When is a milestone really an embarrassment? Stanford professor Maryam Mirzakhani, who became the first woman to win the prestigious Fields Medal in mathematics on Wednesday, certainly deserves recognition for her accomplishments. But for her field, the award only serves as an uncomfortable reminder that many science and math departments remain severe laggards on gender equity. The era of firsts should be long over; the fact that this milestone happened in 2014 should cause at least as much consternation as celebration.
Indeed, it’s hard to avoid noticing the irony that Mirzakhani got her start in theocratic Iran. She won admission to a selective Iranian high school where a principal nurtured her interest in math. She then graduated from Tehran’s Sharif University before heading to Harvard for graduate school. It’s probably painful for many Americans to imagine trailing the Iranian education system at anything. But for those keeping track of female Fields winners: It’s Iran, 1; United States, 0.
The barriers facing women in math and science have been well documented. Stereotypes persist, leading some women to avoid those fields. Teachers may be less likely to praise gifted women than equally talented men. Mirzakhani has said she has no interest in being a poster child for women in mathematics, but her achievement should spur mathematics departments into greater efforts to attract and keep women.