My mum, who encouraged me to excel in maths saying “maths is useful”, said that the gender gap is justified because women don’t “work” as much as men when women have periods, maternity leave, children and other preoccupations apart from their occupation, unless, she says, the hired women are not allowed to marry or have children, just like Cathay Pacific, where men and women staffers have the same pay. But this deflects the entire issue from a matter of ability to a matter of potential, which, as with many things in life, fall short of our expectations. In fact the first female Fields medalist, Maryam Mirzakhani, who made progress in our understanding of simple geodesics (akin to “straight lines” in geometry), has a 3-year-old daughter. History as we read it seems to suggest that almost all great things are done by men, but they forgot the mothers, sisters, daughters and wives in the picture. The household-name inventor Thomas Edison was home-schooled by none other than his mother. And we dare not forget Anne Sullivan who tutored Helen Keller.
Girls also dream, just perhaps not the same dreams as boys. Don’t blame us for that; it’s probably a cultural problem. It goes without saying that sex and role are thought to be intertwined, be it the hunter-gatherer hypothesis or the protector-nurturer one. It is little wonder that almost no women are in the sweaty construction industry, and the conventional jobs for women are teachers, nurses, social workers or clerks. In fact the Jewish mathematician Emmy Noether, about whom I am writing for the Ada Lovelace Day 2014 anthology, had considered being an English and French teacher, considered to be a very normal female career, before she defied German society’s expectations, went to university and decided to invest her life in mathematics. Given the many myths related to the workplace for non-traditional career paths for women, I wonder if mobile technology could empower girls in STEM differently from their predecessors, in that we could be “slacktivists” in making maths and science a worthwhile pursuit for all. That we in the 21st century are not immune to our ancestors’ concerns in tying our futures to STEM in centuries past is a cause for concern.
The irony with my mother is that even though she was the reason I chose to major in mathematics, she only knows how to do very basic arithmetic and find good deals in the neighborhood. I do not claim to know all the mysteries of mathematics, much less to solve open problems like the Riemann Hypothesis (even my professors, all men, say that this is hard), but to have managed to learn higher mathematics and grasp its applications is a feat in itself.
Literacy opens doors, but people are proud of being ignorant in mathematics and the sciences, especially girls. This must change for a new generation to face the technological challenges in our increasingly connected world. And unlike in the Disney film Mulan, girls are drafted too. It starts with you.
Update: It turns out that the United States lack female computer scientist role models. Be the next one and ace your maths.