The London Mathematical Society (LMS) has been honoured this autumn by receiving the first Royal Society Athena Prize to recognise its advancement of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) within the mathematical community.
It has been a long road for the LMS, from a historical dearth of women in the discipline to a set of policies and activities that have been effective at starting to address this. It has been possible because of the commitment and work of a core of people in the society—crucially, both men and women!
But its success has also depended on the recognition the Society and its members had of the importance to the discipline of ensuring there are no barriers to the participation of good mathematicians regardless of gender. There is still a long way to go! But here is a bit of where we started, what we’ve managed to accomplish and our goals for the future.
Origins (Dr Catherine Hobbs, WiM chair 1999-2001)
In 1998 I was on the Council of the London Mathematical Society. As a woman myself, I was of course interested in women’s careers in mathematics. Women had never been well represented in the discipline, especially at the highest levels. Between its foundation in 1865 and 1998, the London Mathematical Society (LMS) had awarded four prizes in total to women mathematicians, and only one woman had ever been President of the Society during this time. Whilst in the early days of the Society this reflected the make-up of the profession to some extent, by 1998 this was certainly not the case – around 38% of graduates and 18% of lecturers were female by 1998. However, at the upper end only 2% of professors of mathematics were female, and few women were invited to showcase their work at the prestigious Society meetings (3 speakers out of 21 were female in that year).
Whether the lack of female speakers was due to the lack of outstanding women or the opportunity to promote their work held women back from promotion it is hard to say. Interestingly, around this time the European Women in Mathematics organisation was starting up and providing opportunities for women mathematicians to share their experiences across Europe. It turned out that in some countries the number of women in mathematics – even at professorial level – was significantly higher than in the UK. Exposure to this international experience gave impetus to the idea that the lack of women at senior levels could be cultural rather than a genetic trait, and that the LMS should play some part in examining the barriers to women’s’ success in the UK.
Thus when members of the Council of the London Mathematical Society went on their biennial strategic retreat, amongst the issues under discussion was what the society could do to address the challenges the profession had in recruiting and retaining talented women in mathematics. The aims of the Society are to support the best mathematics yet we risked losing talent unless we took steps to lift these barriers. The outcome of this was the creation in 1999 of the Women in Mathematics Committee of the LMS. This committee was tasked with undertaking activities associated with four aims:
- Raising the profile of women in mathematics,
- Supporting women in the mathematics profession,
- Improving practice in the mathematics community as regards gender diversity,
- Collecting and disseminating data about women in mathematics.
After my period as WiM chair, the work to develop initiatives continued under the leadership of Helen Robinson (Coventry) then Alice Rogers (KCL).
Progress (Professor Gwyneth Stallard OBE, WiM chair 2006-2015)
Changing culture takes time and the LMS Women in Mathematics Committee had a steep hill to climb. It started by putting in place mechanisms to raise the profile of existing women in mathematics, particularly those at Senior Lecturer level. This had two effects – on the women themselves, as increased exposure of the excellent work they were doing led to recognition through awards and promotion, and on a younger generation for whom they were role models. An annual lectureship, named after Mary Cartwright, the first female LMS President, was instituted which gave a platform for the very best female mathematicians to speak at an official LMS Meeting. An annual women in maths day had been started as a grass roots activity in the 1990s, inspired by the energy and success of European Women in Maths conferences, and the LMS took this on in 1999, relieving the volunteer organisers of the administrative tasks of organising a workshop. The workshops are mathematical in content and open to all, but all the speakers are female. There are also opportunities for early career staff to give short talks/posters on their work in a non-threatening environment. Since 1999, 18 prizes have been awarded to women mathematicians. In 2015, 42 out of 106 speakers at LMS events were women. Over 1,100 women have attended Women in Mathematics Days. As of 2016, approaching 8% of professors of mathematics are female—still too small, but nearly triple the percent in 1998!
In terms of removing barriers, an issue for many parents was that the additional costs incurred to cover childcare while on short visits to collaborators or attending a conference were not covered by any existing mechanism. Grant-giving bodies did not recognise these costs as being valid claims alongside travel and subsistence, yet they are very real financial barriers which tend to affect women more than men – an example of indirect discrimination. The LMS Women in Maths Committee decided to take direct action on this by using some of its budget to make small grants of up to £200 to parents who needed money to fund childcare during short visits. Applicants have to make a case for the importance to their career of attending the conference/making the visit and give a breakdown of costs, but they can choose to use the money in the way most effective for their own children eg the extra cost incurred of taking someone with them to look after the children, or paying for extra childcare at home. The aim of the WiM Committee was to mainstream this type of funding and, by setting an example, encourage other funders to look at providing childcare costs as an allowable expense.
