Perspective

Making men more aware, to make science more feminine

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Cédric Villani

Professor Cédric Villani, a mathematician at the Université Claude-Bernard Lyon 1, a member of France’s National Assembly for the LREM party and a former director of the Institut Poincaré, is among the men who are committed to supporting women in science. Faced with the vast over-representation of men in scientific disciplines, this Fields medal winner is actively campaigning to end the male domination of science.

Too few women in science…

A career path with plenty of pitfalls

While science plays an increasingly important role in creating the world of tomorrow, there is currently little room for women in that process. Overall, women account for less than a third of the world’s researchers[1], while in the field of artificial intelligence that figure falls to just 18%[2]. For Cédric Villani, it’s a worrying situation. “It’s unacceptable that men alone are in charge of the birth of our new world[3],” he declares. The mathematician is concerned about the way that translation algorithms, speech and visual recognition, and healthcare applications are mainly being developed by men. “There is a serious risk of developing artificial intelligence systems that discriminate against women,” he warns.

Cédric Villani remembers that of the 40 mathematics students who graduated with him from France’s École Normale Supérieure in 1992, only three were women. Two years later, there were six women – a record figure at the time. “And it’s never been repeated,” he adds. The world of mathematics had to wait until 2014 for the first woman to receive the Fields medal. Cédric Villani recalls how “as the mathematics community was largely comprised of men, I felt a great sense of relief at the 2014 International Congress in Seoul when a woman received the Fields medal for the first time – Maryam Mirzakhani.” He also regrets the late recognition given to major scientific discoveries made by women, with the example of Rosalind Franklin being a case in point. Her work on the structure of DNA’s double helix was played down by her male peers when the discovery was announced, and due recognition only arrived posthumously, with the award of the Louisa Gross Howitz prize in 2008.

A feeling of illegitimacy

Cédric Villani also believes that women sometimes feel they do not have a legitimate role to play in science. “I remember a female IT expert who I had invited to a round-table discussion at the Institut Poincaré, and who was hesitating as to whether she should come or not. She felt that she wasn’t qualified to discuss the subject, and yet when she actually took part, she was fantastic!” And the example is just the tip of an iceberg. Cédric Villani has noticed that many young female aspiring researchers have adopted this kind of self-censorship. “They put the brakes on their enthusiasm by saying at high school that scientific careers are not for them, that they’re for nerds[4],” he says. As a result, many young women shift their scientific ambitions toward careers in medicine or the veterinary profession – where women are better represented.

Letting women take their rightful place

Men are supporting women scientists

To help give women the place they deserve in the scientific world, Cédric Villani became one of the first to join “Men for women in science” a joint initiative by the L’Oréal Foundation and UNESCO, created to mark the 20th anniversary of the “For Women in Science” programme. The aim? To bring together a coalition of male allies who seek a better gender balance in the scientific world, an improvement that would also make science more efficient. Leading international figures are among the men involved in the initiative, including French physicist Professor Étienne Klein, who heads the material science research laboratory at the CEA (French Atomic Energy Commission), American chemist Paul Anastas of Yale University, Professor Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and Professor Mouin Hamze, secretary general of France’s Centre National de Recherche Scientifique in Lebanon.

A deliberate policy of support

To enable women to take up key positions and to provide genuine recognition of their contribution to science, Cédric Villani believes that determined and “particularly energetic” action should be taken – not only by women, but also by men. “More needs to be done to support, accompany and encourage women. They should also be encouraged to publish frequently, and then to re-publish. We cannot be content with simply creating favourable conditions – and hoping things will simply change by themselves.”

 

[1] UNESCO report on science for 2030 (2015)

[2] Study: https://www.techemergence.com/women-in-artificial-intelligence-visual-study-leaderships-across-industries/

[3] Source : AFP

[4] Source: Femmes & Sciences Association

 

Foundation | March 2018