Steven Walker, OCR Maths Subject Advisor
In this blog, in recognition of International Women’s Day on 8 March, I would like to challenge the allegation that the low up take of A Level Maths by girls is because mathematics isn’t relevant for their career aspirations or interests. Here is just a short selection to counter that train of thought.
Ada Lovelace was a mathematician and writer who is considered the world’s first computer programmer. She worked with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine, a mechanical device that could perform mathematical calculations. Lovelace wrote the first algorithm for the engine, which is considered to be the first computer program.
Whilst she was known as the ‘Lady with the lamp’, caring for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, it was Florence Nightingale’s presentation of data, especially the circular histogram or ‘Nightingale Rose’, that supported her campaign to associate high hospital death rates with poor nutrition, sanitation and air quality. The early curriculum for training nurses used the statistical evidence she had collected, and her book “Notes on Nursing: What it is, and What it is Not”, first published in 1859, is still in print.
Mathematicians are traditionally seen as working in science, engineering or the statistical analysis side of social sciences. However, Kathleen Ollerenshaw is best known for her role in politics, serving as a councillor for 25 years, including time as Lord Mayor of Manchester, and her work in education and music.
It has been suggested that having become deaf in childhood, Kathleen favoured mathematics at school since it was not dependent on hearing, although her subject choice may have been inspired by the mathematically trained head at her school. She went on to study mathematics at university and is known academically for her work on Magic Squares. She was President of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (1978-79).
For those of you sitting UK Mathematics Trust (UKMT) Maths Challenges this year, Maryam Mirzakhani’s earliest awards include gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad (1994 and 1995) before going on to be awarded the Fields medal in 2014. Born in Iran, she excelled in mathematics, obtaining her BSc from Sharif University before obtaining her PhD from Harvard University. The focus of her mathematical study has been likened to extending the concept of balls on a snooker table from the traditional flat surface to any Riemann surface.
Gladys Mae West (née Brown) grew up in a rural farming family and secured a scholarship to university to study mathematics. She initially taught maths and science but returned to university to complete her master’s degree. This led to working on analysis of data from satellites, both out into space looking at the motion of Pluto relative to Neptune, but also down towards Earth looking at our planet’s physical geography.
Her programming on the increasingly powerful computer systems is said to have formed the basis of the GPS satnavs we all rely on today. In 2021 she was awarded the Prince Philip Medal by the Royal Academy of Engineering.
Do you have any suggestions for other inspirational female mathematicians you would want to see celebrated in our blogs? Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you have any questions you can email us at email@example.com, call us on 01223 553998 or tweet us @OCR_Maths. You can also sign up to subject updates to keep up-to-date with the latest news, updates and resources.
Steven originally studied engineering before completing a PGCE in secondary mathematics. He has taught secondary maths in England and overseas. Steven joined OCR in 2014 and has worked on the redevelopment of OCR’s Entry Level, GCSE (9-1), FSMQ and A Level Mathematics qualifications. He now focuses mainly on supporting OCR Level 3 qualifications at work whilst at home helping his daughter with her early introduction to mathematics in primary school.