Maryam Mirzakhani became the first woman in 78 years to be awarded the prestigious Fields Medal, considered the highest honour in mathematics. She was awarded for “stunning advances in the theory of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces.” on Wednesday.
The Fields Medal is awarded to stalwart mathematicians under 40 who show promise of future achievement, every four years. As she receives the awards amongst other awardees of this year—Arthur Avila, Manjul Bhargava, and Martin Hairer—there now have been 54 male and 1 female medalists.
Maryam Mirzakhani makes a lot of people hopeful especially due to her subject of research. “I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians,” she said in a press release according to Guardian reports. Christiane Rousseau, vice president of the International Mathematics Union, told the Guardian this is “an extraordinary moment” and “a celebration of women”.
A contemporary Canadian math professor, Izabella Laba wrote: “Mirzakhani’s selection does exactly nothing to convince me that women are capable of doing mathematical research at the same level as men. I have never had any doubt about that in the first place…What I take from it instead is that we as a society, men and women alike, are becoming better at encouraging and nurturing mathematical talent in women, and more capable of recognising excellence in women’s work.”
Mirzakhani’s accomplishment is exclusively inspiring as she breaks the stereotypes; trespassing all the challenges including biases a woman faces in the field of science and research.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, there are no significant biological differences that could explain women’s low representation in STEM academic faculty and leadership positions (although that doesn’t stop prominent people from making claims otherwise.) Instead, NAS says we can thank bias and academia’s “outmoded institutional structures.”
Strangely, this bias of considering a man more hireable than a woman in the field of science and technology was found in both male and female faculty members.The yoke of patriarchy doesn’t end here; as per a report released in July, it was found that a full 64% of women in various scientific fields were sexually harassed while doing fieldwork. Such notions and unfair circumstances clearly explain why only 9-16% of tenure-track positions in math-intensive fields at the top 100 US universities are held by women.
This is one of the major cause which turns Mirzakhani’s achievement into a groundbreaking incident in the history of STEM academics.
Mirzakhani, who grew up in Iran before earning her Ph.D. at Harvard and becoming a professor at Stanford, told the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2008 that she did not initially realize her strength in math: “I don’t think that everyone should become a mathematician, but I do believe that many students don’t give mathematics a real chance. I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold.”