Reflections on International Women’s Day

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Cover Article
March 2024 TOC icon
Cover Article
March 2024 (Vol. 56, No. 2)

International Women’s Day is on March 8th, and you will see that issues related to women are a theme in this month’s CMS Notes. No matter your gender identity, March 8th is a day to recognise the achievements and struggles of women around the world.

International Women’s Day is observed in different ways around the world, and will mean different things to different people. My earliest memories of Women’s Day were that my dad would always bring a single cut flower for me, my mom, and my two sisters. It made me feel special to be counted as a woman. When I was a girl, I had learned of the struggles that women had faced. That they hadn’t always been allowed to study, or work, or vote. I was happy to be growing up in Canada in the 1980s, when women were equals and had all the opportunities of men. I understood that for the most part, women would not be able to compete in sports against men due to their different body types. But as far as what I thought I was interested in, a future in math or computer science or business or such, I thought it was all good. It took me a while to notice that the women’s movement wasn’t done, that maybe, there were still differences in how women were viewed, and the opportunities available to them. I do think that my cheerful optimism pushed me through some situations, thinking it was a weird blip that there were way more boys than girls in the math league in high school, and then in the math program in undergrad, and just plowing through.

It was in my senior years of undergraduate studies and in graduate school that it started to be apparent to me that sometimes, people were looking at me differently because I was a woman. I won’t share anecdotes because most of them involved good people who later became quite supportive. But there were definitely some uncomfortable moments, and moments where I felt that I wasn’t being viewed fairly. On the flip side, I stood out because I was a woman, and this was often an advantage. Everyone knew who I was, and remembered me. And I definitely benefited from attempts to increase female representation in mathematics, with more invitations and opportunities than my male counterparts. So still, I was confused: It’s pretty nice for women in math, so where are the women?

I had somehow forgotten about the main big difference between females and males: It is the females who give birth to children. Though science is making advances, still, all people alive today have spent at least several months in a female’s womb. One might think that this shouldn’t matter so much, but it does. Some women know that they will not be able to carry children, for whatever reason. This can be hard. Some women hope to have children, but aren’t sure how to time it, since these things are not on a clear schedule, and it may not work out if you leave it too long. This also a hard choice. If you decide and are able to have children, now you’re a mom (maybe we reflect on that in May). Maybe you want to have children and cannot. Maybe you choose not to have children. Whatever your choice, society will have expectations of you, and one can feel a lot of pressure. Moreover, reproduction is not something we often discuss, so this pressure is often carried by women with very few people with whom to share their hopes, fears, and general thoughts. For a career in research mathematics, there are a lot of pressures to produce at a high level during these reproductive years. I found it to be a very difficult thing, and so I am no longer surprised that other women may have made a different choice. And indeed, the perception that girls ought to grow up into moms will possibly affect where parents try to direct their daughters, which can be influential. But then, with fewer women as mentors, perhaps other young women are less likely to imagine themselves in the profession, and shy away.

Even as I write this note, I’m still confused as to why there aren’t more women in math, and why the proportion decreases as the level rises. What is also puzzling is why some STEM areas attract more women than others? It is something to reflect on as we try to ensure that all people have access to mathematics.

Now in the 2020s, I’m certainly more jaded about being a woman than I was in the 1980s. But I am still so grateful to be a woman in Canada, who can vote, go to work, choose whether to try to carry a child, and whose daughter is allowed to go to school. Other women around the world are not so lucky. So this International Women’s Day, I am thankful to the people who fought in the past for gender equality, and hope that as a society we can create better opportunities for women both in Canada and around the world. Just think of the beautiful mathematics they might produce.

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