Most people may not fully understand what she does, but that shouldn’t prevent mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani from being lauded for a historic achievement. This week she was awarded the Fields Medal for her work, making her the first woman to win the award, which has been called the “Nobel Prize of mathematics,” since its inception in 1936.
Dr. Mirzakhani studies geometry and dynamical systems, particularly the properties of curved surfaces, at Stanford University. She was raised in Iran and, to the surprise of some of her American friends, says she was allowed to pursue an education, including attending a university. That led to further study at Harvard University and then her post at Stanford.
Many hope her achievement will be one more encouragement to young women to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, in which women are strongly underrepresented. Recently, for example, Silicon Valley technology giants Yahoo, Google, Facebook, and Apple have all released figures showing that their employees are mostly male, often by a 2-to-1 margin or more. The gap is even more pronounced in the most technically sophisticated positions.
Encouragement from a mentor, such as a parent or teacher, can go a long way toward helping young women break through cultural stereotypes that can steer them away from the sciences. A brief contact with computer science or physics in a class or two may not be enough.
In the case of Mirzakhani, her older brother helped instill in her a love of the sciences. “I do believe that many students don’t give mathematics a real chance,” Mirzakhani said in an interview published by the Clay Mathematics Institute. “I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.”
Quietly, 2014 is shaping up as a year of breakthroughs and firsts for women across several fields. In economics, for example, Janet Yellen was appointed to chair the Federal Reserve Board, the first woman to hold that highly influential position. In sports, Becky Hammon was recently appointed assistant coach of the San Antonio Spurs, the defending National Basketball Association champions, making her the NBA’s first full-time female coach.
Women in the military have distinguished themselves as well. Marine Capt. Katie Higgins became the first female pilot to join the US Navy’s elite Blue Angels squadron. And Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson took command of the Air Force Academy, becoming the first woman to hold that position. [Editor's note: The original version of this editorial misstated Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson's accomplishment.]
In business, a pay gap between men and women remains, as does a paucity of women on corporate boards and in executive suites. But the Pew Research Center has found that women 25 to 32 years old are better educated than their male counterparts, with 38 percent having at least a four-year college education compared with 31 percent of 25-to-32-year-old men. That advantage should play out in better jobs for these women in coming years.
Meanwhile, women like Mirzakhani will continue to show the way.