The American Karen Uhlenbeck it has become this Tuesday in the first woman to win the Abel Prize, considered the Nobel of mathematics and delivered since 2002 to a total of 19 men. Women scientists have often been displaced to the background and their work has barely gained recognition. What happened in the Abel Prize is not an exception. It takes years happening with the Nobel Laureates or with the Fields Medal, a prestigious distinction awarded since 1936 every four years to a maximum of four mathematicians under 40 years of age. Since then, only one woman has been awarded: the Iranian Maryam Mirzakhani in 2014.
"The situation in these prizes of great relevance is dramatic. By not rewarding women, it seems that we do not do important things, "says the math Marta Macho Stadler, professor at the University of the Basque Country and coordinator of the blog Mujeres con Ciencia. He attributes the situation to the small proportion of women who are proposed to opt for this type of awards and to the implicit biases "that make them be judged more harshly".
Several studies have shown that there is a subtle bias about the abilities of women within science that not only affects them in the awarding of prizes. A recently published study in the medical journal The Lancet showed that they find more difficulties in receiving financing for your projects. Other published in PNAS in 2012 it suggested that university professors, regardless of their gender, evaluate more favorably a candidacy for laboratory director if it is signed by a man.
There is a glass ceiling in science that prevents women from reaching positions of responsibility in institutions. Ana Bravo, professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid and president of the Gender Commission of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT), denies having felt any type of discrimination during her career, but acknowledges that "it is possible that some women there are obstacles and circumstances that hinder the research career ":" Doing a PhD and continuing in the research career is very hard. You are under terrible contracts until sometimes 40 years. Maybe a man can afford it more because he is not thinking about issues of motherhood that will stop his career. There are also companies that prefer to hire a man than a woman of childbearing age. "
Only a diverse team can be representative of society and help reduce biases. This is what Patricia Contreras Tejada, a doctoral researcher at ICMAT and co-founder of the WOMAT women's association, explains that the data with which the algorithms are trained They are conditioned by our knowledge and prejudices: "Diversity" is crucial to train algorithms not to perpetrate biases even more. " Especially at a time when decisions that were previously made by humans regarding the hiring of people, the granting of credits or even judicial sentences are already taken by algorithms.
In some awards committees or in contracts for researchers is beginning to have observers whose job is to detect these biases, which are present in all types of organizations. Even in the university. "I've heard professors from my department say that they think the race has dropped since there are more women studying mathematics," explains Macho.
There are "micromachisms and a subtle discrimination that is working each and every day of the year." Among other attitudes and sexist behaviors, he denounces how sometimes women are not heard, interrupted or asked not to talk so much. Remember how when she studied, she detected paternalistic behaviors and a different treatment to her fellow men who "make you lose a little confidence in yourself": "I thought I liked mathematics and research, but at what price?"
Lack of trust
But this lack of confidence in girls begins much earlier. Girls think themselves less capable than children at the time of reaching objectives that require scientific skills, according to the data of the last PISA report of 2015. Macho also detects the insecurity in his current students. "When I ask a question in general to people in the classroom, they respond very quickly because they are not afraid of making mistakes. They only say something in public when they are very safe because they have been told, consciously and not consciously, to be careful with what they say and be prudent. "
The number of women enrolled in mathematics in Spain has fallen in recent years to 37% in the 2016-2017 academic year, according to data from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports. This percentage remained around 50% from 1985 to 2005. "We are transmitting to the girls unconsciously that in some way that is difficult for them. Also, I do not know what we are doing wrong because we do not see so many women who want to do a PhD afterwards, "says Bravo. Only 30% of the students who took a master's degree in 2016-2017 are women and only 28% of those who completed a doctorate.
The solution, according to the experts consulted, is to promote the work of women referring. In that sense, the award that has just received Karen Uhlenbeck is very important. "Empower and empower women as high-level scientists. It gives us a terrible rush. You have to encourage people to propose these great women because they are, "says Macho.
Although the work of women scientists has not been widely recognized throughout history, there have been great women mathematicians. The work of Katherine Johnson It was essential for astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin in 1969 to set foot on the Moon for the first time in history.Emmy Noether is known for his contributions to the early twentieth century in the fields of theoretical physics and abstract algebra. And there are bright minds like Sophie Germain, who already made important contributions to number theory and the theory of elasticity at the beginning of the 19th century. "She is an example of a great scientist who could have written her mathematics better if she had received training. People are surprised that there have been many women mathematicians. Mathematics does not require any instrument. They only require your head. And who can they forbid thinking about? ", Concludes Macho.