Gender stereotypes in mathematics

Elizabeth Mrema shares her inspiring story of how her love for mathematics has helped her to overcome many obstacles on her personal journey.

Illustration by Cayla Basson

Being a female mathematician has been like riding a rollercoaster – fascinating and worrisome. In the earlier days, there was mostly fear. From those, “You can’t do math, Eliza,” comments to “Wow, I never thought you were this smart in mathematics!” As I progressed from that fearful child to becoming a mother and a mathematician, today I mostly experience joy and fulfilment. 

My passion for mathematics started in my primary school days – with that feeling when I could solve most of the problems I came across. Indeed, mathematics rewarded me every time. When I was in standard five, our mathematics teacher would prepare mathematics puzzles each week and I was among the few students who could solve them.

When I joined secondary school the situation changed.  In the first two years I felt that I was losing my passion for mathematics. This was due to several reasons:  the absence of mathematics teachers at my school due to the insufficient number of mathematicians in my country. I lacked support from my parents and relatives because they did not know about the importance of education for girls, as most of the women in my family circle attended only primary school. They believed that mathematics was tremendously difficult and was the domain in which boys could achieve more than girls. Hence they were involving me much more in doing household chores and farming activities which resulted in a lack of time for self-study. Despite the challenges I faced, mathematics was still in my heart; much more than other scientific subjects that I studied.

During high school I found mathematics again more enjoyable as we were all girls and we all enjoyed doing math. We worked collaboratively through discussions and by doing various math quiz competitions, it was not a socially isolating experience anymore. The perception that in our society women were unable to do math and science, and that “only ugly women study science”) was being proven wrong.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

When I got to College I experienced the other extreme.  I was one of only three women amongst a class of one hundred male students. The boys isolated us. They did not like to associate with us. But this only strengthened my confidence to study on my own and write down my ideas. Finally, I graduated having achieved a high performance result: I was the best female student in the Faculty of Science at my university.

Immediately following my graduation from College I was employed as a University Mathematics tutor at one of the top universities in my country. I was very excited when I got this job since it allowed me to help students struggling in mathematics. This has also given me an opportunity to utilize and showcase my skills. Working at a university has given me a chance to execute one of my dreams of helping young girls in my country to develop an interest in mathematics and science. I have been doing this through the programme called “Tanzanian Math’s Queens” which my colleagues and I have co-founded for the purpose of helping female students to break the stigma around mathematics.

I have since completed a Master’s Degree in the field of pure mathematics and at resent I am a PhD candidate in Pure Mathematics (Algebra) at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

In my life beyond Mathematics, I am a married woman with a child.  I was married during my Master’s studies. It was difficult to balance both studies and family. However, my desire to be a great mathematician is greater. My family has been very supportive and are a good reason for me to keep working hard to ensure that I achieve my dreams.

Finally, I would recommend young girls to develop a positive attitude towards mathematics rather than being fearful and intimidated by it. As the world advocates for gender equality and equal opportunities for both men and women, it is imperative for women to engage fully in math and science. I believe that mathematics can bring about greater transformation in the area of Science and Technology.

Elizabeth Mrema

First year PhD candidate in Mathematics,
STELLENBOSCH UNIVERSITY

Leave a Reply