STEM Heroines: Math role models for girls

The number of women in science, technology, engineering, and math fields is growing, but women are still a minority overall in STEM career paths.

Getting girls into STEM fields has become a major initiative of businesses, organizations, and governments – inspiring multiple campaigns to educate parents and kids about the value of diversity in STEM fields and classroom activities.

Ruth Charney, president of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), likens math to puzzle solving, opening up interest to math for kids who might only equate math to endless rules and equations.

“It’s a wonderful job. It’s a wonderful place to be for women today,” says Ms. Charney from her office at Brandeis University. “I think the way to go when talking to children is to show that math is really about puzzle solving, not just doing some rote equations.”

Parents can encourage their kids’ interest in math through everything from local math circles to online sites such as and that encourage students through video tutorials. The TED ED site also offers a series of math-related videos, explaining math through engaging anecdotes featuring traveling aliens, predicting the weather, and gridiron physics.

For girls in particular, Charney suggests looking at the AWM website for information about summer math programs built specifically to nurture girls’ interest in math.

“I think it’s good to have those kinds of resources for children so they can find the enjoyment in math and see how much scope there is to math beyond just seeing how fast you can solve an equation,” Charney adds.

While there are a great many women who have paved the way in mathematics, Charney cautions, “Also we want to be mathematicians, not ‘Women in mathematics.’ We would like to move past that gender distinction.”

While Charney leads the charge on the future of math, here are some of the earliest female math scholars.

What these women needed was a way into the education they desperately craved, often finding it through a mentor.

Today, the AWM has created a program to match mentors, both men and women, with girls and women who are interested in mathematics or are pursuing careers in mathematics. 

The majority of information in the list draws from the AWM website, the Smithsonian magazine, and the Women Mathematicians website, which is operated by Agnes Scott College.

Erik Hill/Anchorage Daily News/AP/FILE
Jordan Centeno of West Valley High School in Fairbanks, Alaska takes a 30-minute science test at the GCI Alaska Academic Decathlon at the Hilton Anchorage Hotel in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday, Feb. 20.

1. Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831)

Erin McCracken/The Evansville Courier & Press/AP
Jenna Wargel, center, sets up her science project as her teacher Megan Wright, left, directs other students where to position their projects for the Helfrich Park STEM Academy Science Fair in Evansville, Ind., on Thursday, March 6.

Math historian Michael Crowe wrote, “Revolutions never occur in mathematics.”

Perhaps that explains how Sophie Germain hid from the French Revolution – in books – where she read about the death of Archimedes and, as a result, embarked on a lifelong study of mathematics and geometry, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

As a woman, she was banned from studying at the École Polytechnique, the prestigious institution for higher learning and research located near Paris.

However, she found a workaround to the problem by obtaining lecture notes and submitting her papers under a false name to Joseph Lagrange, a faculty member. When he learned she was a woman, he became her mentor.

She became the first woman to win a prize from the French Academy of Sciences, for work on a theory of elasticity, and her proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, though unsuccessful, was used as a foundation for work on the subject well into the 20th century.

A school in Paris – L’École Sophie Germain – stands in honor of her memory today. Certain prime numbers are called "Sophie Germain primes.”

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