Obverse of a Fields Medal

Obverse of a Fields Medal. Image credit: Stefan Zachow for the International Mathematical Union (IMU)

Last week was a good week for both gender equality and mathematics. On Wednesday, the Iranian mathematician, Maryam Mirzakhani, became the first woman to be awarded the Fields Medal in its 78 year history. On Thursday, A-level results showed that entries to mathematics accounted for more than 10% of the UK cohort, ensuring that mathematics claimed top spot as the most popular A-level subject, beating English into second place.

This is, perhaps, not so surprising given that entries to mathematics have steadily increased since 2005. The 68% increase recorded between 2005 and 2014 is impressive, but it hides a more worrying story. Consistently more boys than girls take A-level mathematics, and the percentage of female mathematics A-level entries this year was, at 38.7%, the lowest recorded since 2006.

The reasons behind this disparity are not absolutely certain, but it may be that unconscious biases are to blame. The culture and ethos of a school, as well as parental influence, can play a huge role in subject choice. Recent surveys for the Institute of Physics found that one in five schools perpetuate gender divides between subjects, such as biology and physics, while subject uptake is more ‘gender neutral’ in single-sex schools.

It is certainly the case that unconscious bias needs addressing. But if all students were required to study science and mathematics to age 18 within a baccalaureate framework, as suggested in our recently published Vision for science and mathematics education, then this might go some way to solving the problem.

Until then, is the likelihood of a British woman being awarded the Fields Medal just π in the sky?