By Nabilah Husna, Communications and Content Officer, East Campus
You could listen to Grade 10 and 12 students, Anya, Uditi, Jingying and Rhea, talk about mathematics all day: they speak of the subject like one would about a beloved art form. "Maths goes beyond the rigid stereotypes that we have imposed on it - as presentations within schools, as competitions, or as a source of pressure," said Jingying enthusiastically. "Instead, it can be viewed as a source of liberation or as a source of creativity."
This refreshing approach to mathematics - as a field that is as expressive and freeing as any artistic endeavour - was what bonded the four students, who are co-organisers of this year’s Girls in Maths (GIM) conference, a student-led national maths event happening in February 2020.
When they were handed the opportunity to reach out to fellow girls - and other students of all genders - who were interested in exploring mathematics, they jumped at the chance.
“Many girls who start off joining SEAMC (a Southeast Asian Mathematics competition) in the beginning of the year tend to drop out because they find that it becomes very challenging,” observed Rhea. “It’s important to get girls interested in maths and ready for that challenge because it can be daunting. Boys tend to be more pushed into maths and STEM from an early age.
"With maths, you have to build strong foundations really early on. Unfortunately, girls miss out on that opportunity because they’re not encouraged to do maths in the same way that boys are.” - Rhea
This gendered socialisation of how maths is ‘sold’ to young people is something GIM hopes to chip away at. Anya said, “We thought that one of the reasons that could be was that there’s not a lot of opportunities. Maybe competition maths is a little inaccessible so this is just a platform that people can come to learn, and talk to like-minded people.”
Seeing maths in a new light
Enter GIM, an event which prides itself in subverting the traditional way maths may be explored in schools and other academic circles.
“We’re showcasing a different kind of maths,” said Jing Ying. “Whereas external maths opportunities, usually there are competitions or conventions about academic essays and stuff, we are trying to show that there’s another side to maths exploration that requires creativity, persistence, a different way of looking at things, that is very different from the pressure of competition and the pressure of being in the same room with a lot of people who are trying to all strive towards the same results. We’re trying to show that maths itself is a very diverse field and because of that there are a lot of people who are trying to achieve very different things with it.”
This diversity in perspectives and approach is seen in the way the girls themselves arrived at their love for maths.
For Rhea, it was a talk by Dr. James Grime, a mathematician and lecturer that sealed her love for the subject. “He came to talk to us about cryptography, the history of the field, as well as some of its applications in today’s world. And I remember thinking, this is amazing because I had never seen math like that before. I’d always loved the subject but I had never seen it applied in such an interesting way. That’s one of the most beautiful things about math - it’s such a big field that you could dive in anywhere and find yourself within this sub-field of a field. Anyone can find a place in it.”
“When you used that example of diving into maths, it made me think of how GIM is a diving board,” echoed Anya. “To enable you to access those different fields of maths that may be too daunting to explore by yourself.”
Emerging female voices of mathematics
What awaits maths explorers at GIM is an exciting menu of presentations, panels and discussions by teachers, professionals, academics and fellow students. Said Uditi, “I think it’s really a shame that girls are unable to see the beauty in maths just because of social pressures and they may be a little bit daunted by the fact that they have to present with the boys. We’ve opened up GIM to all genders, so that boys are also interested in understanding what girls explore and engage in the learning itself.”
“These are the hidden voices; these are female voices that we haven’t heard before in mathematics and we think everyone should come and hear them.” - Jingying
Karen Uhlenbeck, an American mathematician, once said that because of the lack of prominent female role models during her apprenticeship in the field of mathematics, she had instead looked to chef Julia Child for inspiration. This anecdote stuck with Jingying. “With GIM that sort of ‘sad’ story - of lack of female role models - would hopefully never happen!”
It’s not every day that you could get young female maths enthusiasts in a room to freely express and explore their passion and curiosity for mathematics. What do our organisers hope students will get out of this rare opportunity to connect?
“A new passion,” said Anya. “And a new friend.”
“A spark of curiosity to develop more of an appreciation for the beauty of maths rather than its challenges,” piped up Rhea.
“Confidence,” added Uditi, “to build connections with one another, and find some common interests with other girls - and also boys - who are doing maths.”
Like Karen Uhlenbeck, Jingying returns to a cooking analogy to succinctly express her hopes for the conference: “In the movie Ratatouille, they said, ‘Anyone can cook’. We’d say, Anyone can do maths. That’s not to say that everyone is a genius at maths, but a good mathematician can come from anywhere.”
The Girls in Maths (GIM) conference creates an open, inclusive and encouraging platform for young women to explore and find their voice in mathematics under the support and mentorship of other women in the mathematical community.
GIM is taking place on Saturday, 15 February, at UWCSEA East. Early bird tickets can be purchased at $25 before 20 November. To learn more about the upcoming Girls In Maths conference, visit the website. Questions? Write to the organising committee at firstname.lastname@example.org.