Women in Maths


I spent four years studying in university lecture rooms filled with men. Did I love to surround myself with the fine male physique? Yes. But that’s beside the point. I chose to study physics, which meant being female put me in the minority.

Promoting STEM subjects to girls is something I feel strongly about. I hate the fact that very few girls choose to study STEM subjects and it frustrates me that I get weird looks when I say I did my degree and PhD in physics as if I must be mad (whilst my husband, who followed an identical path, gets far more accepting responses). In 2018, girls accounted for 39% of maths A-levels, 28% of further maths A-levels and just 22% of physics A-levels1. And the fact that girls aren’t studying these subjects in schools means fewer are going on to study them in further education, meaning representation of women in the field isn’t improving.

Fortunately, I work for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which allows their staff to sign up for volunteering opportunities. An email from The OR Society caught my eye: the Advanced Mathematics Support Programme was hosting a Women in Maths Conference at the University of Nottingham. They were looking for female volunteers who use mathematics at work to give a talk and run a workshop with GCSE-aged students. It was great to return to the university where I studied to see all my wonderful friends that still live there, and I was also incredibly keen to volunteer at such an important event.

I’ve given various talks and presentations during my career, but I’ve never done anything like this before. OR in Schools provided me with a workshop to run so I didn’t have to create anything from scratch: I was to teach Linear Programming using Lego.

With a bit of nudging, the students were able to understand the inequality equations that needed to be plotted to determine all possible combinations of Lego that could be built given a set of constraints. As is often the case, none of the children had heard of OR. But they all seemed interested in hearing about it, and excited (well, not utterly bored at least) to see the application of some maths they had learned in school being applied outside the classroom.

The day finished with a Q&A panel, where students asked me and the other volunteers questions relating to studying maths. One question put forward was along the lines of “Do women have fewer opportunities to get a career in maths?” It’s somewhat sad that this question existed. But, looking at the intelligent women with great careers in maths and engineering sitting next to me, and thinking about the direct team I work with in DHSC which consists of two other incredible women with PhDs in science, it’s nice to think that yes, women do have opportunities to have great careers involving maths. We just need to encourage them to be studying it in the first place.

Female students participating in the lego challenge