Q&A: Gender failings put half of science talent at risk

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Liliam Álvarez Díaz, secretary of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and a member of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World. Copyright: Courtesy of Liliam Álvarez.

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  • Liliam Álvarez Díaz is secretary of the Cuban Academy of Sciences
  • She authored the book Be a female scientist or die trying
  • She became interested in gender due to the imbalances she saw

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CIf science fails to take advantage of girls who are graduating, it is wasting 50 per cent of the available talent, according to Liliam Álvarez Díaz, secretary of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and a member of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World.

She is a staunch defender of the value of so-called hard sciences in development and has a PhD in physical and mathematic sciences, and in 2016 published the book Be a female scientist or die trying. SciDev.Net asked her how to tackle some of the challenges faced by women in science today.

What was it like studying physics in Cuba in the 1970s? 

When I climbed the steps of the University of Havana in 1968 and enrolled in physics, it was like a challenge. The second year I realised that I should have studied maths because I was doing much better in maths-related subjects. But, a diligent girl with a conservative spirit, I said: “I started physics, I’ll finish physics.”

What was the context? Were you the only woman? 

No, there were other girls. Those years were very interesting. You enrolled in what you wanted. There were no entrance exams. There was a wonderful student residence. It was a great privilege. In the first class of physics, there were more than 100 students in a huge classroom. When we finished there were only 25 of us. At that time nobody talked about gender.

What is your research area about? How is it related to applied science? 

In many spheres of science, many phenomena are modelled with mathematical equations. For example, how is the hurricane path calculated? With equations. How was the dome of the Sports City, in Havana, calculated? It was the work of civil engineers, with a mathematical model.

Calculations of differential equations are applied to meteorology, chemical kinetics. For example, if you inject a drug, how is it going to distribute inside the organism? That is kinetic, and it is a system of equations.

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Liliam Álvarez Díaz with colleagues from a recent Teaching Mathematics Symposium in Costa Rica..
Credit:  Liliam Álvarez Díaz for SciDev.Net

What drew you to studying gender in science?

I got into gender issues in the 1990s because I observed that, not only in Cuba but in the world, there were very few women in physics or mathematics. I am not a gender expert, but I learned what gender is, that is a cultural definition, not given by biology.

I was always interested in the metaphors that experts in gender use, and I started to collect them. The first one: glass ceiling. Gender specialists explain it in a certain way but for me it is something all women face. Above is the power and below is us, and to get there we have to hit that glass ceiling. 


What did you achieve in the eight years you worked as director of science?

We transformed national programmes, we opened institutes, which did not exist until then. We did a lot with schools, especially teachers, to promote science, because we realised that the creation of new generations of scientists in Cuba happens through the training of teachers.

We introduced science festivals. We were the pioneers in Cuba of something that already existed in the world: the experience of talking about science to the general public. We filled the Capitol with teachers talking about genomics, protons, and stem cells. 

Despite Cuban statistics where women make up more than 50 per cent of parliamentarians, or 63 per cent of the science sector, there are still obstacles. What are they? 

First, in general, in daily life. As I meet with my counterparts, scientists from other countries, I see that their daily life is not as difficult as ours.

Second, wages. The standard of living is a great obstacle, not only in your personal life, but as a role model for young girls. You’re competing with successful artists or singers.

What signs of discrimination do you see in the science sector? 

They are not very open, but they exist. For example, I had a very pretty student who dressed in short skirts. My colleagues asked why this girl was studying maths instead of dancing at the [Havana cabaret club] Tropicana. That is discrimination.

UNESCO reports that only 35 per cent of people in STEM careers are women. How can this be reversed? 

If science does not take advantage of those girls who are graduating, it is wasting 50 per cent of talent.
How can you influence this reality from an early age? You have to design strategies and policies. A Spanish teacher recently told me that she got her girls to write on the theme I do not want to be a princess; I want to be a quantum physicist. I give you this example because we need a strategy from the ministries and then from the media.