Models for ecology and advancing gender parity

With one foot in mathematical ecology and another in gender issues, Salomé Martinez delivered a humorous lecture about the gradual improvement of women’s equality in the sciences.   Her research tackles a fundamental problem in ecology: How do populations evolve strategies for their dispersal and survival? Mathematics plays a crucial and historical role in theoretical ecology, enabling understanding of how populations interact with one other and with their environments.  The Chilean mathematician develops models to better understand such patterns, with the complicating consideration that each setting presents a variety of resources and challenges – called ‘non-homogenous’ in the field.

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Math is beautiful and also very, very useful

Martinez applies her learning to the gender struggle under debate during (WM)², the World Meeting for Women in Mathematics, a satellite event of ICM 2018.  If various populations develop strategies for their growth, survival, and dispersal – surely women in the sciences can too, she suggested. “Things have already changed a lot. People are much more aware of the difficulties that women face in the advancement of their careers,” she noted, highlighting an important distinction, “Today, it is seen as an institutional issue, not a women’s issue.”  Only about 17% of the Faculty of Mathematics and Sciences at the University of Chile are women, but their Gender and Diversity Association has set a goal of 35%.

Additional challenges include harassment and a scarcity of opportunities: “We don’t have access to as many projects because we lack contacts. We’re women and engineers and mathematicians – we’re outsiders. It is natural that people in industry and government will look for people they can identify with – but that is, of course, a problem,” Martinez said.  While maternity is also not properly recognized, it will continue to pose an issue for many women in the sciences.  Support systems are important: “When I finished my Ph.D., my son was born. Three or four weeks after. My husband took care of our son. Children must be understood as a responsibility for the family, not just one person.”

In the last ten years, there has been a 10% increase in female students at her university, following an inclusion program that reserves a minimum of 40 seats for women in the sciences. She concludes on a positive note: “I have already seen a change in my university and the world.”