France, at the top of the mathematics awards, is a poor student when it comes to equality between its researchers.
With less than 25% of women among teacher-researchers in mathematics at university and in research organizations, mathematics is a “cutting edge of scientific disciplines” in terms of gender equality, laments Marie-Françoise Roy, professor emeritus at the University of Rennes. “Everyone agrees on the observation, but when there are things to question, we don’t touch them”severely judges the scientist who observes that this figure is “constant for 15 years”.
In so-called pure or basic mathematics, the proportion of women among teachers is even lower: 7%. To explain this phenomenon, scientists use the metaphor of the “leaky pipe”: the proportion of women in the basic sciences in general and in mathematics in particular decreases as they progress in these disciplines to the professional world. .
An imbalance that arises from secondary or even primary education highlighted researchers gathered for a round table at the Assises des Mathématiques organized in Paris by the CNRS.
A need for “collective examination of conscience”
Is the return of compulsory mathematics education for all high school students in the general stream for first grade at the start of the 2023 school year therefore good news? With the domino effect, a first version of the upper secondary school reform launched in 2019 had actually caused a collapse in the number of girls following the mathematics specialty with strengthened teaching in the subject for matriculation.
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The participants in the round table therefore deliver a good point for National Education, even if other mathematicians collectively are more skeptical. As far as higher education or research is concerned, “girls drop out because they are not listened to, recognized and promoted enough”argues Professor Roy, urging the mathematical community to “collective examination of conscience on the subject”.
The taboo of quotas
But beyond the policies to combat gender stereotypes from primary school onwards, the right formula is still to be discovered. Several academics or researchers point to the obligation of geographical mobility, which forces those who are promoted to a position of associate professor or professor to change institutions. An obligation much worse experienced by women than men.
The sensitive subject of quotas is also part of the equation. According to Guillaume Hollard, professor of economics at the prestigious École polytechnique, X “limited to 10-12% women to the point that the school is considering whether to impose 20% women with quotas”.
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Quotas have been one “absolute taboo” for a long time, adds Marie-Françoise Roy, who is also chair of the Commission on Women in Mathematics of the International Mathematical Union. It reports a growing consensus in the community of mathematicians for “measures in favor of integration and promotion” women and notes that countries such as Germany and the United States have done better in this area in recent decades.
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For Étienne Ghys, perpetual secretary of the Academy of Sciences, who counts “13% female members”, the situation is slowly improving, as the institution requires to have as many candidates as candidates. If, as Stéphane Jaffard of the National Institute of Mathematical Sciences and their Interactions (INSMI) reminds us, “there are many studies and initiatives taken in favor of parity”the problem is their lack of scientific evaluation.
These programs “are difficult to assess because they are not built for it”, explains Guillaume Hollard. One second “blocking” according to him, lives in the time that is too long to obtain data that makes it possible to evaluate the effectiveness of a program. Paradoxically, Étienne Ghys noted, “the mathematical community is not too happy to be evaluated numerically”. Shame on experienced scientists!