Sometimes she no longer knows if it is because she is a woman or because she is an artificial intelligence (AI) expert that she is invited. Virginia Marelli he is one of the very few Belgian artificial intelligence specialists. He is head of research at the Belgian start-up data roots.
Graduated in Mathematics from UNamur, she found her happiness in the algorithms that increasingly organize our lives. It was a time when there was still no sector dedicated to artificial intelligence. Today it is different.
For several years there have been specific courses. “I have really seen a huge evolution“, explains Virginie Marelli,”between start and now. He has become much more professional. When I started, there really weren’t any studies leading to artificial intelligence. We had people who came from biology, mathematics, psychology …, from various fields. Now there are more and more Masters, but rather limited, after the IT sector, for example, or after engineering, which are already studies with fewer women represented. I find it doesn’t improve at this level. “
Virginie Marelli is one of the winners of an award entitled “InspiringFifty”, which rewards the Top 50 women of deep technology in the Benelux. From there to being presented as the exception that confirms the absence? The problem of women’s place in science will surely be solved when we no longer need to count them.
Girls, it’s your day
February 11 is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. It is UNESCO and UN-Women who have decided to proclaim this day as such, since 2015, to promote women and girls in disciplines where they still lack the call and the finish line.
According to the Unesco report on the place of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (so-called STEM), only 35% of girls in the world study in these disciplines at higher education level. In information and communication technologies (another abbreviation, ICT), female students are only 3%. However, these are indeed the jobs of the future, related to innovation.
The “STEM” path in French-speaking Belgium
The path most neglected by women and girls, that of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the famous “STEM”) finds it hard to recruit. These disciplines suffer from a general lack of attractiveness, but particularly marked among girls. Véronique Halloin, engineer and general secretary of the FNRS, the Fund for Scientific Research, reports some figures:
– In 2020, the six French-speaking universities awarded 1,800 degrees in these fields, which represented only 23% of the 7,700 masters awarded that year;
– Women represent only about a third of the masters in STEM in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation;
– In the IT sector they are only 17% of all graduates. “However, women cannot be absent from the digital tools of tomorrow“, Emphasizes Véronique Halloin.
Look for women in search
The FNRS is the funding body for fundamental and strategic research in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. It employs just under 2,000 researchers at different career stages. The starting level is that of doctorates: a 4-year scholarship, granted to carry out a thesis.
– Out of 1,000 PhD students funded at this level each year, about 47% are women. This percentage has remained fairly stable over the past few years. But even here, in research, they represent only 28% of doctorates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (exact sciences, chemistry, materials, etc.). In the engineering sciences their proportion is even lower: about 12%. On the contrary, PhD students in human and social sciences represent 59%; in life and health sciences they are 54%.
– The next level is that of research officers. Currently there are 360 in the Federation. These are 3-year postdoctoral mandates for young thesis holders. In this phase, there is a decrease in female representation, which falls to around 42%. And in the exact and natural sciences (STEM), they are only 21%. Here too the contrast is great with the presence of women for these mandates in the life sciences (62%) and in the human and social sciences (56%).
– The FNRS also funds permanent research positions. Female skimming continues at this level: only one third of women and only 19% in the STEM field. This proportion also decreases as the career progresses. This is called the “leaking pipe” principle or, if a more classy image is preferred, the “evaporation” of women as their careers advance. We are losing them more and more and university professorships are mostly held by men.
The causes of this shortage of women in the exact sciences are undoubtedly multiple. But gender education and socialization cannot be neglected. Even today, while many parents try not to instill roles in their children based on sex or gender, society carries stereotypes. Tania Van Hemelryck, UCLouvain Rector Advisor for Gender Issues and member of the Academy of Research and Higher Education (ARES) Women and Science Committee, believes that “it induces from childhood the bond that exists between women and everything related to education, to “care” (care), while men are more inclined towards subjects where there is action, will. And so, this already induces a form of specialization. The paradigm is built in germ around this duality. There really is this socialization of gender, around childhood, through games, around school.“
The blow of geometry
An example of this internalization from childhood? An experiment, which consists in presenting a geometry test to two groups (a group of boys, a group of girls). When girls are told it’s a geometry test, they do a lot less good than if they’re told it’s a drawing exercise. It is the fact of presenting the exercise in connection with mathematics and the hard sciences that induces in them a loss of confidence and possible ability.
What to do ?
Once these observations are made, what actions should be taken? For Véronique Halloin, “we need to start from primary and secondary school: promote the spread of science among young people and especially girls aged 12 to 15, spread science, communicate their impact in everyday life and break the myth that boys would excel in math and science, while girls do better in other subjects. The OECD PISA surveys show that this is indeed a myth. It is also necessary to continue the hunt for stereotypes about professions. We need to inform about the varied and rewarding career prospects and promote female role models so that girls can identify with female scientific profiles.. “
Campaigns are regularly organized to attract girls to careers in digital or exact sciences. Sometimes they escape the point, like the one launched 10 years ago by the European Commission, and entitled “Science is a girl thing“ (” Science is a girl business “), removed from Youtube because it itself conveyed gender stereotypes.