Professor and member of the research group on Stochastic Processes at Barcelona University, Marta Sanz Solé was recently elected as president of the European Mathematical Society (EMS) for the 2011-2014 period. It is the first time both that a Spanish person and a woman hold the position.
What does it mean to you to be the first woman holding this position (if something?)
It means the challenge implicit in a position of responsibility. I live the fact of being a woman with naturalness, maybe because even if inside the profession women are not the majority at all at the high levels, they are though well represented at middle and students levels, at least in Barcelona, where they are almost 50% of the total. I don’t focus it as much in what the position represents as a woman but in what it does as a math professional.
But I guess being the first one in doing something might give a special feeling, isn’t it so?
Well, yes, it is undoubtedly a differential element and although I don’t perceive gender discrimination in my environment (I have always gained the same salary as my male colleagues) where this is true, it might be an example that I guess can help to show things can get much better. Anyway I don’t like to put myself as a paradigm, probably because I am a discreet person, but yes, the fact that I am a woman can be useful as a counter example.
What does the position consist of?
The organization includes all the European countries from a geographical point of view and it represents the voice of the mathematicians in Europe. There are many issues transcending local and state sphere of action, such as infrastructures needed for carrying out research or the incorporation of young professionals around the continent and the entity has more legitimacy than single countries to be addressed to by politicians.
What are the problems young European mathematicians leaving university have to face?
Basically the possibility to find a more or less stable situation in a reasonable life time period. The incorporation arrives very late. When you finish your PhD thesis you have to become independent from your research advisor and at the same time you have to produce enough to become attractive for the labour market. This is happening in a situation made of unattractive postdoctoral contracts and where, moreover, mobility is required for scientists in a period of their lives when many would like to build a family.
And you don’t even see a gender bias in how this affects young mathematicians?
I don’t if I think about opportunities available but I do if I think about maternity.
Are there instruments helping young women researchers who want to have children?
No, as far as I know. I think it depends a lot on the sensibility of your environment. If decision-makers are sensible there might be some kind of protection, otherwise not.
As president of the EMS do you plan to implement any measure which might help to balance the presence of men and women at every professional level?
I will represent all the scientists; as for gender issues there is already a specific committee. I believe quotas have to be natural. Personally, if I get into a committee because of the quotas I feel much more discriminated against that if I get there because of my scientific quality.
But I also do think that when reviewing researchers’ curricula we should take into account the quality and not the quantity of publications, since I know from my personal experience that maternity, for instance, strongly affects the amount of publications, until now the main element determining who gets a position.
You have a 30 years old son. How did you manage to combine your profession and your work as a mother?
When my son was very little I did dedicate more time to him than my husband did but it was my own decision and will to spend with my son all the time I could. During those years my scientific production diminished consistently. Afterwards we both took care of him and when I had to spend months away for my work I always did it. Of course I did an extra effort to compensate the missing scientific production and now you can’t even notice it, but that meant many hours of hard work.
And how did you discover your attraction towards mathematics?
Since I was a child I have been attracted by science but also by poetry –and in fact I did write poems – and by music – I play the piano. When I had to choose a degree course it were my teachers who pushed me to study mathematics, saying I had a special gift for them.
At the beginning did you feel supported by your family?
Yes, I did, even if they were worried it would be too difficult and they would have preferred for me to do something more practical from an economic point of view, like engineering or pharmacy. But now they are very proud of me.
Now that you move through international meetings, do you ever feel you are not taken into account as much as if you were a man?
I have never found myself into direct conflict or bad situation, but I did find some attitudes and feelings that some people did pay more attention to what I was wearing than to what I was saying but I have lived it more like isolated cases rather than a common trend.
I think I was lucky to move in a privileged sphere like university is.
Your research has mostly focused on stochastic process. Could you explain me in few words what this is about?
If you think about how the weather or the Telefonica’s market price will be in three days or in a couple of weeks, the amount of factors intervening is so big that it is hard to determine it with accuracy. A random (or stochastic) process is a mathematic object describing the evolution of a phenomenon in which chance intervenes and I dedicate myself to the study of the modelling of such phenomena.
The result is that through this notion one can provide mathematical models explaining reality in an approximate way but with the virtue of allowing many not well-defined causes to intervene. In a random frame between black and white you have all the shades of grey and can therefore make predictions with more care.
How do you think you made it, as a woman, to get where you are and not to be ‘gotten rid of’ on the way?
I think it was thanks to both effort and a favourable environment, which is very important because when you do science you don’t do it alone. Besides that, when acting in public spaces, I have always tried to listen to people, who have given me a good position to hold responsible jobs. And the reason why I have always done it is because when you listen you learn and, at the same time, promote people’s participation.