TU/e Department of Applied Physics wins diversity award

The TU/e Department of Applied Physics has won the Diversity Prize 2020 offered by the Netherlands Physical Society (NNV). Thus, in the eyes of the association, the department is the physics institution most successfully applying an open diversity policy. “Not enough women candidates? In physics that is bullshit,” says Dean Gerrit Kroesen.

A broad-based and “impressive cultural turnabout” is what the Eindhoven department has managed to achieve, believes the NNV, and in the space of just one to two years. During the selection process, the jury considered the diversity policy being pursued at institutions, original initiatives and, last but not least, concrete evidence of the policy's success.

Two years ago, the Department of Applied Physics, let it be noted, was already in the race for the prize, tells Dean Gerrit Kroesen, but could only watch as the University of Groningen took home the honors. “And deservedly so,” says Kroesen, “Back then, Groningen was leading the way.”

Since then, he believes, the department has shown not only that it has ambitious plans, but that it is capable of achieving them. There was just one woman among the (roughly sixty-strong) academic staff at Applied Physics eight years ago, the Dean explains. “Now there are about fifteen. Most of them have been hired in the last couple of years.”

Proactive and personal

This growth, he says, is mainly the result of the Department's targeted, proactive and personal approach to women. “It is a familiar phrase: make a list of five criteria, a woman meets three of them and will not apply. While a man who meets two of the criteria thinks ‘no problem’. We wanted to remove this barrier for women.”

If, as a department, you want to do something like this, then as a board you also have to realize that it is going to involve work

Gerrit Kroesen
Dean of Applied Physics

A key role in this change process was played by the Principal Investigators (PIs) within the department. This PI model, introduced by the department two years ago, gives researchers more autonomy when it comes to establishing their own research path. Thus, every assistant professor and associate professor is free to establish his or her own agenda, education profile and research profile; they can also make their own decisions about the funding of their projects and no longer need to have applications, for example, approved by the group chairperson.

“We asked all the Department's PIs to put forward the names of women candidates - for all kinds of positions, from tenure track to professorial positions,” says Kroesen. “This produced a list of almost two hundred names, all women, to each of whom I sent a personal mail: ‘Your name has been mentioned by so-and-so, I'd like to invite you to apply.”

He laughs, “It's a lot of work, yes. It did consume one of my weekends. And it's unconventional; the recruiters had never seen this approach used before. But if, as a department, you want to do something like this, then as a board you also have to realize that it is going to involve work. Not that it needs to be the Dean's job; it's about the personal approach, the individual contact, the attention. That's what proved to make the difference.”

Another deliberate choice, Kroesen tells us, was to keep the job description in each mail short. “Not the customary page of A4, but at most a handful of words. Because if you compile a very specific profile, many women won't apply.”

From this list of two hundred names rolled some one hundred applications, from which several academic positions were filled. “We also spoke to all the women after the application process and they nearly all said that they would not have applied had we not approached them personally,” says Kroesen.

Involve everyone

The main tip that Kroesen wishes to give other organizations, departments and groups is this: be sure to involve everyone in the process. “As a board you can set the tone, but everyone needs to cooperate - inspired by their conviction, not only because the boss is insisting.” Especially at a time when preferential measures, like the controversial Irène Curie program at TU/e, are being not only applauded, but discussed at length.

The text continues below the video.

The video in which Diederik Jekel announces the prize winner, including the reaction of the department's Dean Gerrit Kroesen.

The video in which Diederik Jekel announces the prize winner, including the reaction of the department's Dean Gerrit Kroesen.

He knows the standard arguments, says Kroesen. “‘Pay no attention to gender, hire the best for the job’. While, actually, in itself this remark is somewhat discriminatory since the speaker is insinuating that the best is almost always a man.” He hastens to add, “Of course, you must always keep your eyes peeled for talented individuals, including talented men. But you must be bold and pursue a clear policy. Even now our starting point for every vacancy is still, ‘compile a list of women candidates.’”

Something Kroesen does not want to hear is the suggestion - issuing, so he believes, largely from the somewhat older academic guard - that not enough women candidates are available. “Bullshit. That may be true of other disciplines, but certainly not of physics . There are plenty of candidates as, I believe, we have demonstrated.”

As well as the proactive approach made to women candidates as described above, the NNV mentioned other things, such as the departmental onboarding program for new employees, as being valuable in helping to create a more inclusive department. The jury also praises the deliberately ‘personal attention paid by managers to the individual needs of new employees’.

Van der Waals

Something else that struck the jury was the role of study association Van der Waals. “It is encouraging that the next generation is so passionate and also appears so skilled at fostering a cultural turnabout,” writes NNV president and science journalist Diederik Jekel.

“By way of example, a good year ago the board of Van der Waals came to us with their proposal that a diversity work group be set up. Now, together with Van der Waals we are looking at how we can adapt our information and recruitment activities so that the percentage of women students, currently standing at about 15 percent, also increases,” says Dean Kroesen.

Once the percentage of women reaches about 35 percent, this level becomes self-sustaining. That's our aim

Gerrit Kroesen
Dean of Applied Physics

For its academic staff, the department has set a short-term goal of 35 percent women. This target, says Kroesen, is based on experience, in France for example, “Where evidence suggests that once the percentage of women reaches about 35 percent, this level becomes self-sustaining. That's our aim.” In terms of assistant professors, Applied Physics has, in fact, already reached this level, “for professors and associate professors we are now at 20 to 25 percent.”

Kroesen expects his department to reach the intended percentage within two years, for all levels of academic staff. “This is not ambitious, it is very realistic. Whether this 35 percent will really be enough, we'll have to see when we get there.”

Disinfected plaque

Diederik Jekel of NNV announced the winner on Monday evening during the (on this occasion online) scientific conference Physics@Veldhoven. Other contenders were the NWO institute AMOLF and the Amsterdam-based Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy. The prize, says Jekel, serves mainly to inspire. “With it we wish to show not only how important it is, but also that it is perfectly possible, to make our beloved field inclusive and diverse.”

The plaque that comes with the prize will, of course, be well disinfected, says Jekel, before being sent to Eindhoven. Here, it will be given a place in the department's central entrance hall in the Flux building. But as long as the building, like the whole campus, remains relatively empty due to corona, the plaque will shine chiefly in the photo on the department's homepage, says Kroesen.

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