Women in Math: Where are the Awards?

As a follow-up to my series on women who have been Nobel Laureates in the sciences, I thought I’d write about women who have won prestigious prizes in mathematics (there is no Nobel Prize for math). The only problem is, it took me a while to find any. Fortunately, in recent years several groups have made strides to specifically reward women’s contributions to math since they have been largely overlooked by the more established awards.

The Abel Prize is a close equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the field of mathematics. Since 2003, a prize of six million kronor (approximately $1 million U.S.) has been awarded by the king of Norway to one or more mathematicians for their important contributions. In the nine years since its inception, eleven men have been honored, but no women.

The Wolf Prize in Mathematics also garners many comparisons to the Nobel. The Wolf Foundation in Israel has given this award nearly every year since 1978, along with awards for agriculture, medicine, physics, chemistry, and the arts. All 50 mathematics honorees to date have been men.

The Fields Medal, too, is considered comparable to a Nobel in terms of prestige (though it carries a much smaller monetary award, currently $15,000). It was founded in 1936 and has been awarded every four years since 1950. Between two and four mathematicians under the age of 40 are awarded each time; this not only recognizes the work that has already been done but also encourages its winners to continue in their research. The medal has been awarded 17 times to 52 individuals (one of whom declined the honor). All of them have been men.

The Nevanlinna Prize, similar to the Fields Medal, is awarded every four years to mathematicians under the age of 40. It specifically honors mathematical contributions to information systems, such as the logic of computer programming languages and computer algebra. Since its founding in 1982, it has been awarded to eight men and no women.

The Nemmers Prize is awarded by Northwestern University every two years to honor academic excellence in mathematics, and includes a $150,000 stipend. Since 1994 it has been awarded nine times, each time to a man.

There are many more examples like these, but I don’t want you to get too discouraged. Women’s contributions to mathematics haven’t been totally ignored. While men still predominate the most well-known awards, there have been a few women recognized in recent years. Three women have been awarded the Chauvenet Prize for outstanding expository articles on mathematical theories. Four women have been awarded MacArthur Fellowships (or “genius grants”) for mathematics.

Also, several awards have sprung up specifically to honor women mathematicians and to encourage them in their studies. The Association for Women in Mathematics has established several awards and lectures to honor the contributions of women to different aspects of math, from research to education. The American Mathematical Society, among the many awards it gives, created the Ruth Lyttle Satter Prize in Mathematics in 1990; it has honored twelve women for their “outstanding contribution(s) to mathematical research.” For a fairly comprehensive rundown of mathematics prizes awarded to women, along with biographies of most of the honorees, check out this list, part of an ongoing project at Agnes Scott College. Hopefully one day soon, the contributions of women to mathematics will be recognized with equal frequency to those of men.

By [E] Hillary

Hillary is a giant nerd and former Mathlete. She once read large swaths of "Why Evolution is True" and a geology book aloud to her infant daughter, in the hopes of a) instilling a love of science in her from a very young age and b) boring her to sleep. After escaping the wilds of Waco, Texas and spending the next decade in NYC, she currently lives in upstate New York, where she misses being able to get decent pizza and Chinese takeout delivered to her house. She lost on Jeopardy.

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