Girls of the past — and, tragically, in the present — hear it all the time. Because of their gender, they just can’t do math. And if they can, well, they will never be as good as the boys.
To put it very kindly, this attitude is not accurate, nor is it healthy.
Negative stereotypes perpetuate a dreadful cycle. When bombarded with messages of their own (allegedly genetic, realistically false) failings, girls internalize them. Thus discouraged, they ultimately do not perform to the fullest extent of their intellectual capabilities. Which then gives teachers, parents, and other authority figures “proof” that they should not expect much of their female math students. That this attitude persists may directly correlate with the sluggish and troubled growth of female students majoring in mathematics.
In reality, girls’ talents and capacity for academic achievement are no different than boys’. Studies prove that they perform equally well when receiving the exact same praise and support as their male counterparts. Destroy the stereotypes, and we’ll raise the numbers and status of women in mathematics. And equitable exposure and education remains the greatest strategy for improving this traditionally marginalized demographic’s profile.
Some Notable Trailblazers
It would be a fallacy to say that women mathematicians today benefit from the passionate efforts and contributions from their predecessors. They do, of course, but that declaration only peers into one facet of these great thinkers’ successes. The truth is, everyone owes a debt of gratitude to pioneering women in the mathematics. Devoting themselves to the discipline, even if they faced (or continue facing) discrimination and dismissal, can inspire anyone of any gender and career path. Their research has also propelled mathematics forward, which in turn, has propelled humanity forward.
So while the following trailblazers did help diversify mathematics and open up new opportunities for their successors, it is important to recognize that their influence stretches well beyond fostering gender equality.
Hypatia of Alexandria (D. 415 CE) probably wasn’t the first female mathematician; she is acknowledged as the first known one. The daughter of legendary thinker Theon, Hypatia studied mathematics and Neoplatonist philosophy under her father’s guidance, eventually acquiring astronomy, philosophy, and mathematics students of her very own. Most of her contributions to the mathematics involved furthering Appolonius’ conic sections. As the editor of On the Conics of Appolonius, Hypatia helped bring parabolas, ellipses, and hyperbolas into mainstream study. She simplified the concepts in order to make them more accessible to her students and readers, thereby spreading knowledge mathematicians now consider standard today.
Historians recognize Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684) as the first woman to ever receive a college degree — and a doctorate at that. She excelled at music, philosophy, astronomy, theology, languages and, of course, mathematics. While known primarily as an interdisciplinary prodigy, Piscopia’s most groundbreaking accomplishment opened up new opportunities for not only women in mathematics, but academia in general. Some accounts state she enjoyed a lectureship at University of Padua starting in 1678. Because her prodigious intellect earned her accolades and respect from scholars across Europe, Piscopia almost singlehandedly busted up the myth that women contribute nothing to the academic world.
Much of Marie Crous‘ personal life , including her date of birth and death , is unknown, though her mathematical influence continues significantly impacting daily life. She did not invent the decimal point, but she created its current form separating the different parts of a number. In addition, she also innovated and popularized the concept of using zeroes to indicate a blank decimal place. These seventeenth century constructions survive and thrive today, most notably as the basis for the metric system and some currencies.
Inspired by her confidant and possible lover Voltaire, Emilie du Chatelet (1706-1749) pursued a life of physics and mathematics not even marriage and motherhood could curtail. Institutions du physique, published in 1740, was originally intended as a textbook for her son’s mathematics and physics lessons; it eventually wound up considered her masterpiece. The book blended the research of her contemporary Willem ‘s Gravesande with that of Gottfried Leibniz to note that a moving object’s energy is proportionate to the square of its velocity, rather than just the velocity. Chatelet also translated Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica into French, adding her own notes and corrections. Today, francophone mathematicians still consider her work the definitive French-language version of the hugely influential text.
The prolific Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799) produced multiple volumes of mathematical significance in her lifetime, and received a groundbreaking offer to serve as the Chair of Mathematics at University of Bologna. Nobody knows if she ultimately accepted Pope Benedict XIV’s great honor, though the brilliant academic did serve in a readership role at the school. She gave the witch of Agnesi its name in her seminal Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventu italiana. Some consider this the very first book ever published covering two different styles of calculus, integral and differential. When the two volumes first hit academia, her fellow mathematicians celebrated her writing and often used her references as textbooks. This led to an invitation to join the Bologna Academy of Sciences.
Sophie Germain (1776-1831) dabbled in multiple mathematical disciplines (and even the social sciences), but is best known as one of the masterminds behind elasticity theory , which just happened to earn her a prestigious prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences. Because women were unable to receive much of an education at the time, she corresponded with mentors (most notably the renowned Carl Friedrich Gauss and Adrien-Marie Legendre) via letter instead. However, she hid behind a masculine nom de plume because she feared stigmatization from the scientific community. Number theory eventually proved her strongest subject. Germain’s most triumphant moment came when she proposed several different approaches to Fermat’s Last Theorem; one of these is now known as Sophie Germain’s Theorem. The Academy of Sciences’ Sophie Germain Prize annually honors the most innovative minds in fundamental mathematics.
