Eminent woman mathematician awarded Honorary Doctorate

“There is still an attitude that women don’t quite cut it.”

Women need role models at every step: "If you see a range of possibilities, I think it makes it easier to imagine what you might be."

“It’s still OK to say ‘I don’t understand mathematics at all’ where nobody would say proudly, that they couldn’t read.”
Dusa McDuff, is a prize winning mathematician and the Helen Lyttle Kimmel '42 Professor of Mathematics at Barnard College. She is a fellow of the Royal Society, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a member of the American Philosophical Society, and an honorary fellow of Girton College, Cambridge. She has received many plaudits for her work and is an active member of the Association for Women in Science.
Professor McDuff has been awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Warwick in recognition of her esteemed career and the promotion of the role of women in STEM subjects.
Talking about her decision to forge a career in mathematics she said: “I didn’t have much idea of what being a mathematician would be. I always loved mathematics and I always thought I would have a career. I saw my father was a biologist so I knew a scientist was something one could be but I didn’t know any mathematicians, so I didn’t really have any idea of what it would be like.
“There were no visible women mathematicians when I was young and although I was brought up to think I would have a career, I never had any idea about how to build a career. I had no guideposts. I grew up in the 1960s and in the sixties, teenagers just didn’t listen to their parents. It was the beginning of the teenage rebellion, you wanted to do things on your own and there was the hippy rebellion. Being a hippy and being a mathematician don’t combine terribly well but I tried – to some extent!”
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She added: “There was nobody I knew who wanted to actually have a career in mathematics. And actually at that time for a woman to say they wanted a career was very unusual – certainly within the group of people I knew – so I had to basically invent myself in some way.”
Professor McDuff thinks the landscape is changing, but visible female role models are still incredibly important for women going into mathematics and science roles.
She said: “I think the field has changed because there certainly are more women around. There is always conflict – there still is a conflict about how you manage having a family and having a career. Because there is still an attitude that women just don’t quite cut it, people are trying to have role models.”
She added: “It’s not good enough just having one or two, you need a lot because people need guidance all the way through – you need to see somebody at the next step.
“You can invent yourself – but it’s easier if you see it, you see possibilities. Even though you may not want to be exactly like the people you see, but if you see a range of possibilities, I think it makes it easier to imagine what you might be; what would be the right path for yourself.”
Mathematics is critical to the progression of science and the modern world. Professor McDuff thinks we all need a basic knowledge of maths, even if we’re not all fluent in the language. She said: “Mathematics underlies a huge number of things – the cell phone, computing – building computer codes is a kind of mathematical thinking. Many machines are built using engineering principles which are ultimately relying on mathematics, physics and other sciences of course, but mathematics, in a way, is a language of science which keeps developing.
“I don’t think everybody needs to speak that language, there are many ways of contributing to the modern world and technology without studying mathematics but mathematics is a language which has a lot to say and to some people it comes much more naturally.
“I do think everybody should have some understanding, or some facility with it. You need to have some understanding because so much information is presented my means of figures or percentages or statistics, so I think just to be literate you need to understand some things."
Professor McDuff thinks the key lies in good maths teaching. She commented: “It seems impenetrable at school often because some people are just frightened by it and it is not necessarily welltaught.” She has personal experience of this, and said: “When my son was in school it was obvious one year he had a teacher who loved maths and it transformed the subject for him. If you have someone who is frightened of maths then students find it impenetrable.
“People’s attitude certainly used to be, it probably still is, that it’s OK say ‘I don’t understand mathematics at all’ where nobody would say proudly, that they couldn’t read, for example. But it’s somehow alright not to be good at mathematics. Well, that is nothing to do with people’s minds that they find it so difficult, it is the attitudes they have towards it.”
Having taught at the University of Warwick during the 1970s, Professor McDuff knows the university well. Commenting on her award she says: “It’s very gratifying. I really appreciated coming to the University of Warwick. It was a university that was very open to influences. It had a lot of visitors from America. When I was here as a faculty member I went to Geneva quite a bit, and made collaborations with people outside my immediate colleagues and that I appreciated a lot. And of course Warwick has grown and developed a lot since then.”
25 January 2017
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