Another known barrier to women is that they often find themselves the ‘trailing partner’ to another academic. Typically their partners are a few years older than them and higher up the academic ladder, so when the partner is offered a promotion elsewhere the couple make the pragmatic decision to move. This can leave a highly qualified and talented woman moving to a new area with no commensurate job initially. The WiM Committee bid for funds from the LMS to provide fellowships for those who find themselves in such a position (female or male). The Fellowship recognises their academic ability and gives them an official position within the university they choose to hold it at, a small amount of money to fund travel and other expenses and a contribution to the host university. The fellowships are named for Grace Chisholm Young, a mathematician of the early 20th century who looked after the family home and children while her husband, another mathematician, travelled for work.
Although the WIM Committee was very active right from its beginning in 1999, the work of trying to support women in mathematics was, for many years, carried out by a relatively small number of people. This changed dramatically following an International Review of Mathematics in the UK in 2010 (PDF) which included as one of its main findings that “action about gender diversity is not a sufficiently high priority for the UK mathematical sciences research community” and recommended that urgent action was needed. The following year, Research Councils UK began to talk about making research funding conditional on action being taken on equality and diversity. These two events caused a sea change in the mathematical community with Heads of Departments keen to know what they should do.
The WIM Committee used its Good Practice Scheme to support departments and, in 2012, ran the first ever UK wide Benchmarking Survey of practice in mathematical departments. This provided data on numbers of women at various career stages and information on practices currently adopted by departments with lots of examples of good practice. The report was launched at the House of Commons – the first ever LMS event to be held there, and the work of the Committee was now mainstream. The Benchmarking Survey provided the kick start that many departments needed and, between 2013 and 2016, the number of mathematics departments with Athena SWAN awards increased from 3 to 39.
There are now 57 Departments and 4 CDTs registered as Supporters of the Good Practice Scheme and an active programme of workshops on different areas of good practice. The Scheme has also expanded to allow Centres for Doctoral Training to become Supporters.
The LMS has also reviewed its own practices to ensure that work to support women in mathematics is embedded across its work, issuing a Council Statement that has been praised as a model for other societies. The LMS Programme Committee which awards grants for conferences has added new questions to its application forms to ensure that conference organisers include a good proportion of female speakers and support those with childcare needs – providing role models and ensuring that women are given opportunities to speak about their work. After an initial year or two when many conferences were refused funding or asked to reapply because of the low numbers of proposed women speakers, the community is now taking this issue seriously.
One indication of the dramatic increase in engagement of the community with the work of the WIM Committee over the last few years is the number of participants at the annual Women in Maths Day. This has grown from about 30 participants in the early days to around 100 participants at triennial two day events introduced in 2010 to several hundred participants (including undergraduates and school girls for the first time) at a four day event in 2015 – one of the highlights of the 150th anniversary of the LMS.
Future (Dr Eugenie Hunsicker, WiM chair 2015-)
In 2015 I agreed to take on the role of chair of the LMS Women in Mathematics Committee, with distinct trepidation at the thought of taking on the role after Cathy and Gwyneth’s amazing leadership. With the current attention currently attracted by equality and diversity issues, it is a very exciting time to be in this role! Though we have made a lot of progress, there are still challenges we need to come together to meet. One of these is the pipeline of young women through school, university and postgraduate degrees into the top levels of mathematical careers in the UK, whether in academia or industry. The second is to consider how our equality and diversity work can extend to ensure members of all underrepresented groups feel equally supported and welcome in mathematical careers.
There are three major directions our work is taking. The first is to increase the number of women and girls in mathematics events supported by the society. In particular, moving forward, we aim to involve a larger and more diverse group of individuals and organisations, in particular looking to involve greater geographical diversity within the UK, a broader range of FE and HE institutions, and also industrial sponsors interested in supporting girls and women in mathematics, statistics and operational research.
The second is to develop an online resource, as well as accompanying print resources such as posters for use in schools, to represent a broad range of individuals in mathematical careers, a broad range of careers that involve mathematics, and a broad range of ways in which such careers can be successful. This project, called “Success Stories in Mathematics” has already begun. We hope to launch the resource within the next year—in the meantime we are interested to hear any suggestions of individuals to profile!
The third direction that the London Mathematical Society is heading is to broaden the range of equality and diversity issues it addresses. In particular, we are looking at ways to collaborate with other STEMM groups nationally and mathematical groups internationally on issues related to ensuring equal access and opportunity regardless of ethnicity, class, religion, LGBT status or disability.