Women in STEM: Seeing math as a hike. The story of Maryam Mirzakhani.
The topic of Women in STEM (the acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) is broadly discussed at the EU political and social levels. In 2021, MEP Susana Solís Pérez, member of the FEMM Committee (Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality) at the European Parliament, presented to the Parliament, in the role of the rapporteur, the report “on promoting gender equality in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers” (which we wholeheartedly recommend as a reading in case you are interested in the topic and want to know more!)
*Check the sources at the end of this piece*.
The report states that the presence of women in ICT and STEM work sectors and academic paths is a precondition for achieving gender equality, which would result in the respect of human rights and in the development of a sustainable and inclusive society, “Women’s professional contributions can establish patterns of success to follow and ultimately lead to more inclusion, as well as enhancing the transformation of and innovation in our societies, for the benefit of the wider public” wrote MEPs on the report.
Various reasons lie behind the digital gender divide: gender stereotypes, which “constitute a serious obstacle to equality between male and female students as early as education and further widen the gender gap in the STEM job sector, which represents a serious obstacle to equality between women and men”. Gender stereotypes are alive in our cultures and are kept alive by families and teachers: “teachers and parents can entrench gender stereotypes by discouraging girls from choosing and pursuing STEM studies and careers; […] indeed, gender stereotypes greatly influence subject choices”.
The report also mentions the lack of awareness of female role models and the failure to promote them, which hinders and negatively affects girls' and women’s opportunities in STEM studies, related careers, and digital entrepreneurship, and leads to discrimination and fewer opportunities for women in the labor market. Today Femme Lead would love to contribute to the presentation of female role models in STEM with the story of Maryam Mirzakhani.
Maryam Mirzakhani was an Iranian mathematician and a professor of mathematics at Stanford University. On August 13, 2014, Professor Mirzakhani was honored with the Fields Medal, regarded as one of the highest honors a mathematician can receive, becoming the first Iranian to be honored with the award and the first of only two women to date.
Professor Mirzakhani was born in Teheran, Iran on May 1977. She considers herself a lucky girl: in 1989 the war between Iran and Iraq comes to an end and she lives and grows in a renewed atmosphere of peace and possibility, which allows her to choose a good school, where carrying on her studies. As a kid, she is not really into math. Her dream is to become a writer: she loves to imagine and write stories. But when she glimpses the adventures lying behind a geometrical form, especially if unusual and hyperbolic, she discovers a new passion, even greater than the one for literature.
Even if gender stereotypes regarding women in STEM have always existed – “hard sciences are not for girls and women”, someone affirmed; Maryam Mirzakhani does not let these assumptions interfere with her true passion and interest. Indeed, in 1994, at the age of 17, she wins the gold medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad of Hong Kong, the first recognition of many more to come. This is seen as a major victory: a tiny, green-eyed girl from Iran is able to outperform the competition! If only they knew this was just Professor Mirzakhani's beginning…
She is able to see beauty in math and geometry, subjects that she loves to discover as she was an explorer in a dense forest “For most of the time, doing math is like going for a long hike without a marked path or even a tangible arrival.” she affirmed. Who watched her writing eternally long math formulas on a university classroom’s blackboard, say she/he could truly see the sparkle of joy in her eyes as she arrived at the solution to the problem. She considered herself “slow”, but we would like to add “relentless”: she never gave up, always being able to reach the mountain top with only her two legs (and her brilliant intelligence). It is precisely these traits that allowed her to win the Fields medal in 2014, the most prestigious award in mathematics in the world.
It is exceptional, considering that in the US, until the late 60s, women and girls were not allowed into mathematics Ph.D.
Professor Mirzakhani paved the way for other brilliant women and girls who are interested in STEM subjects. She is an example, she demonstrated that with passion, talent, and dedication, you can reach every mountain top, even if society doesn’t believe in your abilities and skills; she is helping girls to feel braver and stronger in pursuing their studies, but above all in overcoming stereotypes and critics coming from a society that cannot keep up with modern times and gender equality in all fields. “Maybe start slowly and calmly, as you do when you go running, but then do not ever give up, and maybe you will arrive first” Professor Mirzakhani’s husband reported, citing her.
Unluckily Professor Mirzakhani’s story is not a story of only victories. At around 30 years old Maryam Mirzakhani is diagnosed with breast cancer. She is not a quitter, but a fighter, so she fights. Indeed, when her victory of the Fields medal was announced, she was already ill, and was not sure about participating in the award ceremony: she had just concluded a cycle of chemotherapy and was afraid she was lacking the necessary strength for the media and her public. The then-President of the International Mathematical Union, the Belgian physics Ingrid Daubechies, organized for Maryam Mirzakhani a support group of friends, who were in charge of protecting and supporting Professor Mirzakhani during the ceremony. This support group is remembered as the “M.M. shield”, the “Maryam Mirzakhani Shield”: a great example of female solidarity.
This story is also about female solidarity: Professor Mirzakhani, with her exceptional work and determination, created a supportive ground on which every girl passionate about STEM can walk, not ever feeling alone, and knowing that “she can” because Professor Mirzakhani did it before her. Even if Professor Mirzakhani is not here anymore, her success story continues to live, and her legacy is kept alive by all those brave and determined girls and young women who are willing to overcome every obstacle society places in their path to build the career and life of their dreams, thanks to their brilliant intelligence and hard work, and also thanks to all the other women and men who support them in following their true passions and dreams.
As mentioned in the 2021 EP Report, the under-representation of women who work in innovative technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), is a matter of concern, as it can negatively affect the design, development, and implementation of these technologies, causing the replication of existing discriminatory practices and stereotypes and the development of “gender-biased algorithms”. Indeed, new technologies that are biased in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, color, language, religion, or national or social origin are mainly caused by non-disaggregated data, a lack of situated knowledge, and the failure to apply a gender perspective in research, which can lastly have harmful consequences for women’s health and well-being, especially those facing intersectional discrimination, and for the safety of products, and can have a negative impact on women’s personal and professional development.
It is not only a matter of risks but also a matter of opportunities for society as a whole: closing the gender gap in STEM careers would contribute to an increase in EU GDP per capita by 2,2 to 3,0 % by 2050, in fact, it would contribute to increase employment and the productivity of women and reduce professional segregation, which would ultimately foster economic growth through higher productivity and increased labor.
The story of Maryam Mirzakhani enlightens us and instills hope in the future of our societies, where women and girls will hopefully be encouraged to pursue the careers of their dreams, without having to face any obstacle
Did reading Maryam Mirzakhani’s story help you in the pursuit of your dream? It surely helped me! Reading stories of women who were able to overcome social barriers and pursue the career and life of their dreams always encourages me to go for the life I dream for myself! It isn’t always easy, but knowing that other women before me made it, boosts my energy and courage. Here at Femme Lead, we want to do precisely this. So please, feel free to comment and engage with us!
With love, light, and a hopeful heart,
Giulia – Femme Lead
- European Parliament resolution of 10 June 2021 on promoting gender equality in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and careers (2019/2164(INI)), June 2021, retrieved from: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2021-0296_EN.html
- Dandini S. Il catalogo delle donne valorose, May 2019, Oscar Mondadori