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Why it is important to talk about women in the mathematical sciences
Author: Faculty of Science (Wiida Fourie-Basson)
Published: 21/06/2022

Do the female brain and psyche bring another perspective, another way of doing to the table? What can we learn from women role models in the fields of mathematics, applied mathematics and computer science?

These were the opening questions posed by Lezanne Human, co-founder of Bank Zero, at a luncheon hosted by SU's Faculty of Science for BSc alumni who graduated in mathematics, statistics, computer science and applied mathematics. Lezanne, who obtained an MSc in applied mathematics (cum laude) in 1992, also serves on the Faculty of Science's advisory board. As a student, she was awarded the John Todd Morrison medal for the best student in applied mathematics at SU, as well as the Gencor S2A3 medal for the best MSc student at Stellenbosch University.

Opening the discussion, Prof Louise Warnich, dean of SU' Faculty of Science, said at tertiary institutions female students in the mathematical sciences remain underrepresented at undergraduate and postgraduate level: “Not only do we miss an opportunity to help shape the world, but this also has implications for women's future employability," she warned.

Each of the women around the table had a unique story of how they ended up in the mathematical sciences. From the discussion, several themes emerged that could provide a better understanding of the gender discrepancy in this field. A very pertinent theme is the lack of knowledge about what one can do with a degree in the mathematical sciences. Another theme is the general perception out there that mathematics is perceived as hard or not really necessary for girls. But also present at the table was a deep respect for the beauty of mathematics and how it forms the basis for critical thinking and solving complex problems.

Two women mathematicians who have been described as “shaping" the ETF (exchange-traded funds) world, say they initially had no clue what they were going to do with their degrees in applied mathematics.

Nerina Visser, director and co-owner at etfSA Portfolio Management Company, says she landed up in her current career quite coincidentally: “I had a bursary from Denel (then Kentron) to study applied mathematics at Stellenbosch, and after graduation I worked on the Rooivalk attack helicopter. For the first part of my career I had no exposure to the financial world."

While raising a family and consulting from home, her husband one day alerted her to a job advertisement for a quantitative analyst: “I had no idea what a quantitative analyst was, but I did know that I ticked all the boxes: attention to detail, critical thinking and problem-solving. It turns out the advert was written by Adrian Allardice, one of South Africa's top actuaries. I got the job and he showed me the potential space of what can be done. My next role model was a woman, who advised me to do an MBA and get my Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) qualification – the ideal combination of academic and theoretical knowledge. From then onwards, in the investment world, it was maths and statistics all the way."

Helena Conradie, a CFA and non-executive director of the Satrix Investments, says she initially wanted to study music: “I realised quickly that I was not going to become a concert pianist, so then the career guidance tests indicated that I should do something with numbers and people."

After a short stint at electronic engineering, she landed up at applied mathematics. She finally completed an MSc in applied mathematics, combined with psychology 1, 2 and 3.

“At the time I had no idea what I was going to do with this combination," she laughed.

In contrast, Prof Marelie Davel has always loved mathematics and science, and initially decided to study physics because she wanted to understand the “nature of the universe". After she received a bursary from the CSIR in the early 1990s to study physics at Stellenbosch University, she was asked to switch from physics to computer science, then newly in demand. This worked out well: switching mid-degree, she ended up best in her class, winning the Dean's medal in her final year. Today she is the director of the machine learning research group in the Faculty of Engineering at North-West University. When she joined the faculty in 2018, she was the first women in the history of the faculty to be appointed as a full professor.

 From the world of academia, Prof Karin-Therese Howell says her parents were very concerned when she informed them that she wanted to do a postgraduate degree in mathematics: “The idea was that I should study what would work best for the family business. My biggest stress was therefore to figure out how I was going to support myself financially with a degree in mathematics." Today she is an associate professor in SU's Department of Mathematical Sciences.

Dr Ronalda Benjamin is one of those individuals who has kept her focus on mathematics from as early as primary school: “I come from an environment where, if you finished school, you find a job. But I always knew that I want to teach mathematics. During high school I received the Mathematical Digest, which introduced me to challenging maths problems and profiles of mathematics professors. At that stage I had no idea what the work of mathematics professor entails. Besides my teachers, I didn't personally know anyone who have completed tertiary education, nor majored in mathematics. I then decided I wanted to study towards becoming a professor in mathematics."

First published in 1971, Mathematical Digest is a quarterly magazine for high school learners in South Africa, edited by Prof John Webb of the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at UCT.

As a top student in Grade 12, Ronalda's dream of becoming a professor in mathematics was picked up by a journalist and the article published in Rapport in January 2007. This was followed by an invitation from Stellenbosch University to study mathematics. She has since completed four degrees in mathematics, the first three cum laude, and is currently a lecturer in SU's Department of Mathematical Sciences.

The three postgraduate students around the table also shared their stories. Tarryn Surajpal majored in mathematics and applied mathematics. But while she is currently busy with an MSc in applied mathematics, she confessed about still feeling confused about what she is going to do with this qualification.

Zinhle Mthombothi recounted how she landed up studying mathematics simply because she was one of the top students in her matric class, even though she initially considered going into journalism. It was only when she realised that she could apply her mathematical skills in public health that she found her feet. She completed an MSc in mathematics from SU and is currently employed as a junior researcher at the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (SACEMA), where she is working on developing mathematical models to investigate transmission of vector-borne diseases and how to best break the established chain of infection. But she has not forgotten about her original interest in journalism! In 2020/2021 she was one of the top 20 finalists in the FameLab South Africa competition, the national leg of the world's largest science communication competition.

Another top student, Jacobie Mouton, said she had no exposure to computer science as a subject at school: “I didn't even know how to create a Gmail account. I only realised much later that I could have gone for classes at the nearby boys' school". After majoring in computer science because it “looked interesting", she is now continuing with an MSc in machine learning.

In closing, Prof Ingrid Rewitzky said women mathematicians often still do not feel a sense of belonging in the workplace, as if they are imposters: “We need to actively build more networks. We need to have more conversations such as this one, and we need to bring men into these conversations. It is not simply replacing the photos in the corridors. It is about intentionally adding value, regardless of gender, race, demographics or geography."

And, adds Nerina Visser, maybe it is time that boys go to girls' schools for their computer science classes, and not the other way round.

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On the photo above, from the left, Prof Ingrid Rewitzky (executive head of SU's Department of Mathematical Sciences and vice-dean: teaching and learning), Mariétta van den Worm (director: faculty management); Zinhle Mthombothi (junior researcher at the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis); Prof Karin-Theresa Howell (associate professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences); Prof Louise Warnich (Dean: Faculty of Science); Lezanne Human (co-founder of Bank Zero); Nerina Visser (director and co-owner at etfSA Portfolio Management Company). In front, Jacobie Mouton (MSc student in machine learning); Tarryn Surajpal (MSc student in applied mathematics); Prof Marelie Davel (Faculty of Engineering, North-West University); Helena Conradie (CFA and non-executive director of the Satrix Investments) and Dr Ronalda Benjamin (lecturer in SU's Department of Mathematical Sciences). Photo: Anton Jordaan