Until the introduction of the Abel prize, the Fields medal was the most prestigious prize in mathematics. The medal has been awarded 48 times and all of the recipients have been men. Can we conclude that women are inferior to men when it comes to very advanced mathematics? I do not think so.
The Fields medal was designed for men; it is very female-unfriendly. It is the prize for outstanding achievement made by people under age 40. Most people start their research after graduate school, meaning that people have 10-15 years to reach this outstanding achievement. If a woman wants to have children and devote some time to them, she needs to do it before she is 40. That puts her at a big disadvantage for winning the medal.
Recently the Abel prize for mathematics was introduced. This is the math equivalent of a Nobel prize and nine people have received the prize, all of them male. The Wolf prize is another famous award: 48 people have received it so far and they too have all been male.
On the grand scale of things, women have only recently had the option of having a career in mathematics. Not so long ago it was considered quite exceptional for a woman to work in mathematics. The number of female mathematicians is increasing, but as this is a new trend, they are younger people. At the same time, Abel prizes and Wolf prizes are given to highly accomplished and not-so-young people. That means the increase in the percentage of women PhDs in mathematics might affect the percentage of females getting the prize, but with a delay of several dozen years.
There are other data covering extreme math ability. I refer to the International Math Olympiad. The ability that is needed to succeed in the IMO is very different from the ability required to succeed in math research. But still they are quite similar. The IMO data is more interesting in the sense that the girls who participate are usually not yet distracted by motherhood. So in some sense, the IMO data better represents potential in women’s math ability than medals and prizes.
Each important math medal or prize is given to one person a year on average. So the IMO champion would be the equivalent of the Fields medal or the Wolf prize winner. While no girl was the clear best in any particular year, there were several years when girls tied for the best IMO score with several other kids. For example:
- In 1995, 14 students tied for the perfect score; two of them were girls. (Maryam Mirzakhani and Chenchang Zhu)
- In 1994, 22 students tied for the perfect score; two of them were girls. (Theresia Eisenkölbl and Catriona Maclean)
- In 1991, 9 students tied for the perfect score; one of them was a girl. (Evgenia Malinnikova)
- In 1990, 4 students tied for the perfect score; one of them was a girl. (Evgenia Malinnikova)
- In 1987, 22 students tied for the perfect score; one of them was a girl. (Jun Teng)
- In 1984, 8 students tied for the perfect score; one of them was a girl. (Karin Gröger)
In one of those years, a girl might have been the best, but because the problems were too easy, she didn’t have a chance to prove it. Evgenia Malinnikova was an outstanding contender who twice had a perfect score. In 1990, she was one out of four people, and she was younger than two of them, as evidenced by the fact they they were not present in 1991. Only one other person — Vincent Lafforgue — got a perfect score in 1990 and 1991. We can safely conclude that Evgenia was one of two best people in 1990, because she was not yet a high school senior.
This might be a good place to boast about my own ranking as IMO Number Two, but frankly, older rankings are not as good as modern ones. Fewer countries were participating 30 years ago, and China, currently the best team, was not yet competing.
Girls came so close to winning the IMO that there is no doubt in my mind that very soon we will see a girl champion. The Fields medal is likely to take more time.