The university students drop out of the Mathematics degree now that it has full employment.  Why?

Many Mathematics students have a job before finishing their degree and even more so if it is a double degree with Physics or Statistics. It has gone from being a career that only required a five to enter to having some devilish cut-off grades: at the Complutense University of Madrid, the student with the worst grade began this Mathematics and Physics course with a 13.85 out of 14. It is the career fashionable for its assured success, and in this context women, who are the majority at the university (56%) and boast better records, have disappeared. In 2003 they were just over 50% of the students, and this year only 35% (5,100 women out of a total of 14,500). Only 38% of the theses are read by them, they represent 28% of the Research Teaching Staff (PDI) and 21% of the professors, according to the CYD Ranking. Geometry professors can be counted on the fingers of one hand. What happened?

Between 2000 and 2005 enrollment in Mathematics was reduced by 43%, which has been reborn with men in the lead. “That women disappear from a career is not new. A long time ago, when programming began in the United States, it was not prestigious to do it, it was a calculator job, and there were many women in Computer Science. The prestigious thing was to do the hardware. Now the number of women is insignificant”, explains Laura Saavedra, president of the equality commission of the Royal Spanish Mathematical Society (RSME). “But when the hardware, prestige passed to programming, and companies began to hire men. And the same thing is happening with mathematics”, reflects this 40-year-old professor of Aeronautical Engineering (something very unusual). “When I studied, Mathematics was only used to teach. But now that the big data and computational engineering, in Mathematics there is a lot of employment and it has a lot of prestige. And as always, when a career is successful, it becomes masculinized. Perhaps the companies prefer them, but I think that women above all take a step back”.

“Mathematics furnishes your head and it is something that has always been recognized by technology companies. Telefónica or Abengoa preferred engineers, but they also went to the faculties to look for people”, recalls Eva Gallardo, president of the RSME since February. “But now the data science, Artificial Intelligence, algorithms, cryptography… are our daily bread, and companies have realized that they need people to test whether things are true or not, and that is done by mathematics. The problem is that, by making themselves attractive, they have become very competitive. And, the moment the competition comes in, they back off and stop asking for STEM disciplines. [Ciencia, Tecnología, Ingeniería y Matemáticas, por su siglas en inglés] in general”, argues Gallardo, professor at the Complutense University of Madrid.

Saavedra has spoken with many ESO teachers who tell her that the students have weakened self-esteem: “They believe that if they are good at Mathematics or Science it is because they make an effort, while they are the true geniuses who would reach very high if they made an effort.” To reinforce this self-esteem, this university professor believes that society should make an effort to show role models for female mathematicians. Within the STEM careers, Mathematics is in the middle of the list: Biology (62% of women enrolled), Chemistry (55%) and Architecture (50%) are the most feminized, and the least, Computer Engineering (14 %), Mechanical Engineering (17%) and Electrical Engineering (19%), according to the CYD study. Computer Engineering lost its female students when it stopped being called a degree in Computer Science: last year there were 7,900 women enrolled compared to 47,500 men.

Mathematics contest for children and adolescents at the Complutense University in Madrid, in April.
Mathematics contest for children and adolescents at the Complutense University in Madrid, in April.andrea commas

In the 2015-2016 academic year, there was no private university in Spain that offered degrees in Mathematics, and today 14 do so along with Statistics studies. While private master’s degrees in this field have gone from 1 to 11, according to an analysis of the Deans of Mathematics. This incorporation of centers has meant that there are more students of the discipline, but proportionally they are less and less. In the last seven years, with full employment, the number of boys enrolled has grown by 7,000 – reaching 39,600 – compared to a rise of 1,200 among them, which is now just 6,100.

The mathematical society is very concerned. “We cannot give up that half of the talent that is female, to do science you need people with different approaches,” Gallardo stresses. “We have to make them see that there are competitive job opportunities in companies and others that are not. There are some social parameters that are there. If you are very competitive, how do you reconcile? It shouldn’t be just a women’s thing though,” she says. Saavedra recalls that women tend to study careers that have to do with care (health sciences or education), with a very social component, and thinks that it is necessary to convey to them that mathematics is essential to face many challenges of life. society. For example, to make a cellular map of diseases, it is necessary to incorporate mathematical methods that allow extracting all the relevant information and simplifying it at the same time.

The president of the RSME is also concerned about the image given to mathematics. “No one wants to be in a world of geeks, rare. With social networks, with Instagram, many young people want to be influencer. That is why we are carrying out mentoring actions, contests…”, lists Gallardo, who highlights how in developing countries there are more women than men enrolled in Mathematics because the degree ―as happened here for decades― is taken to become High School teacher. In Spain, on the other hand, there are few mathematicians willing to give up a good salary in the company for their academic vocation.

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