Voices of Women at IHES: Motoko Kotani

The series of interviews “Voices of women at IHES” collects testimonies from women related to IHES: previous and current visitors, as well as female scientists currently at IHES or connected to the Institute.

Discover below the testimony of Motoko Kotani, Professor at the Mathematical Institute of Tohoku University and Executive Vice President of Tohoku University for Research. She is the president-elect of the International Science Council.

In this interview, Motoko tells us about her experience as a mathematician. She also speaks about the difficulties for women to access scientific careers in Japan and the type of initiatives she has set up to promote gender diversity in science in such a context.

IHES: What is your experience at IHES?

Motoko Kotani: I always wanted to visit IHES. Before doing a long stay there, I had been to IHES only for workshops, conferences, and some events of that kind. When I was awarded a grant to stay in France for a full year, IHES was my obvious choice. Of course, I knew that IHES was one of the best research centers related to mathematics, but I did not know much about its research environment before my visit.

I liked its atmosphere, free, quiet but friendly. Researchers have no administrative or teaching duties, and can dedicate themselves to mathematics. The discussions that took place there, were not only within mathematicians in a narrow sense, but also with physicists, biologists, information scientists. IHES was an inspiring place for me because there were many opportunities to interact with people of different research backgrounds, different cultures, different thoughts and perspectives.

Could you tell us a bit about female scientists in Japan?

There is a report saying that one of the biggest obstacles for girls to choose mathematics or natural science for their studies is their parents’ opinion against it. Japan is known as a country that is very far behind in terms of the gender gap.

I notice a lot of unconscious biases and gender stereotype roles. If you like mathematics, you are sometimes discouraged to purse your passion as a career by your parents telling “oh, a girl will not lead a happy life if involved in mathematics seriously”. This kind of bias should be removed.

What about your own personal case?

My mother encouraged me. She was good at math and wanted to be a medical doctor, but in her generation that was not easy at all. Her parents discouraged her, saying that a

medical doctor was not a woman’s profession. She regretted listening to her parents and

encouraged me to pursue what I liked.

How important are role models?

If we want to increase the number of women in mathematics, we need to show them diverse role models. There are different motivations, different interests, different life plans, different professions, and different ways of being involved in mathematics.

How can we make the research environment more inclusive?

I led a project to establish a good research environment for female researchers at Tohoku university in 2006-2010. Raising a child is a challenge for women to face in their early careers. In order to make both life and work compatible, it’s crucial to acknowledge the importance of the research environment to support them: the need for on-campus childcare centers, babysitting services, parental leave, and research support during childcare. Therefore, we implemented all of those measures and developed these services at Tohoku University. We also conducted outreach activities mainly for high schools students, not restricted to girls but open to anyone interested.

What kind of outreach?

When I was the President of the Mathematical Society of Japan, the Society organized a workshop for elementary school students. The purpose of this was to help children understand symmetry through playing with origami. They had a lot of fun. What was even better was that since it was aimed at elementary school children, their mothers also participated. As the mothers folded origami, they understood that mathematics is not just about x and y but can also be something enjoyable. It was an opportunity for them to remove their prejudices against mathematics.

Any advice to give to women who want to be mathematicians?

If you are different from the mathematicians you have encountered so far, don’t worry about that. Science, and especially mathematics, aims to create new things. New ideas come from different perspectives, knowledge, and ways of thinking. Therefore, if you are different from others, you have a better chance. So, don’t worry, be confident. If you like math, pursue math. We welcome you and your perspectives!