequality and misperception is less about gender and more about how culture shapes women and their attitudes. We live in a culture that encourages a woman to get married by the time she graduates. We thrive in a society which expects women to limit themselves to giving birth and caring for the family, a culture where fewer professors encourage female students to pursue higher education and specialization. A culture in which female academicians are hired less than men, earn lesser money and receive fewer resources.

Yet, as I think of all the injustice, I revel in the thought that there is a woman who has broken that barrier which held so many others behind it. I feel happy that the intelligent, marvellous and intensely beautiful Maryam Mirzakhani, with her simple bob cut and deep eyes, has given the women of this and future generations, a face to imagine, a face to aspire to be.