If there is something that unites Judit Muñoz, María Cumplido, Maripaz Tirado, Mercedes Pelegrín García, Ujué Etayo, María Ángeles García Ferrero, María Jesús Carro and Olga Gil, it is the passion for mathematics. Although not all of them were always so clear about their vocation, they remember the great satisfaction they felt when solving problems that did not seem easy. This science has always been a great challenge for them. Now they have another point in common: they were all awarded last Tuesday for the Royal Spanish Mathematical Society (RSME) and the BBVA Foundation. The first five were distinguished by the Vicent Caselles Awards for young researchers, awarded by both institutions jointly; the next one received the José Luis Rubio de France award from the scientific society and the last two for the RSME Medal in recognition of his professional career, in the 2020 and 2021 editions of the awards. The scientists, aged between 29 and 65, met hours before the ceremony with EL PAÍS to reflect on the issues that affect mathematical women, such as obstacles to joining the profession, possible stereotypes or instability labor.
Many of the science majors have always been linked to terms such as excellence or brilliance. A study published in 2017 in the magazine Science concludes that, from the age of six, girls are less likely to believe that people of the same sex are brilliant. Mary Fulfilled, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Seville who managed to solve a mathematical problem with more than two decades old, recognizes that these stereotypes influence and that it is essential to educate everyone on an equal footing, since there are no “brains of boys and brains of girls” . Maria Jesus Carro, an international benchmark in mathematical analysis, affirms that for her the support of those closest to her is fundamental: “As I had a family where they really treated me the same as my brothers, I did not live these stereotypes.”
Despite the fact that the rate of graduates in science, mathematics and engineering in 2019, according to the INE, barely reached 12%, the great differences between genders have been found by many of them after finishing university studies. This is the experience of Judit Muñoz, whose research is applied to engineering: “When I did mathematics we were many women. But when it came to choosing the doctorate this ended. Right now I am working in the US and in my research area we are an overwhelming minority ”. Olga Gil, retired professor of Geometry and Topology and the first and only president of the RSME, assures that the great leap is in the passage from the degree to the research career, either in the university or in the company.
Job instability is one of the issues that most worries young scientists. Mercedes Pelegrín García, who works in air traffic management for flying taxis, denounces the system that exists in Spain in universities and the difficult access to having a permanent place in them. “Things are so precarious … It shouldn’t be normal to have to jump from posdoc [investigación posdoctoral] on posdoc to come up with something attractive to you in the end. It is a good option to reconcile, the problem is to get there ”, he explains. Maria Angeles Garcia Ferrero, that although she studied physics then did a doctorate in mathematics and is now dedicated to partial differential equations, recalls that she began to notice more differences with her classmates when she finished her degree and that along the way “a higher percentage of women than men ”. You think job insecurity is the reason.
a study prepared by the Ministry of Science and published in 2021 shows this gradual abandonment of women in scientific careers: young women under 25 make up 57% of public research organizations. A decade later they drop to 48% and at 65 they barely reach 29%. Ujué Etayo, whose research has focused on how to distribute a set of points in a space to help, for example, in fire prevention, ensures that it is a “super unstable” life and that “you have to be good, but also be lucky.”
In my area of research we are an overwhelming minority
Judit Muñoz, mathematician
Whether or not they have had extra difficulties due to being a woman depends on the personal experiences of each one. Carro assures that in his long professional career he has not felt something like that. Fulfilled, on the other hand, he has lived a completely opposite experience and insists on the need to change the culture of the academy. “If I am here today it is in spite of some people,” he says.
Despite the possible negative aspects, many of them emphasize that they now feel a greater visibility of women in the mathematical world. Pelegrín García enthusiastically announces a program in which she participates and in which each year they choose 12 young researchers to follow their work, prepare conferences, publish their profiles … “It is important that our work and our role in research be known” .
The subject of mathematics in schools and institutes
Mathematics is a subject that a significant number of students in schools and colleges find it difficult to learn and enjoy, as shown in the study TIMSS, which certifies that the level in Spain is below the European Union average. The girls, as they go up the grade, suffer even more than their peers for this subject. A investigation from the University of Zaragoza concludes that they have lower self-perceived efficacy in the subject and greater anxiety before exams on the subject. Moth Taken, an algebraic theorist of singularities, believes that the methodology should be given a turn, on some occasions, to give this subject because “it can become very boring as it is taught.” The new regulations proposed by the Government for students propose, among other issues, to resolve situations applied, as far as possible, to the real world. Etayo argues that it would not be a solution in her case, since she chose pure research by internal logic, the closed theorem. “It would give me a bit of shame if the other part is lost by introducing a vision that is close to reality,” he details.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.