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International Women’s Day

Not invisible anymore

The celebration of March 8 reminds us about the need to work for gender equality and to make women’s work more visible

In 1975, the United Nations declared March 8 the International Women’s Day. Its origins go back to the American textile working-class demonstrations of late 19th century and early 20th century, to claim their labour rights. The day remembers a fire in one of the factories, where more than a hundred female workers died. This is how March 8 was born as an ephemeris, a day we remember these and other women, who fought and still fight to reach a real and effective equality.

Ares Sanuy: “Now, more than ever, we need to put life and science at the centre. Women are equally valid to fill research positions”

March 8 is the symbol of a story of fight that has lasted centuries. We are aware of the need to lead right and decisive actions to reach gender equality. It is true that important goals have been achieved, but there is still a long journey to work on. In the university field, 111 years after women could access university studies, their presence in the classroom is now a majority. However, this is not the case in STEM studies (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), in which most of the students are men. At the UB, women are underrepresented in bachelor’s degrees such as Computer Engineering (14.8%), Materials Engineering (25.0%) and Physics (30.4%).

The presence of more women in science is still a pending subject for society. Only 30% of researchers worldwide are women. In Spain, less than 20% of management positions in the scientific career are held by female researchers. We spoke to four women of the UB community who work on science, two lecturers and two students, on how this situation could be reversed.

Mathematician and UB emeritus professor Pilar Bayer remembers her first day at the Faculty of Mathematics (1964): “I was the first girl to get there, and then another one arrived, a nun, and then the other students. During the bachelor and doctoral degree, I had one female lecturer: Assumpció Catala, as an assistant in astronomy practical lessons in the second year of the degree”. Some years later, in 1975, Pilar Bayer, together with one of her lecturers from high school, Griselda Pascual, became the first female doctors in Mathematics at the UB (Assumpció Català got her PhD four years before, with a thesis on astronomy, at the Faculty of Sciences).

The chemist and UB emeritus lecturer Gemma Rauret lived a similar experience. She says that when she got to the University –early sixties–, the number of female students of Chemical Sciences was low (20%). “When I studied, there wasn’t any woman that was a professor nor pre-tenured lecturer. The atmosphere in chairs was quite patriarchal. The Faculty of Chemistry of the UB did not have a single female tenure-track 2 lecturer until 1976, and it did not feature any female professor until 1984. I was lucky to end up in these job positions”, she says.

Data on gender at the UB. 
Equality at the University of Barcelona, in figures (data for academic year 2019/2020).

Pioneer women in research carried out by women

Pilar Bayer and Gemma Rauret were pioneers and opened the pathway to women who would later be in this situation. Both have an academic and professional career many would like to have. Bayer is the founder of the Barcelona Number Theory Seminar, a school which has become a model of research on mathematics worldwide. She has given conferences in international universities and has been the principal researcher of many research projects. She is an academician at the Royal Academy of Exact Physical and Natural Sciences, and member of the Institute for Catalan Studies. In 1998, Bayer received the Narcís Monturiol Medal to the scientific and technological merit by the Catalan Government.

Gemma Rauret also received the Narcís Monturiol Medal in 1992. She developed her academic career at the UB, where she was the dean of the Faculty of Chemistry and secretary-general, among other positions. She has taken part in several international research projects. In 1998 she was appointed director of the Agency for the Quality of the University System in Catalonia (AQU). Later, from 2006 to 2009, she led the National Agency of Evaluation for Quality Assessment and Accreditation (ANECA).

Both professors admit they faced difficulties in their professional career because they were women. “Men start with advantages: they are more in number and they have been working in science for a longer time. That is, they are playing at home”, notes Bayer. And she continues: “Perhaps the main difficulty I dealt with was the organization of time. I wouldn’t say it was about having to reject things but having to change the direction in some situations”.

Rauret says the biggest difficulty was when having to find a balance between the personal and the professional life. “I have always worked with a team of open-minded people and I have built a family that helped me and supported me. This does not mean you feel socially obliged, as a woman, to fill a more demanding place at home than the one the man has. This required more effort”. In this sense, she notes that “it is important to move forward without letting that feeling of loss stop you from enjoying whatever you choose to go forward with. The attitude is crucial”.

Both note that, over the years, this has advanced. “Women learnt to raise awareness. And thanks to the continuous work over the last decades, men started to realize we exist”, says Bayer. Rauret adds that “the advances of the presence of women in positions of responsibility are slower. We will have to wait more years to make the definite step”. And she states that “The evolution of the role of women in science has to go hand in hand with the evolution of women in society in general. Apart from personal actions, we need collective actions”.

“We need to change education, both at school and at the university”

“For female scientists, the lack of models makes us doubt whether we are really good to work on science or research”, says Ares Sanuy, student of Physics. “The only female scientist I can remember being told about at school was Marie Curie. And this didn’t change a lot at the university. Most of the theorems and findings are named after a man, and this is forgetting about women, such as Ada Lovelace, mathematician and programmer, and Henrietta Swan Leavitt, astronomer”, she says. Sanuy is clear about necessary changes in education. “Women are part of history and science, and this has to be told through education, at school and at the university”.

Estíbaliz Martinez is a student of Computer Engineering (4th year), with a specialist minor in Mathematics. She dreams of developing her career in the field of data science in Japan. She is aware of the difficulties she will face in such a male field like computer science. “Since this field is led by the opposite sex, the first one sees about a woman is exactly this, her identity as a woman, instead of her knowledge or skills. Men do not have to deal with these frontiers”.

In the same line, Ares notes we live in a patriarchal system “where women have to make more efforts so that our work is considered, and where our skills and knowledge are constantly questioned”. She continues: “the salary gap, precariousness and female unemployment is the reality women have to deal with”.

Despite the obstacles they can find when stepping into the labour field, both are convinced about their decision and encourage other young women to study science. “It will not be easy, it requires many hours of studying and suffering. But it is worth it”, states Ares. Estíbaliz shares advice: “Do not give up, even if the atmosphere is not the best. There are some classmates that try to be too funny with their comments or have discriminatory behaviours, but this is not a limitation. Face whatever you can deal with, and report publicly whatever you dislike. The most important is to reach your goals in any field”.

On February 11, 2016, the director-general of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, stated: “The world needs science and science needs women”. A statement that makes more sense in the current situation in the middle of a global pandemic. “Now, more than ever, we need to put life and science at the centre. Women are equally valid to fill research positions”, notes Ares. “We all need to be here, not invisible anymore”, she concludes.

March 8 at the UB

The University of Barcelona, through the Unit of Equality, and with the support from the vice-rector’s offices of Equality and Gender, and Heritage and Cultural Activities, joins, one more year, the 8M ephemeris. It does so with a wide range of activities in the campus –this year it will be held online due to the pandemic–, which will take place until March 17. The activities, organized by the equality commissions of the different faculties, aim to raise awareness among the university community on the importance of reaching gender equality. You can find the complete program of activities in the website of the International Women’s Day of the UB.

In the following podcast, Gemma Rauret, former dean of the Faculty of Chemistry, and Ares Sanuy, 4th year student of the bachelor’s degree of Physics, talk about the difficulties women have dealt with and still face when trying to demand respect in fields that have been historically ruled by men.

Gemma Rauret
Gemma Rauret
Gemma Rauret
Pilar Bayer
Pilar Bayer
Pilar Bayer
Pilar Bayer
Gemma Rauret
Ares Sanuy
Estíbaliz Martínez