Courageous Conversations: Women in Mathematics

The next in our series of conversations with staff and PGRs from minority groups is with two female PGRs from the Department of Mathematics, Jessica Furber and Laura Jones.

Do you feel you are treated differently, or have a different experience, as a woman doing a STEM subject?

Laura: I don’t think I have been treated differently in the field of mathematics because of my gender. When I have experienced a difference of treatment in my life, it would usually be due to a clash of cultures and this happens everywhere. In the end, people in STEM are regular people and my interactions with my colleagues is just as it is with people outside of the office.

Jessica: I can certainly say that I have never been treated differently. I came from a very small sixth form, where in year 12, maths was the subject with the most students, a very high number of 12. By year 13, through failings and dropping off the subject, it was only me that remained. I now had the privilege to have one-to-one with my teacher every lesson.  Because of this, we had a lot of time in the lessons to go over what I didn’t understand, and even went further and I ended up sitting an extra AS level in Further Maths. I felt like I had the same opportunity as everyone else, and my experience was not any different because I was a woman. The opposite in fact. My teachers loved my appreciation for the subject, so pushed for me to succeed, which in evidence, worked as here I am still in the subject. The same goes for my undergrad and masters degree. I always felt included in the subject, and I think I can say the same for many of my female peers.

How does it impact on you to be researching in a discipline that is predominantly male?

Laura: I might have been peculiarly fortunate in my academic journey because there has always been a great deal of women around me. Even though I have studied in 3 (European) countries, at no point did the proportion of women decrease in my lectures. Maybe they just need to be celebrated as much as their male counterparts and people will see that, indeed, many women do well in science.

Jessica: It feels rewarding and satisfying to be researching in a discipline that is predominantly male. I have earned my place here, as has everyone else (male or female), so why should my research be any different? Whilst not linked to this discipline, I can say the same for my sister, who is a Surveyor up North. She is working in a field, and succeeding very well, that is predominantly male. But she makes it work because she loves her job. The same goes for all disciplines – I believe if you love what you do then there should be very little impact. You made it to where you are for a reason, and no one can question that or take it away from you.

Do you have any role models within your discipline, whom you have personally found inspiring and relatable?

Laura: I don’t so much have a role model as a group of peers who supported me throughout my academic journey. It’s great to know that someone has already climbed the mountain, it gives a roadmap from which to get inspiration, but it’s the people who joined the hike that really help and inspire. My high school maths teacher is the first who suggested I study mathematics when she saw how I enjoyed her classes; I always developed a solidary circle with my classmates; and most influential of all is my mother who inspires me to be as free and independent as her.

Jessica: In all honesty, I never used to. My role model through school was myself, which is pretty strange because how can you look up to yourself? But I knew what I wanted – I wanted to do maths. So that is what I did. It was not until recently that I have watched films based on real life, such as ‘Hidden Figures’, where I have seen people who, against all odds, were able to use their amazing mathematical abilities to do something phenomenal. Obviously, this is always happening, but it is special because of the background they came from. Not only were they women, but they were also African-American, which at the time, held them back further. To push through all the difficulties, they did what they wanted to do because they loved their work, which to me is really inspiring, and relatable, because that is all I want to do too.

When women in Science research are treated equitably and with respect, what does this look like?

Laura: To me, marks of respect in the workplace come in the form of asking me for help or giving me responsibilities. In my previous job for example, I was in charge of creating a workshop and leading it during a conference. I was so happy that I had been given free rein and for the trust my boss had in me. The results were fantastic and the workshop a success. Bringing women forward brings new perspectives with them that benefit the work environment.

Jessica: I think I am quite lucky in this respect, as I feel I have always been treated equitably and with respect, so I don’t have anything to compare it with to say what it does look like. If I had to give one example, it would be my interview into the university for my PhD. One university that I interviewed at before Surrey, it was only me and the researcher. So, I was expecting similar with my interview at Surrey. But instead, it felt like the whole of the mathematics department was at the interview. I felt already included and I had not even been accepted at that point. Everyone pitched their research and I thought this was a department that was very much a community and a place where everyone is treated fairly and with respect. Being here now, I still feel that way and can see the women in research are treated equitably and with respect.

How would it make a difference if there were more women in your field?

Laura: Not only women but any gender, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. contribute to better science. It is unrealistic to expect people to see all the faces of a cube, which is why a wide group of people from different backgrounds, with different experiences, leads to more inclusive results. It’s not just about representation, it’s about applying those differences for a more rounded approach to research.

Jessica: It would certainly be nice, as it shows that more women are seeing their potential and following their dreams, rather than leaving it behind because they have been discouraged from it. It would also certainly make the field more even. Even now, I would still say mathematics is male dominated, but is starting to include more women. But if there were more women, then there is a chance that there are more opportunities for female role models, which would be nice for younger generations to show there are no limits to what you can do.