Hidden Figures in Oxford Mathematics - the experience of three women PhDs in Oxford in the 1980s

"Historically, mathematics has been a largely male-dominated field, with women in mathematical academia consistently being underrepresented. A report in 2013 by the London Mathematical Society shows some progress has been made in increasing the participation of women in recent times, with the proportion of women pursuing an undergraduate degree in mathematics in the UK standing at around 42%.

However, when we look at the percentage undertaking a PhD this number drops to 19% and as we progress through the career stages of an academic, eventually we reach the disturbing statistic that only 6% of maths professors in the UK are women. This demonstrates what is sometimes referred to as a ‘leaky pipeline’ – one metaphor to describe the way in which women leave academia at a higher rate than men at every stage of a research career. The current female professors that make up that six percent have spent the last few decades working as mathematicians in a profession where they are largely outnumbered.

I wanted to speak to some women who chose to pursue a career in academia at a time when female mathematicians were few and far between, asking them to tell their stories, understand the challenges they have overcome and highlight the successes they have achieved. The common link between these women? They all started their journey into academia at Oxford in the 1980s, by undertaking a DPhil here at the Mathematical Institute. 

The stories that follow come from interviews conducted with the three women: Sarah Rees, Frances Kirwan and Helen Byrne. Sarah Rees is a professor of pure mathematics at Newcastle, the first woman to be appointed to a permanent position in Newcastle’s Faculty of Science. Frances Kirwan is the Savilian Professor of Geometry at the Mathematical Institute here in Oxford, the first woman to hold this position since its creation in 1619. Helen Byrne is a professor of mathematical biology here at Oxford and was the recipient of the 2019 Society for Mathematical Biology Leah Edelstein-Keshet Prize. These women have gone on to have varied and successful careers as academics, providing real insight and new perspectives into their respective fields of mathematics, as well as helping the next generations of women succeed in maths.

The result of these interviews is this piece, describing their contrasting experiences and exploring issues such as: feeling and being treated differently; the importance of having inspiring figures and a strong community around you; the isolating world of research; the challenge of being a mother and a mathematician; what these women view as their biggest successes in life; and much more. The full piece can be found here."

Maddy Underwood

Maddy Underwood is an undergraduate at Worcester College. This article, and the longer piece, is the fruit of her Student Summer Research Project here in Oxford under the guidance of Mate Szabo. The Summer Research Projects aim to give our undergraduates a taste of the world of mathematical research.