Every child starts school with mathematical potential, but women in maths careers are rare. So what inspired Lily Serna to buck the trend?
Before explorers stumbled across Australia, Europeans thought all swans were white. And the more white swans people saw, the more they believed this was true. It wasn’t until the late 17th century when Dutch sea captain Willem de Vlamingh sighted a large flock of black swans on what is now the Swan River in Western Australia that this belief was overturned.
Women in mathematics, like black swans, are unexpected on the face of it.
Maths has widely been accepted as a male discipline for the longest time. As a female mathematician I regularly see first-hand the imbalance of numbers in the discipline. Can we then conclude that girls must not like maths as much as boys? Or perhaps that on the whole they are just not as competent at the subject?
It’s not that women don’t like maths or aren’t capable, it’s just that society by design has stopped women going into the discipline and that’s why there are fewer females.
A counter example to a generalisation can have the power to unhinge even the most established of beliefs – just as Vlamingh’s black swans did to the white swan theory.
Along with my STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) sisters, I am the metaphorical black swan. Centuries ago we were few and far between, today a larger, but still relatively small number of us swim around in the STEM pond.
What I’m about to share with you is my story and the clues it offers as to why I buck the trend.
A historical perspective
I went out to dinner recently with a group of people after work – some I knew, others were friends of friends. We were in a pop-up bar in Sydney on a Friday night. The music was loud, the decor was eclectic enough to be deemed trendy and the margaritas were flowing. As we sat on wooden stools and nibbled on our tapas, I started a conversation with one of the girls at the table who I hadn’t met before. She asked what I did and I told her that I’m a mathematician. Her reaction was something along the lines of I’m ‘too pretty’ to be a mathematician.
While it’s a somewhat nice compliment, there’s something a little irritating about this reaction (a reaction that’s all too common); especially if you superimpose that comment to another profession such as, say, a doctor or lawyer. This response is the quintessential example of the general perspective of women in maths.
To understand this social attitude toward women and maths we need to travel back in time.
Centuries ago and throughout history women were always actively discouraged from studying maths. It was thought that women who studied any sciences were ‘not proper’. More than that, it was a common belief that women didn’t have the brain capacity to think about maths or science.
Not that long ago in the 1950s women were not allowed into the physics buildings at Harvard or Princeton universities. And Harvard’s physics department did not accept a woman as a faculty member until the 1970s.
Just like in life, if you cast doubt on someone’s abilities for long enough they start to believe it. It takes a long time for a society to get over that kind of discrimination.
My intellectual sanctuary
Luckily, my experiences learning maths were very positive when I was growing up. Besides having really dedicated, enthusiastic maths teachers, many of my immediate and extended family have studied maths at a tertiary level and now work as engineers, analysts and maths teachers. More than that, many females in my family have strong maths or STEM backgrounds. Throughout the years my interest in the subject was gently fostered by those around me. This has always been my norm.
Maths was introduced to me in a conceptual way. Often my dad and I would simply talk about topics without pen or paper.
I clearly remember the day my dad introduced me to calculus. One summer morning when I was about 14 my dad and I sat down to have a chat under the fig trees in our backyard. He started by saying ‘Ok so you’ve learned to calculate the area of squares, triangles, rectangles and other regular shapes, but how do you think you’d calculate the area of an irregular shape such as a rectangle-like shape but with one of the sides wiggly?’ He got me to think about it. After a while we both agreed that it would be very hard and that would have to approximate it by a rectangle. Then he asked me to think about how to make that approximation more accurate. After some discussion we agreed that instead of using one rectangle, you could use the sum of two smaller rectangles that followed the curve more closely. He led me to make my own conclusion that the smaller the rectangles, the more accurate the calculation of the area would be.
My dad made me feel like I had thought of that idea all on my own. It wasn’t until six months later, when we learned it formally at school, that I realised that I wasn’t, in fact, the first person to work this out. This was a branch of mathematics called calculus and people have actually been thinking about this concept since 250 BC, particularly some guy called Archimedes who is, as it turned out, considered to be ‘one of the greatest mathematicians of all time’.
That was the way I was introduced to different maths topics; gently, in narrative form and in a way where I was led to make my own conclusions.
My dad was always encouraging and supportive of my interests. Once when I was in early high school my dad said to me: “You always have to remember, Lily, there’s no difference in mathematical ability between girls and boys.”
The reason this comment stuck in my memory isn’t because I found it encouraging or affirming as my dad had meant it to be, no, it stuck in my memory because I remember thinking what an odd statement it was to make. Of course there isn’t a difference; why would anyone think otherwise?
In a lot of ways, growing up with a family who appreciated the discipline sheltered me from any prejudices against the subject.
A black swan event is one that seems rare on the face of it, but upon closer investigation a conclusion can be made it was not rare all along.
Having a supportive nurturing environment in which to support my interests in maths meant I was given the opportunity to explore and excel in the subject without being constrained by prejudgment.
This should be the case for all girls and women and students in general. Every child starts school with mathematical potential. We, as a society, need to cultivate this potential because there is no telling how high they will fly as a result.