With 28 versus 72 percent respectively, the ratio of female to male students at TU/e is still very skewed. To bridge the gap, which is even wider at Electrical Engineering as the percentage of women there is only 12 to 13 percent, the department had a gender scan carried out. This independent study into gender diversity and inclusivity started out as a 4TU project, but as Wageningen does not offer the Electrical Engineering program, it was soon limited to Eindhoven, Delft and Enschede. To safeguard confidentiality of the collected data, the study was outsourced to VHTO, the expertise center on gender diversity in beta sciences, technology, and IT.
The study launched in 2020, but was temporarily put on the back burner due to the COVID pandemic. In spite of this, it already yielded a number of remarkable results, on the basis of which the department took the first steps toward drawing more female students. Dean Bart Smolders told us all about it and also made clear what he thinks needs to be done to increase the intake and retention of female students.
Information and recruitment
“The most important reason to have the study performed is our goal to attract more students,” Smolders says. “Part of this growth can be realized by taking in internationals, but we also want to draw more women, as we have a relatively low number of those.”
He indicates the aim of the study is twofold. “Firstly, we wanted to know how we can adapt our information and recruitment materials and activities to appeal more to women and encourage more of them to choose our program. Secondly, we wanted to take stock of how women are experiencing the program in comparison to men, and how we can improve the former group’s experience.”
The gender scan shows that a number of aspects play a role in the relatively low number of women. “People generally choose their field of study very early on, at primary and secondary school, or as a result of their parents pushing them in a certain direction. Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of influence in this respect,” Smolders says. “Our main question going into the study was: how can we present ourselves to the women visiting our open days in a way that sparks their interest in the program? And as a follow-up: how can we make sure they stay with us? This requires creating a culture that women find pleasant and that they want to be part of.”
The study reveals there’s a difference in sense of belonging between male and female students. The creation of a safe and inclusive culture is to make more and more women feel at home at the department. According to Smolders, the fact that a number of women are on the board of study association Thor – two out of this year’s seven board members – certainly contributes to this. “It’s important that women who come study with us have role models and see women play a key role in student life. This way, we create a climate that’s a better fit for them.”
Generally the atmosphere is good and students are nice to each other, Smolders says. “If there’s an incident we address it right away. The study association also has a special board member for social safety. But what’s most important, in my opinion, is to create a healthy environment in which some things are simply not done. You can’t put all of that in rules, it’s something that you build collectively.”
One of the outcomes of the study that stands out is that female Electrical Engineering students generally outperform their male counterparts, despite having been much more insecure about their capabilities at first. This relatively low self-efficacy – in other words: faith in one’s own abilities – experienced by women generally makes them work harder at their studies, as they’re worried about getting bad grades, but it also means a lot of women decide against doing a certain program as they feel it’s beyond their capabilities.
The general picture we’ve obtained is that women work much harder and are initially much more insecure than men
Smolders: “Women tend to think: I only got a B for math, so it’s too difficult for me. Men are like: I got a C− for math, so I can do it. Incidentally, once women get good grades with us and see that they get along fine within the program, that initial insecurity does disappear fairly quickly.”
Difference in prior knowledge
Another notable outcome is that there’s a difference in the prior knowledge some men and women have when they start their Electrical Engineering studies. “This only applies to the area of programming,” Smolders specifies. Nonetheless, this example does illustrate what kind of obstacles a lot of women have to overcome at the start of their studies.
In the first year, all students take a programming course. “Most women have never programmed before,” says Smolders, “but some of the men have. This group has a clear advantage, which is demotivating for the rest. It’s like riding a bike and falling down all the time, while part of the group is already doing cross-country.”
The course has now been modified to give everyone enough time to learn the basics. The pace is a bit lower at first and increases as the course progresses, so everyone attains the same level at the end. “Now you’re waiting for everyone to be able to ride their bikes before you start doing cross-country.”
Another important aspect indicated by the study is that many women attach importance to the societal relevance of what they do. “A lot of men choose our program because they simply enjoy the field and get to make ICs and transistors, for example,” Smolders says. “They’re not thinking about what they can do later on, whereas a lot of women want to work towards a concrete goal. They think: I want to work on the energy transition, so this program is a good start.”
The department recently adapted the information and recruitment materials to better reflect what program graduates can do and what societal impact they may have. “We also recorded videos starring our alumni, which make it more tangible what Electrical Engineering is and what kind of career it might lead to. We hope this will appeal to a wider group of potential students,” the dean says.
So far, the gender study has mainly focused on the experiences of students, but the department wants to extend it to include employees in the future. Within the teaching staff, women are also less represented than men. The first steps to change this have already been taken: over the past few years, the department invited a lot of women to apply, ultimately hiring many of them. Recruitment officers have received training to eliminate gender bias (the unequal position of individuals based on gender) from application procedures.
“And yet, we’ve noticed female teachers tend to have a more difficult start here than male ones,” Smolders says. Newly appointed assistant professors are often in their early thirties and at the crucial point in their lives where they’re not only working on their academic careers, but also starting a family and buying a house.
“All assistant professors go through a tenure-track process of about five years, in which they are regularly assessed. Our experience is that this puts immense pressure on female assistant professors in particular. This may cause all kinds of problems, especially when combined with important private matters like starting a family. Insecurity probably comes into play as well: women tend to worry more about keeping all of those balls in the air,” says Smolders.
