Last semester, upon walking into the first class of my Master’s degree, I was surprised to discover I was just one of only two women in my entire program. Masters in pure mathematics is a small group, but female and non-binary students make up just 10 per cent of the cohort. We’re in a time when feminism and gender representation are major talking points in the media and it appears that a real effort is being made across multiple arenas to address these sorts of issues. So why do some areas of study at our university seem to be stagnating at representation figures that seem like they belong in the 1960s?
Gender representation in maths is an issue close to my heart and it is the reason I wanted to start writing these columns. But inequality at our university doesn’t stop at issues of representation. Racism, transphobia, ableism and various other forms of discrimination still prevent students from fair and equal access to tertiary education.
I want to explore particular aspects of inequality at our university through interviews with students affected. I hope it will generate a platform for discussion of the issue and brainstorming of potential solutions.
In mathematics, there’s a big drop-off in percentage representation of female and non- binary students between undergraduate courses and postgraduate courses. So, to explore this further, I interviewed five women and one non- binary person who are currently undergraduate maths students at the University of Melbourne.
When I asked these students about what they intended to do after completing their undergrad degree, the reasons behind poor postgraduate representation quickly became apparent. Only one of the six indicated explicitly that they were considering postgraduate studies in maths. Four indicated intention to pursue either study in another field or enter the workforce, and one gave an “I’m not sure” response.
But why is this the case? I asked these students about whether they felt their gender had affected their studies of maths, and whether it was likely to affect their decision about studying maths in the future.
Five out of the six students I interviewed identified a way in which their gender had negatively affected their experience of studying maths. Four out of the five women I interviewed identified a sense of isolation, or lack of belonging, as a result of their gender:
“As a female I found studying maths to be quite isolating. It can be hard to form meaningful relationships with your peers when most of them are male.”
“I do find [my gender] limits the people who want to work with me—I tend to see students band together in their gender groups which is very exclusionary as the gender balance is so skewed in the STEM fields I’m studying in.”
Some of this sense of not belonging seems to stem from lack of female and non-binary role models, and some from implicit societal expectations about what a typical mathematician should look like.
“I feel that the lack of female role models has given me a distinct sense of not really belonging in maths. Out of 15 lecturers I’ve had for 13 maths subjects, two have been female. I think it’s really hard to feel that you belong when you don’t see many people who look like you.”
“People were often surprised when I said I liked maths and was planning on majoring in maths/maths- related majors. While some of these reactions I can attribute to the general population’s perception of maths, when it came from guys who were also studying STEM majors it seemed that they were surprised because I don’t fit the ‘maths-geek’ stereotype which is typically thought of as male.”
The non-binary student I interviewed also felt that their gender had affected their studies, stating:
“I’m often not comfortable being out as non-binary in class the way I could in my previous arts degree, because I’m less sure my tutors have had the training or experience to know how to handle any issues that arise and back me up if another student is being an asshole.”
Three students I interviewed also explicitly stated that their gender was going to affect their decision about whether or not to continue studying maths in the future:
“If the field I’m going into is hostile to someone of my gender so that I will never really belong nor be afforded the same opportunities, then I have to seriously question whether it’s worthwhile pursuing it knowing I’ll have to constantly put up with these attitudes.”
“Unfortunately, my gender will absolutely play a role in what I do after my undergrad. It’s somewhat bearable when tutors and lecturers and classmates you won’t see after that semester misgender you (because it’s often a matter of me not having the energy to strictly enforce pronouns or provide a gender 101 to people when I’m just trying to get through the class material), but I won’t be able to do postgrad without finding a niche where my gender is respected.”
“[My gender won’t] be the main issue stopping me but it still has some influence over my decisions. In some ways also being aware that there’s underrepresentation makes me even more determined to study maths or other male-dominated subjects, and though this counterbalances some of the obstacles, I’m not always sure that stubbornness will get me through.”
It is clear that further action must be taken if gender representation is to improve. Five out of six students identified areas where more could be done to address gender representation. The main ones included:
- Better gender representation in teaching staff across mathematics subjects at all levels.
- Mentoring programs for female and non- binary undergraduate students.
- Scholarships for female and non-binary students.
- Training for teaching staff on supporting transgender and non-binary students in the classroom.
“I feel there are some great organisations (e.g. [the Australian Mathematical Science Institute]) trying to decrease or offset the difficulties women experience, but ultimately every institution needs to make sure that they aren’t being biased or negatively influencing people, intentional or otherwise.”
“[Actions that could be taken include] connecting young maths students with mentors who can guide them, and who can also make students feel less alone, would be helpful I think (to be honest I’m not sure if this is already happening at UniMelb). Also, the lack of scholarships for female / non-binary maths students seems like an obvious opportunity that is currently being missed at UniMelb.”
“I would like to see a comprehensive training program regarding respecting gender diversity, not assuming pronouns, and giving tutors the tools to back up trans students who experience pushback from fellow students. There are so many trans people in this field—I think tons of tutors, academics, etc. would want to support us but simply don’t have the training.”
Additionally, the initiatives that do exist that were mentioned by the students were largely ones external to the University (for example, the Australian Mathematical Science Institute’s ChooseMaths program). One student noted that they hadn’t seen many “active efforts” by the University or School of Mathematics & Statistics to address gender representation, and other students were uncertain about actions either of these organisations were taking. Given that most of the actions suggested by students are within the capabilities of the School and the University to deliver, I hope these organisations are able to consider implementing of some of them and to improve communication to students of any work they are already doing to address gender representation. After all, as one student noted:
“This maths department and maths community in general are very traditional in a lot of ways, and this tends to suit traditional students only and makes it difficult for students who don’t fit the mould. And you can’t really expect this cycle of underrepresentation and homogeneity to change without changes being made first from within.”
To see the interviews in full, see here. I welcome feedback, criticism and comments, particularly from anyone affected by an issue discussed in these columns, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am currently looking for students with disabilities who would like to be interviewed for Edition 3. If you are interested please contact me at the above email address.