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The Fields Medal: a stepping stone for women in mathematics

By Helen J Wilson, on 14 August 2014

Helen Wilson

Helen Wilson

We heard yesterday that the Fields Medal, which is the closest thing to a Nobel Prize for Mathematics, has been awarded to a woman for the first time in its 78 year history.

The prize is awarded once every four years, to a small number of mathematicians (two to four each time) and is presented at the International Congress of the International Mathematical Union. This year’s winners are Artur Avila, Manjul Bhargava, Martin Hairer and Maryam Mirzakhani.

It’s fantastic to see a female mathematician rewarded at this very highest level for the first time. I hope the news coverage around this breakthrough will encourage women in mathematics at all levels. At the moment, there are plenty of girls studying maths in the UK up to degree level, which is wonderful. We may not be quite 50:50 but the proportions are close enough that girls don’t feel as if they’re in the minority. And that’s changed since I was a student. But as you move through the academic stages – PhD, postdoc, lecturer, professor – we have a “leaky pipeline” and at the top, only 6% of UK mathematics professors are female.

Here at UCL we had one of the first female maths professors in Susan Brown (who retired a few years ago); we’re proud of our heritage but our female academic staff are still badly outnumbered and there’s still a long way to go. Maybe this Fields Medal is one more stepping stone along the way for women in mathematics.

Watch Helen Wilson discuss the Fields Medal on BBC World News

Helen Wilson is Deputy Head of UCL Department of Mathematics