Providing evidence for change in Asia and the Pacific: Reflections on Women in Math

10 May 2019

One of the most frequently asked questions children are asked is what they want to become in the future. I remember when I was younger, sitting in a classroom, my teacher asked everyone in class this very same question. My classmates eagerly answered, “I want to be a lawyer, a doctor, or a teacher!” But not once did I ever hear a child say, “I’m going to be a statistician when I grow up!”

The significant contributions to math from Maryam Mirzakhani, a mathematician from the Islamic Republic of Iran and professor of mathematics at Stanford University, has led to her birthday being marked as International Women in Math Day. Maryam said, “The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers.” It is true that there are certain qualities you must possess to pursue a math-related career. Patience is one of them; passion and perseverance are two others.

Passion and perseverance are also critical to delivering on the data and statistical demands of the 2030 Agenda and its 232 global indicators across 17 Global Goals. Without them, there is no way we can evaluate our achievements and accelerate progress.

Chief Statisticians of Asia and the Pacific have adopted a strong collective vision that by 2030, national statistical systems are enabled and empowered to develop and deliver innovative, trusted and timely products and services for urgently needed and evolving statistical requirements of the 2030 Agenda.

In the Asia-Pacific region, there are currently 16 female heads of national statistical authorities making significant contributions to this vision and their national statistical systems. This is the highest number ever. I asked some of them to reflect on being a woman in a math field.

From the Maldives, Chief Statistician Ms. Aishath Shahuda reflected, “active engagement in data collection and analysis allowed me to contribute to our society, by highlighting development issues, through the power of data.”

Ms. Wong Wee Kim, the Chief Statistician of the Singapore Department of Statistics, highlights the number of women graduating with a degree in the field of natural, physical and mathematical sciences from Singaporean universities has more than doubled over the past 20 years. She encourages all women who are keen in this field to take on new challenges and push the boundaries, as mathematics has profound applications that can improve the daily lives of many people.

The Government Statistician & Chief Electoral Officer in the Cook Islands, Ms. Taggy Tangimetua, also notes, “The quality of our official statistics relies heavily on mathematics and statistics. This has been a field dominated by men, not intentionally, but by the way society is organized. Women are now taking their places besides the men and together will make a better society and promote gender equality.”

In the Philippines, the world of statistics is increasingly driven by female leadership. The Philippines Statistics Authority has not had a male head since 2001, and two thirds of the 57 members of the management team are women.

The commitment of women and men of the Asia-Pacific region to develop evidence-based policies was highlighted in a declaration on Navigating Policy with Data to Leave No One Behind adopted in 2018 by the ESCAP Committee on Statistics and for which I was proud to support as the Director of the Statistics Division at ESCAP.

The role of statistics and math is quickly changing, and I am proud to see women leading the way for their countries to be able to do just that. This is true cause for celebration.

Happy International Women in Mathematics Day!

Related SDGs: Goal 5: Gender equality, Goal 17: Partnerships for the goals