Denis Ibadula – „The Variables for Women’s Success in Mathematics: Moving Ahead on Solving the Equation”

Female, blonde, beautiful, young, Tatar-ethnics, mother – not exactly the “matrix” we are used to appreciating a famous, international mathematics researcher. I know, the epithets above belong to the area of ​​positive discrimination. But Denis Ibadula breaks all these patterns when it comes to high achievers in the field of mathematics.

Denis Ibadula is an associate professor. dr. at the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science of the Ovidius University of Constanța, director of the “Grigore Moisil” Romanian-Turkish Mathematics Research Laboratory. She was named “university professor of the year” in 2015 and lectures at some of the world’s leading universities: Princeton, Cambridge, Leuven and others. She is the author of the volume “Bridging Algebra, Geometry, and Topology” at one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the USA, “Springer”, and her book is sold on E-bay. Denis Ibadula is a Tatar-ethnic woman, very proud of the community she belongs to, which she represents in the „Saladin Agiacai” Association, together with the female entrepreneur Meryem Mambet, her lifelong friend.

Denis is married to Ogutai Ibadula and the couple has two teenage daughters.

At Feminism For Real, we are talking about promoting and supporting women worldwide. What can you tell us about women’s representation and involvement in Mathematics?

According to almost all studies, the key factor for women who choose a career in science is the support of the scientific community. Female researchers and graduate students in mathematics often mention that the presence of professors and colleagues of the same sex is important. Personally, my female math teachers from high school and the university had a great impact on my choice of mathematics and academic career. In addition, mentorship by my favorite math professor from the faculty had a great impact on my early career position in academia.

In mathematics, there are several non-profit international associations whose main goal is to promote and support women in math. They aim to encourage the involvement of women in mathematics through new and sustained initiatives, to recruit and retain more women in mathematics, to encourage women and girls to study and to have active careers in the mathematical sciences, to promote equal opportunity for and the equal treatment of women and girls in the mathematical sciences. I list here just a few of them: European Women in Mathematics (EWM), the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), the Women & Mathematics Network, and The International Organization of Women and Mathematics Education.

I also have experienced the sense of isolation lived by many women in mathematics

There is also a book series in math (Springer’s Association for Women in Mathematics Series) which publish the latest research and proceedings of conferences worldwide organized by AWM, while presenting topics at the cutting edge of pure and applied mathematics. These publications are peer-reviewed to meet the highest standards of scientific literature.   

Each of the above organizations for women in math has thousands of members and coordinators all over the world. For example, EWM holds a general meeting and a summer school which is mainly designed for women.  

For example, I have participated in Princeton (US) in a Women and Mathematics (WAM) program at Institute for Advanced Study. It was a wonderful experience for me to work together with female mathematicians and an opportunity to build collaborative research relationships, provide support and reduce the sense of isolation experienced by many women in mathematics. It was also very inspiring to listen and to talk with very successful female mathematicians, to find out that they are having some similar difficulties and they are experiencing similar challenges etc.

You are living proof of promoting gender equality. How does it happen concretely? Examples of good practices worldwide – seen and experienced. And bad practices.

There are several initiatives around the world that aim to enhance the participation of girls and women in science in general, and in mathematics in particular. For example, in order to assure a good balance between female and man participants, there are sometimes policies specifically addressed to women in different recruiting activities. I have earned such a research stay in one of the most prestigious math institutes, Oberwolfach Research Institute for Mathematics from Germany. The goal of such a program is to exchange my research results and to develop new ideas with two colleagues from different math departments.

Another example of good practices is the policy of some organizations to create friendly environments for women having young children. Some universities and math institutes provide a (small) number of rooms suitable for families and create the possibility for female participants to bring their children with them. Alternatively, an accompanying person who cares for the children can also be accommodated or they offer help with finding and funding child support (babysitting, childcare arrangements), if necessary.

As a scientist, sometimes even positive discrimination might be frustrating. It is somehow uncomfortable to be addressed in a special category, which needs extra care: “junior researchers, women and people with special needs are encouraged to apply”.

