Women in Maths: 5 female mathematicians you need to know about

Women in Maths: 5 female mathematicians you need to know about

May 2021 Medium Read: 5 Min

There is no doubt that the majority of people reading this blog post will have heard of Newton, Turing and Einstein, but what about the female icons in mathematics? 

Despite the work and research designed to address the challenges women in mathematics face, women in maths still encounter difficulties. Careers in STEM are still widely male-dominated – only 14.4% of people working in STEM roles are women. And, it may surprise you, but up until not so long ago, there were no organisations supporting women in Mathematics. However, in 1971, the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) was founded in the United States. 

Many of these struggles have a long history stemming from deeply embedded cultural attitudes within society.  Rachel Riley, a National Numeracy ambassador, believes girls are “trained into self-deprecation, modesty and never, ever being vocally proud of our achievements, for fear of being labelled boastful”. This deeply ingrained lack of confidence can hold women back. However, we have come a long way in the past few years and women are making some brave moves into the industry. 

Below is an insight into five successful female mathematicians, present and past. Each example reflects a battle that has been overcome. Hopefully, these five influential female mathematicians can inspire some of you to pursue your love for Maths, regardless of your doubts. 

1. Rachel Riley

Most people will know Rachel Riley’s face and name from Countdown. Rachel studied Mathematics at Oxford University and at age 22 she joined the Countdown team. Her career in the Countdown team means she uses her mathematical skill daily. Rachel has visited multiple schools over the years with a mission to inspire children with the  “joys of applied maths, quantum mechanics and time travel” Her ambition is to increase the number of females participating in STEM subjects. 

Rachel states: “There’s no reason for men to be better at maths than women – it’s just about our perception.” 

2. Katherine Johnson, 1918 – present

Katherine Johnson studied maths alongside French at University and graduated at the young age of 18! She became part of the NASA team in 1953, and her work in Orbital Mathematics was crucial to the success of the USA’s aeronautics and space programmes. In 2015 Barack Obama presented Katherine with the presidential medal of freedom for her contributions as a mathematician, physicist and space scientist.

Katherine was responsible for calculating the trajectory for Project Mercury and the Apollo 11 flight, meaning she helped the first spaceship to reach the moon!

Believing that “everything is physics and maths,” she encourages girls to pursue careers in STEM.

3. Maryam Mirzakhani 1977-2017

Maryam Mirzakhani, born in Iran, was one of the most influential mathematicians of her time. She made exceptional contributions to both the study of dynamics and the geometry of Riemann surfaces.

Maryam was a professor at Stanford University and achieved a PhD from Harvard University. She was not only the first woman, but she was the first Iranian awarded a Fields Medal (also known as the International Medal for Outstanding Discoveries in Mathematics) for “her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces”.

Maryam proves that even in a male-dominated industry, women and girls can be role models. She helped lead the way forward for all women striving to make an impact in maths and science.

4. Dame Mary Lucy Cartwright, 1900-1998

Dame Mary Lucy Cartwright was a British Mathematician.  Not only was Dame Cartwright the first woman to achieve a first in her university degree, but she was also one of the first mathematicians to study what is now known as chaos theory. 

She was the first woman ever to receive the Sylvester Medal (awarded for the encouragement of mathematical research), the first woman to be President of the Mathematical Association and the first woman to be President of the London Mathematical Society. 

Clearly a woman of many firsts! Who made great strives for women wanting to succeed in the industry. 

5. Malala Yousafzai

Malala is best known for being a Pakistani activist – campaigning for female rights to education. She is the youngest person to ever win the Nobel peace prize at the age of just 17.

Malala became an activist when she was only 11 years old and began writing blogs for the BBC detailing her beliefs on the importance of a right to education for girls worldwide and especially in Pakistan. Her story drove the United Nations to launch a campaign promoting the right to education for children worldwide, which ultimately led to Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill. She has an A-Level in Maths and is currently studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford University.

Malala’s brave actions illustrate that females do have the power to change the world regardless of contemporary societal beliefs. She also shows us that education is a privilege, so, if we want to go on and study maths, we should!

Malala states: “Education is neither eastern nor western. Education is education, and it’s the right of every human being.”

Do you want to pursue further education or even a career in Maths? Let these five female icons act as a driving force for you to go and achieve your goals, whether that be in Maths or any other subject feel passionate about.