Women in Mathematics
In the film 'The Imitation Game' Keira Knightley plays a truly great character: Joan Clarke.
The scene in the movie during which she is confused with someone coming to
interview for a secretarial role is not at all surprising. It is obviously
shocking but not surprising.
Joan Clarke won a Scholarship to attend Cambridge, where she did extremely well
but was however not awarded a degree. A policy was abandoned in 1948 that only
awarded degrees to men.
This sounds completely farcical in this day and age but it in fact was not until
2014 that the first woman was awarded the Fields medal (the highest mathematics
award): Maryam Mirzakhani won the award 80 years after the first medal was
This slowly changing (more about that later) landscape is not at all due to the
lack of Female mathematicians but more so the lack of their recognition.
Whilst the movie tells the story of Turing who is undoubtedly recognised as the
creator of the first computer, the role of first computer programmer is usually
attributed to Augusta Ada King: the Countess of Lovelace.
Born in 1815, Augusta had notes on what is recognised as probably the first
algorithm that would have been carried out on an all purpose analytical machine
(a sort of mechanical computer). Working with another mathematician she
apparently pointed out a variety of mistakes in his equations which would have
ultimately today been recognized as a computer bug. She could indeed be
considered the first to have debugged a computer programme (more about where
that term comes later!).
Another very strong female mathematician is Florence Nightingale. Florence is
often recognised as the first mathematician to apply statistics in a healthcare
setting. She, a nurse, used quite clever graphical representations to show the
effects of poor hygiene during the Crimean war. The graphs she used are a
generalisation of a pie chart and are sometimes called a Nightingale Rose diagram.
The final mathematician/computer scientise I would like to briefly discuss is Grace
Hopper. Grace Hopper was in fact a computer programmer as one would recognise
them today. She wrote code after the second world war and a very nice anecdote
about Grace is that she supposedly found the first computer bug: an actual moth
had found it's way inside the machine. This is where the term came from and you
can find a video of her talking about this on a late night American talk show.
Whilst I have here discussed 3 mathematicians without going in depth in to their
contributions there are a large number of Female mathematicians that have made
strong contributions to the field, such as Maryam Mirzakhani (the Fields medal
winner). Sadly, just as in Maryam's case there is still a long way to go.
In 1991 out of a total of 303 tenured professors in the top 10 mathematics
departments a total of 4 woman were recognised as having tenure. Whilst things
are looking a lot better today, the divide and difficulties faced by women in
is in no way over and a variety of affirmative action is needed. Around 25% of
doctorates of mathematics were awarded to women from 1995 till 2003 whereas it
was 17% in 1991.
One example of some of the good things that are happening was seen at PyCon 2015
which just took place in Montreal. Guido van Rossum which is the inventor of
Python (and is referred to as the benevelont dictator for life of the project)
discussed his disappointment that there were no Female core developers for the
> And that needs to change by next year: I will train them myself.
Women in Mathematics and Computer Science have come a very long way but
there is still a long way to go.
I read in various articles for the purpose of this essay that one of the main
difficulties faced by women is that they feel pressure to not be seen as
whiners. This is very sad and worrying.