To give them more peace of mind, all assistant professors – men and women – now get a permanent contract right away. “We also try to be flexible, so people can start working less or do more from home. This is also something that takes the pressure off employees and helps them establish a better balance between their work and private lives,” Smolders explains.
This gender study by the three universities of technology is a pilot. They will evaluate and implement the results and extend the study together, but the ultimate goal is for other departments to follow suit.
“I can wholeheartedly recommend it,” says Smolders. “The nice thing is that you can use the results of the study internally to create a sense of urgency. A clear overview of students’ experiences make things much more real and convincing than when I’m the only one bringing them up.”
When asked what he found most surprising about the results, Smolders responds: “The women being much more insecure at the start, but ending up doing much better here than the men. We have a lot of female students who perform exceptionally well and graduate with honors, but we also want women who are average students or who, say, have to work really hard to get a C. We don’t have enough of those at the moment.”
His own daughter studied Applied Physics at TU/e, Smolders mentions at the end of the interview. “At first she was worried if she’d make it.” Then, with a broad smile: “In the end she graduated with honors.”
Anne Willems and Norine Rijksen, both bachelor’s students of Electrical Engineering and board members of study association Thor, have first-hand experience in being enrolled in a male-dominated program. They tell Cursor about the importance of having women on the board and share their personal experiences of obstacles they had to overcome as female students.
“We have a low percentage of women in the program itself, but many of them are active at the study association, so that means the man to woman ratio there is a bit more equal,” Rijksen says. The board habitually consists of seven or eight members, two or three of which have generally been women over the past few years. Thor’s website, however, shows that plenty of past boards were exclusively composed of men, even as late as the 2015-2016 academic year. Since then there has always been at least one woman on the board.
How important is it for women to be board members? “If women are represented on the board, female students will feel more welcome and are more likely to join the study association,” asserts Rijksen, who - in addition to her position as Vice-President and Commissioner Valhalla (bar manager) - is the special board member for social safety. “The responsibility for social safety rests with the university, but as the board we are closer to the students and can therefore play an important role in linking the needs of the students to what the university can offer them in this respect,” Rijksen says.
For instance, together with the board she has arranged for a social skills workshop to be taught in the near future. “I think this can help us understand each other better. Sometimes nasty situations arise in which women don’t feel included, but I believe that most of the time this is not how things were intended. Instead, it concerns clumsiness or habit, not something that’s done consciously. That’s why it’s so important to have an open discussion with each other during the workshop. That way we want to create more awareness and show how you can prevent certain situations."
Clumsiness and awkwardness
What’s it like for a woman to be enrolled in a program where men are in the vast majority? “It doesn’t bother me all that much, but I do think the culture would be different if there were more women,” says Willems. “I feel like a lot of male students at EE are not used to being around women and don’t really know how to deal with them. You can tell from the way they react to you sometimes.” Rijksen seconds this: “I’ve experienced a number of really awkward situations in lecture rooms. The first time I came to uni a guy asked for a pen and when I gave him one, he turned bright red and didn’t dare to talk to me at all. Some of them don’t seem to be used to interacting with women.”
Gender bias is also something Rijksen recognizes. “There have been occasions when I’ve felt like I wasn’t assessed fairly because I’m a woman. This one time, for instance, I wanted to take on a more challenging project so I could really learn from it, but both my group and my tutor said: ‘It’s better if you stick to an easier subject, such as presentation design. That’s more your thing.’ But the tutor hardly knew me and had no way of knowing what I could or couldn’t do. That kind of thing really makes me mad.” At the time, Rijksen didn’t dare to speak up. “You’re in a group of ten students and if even the tutor, who’ll assess you in the end, says ‘you probably can’t do it’, it’s very hard to say anything.”
Neither of the students is bothered very much by inappropriate or misogynist jokes, although this is mainly down to their attitude. “I hear jokes that are stupid or sexist all the time but they don’t stick with me for very long. And I’m fairly direct, so I often say something,” says Rijksen. Willems has a similar experience: “The first time you have a mental reaction, but then you get used to it and it doesn’t really affect you.” You need to develop a thick skin if you’re a woman in this environment, the students conclude. Willems points out things can also go the other way: “A lot of emphasis is being placed on being women-friendly and this makes some people unnaturally reserved, because they’re afraid they’ll say something wrong. This doesn’t necessarily create a more pleasant situation because it makes conversations feel a bit artificial.”
Motivation and role models
Before starting her studies, Willems didn’t give much thought to being outnumbered by men. “I’m from Limburg and was going to study in Brabant. That felt like much more of an obstacle,” she says with a laugh. “Only when I entered the lecture room on the first day I was like: ‘oh huh, there’s not a lot of women here’.” The gender scan shows many women are initially insecure about taking on a technology program. Rijksen recognizes the feeling: “Before I started, I felt like you needed to be super-duper smart to enroll in this program. All throughout the first six months I was pretty tense about the possibility of it being too difficult.” Fortunately, motivation was a big thing. “I really liked the field and that made me prepared to work hard for it.” What also helped her turn the corner were the role models she found in her own family: “I have three sisters who also completed technology programs, which made it a bit easier for me.”
I entered the lecture room on the first day and I was like: ‘oh huh, there’s not a lot of women here’
Now the students are role models for others, even though they don’t see it like that themselves. “Of course it’s important that there are women on the board. This helped me during the introduction week as well,” says Rijksen. “But ideally you don’t want to be seen or addressed specifically as a woman,” Willems adds. “This creates a distinction, and I’d prefer for that distinction not to be made and for everyone to be treated equally.”