Institute for Human Rights: Irène Curie Fellowship went too far

The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights ruled that TU/e went too far with its Irène Curie Fellowship program. Distinction on the basis of gender when recruiting and selecting candidates is unlawful, according to the institute. With the ICF program, TU/e opens all of its scientific vacancies exclusively to women during a period of six months. The Executive Board will investigate what it can still do to create more balance between male and female scientists.

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TU/e launched the Irène Curie Fellowship (ICF program) a year ago in order to create more balance between the male-to-female ratio in scientific positions. The program was supposed to last five years and apply to 150 vacancies. Antidiscrimination agency RADAR promptly received fifty complaints from people within and outside the university and asked the national Human Rights Institute for a ruling. Two hearings followed, one in November 2019 in Utrecht, and one online meeting on 8 May.

The Human Rights Institute published its ruling today: ‘Based on the ICF program, TU/e in principle opens all scientific vacancies exclusively to female candidates. In doing so, it makes a direct distinction on the basis of gender when recruiting and selecting candidates. This is unlawful, unless a legal exception applies. However, the Institute considers the ICF program too severe a means to achieve this goal.’


The major problem, the Institute says, it that TU/e implements the measure position and university wide: the exclusion applies to all scientific positions at the university’s nine departments. ‘This creates an exclusion for male candidates to such an extent that it all but makes negligible their chances of gaining a scientific position at the university during a period of five years. In addition, not all nine departments are faced with the disadvantaged position of women equally, and there are differences as well between the disadvantage of professors, associate professors and assistant professors,’ the Human Rights Institute writes.

Rector Frank Baaijens respects the decision. “The Institute for Human Rights acknowledges our goals and the serious disadvantages women in our organization suffer. However, the Institute concludes that our program is too wide in terms of its implementation. We appreciate the fact that the Institute offers clear tools with which we can improve our gender imbalance. We will carefully examine the Institute’s findings and recommendations to determine how to continue.”

Too forcibly imposed

Professor Boudewijn van Dongen is content with the Institute’s ruling. He had to fill a vacancy at his department of Mathematics and Computer Science this past year. He said he failed to appoint a woman, despite the huge efforts of professional recruiters. Van Dongen: “I agree with the rector that we should take the gender balance into account. But the ICF program is too invasive and too forcibly imposed. A six-month waiting period is unwise. We lose interested and suitable male candidates during that time.”

And there’s another risk, Van Dongen says: “You need to be very careful that women aren’t told a few years from now that the only reason they were hired is because they are a woman. We need to prevent that stigma. The ruling is very clear: the ICF program is too severe and is implemented too forcibly. As far as I’m concerned, the recruiter should be the one who decides whether enough action was taken to reach and invite women.”

Better balance

The Executive Board says that it will continue to search for a better balance between the number of male and female scientists. “Nothing has changed about our dedication to this very important issue,” says Executive Board president Robert-Jan Smits. “Our Irène Curie Fellowship program turned out to be very effective. We’ve hired 48 very talented women scientists from all over the world since the start of the program. Our general goal hasn’t changed: we want the percentage of woman on our scientific staff to be at thirty percent in five years. Because at that percentage, a minority will no longer be a minority and it will have the position and influence it deserves.”

Professor Kees Storm remains in favor of positive discrimination. He still sees some positive sides to this ruling. “The major problems TU/e was faced with in this area were certainly acknowledged. We only received a slap on the wrist because of proportionality – the ratio between the problem and the solution. The ICF was implemented at all departments and applies to all scientific positions. Fortunately, there’s a lot of room between doing everything and doing nothing, and we still have much room for maneuver. I hope that we look for an appropriate ratio in which we can still continue to use corrective measures. There’s no reason to give up.”

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