As you may have seen, Google’s homepage in March featured an illustration celebrating the birth 133 years ago of Amalie (“Emmy”) Noether, a German mathematician to rival the top thinkers of her day. Referred to by Albert Einstein as the “most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced” by intuitions educating women, Noether’s Theorem, and her other contributions, proved foundational to theoretical physics.
Reading about the remarkable accomplishments of Emmy Noether, I was stuck that I had never heard of her. It does not seem a far stretch to surmise that her gender is at least partially responsible for her relative obscurity. We know that she faced sexism throughout her career. But not all her male peers disregarded her or her work because of her sex; as the New York Times described, “her male mentors repeatedly took up her cause, seeking to find her a teaching position — better still, one that paid.” Yet, it is telling that her male peers would need to advocate on her behalf even though she’d graduated summa cum laude with her doctorate.
As we’ve discussed on this blog before, women in STEM fields face challenges in the workplace that, sadly, have historical roots. I wonder how many other women remain largely unknown despite important contributions to society, contributions for which men receive acclaim and a place in our historical understanding. This is an important question not just out of basic principles of equity, but for its effect on future generations of women. As young girls formulate their own aspirations, envision their own place in the world, it’s troubling that they’re missing out on examples of female success in male-dominated fields like math and science. This is particularly disturbing where research has suggested that cultural bias concerning women’s math abilities might actually cause a gender-gap in girls’ test scores.
So, I encourage you talk to your daughters and sisters and nieces about Emmy Noether and all the other women who have made and are currently making important inroads for women in STEM. It’s crucial that we encourage young girls to go into these male dominated fields, their absence from which is likely affecting scientific outcomes.