Maliha Maliha Ahmed’s passion for math was sparked by her Grade 8 teacher Miss Crawford: “She was so enthusiastic about the subject and helped us see that math can be fun — that it wasn't just paper and pen kind of work.”

Now a PhD candidate in Applied Mathematics, Ahmed uses mathematical models to better understand the role of hormones in the resolution of seizures. Yet, like so many women in the male-dominated field, her academic path hasn’t always been easy.

“The most challenging part about being a woman in math is just this feeling of intimidation due to the lack of other women around me,” Ahmed says. “I have seen my female colleagues and friends being told at times, ‘I think you should let this be. Maybe try something else.’ And that is extremely discouraging.”

Fortunately, Ahmed has found a supportive community of mathematicians of under-represented genders at Waterloo. She discovered this community partly through participating in events hosted by Women in Mathematics (WiM) and Women in Computer Science (WiCS) —on-campus groups funded in part by the Waterloo Women’s Impact Network (WWIN). The groups seek to promote gender equity by advocating for and supporting women, trans, gender-fluid, gender-queer and non-binary students.

“It has been extremely valuable to see the trajectory of so many amazing women and their achievements,” Ahmed says. “Being able to learn from what they have gone through in the past and how they overcame the challenges they have faced, helps me do the same.”

On Women in Mathematics Day, celebrated each year on May 12, Ahmed says she will be thinking about these women and the many others, like Miss Crawford, who inspired her journey in math.

Honouring female trailblazers, acknowledging continuing challenges

Women in Mathematics Day was founded in 2019 in honour of Iranian-American mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani. Mirzakhani was the first Iranian and first woman to win the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics. Tragically, she died of cancer in 2017.  

Ghazal Geshnizjani, Chair of WiM and associate professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics, knew Mirzakhani as a high school student in Iran, where they competed against each other in national mathematical and computer science Olympiads. The two attended Sharif University of Technology in Tehran for their undergraduate studies and were among the very few Iranian students of their generation that, despite all the political challenges, made it to the United States for their graduate studies in mathematical and physical sciences.

“She was the most committed, devoted, math-loving person among us,” Geshnizjani says. “I always felt she was one of the most inspiring people of our generation.”

While women, like Mirzakhani, who achieve outstanding success in math are cause for celebration, Geshnizjani says that we must also be clear-sighted about the steep challenges that remain for women in the field.  

“We celebrate the women who came before us and, despite all the challenges, became great mathematicians and paved the way for us,” Geshnizjani says. “But we also recall those who didn’t finish the journey and never got a chance to get into mathematics despite their potential talents or interest.”

Faculty of Mathematics Dean Mark Giesbrecht agrees, citing the importance of celebrating progress while also reaffirming the Faculty’s commitment to further action to achieve gender equity.

“It's incredibly important that our student body and our professorial body look like the society in which we live, so that we have participation for people from all backgrounds and genders in the university and research experience,” Giesbrecht says.

WWIN-ing: Celebrating Two Years of Impact

WWIN was launched in 2020 on the second anniversary of Women in Mathematics Day. The aim was to build on the work of WiM and WiCS in promoting gender equity in the Faculty by engaging the University’s external community of alumni, friends and partners.

Over its first two years, WWIN has connected thousands of women and male allies in virtual webinars with themes such as women in entrepreneurship, workplace sustainability and the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The organization has also raised money to fund programming and scholarships in support of female students and researchers in the Faculty of Mathematics. To date, 77 donors have made 150 gifts for a total of $41,378.

A recent Waterloo alumnus in the Mathematics/Teaching co-op program, Yuqian Wang (BMath ’21) says WWIN events allowed her “to meet other alumni and learn what they done with their careers.  These women cleared a path for successors like myself to follow and now we can create more pathways for our younger students,” Wang says.

Computer science student Clara Xi credits WWIN events for helping female students build a support network. “I think it’s so important to have female mentorship especially as you try to navigate the world after graduation,” Xi says.