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Consigning the mathematics gender gap to history

During the past twenty years, Professor of History of Mathematics June Barrow-Green has used her research to challenge cultural and historical stereotypes about mathematics and inspire the next generation of women to get into the subject.

“Growing up in a family with an old-school view of education, going into mathematics wasn’t an option for me”, she explains. “The mathematicians of popular culture were almost always lonely male geniuses; women were simply not present.”

Why women role models matter

Professor Barrow-Green acknowledges that the situation has improved. Still, she says the scarcity of positive female role models keeps women from entering the discipline today. “If women don’t see women in maths, it perpetuates the myth that it’s a male-only discipline.”

Before starting her University career at the age of 30, Barrow-Green spent a decade working in the cultural sector. Having completed a master’s degree in mathematics and a PhD in the history of mathematics, she has recently united these passions by exploring depictions of women mathematicians in 19th and 20th-century culture.

“Women’s role in mathematics’ development is often overlooked”, Barrow-Green notes. “The few cultural depictions of female mathematicians that exist rarely show them at work.”

Making mathematics accessible to all

The researcher has shared her insights with thousands of young people through school talks, media appearances, lectures, landmark exhibitions and festivals at venues such as The Science Museum. High profile appearances at international congresses to discuss the gender gap in mathematics and a 2021 Royal Society medal have also recognised her achievements.

Still, Barrow-Green’s priority remains making maths accessible to all. This vision is behind a new open-access online resource highlighting diversity in mathematical development which will launch on OpenLearn later in 2022 for students and teachers worldwide.

“If we can start at the very beginning to show children that maths isn’t just something that comes out of a textbook but is something that exists in the world around them, we can make it a more engaging, inclusive and welcoming subject for everyone”, she argues.