Modern computer science exists because of Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852). She wrote what historians and technicians consider the very first computer program for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine. It consisted of an algorithm calculating Bernoulli numbers, though remains untested even now. Because she almost singlehandedly established an entirely new scientific discipline, Byron (more popularly known as Ada Lovelace) enjoys considerably more praise and attention from contemporary audiences than any other female mathematician. The Ada Initiative promotes women furthering the cause of open source software. The United States Department of Defense developed a programming language named “Ada.” Ada Lovelace Day is a nascent holiday celebrated in mid-October drawing attention to successful women in the STEM fields.
Mathematician and astronomer Mary Somerville (1780-1872) calculated the probability of a planet whose orbit disturbs Uranus’ in the sixth edition of On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, published in 1842. Thanks to her mathematical speculations, John Couch Adams discovered Neptune. Even before that, however, 1835 saw her and Caroline Herschel sharing the historical honor of being the first women named to the Royal Astronomical Society. Somerville’s translation of Mecanique Celeste by Pierre-Simon Laplace absolutely thrilled English-speaking scientists. They appreciated how concrete and easy-to-understand she presented the material. The succinct and simple writing style she employed led Somerville to receive The Royal Geographic Society’s first Victoria Medal for making complex science more accessible.
Although Sonia Kovalevsky (or Kovalevskaya) (1850-1891) was not the first woman to edit a scientific journal, her work with Acta Mathematica set her among the most significant. She also holds the honor of being the first woman in the Russian Academy of Sciences and the first European woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. A calculus whiz, one of her most notable contributions to mathematics is the Kovalevskaya top. Only Joseph Louis Lagrange and Leonard Euler had devised a fully integrable system for rigid body motion. This distinguished discovery, which furthered the study and application of classical mechanics, earned her the French Academy of Science’s prestigious Prix Bordin in 1888.
The name Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) conjures up images of nurses, but she accomplished much more than advancing medical science. She also happened to be quite the crackerjack statistician. Although she did not create data visualizations such as graphs and pie charts, Nightingale adopted them very early. Incorporating statistical graphics into her discussions of sanitation reform and other healthcare topics helped popularize the medium; today, they remain crisp, clean, and clear options for anyone trying to relay statistical research. Nightingale herself even created her own style of pie chart, known as the polar area diagram.
No less than Albert Einstein himself considered Amalie Emmy Noether (1882-1935) an inspiration. In a 1935 piece for The New York Times, he referred to her as “the most creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.” Her early work, especially the landmark paper Idealtheorie in Ringbereichen, eventually birthed the term “Noetherian ring” and provided an abstract algebra foundation used in theoretical physics. As a topologist, she focused her prolific output on non-communicative algebra, rings, linear transformations, and invariants while also delving into physics. She did not found the practice of algebraic topology, but her research , especially regarding homology groups , constructed the foundation. In terms of historical impact, however, her Noether’s Theorem is now considered one of the most essential cornerstones of theoretical physics.
Mary Cartwright (1900-1998) claimed many firsts throughout her prestigious career — first female mathematician elected as a fellow at The Royal Society, first woman to win the Sylvester Medal, and the first woman to serve as the President of the London Mathematical Society and as a councilmember of The Royal Society. Collaborations with John Edensor Littlewood yielded major inquiries into chaos and its relationship with differential equations. While they did not establish chaos theory (more commonly known as “the butterfly effect”), their work refined and better defined it. Cartwright’s theorem is probably her best-known contribution to analytic functions.
Ada Byron was the world’s first computer scientist, and Grace Hopper (1906-1992) followed her illustrious influence as one of the world’s first computer engineers. She contributed heavily to the development of COBOL, the first programming language independent of any particular machine, and programmed the Harvard Mark I while serving in the US Navy during World War II. COBOL was not her only creation; Hopper also developed FLOW-MATIC, MATH-MATIC, and ARITH-MATIC under UNIVAC, but COBOL remains her most continuously popular innovation since its 1959 inception. The widely-used term “debugging” also hails from an incident where a moth trapped in a computer disrupted her calculations.
For nearly three decades, Julia Robinson (1919-1985) and her team of mathematicians , Yuri Matiyasevich, Martin Davis, and Hilary Putnam , wrestled against the notorious Hilbert’s tenth problem. They ultimately concluded that no algorithm could resolve the Diophantine equation. For most of her career, Robinson exclusively focused on decision problems. But she dabbled in game theory, even solving a problem worth $200 at RAND. The United States National Academy of Sciences elected her the very first female mathematician member in 1975, and she broke further ground in 1983 when she was elected the first woman president of the American Mathematical Society.
Resources for Women in Mathematics
Although women remain underrepresented in the mathematics and related industries, they do not waiver when supporting one another. They form organizations and initiatives to network, provide opportunities, celebrate the most notable names, and encourage more women to reject stereotypes and embrace number nerdery.
The Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) remains one of the cornerstones furthering the eponymous cause. It hosts a plethora of events, lectures, awards, scholarships, and seminars uniting participants and nurturing a love of all things mathematical. Members also mobilize on college campuses and participate in educational advocacy programs. Above all, they seek to increase representation and appreciation of women mathematicians. For any female professionals and students — or aspiring students — this organization serves as an essential gathering place for mentorships, advice, and sharing new opportunities for personal, professional, and societal growth.
For women currently enrolled in a mathematics undergraduate or graduate program, The Institute for Advance Study, National Science Foundation, and Princeton University offer an 11-day mentorship program. Qualified applicants receive opportunities to meet with industry professionals, academics, and their fellow students through seminars, roundtables, panels, and lectures. Emphasis lay on mentoring up-and-coming women in mathematics. Discussions also center around resolving issues of underrepresentation and attracting more female students to the profession.
Women in Mathematics Education largely reaches out to girls in kindergarten through high school. However, they do provide plenty of opportunities for female mathematics educators to learn and grow as well. Members organize events and trade ideas on how to best address classroom stereotypes and make more female students enthusiastic about math. Undergraduate and graduate students are encouraged to contact WME to open their own campus chapters. Doing so helps them best address any unique needs local learners have , not to mention gaining valuable resume fodder.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ada Byron inspired many a mathematically-inclined undertaking celebrating women in mathematics. The Ada Initiative does not exclusively cater to female open source professionals, though it was founded by two women pursuing equal standing in a male-dominated industry. Every October, Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated in cities around the world. Organize put together fun and educational local events lauding the accomplishments of female mathematicians and scientists as well as teaching young girls to pursue the STEM disciplines.
Reading up on the lives of influential and inspiring female mathematicians can kick-start motivation and creativity. Both Agnes Scott University and University of Oregon produce and collect biographies of groundbreaking women in mathematics. Getting lost in their archives makes for a lovely educational treat for fans of both math and history.
Prizes, Awards, and Honors
Watching women mathematicians receive accolades for their achievements inspires others to press forward with their studies, no matter their age, level of schooling, or their gender. Anyone can watch these accomplished academics accept validation and recognition and hope to emulate their example.
The highest achievements women may earn in mathematics are the very same ones men do well. No Nobel Prize in Mathematics exists, but the International Mathematical Union’s International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics (better known as the Fields Medal) and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters’ Abel Prize are often cited as the equivalents. Unfortunately, just because women are eligible does not mean any have won. Mathematics’ upper echelons cower behind a thick barricade begging to be smashed open.
American Mathematical Society devotes numerous prizes to the development of mathematics, one of which exclusively recognizes women; the others are, of course, open to qualified individuals of all genders and gender identities. The Ruth Lyttle Satter Prize in Mathematics rewards $5000 every two years, celebrating the contributions of one female mathematician. Eligible research must have been released within the past six years.
Obviously, AWM provides the most awards and honors furthering the cause of women in mathematics. With four grants, three distinguished lectures, and six prizes and awards available, female mathematicians do not want for peer recognition. The Ruth I. Michler Memorial Prize bestows upon the recipient $47,000 and a coveted semester-long fellowship at Cornell University, making it one of the most prestigious mathematical honors unavailable to men. Other awards honor educational achievements, mentorships, and promising undergraduate students. There’s even an essay contest for inspiring middle school, high school, and college girls to keep with their mathematics lessons.
With any luck, they’ll continue nursing a passion for the subject.
With the decline in women majoring in mathematics, the demographic’s future may appear to be in danger. But “danger” does not necessarily indicate “disaster.” So many professors and professionals devote themselves to the cause that there is no real danger of the female mathematician species going extinct.
Programs like the Carnegie Science Center’s Girls, Math and Science Partnership (GMSP), Girls Inc.’s Operation Smart, and numerous camps target the pre-college crowd. All of them provide nurturing environments, activities, and mentorships conducive to mathematical exploration. They actively combat the negative stereotypes about women in math. Encouraging girls to succeed at an early age rather than ramming them into rigid dictates builds the confidence and drive to follow their passions. Rather than stepping into a male-dominated industry, deeming it a lost cause, and switching over to something more “feminine,” participating kids learn how to stand up and stay put.
Colleges themselves also serve as valuable staging grounds in the fight for equal representation of women in math-related fields. Many campuses , such as Carleton College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and George Washington University, among others , offer resources, throw events, and organize mentorships specifically for math-loving ladies. Smith College’s renowned Center for Women in Mathematics is often cited as the most attentive, progressive, and inspiring program of the type. Female students majoring in math should check if their schools already have outreach available. If not, they might want to organize their own show of solidarity. Doing so will keep them and their peers focused on their studies, and maybe even encourage more women to embrace mathematics and revolutionize the practice.
And, maybe someday, even win a Fields Medal and an Abel Prize.