Why is women’s solidarity so important in science and technology and beyond? How important is solidarity in the development of such ecosystems? Women support themselves in the private area, but less in the public area. It is said that women do not promote women.

Despite the increasing number of women working in STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), a significant under-representation persists, particularly in permanent academic and research positions. Women’s solidarity plays a very important role in dealing with a math-male and a science-male environment.

While researchers have to identify a clear-cut method for reducing implicit biases, women’s solidarity and female role models may help in STEM ecosystems. For me, personally, it helps to be near women with whom I can identify, to work together with a female math researcher who is experiencing the same difficulties as me, and who is hardly trying to balance her professional and personal life. Juggling between family, career, teaching, and researching personal development can be exhausting. Working with a woman who shares the same challenges creates empathy and emotional comfort.

Moreover, bringing closer women from different socio-economic backgrounds, providing them with a strategy of resilience in a man-dominated environment. This approach strengthens women’s math attitudes and self-concepts, precursors to reducing gender-math and gender-science implicit biases.

What are the main challenges you face in the management of organizations composed predominantly of men?

Math organizations and associations have been historically composed predominantly of men.
The gender issue in mathematics is not a women’s issue, it is a problem of the entire world of science.

Gender challenges for women have a significant impact on mathematics. They are rooted in the unconscious bias of women’s image in society, about our leadership potential and our abilities in solving complex problems. Thus, one challenge is to change not just the image that society has of women, but also the image we have of ourselves, since the mechanism of self-exclusion is very common among women.

Personally, the main challenge that I faced was gaining complete acceptance. The perfect example – it took almost 80 years for a woman, Maryam Mirzakhani, to be awarded, in 2014, the highest prize in mathematics, the Fields Medal, awarded by the International Mathematical Union each year. At that point, I was completely delighted that, finally, a woman had won this prize, often referred to as the Nobel Prize for Mathematics. But I was also disappointed that it had taken so long. This year, in 2022, after Mirzakhani’s tragic death from breast cancer at the age of 40, the Ukrainian number theoretician Maryna Viazovska was among the four winners of the 2022 Fields Medals. Despite this progress, I cannot remark that, in 86 years of this competition, there are only two female winners so far.

How do you identify and support female talents in your organization?

Mathematical male or female talents can be identified by an unusually high ability to understand easily very abstract mathematical ideas, an unusual learning speed, applying and understanding mathematical ideas, and an ability to transfer learning to new, untaught mathematical situations rather than just a high ability to computational skills. Terms such as mathematically talented are generally used to refer to the unusually high degree of talented students whose mathematics ability places them in the top 2% or 3% of the population.

One of the methods to support female talents in mathematics is to help them build a positive math identity. We can change their attitudes towards math by offering them encouragement, role models, and opportunities to learn and apply their math skills.

What are the values ​​of female leadership in your vision?

Women are under-represented in decision-making positions almost everywhere. However, I strongly believe that women are great leaders. In my vision, one of the main values of female leadership is the bold correlations between women with high decision-making power and lower levels of corruption. It is statistically proven that women in leadership and decision-making positions have a distinct ability to lower levels of corruption and reduce corruption levels. Women are less likely to tolerate and engage in corruption.

Besides this, another key advantage of working with female leaders is women’s ability to balance professional and personal leadership skills. Moreover, it is much easier to approach a woman leader with a personal issue or a sensitive request, since women are more attentive to people’s personal needs. Women leaders are more empathetic and flexible, have a natural talent for multitasking, and are excellent communicators. Women are known to be able to deal with difficult personal relationships, they are prone to prevent conflicts and they are problems solver.

Denis Ibadula with her family

From your experience, what specifically encourages women in decision-making positions?

 A woman’s voice at the table of decision-making is not just appropriate or recommended, but is also a  key to the sustainable development of society. We need to ensure that female voices have their seats at such a table and their voices can be heard.

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