Laura Chaparro for Agencia SINC
Translation to English by WOMAT
Link to original article (in Spanish): https://www.agenciasinc.es/Reportajes/Por-que-se-han-frenado-las-vocaciones-matematicas-de-las-adolescentes
When studying mathematics was associated to teaching, it was a female-dominated degree. The situation changed drastically in 2012, coinciding with a bigger demand for technology and business jobs. Experts blame the rise in prestige of the profession for this fall in women numbers, something to worry about since it reinforces gender stereotypes.
A glance at the university statistics in Spain from the year 1985-1986 reveals that the number of graduates in Mathematics―excluding joint degrees―reached a peak in 1999-2000. There were a total of 1649 graduates, of which almost 60% were women.
While mathematics degrees have been more and more populated over the past decade, women’s vocations have been at a standstill for years.
For almost two decades, women undertook these studies in bigger numbers than men, from 1994-1995 until 2011-2012. Since then, the proportion of female graduates has always been smaller than that of males. While mathematics degrees have been more and more populated over the past decade, women’s inclination for ‘numbers’ has been at a standstill for years.
What caused this change in trend? At SINC we analyse what might have cause this halt in women graduates with the help of teaching and research staff and other experts from different generations, who have experienced this phenomenon as lecturers or students.
We have selected four main milestones in the data from the past twenty years: the peak of mathematicians in the year 2000, the fall in women graduates until 2006, the standstill of both genders until 2011 and the falling of women’s numbers behind men’s since 2012, with the curve of women graduates remaining flat while that of men rising.
Up to the year 2000: thrust from teaching and ‘Y2K problem’
In the late 1990s, people used to enrol in Mathematics degrees with a teaching career in mind. “Companies might have timidly started to look for staff with a mathematics background, but graduate destinations were mainly in teaching”, Marta Macho-Stadler, lecturer at the Mathematics department of the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU) and author of the book Mujeres matemáticas. Trece matemáticas, trece espejos (2019), affirms.
The experts we talked to agree that, at that time, this scientific discipline was not as valued as it is today, something which could influence girls to pursue these studies more than boys.
Still, bearing the thrust of teaching in mind, one more circumstance could also explain the fact that the number of graduates of both genders rose precisely that year: the dreaded ‘Y2K problem’.
From 2000 to 2006: new degrees and dive in enrolments
Once the ‘Y2K problem’ was over, the convergence of several other factors caused the number of Mathematics graduates, both men and women, to nosedive until 2006. Ángeles Prieto, lecturer at the Faculty of Mathematical Sciences at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM), remembers that, at the time, there was always an excess of places in the first round of enrolment for first-year studies and girls were predominant.
Another possible explanation could lie in the fact that high-school teaching did not have many job opportunities at the time since, as Macho-Stadler mentions, two decades ago the teaching community was young and all spots were full.
Further, the scientist highlights the fact that, from 1980 to 1985, there was a steep descent in births in Spain, which might have meant that, around the year 2000, a smaller 18-year-old population caused a general descent in university enrolments, not just in Mathematics.
On another note, Carolina Vallejo, lecturer at the department of Mathematics of the Carlos III University of Madrid and member of ICMAT, highlights the low prestige of these studies in comparison with other, more technical ones, or those related to computing. “Society viewed Mathematics as only being useful for high-school teaching, and as a long and arduous university degree”, she emphasises.
From 2006 to 2011: vocations flatten
In the year 2006-2007 the sharp descent in enrolments slowed down in both genders. One cause could have been that the World Mathematical Year, celebrated in 2000, left a mark on students who were about to choose their university studies around that time and who graduated several years later.
Just around that time, Carolina Vallejo began her university studies. The grade needed to enter the degree was a 5/10. “Mathematics was seen as a degree leading, in the best case, to teaching in a high school”, she states.
The same happened to her colleague Elisa Lorenzo. “There were about 50% women and you got in with a 5 out of 10. There was no entry grade, basically because there were more places offered than people interested in studying Mathematics”, she recalls.
Taking a look at the national and international context, one of the biggest economic crises in recent times happened in 2007. With a fall in employment came a rise in citizens’ academic education.
From 2012 to 2019: boys take over girls
Once the toughest years of the crisis were over and for the first time since 1993-1994, in 2012-2013 the number of male graduates in Mathematics is larger than that of female graduates. This tendency has persisted until today, as reflected by recent data from the ministries of Education and Vocational Training and Universities.
In fact, while the number of women graduates has remained practically constant since 2012, for men this number has risen continuously year on year.
It was precisely around this time that Lucía Martín Merchán and Patricia Contreras Tejada began their Mathematics studies. While, upon finishing high school, they both had the feeling that the only possible graduate destination was high-school teaching, something changed in the years that followed.
This revival of ‘numbers’ has a clear effect on the required entry grade to access these studies. “The demand of studies in Mathematics has risen, because the entry grade has rocketed without a descent in the number of offered places”, María Pe Pereira, lecturer at the Faculty of Mathematical Sciences at UCM and the first woman to win the José Luis Rubio de Francia Prize for her research career, confirms.
Double degrees containing Mathematics have the highest grades. Leaving them aside, in the present year 2020-2021 the required grade to access the undergraduate degree in Mathematics in the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, for example, was 13,202 out of 14.
As the data shows, just the opposite seems to have happened with men: with a greater prestige, competition and career prospects related to technology and the business world comes a rise in the enrolment of men in these degrees.
Less support at home and in class
Job offers related to these studies are ever-growing. According to the White Paper on Mathematics (2020) ―coordinated by the Spanish Royal Society of Mathematics―, the number of graduates in Mathematics is not currently sufficient to cover the rising demand for this degree in the job market. “At the moment, we have a loss of female mathematical talent that we must redress urgently”, the authors warn.
When choosing their academic and professional future, teenagers are influenced by their families’ and teachers’ opinions, and there is an gender imbalance in this respect too.
In mathematics and science, teachers who rightly spend time motivating students, encouraging them and detailing scientific concepts, seem to lug stereotypes and value boys’ explanations more than girls’. This is important because teachers’ perceptions on boys’ mathematical ability anticipate good grades in their future. Parents’ expectations on their kids’ success are also correlated with the perception of their own abilities and performance in mathematics, this is why it is necessary for families to motivate girls when they show interest in this discipline, and trust them fully since there is no biological reason to give up on their potential.
In fact, according to the White Paper, girls believe they are not good at mathematics and that they have to make a big effort on this subject to pass it satisfactorily, a self-imposed pressure that is not observed in boys to such a great extent.
The gender equality paradox
Another relevant player in this highly competitive environment is the gender equality paradox, which happens when there are few imbalances between sexes. As mathematician Elisa Lorenzo García explains, the more egalitarian a country is with respect to gender, the fewer women take up jobs in science. There’s the paradox.
This was precisely the situation with mathematics in Spain until this discipline became more prestigious. As a study published in PNAS reveals, with this paradox of equality, gender stereotypes such as “maths is not for girls” become more prominent again.
To avoid the return of these roles, the experts recommend, both at home and in the classroom, motivating and supporting girls when they study these subjects, promoting cooperation instead of competition, reminding them that boys and girls are equally capable and showing female role models who can inspire them, among other actions.
Further, mathematician Alonso advocates for promoting care roles and studies of this kind among boys, to remove the distinction between degrees that are feminine rather than masculine. “We need to convey to our girls the idea that studying pure sciences is having a better grasp of the world, being freer, it’s very exciting and it gives you training to design your own job”, are her encouraging words.