Monday, June 23, 2014

Gender balance and attitude to risk

An article in today’s Guardian, British researchers win £1.8m mathematics prize caught my eye. Subtitle: Britons among five winners of inaugural Breakthrough prize, which hopes to turn mathematicians into 'the new rock stars'. One of the founders, Yuri Milner is quoted as saying: "We think scientists should be much better appreciated. They should be modern celebrities, alongside athletes and entertainers," ..."We want young people to get more excited. Maybe they will think of choosing a scientific path as opposed to other endeavours if we collectively celebrate them more."

I think it could work. The spectacle of mathematicians making millions for their work could indeed attract young people into academic mathematics. There’s just one catch: it’s more likely to attract boys rather than girls, due to the male mentality being relatively risk-seeking. It’s a pretty safe bet that big prizes and celebrity status for a very few mathematicians, will serve as a stronger magnet for boys than for girls. And that, of course, is unhelpful to the objective of better gender balance in mathematics and science.

I’ve seen some severe criticism directed at various changes to academic life that have taken place during the past few decades. Some of these changes, for example, the general lament about hard money being displaced by soft money, could be regarded as changes that appeal to risk-seekers. However, I have not so far seen any criticism that considers their effects on gender balance.