“Maths is like electricity – you can’t see it but it’s in everything. Maths is what makes your phone work; maths algorithms are being used to encode the images you see on Twitter or Instagram; it’s behind what is running on your computer and what powers Google search; it’s what lets an airline schedule its flights – it is actually everywhere.”
For UniSA Associate Professor of Maths, Lesley Ward, these words are just one reason why she loves her job and is passionate about seeing more people take up a career in maths.
However, Assoc Prof Ward not only teaches and researches maths, she has also been working on gender equity in her discipline of choice since she was an undergraduate at the Australian National University in Canberra and PhD student at Yale University.
Her ongoing work on gender equity in maths – as well as other work such as mentoring – has recently been recognised by the US Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) by making her the first Australian Fellow of the AWM, citing “a sustained commitment to the support and advancement of women in the mathematical sciences”.
It was in fact seeing the AWM in action, during her 19 years of study and work in the US, that spurred her to help create a similar association in Australia: the Women in Mathematics Special Interest Group (WIMSIG) of the Australian Mathematical Society – and this is one of the accomplishments that earned her the award of Fellow.
“The AWM has many, many programs that support women in different ways and when we were setting up WIMSIG, I modelled some of our initiatives such as our travel grant scheme on the AWM’s programs,” Assoc Prof Ward says.
“This gender equity work has been a big part of my professional life for decades and I feel really honoured to have it recognised with this award.
“I was at the annual maths conference in the US last year when the inaugural AWM Fellows were being honoured – it was inspiring to be in the same room as a whole lot of people who have contributed so much to helping women in maths advance.
“I feel very humbled to be joining their company.”
One of the initiatives that Assoc Prof Ward was instrumental in organising – which contributed to her award – was the inaugural WIMSIG research conference, held at UniSA last year to celebrate women in Australian mathematical sciences.
“I think this conference was extremely important and will have a lasting impact on the Australian mathematical community,” Assoc Prof Ward says.
“It was the first conference held in Australia focused on research by women in the mathematical sciences, including pure maths, applied maths, statistics, and maths in industry.
“We had about 190 people who attended – 85 per cent of whom were women.
“And for pretty much everyone at the conference from Australia, it was the first time they had been – even for an hour – in a majority female maths research environment.
“If you think about how much time a person spends at work in their career, that’s pretty significant – for the first time our female attendees were in the big group rather than the small group.
“You often don’t realise – until you are in that environment – how much of the exception you are in your daily life.
“A lot of the feedback we received was about how empowering and encouraging people found it to be in a majority female research environment for a while.”
Significantly, the conference catered to people with child caring responsibilities with free childcare available and a lactation room, as well as travel grants that supported 33 women to attend.
And when it comes to improving gender equity in professions like mathematics, Assoc Prof Ward believes that shared child caring responsibilities is a key.
“To achieve more equal representation of women at all levels of the academic pyramid and also out there in the wider workforce, we need a lot more men taking time off work for family caring responsibilities and not being penalised or judged for it.
“I’d like to see a future where it is much more normal to have continuing part-time work – or to be moving back and forth between part-time work and full-time work – for people of any gender and those sorts of moves would not be stigmatised and would not hold you back in your career either.”
UniSA’s commitment to the Science Australian Gender Equity (SAGE) program is an important step towards equity, says Assoc Prof Ward.
“It’s giving a broader framework that I think will be productive in actually achieving measurable change. It also offers a structure within which efforts to increase equity become priorities of the institution rather than the priorities of isolated individuals.
“It is really important for organisations to get on board with equity.
“The things that hold women back – or whatever group is disadvantaged – are a combination of individual factors, institutional factors and societal factors; and you won’t get to equality unless you meaningfully address the factors in all of those three domains.
“So where SAGE sits, is in addressing institutional factors and giving a framework that helps institutions to make meaningful progress on them.”
Assoc Prof Ward, along with the other Fellows of the Association for Women in Mathematics, will be celebrated at an award ceremony at next year’s Joint Mathematics Meetings in the US.