Irène Curie Fellowship program makes comeback in substantially modified form

TU/e will be able to continue its Irène Curie Fellowship program, which aims to increase the percentage of women on the permanent scientific staff, in a substantially modified form. This was announced last Tuesday by the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (CRM). Cursor spoke with two professors, one firmly in favor of the program when it was first introduced, the other an outspoken critic, and asked them for their views on the impending reintroduction.

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In July 2019, TU/e introduced the Irène Curie Fellowship program, which aimed to increase the percentage of women on the permanent scientific staff. From that point on, the university would open up vacancies exclusively to women in the first six months of recruitment. Men could apply only if no suitable female candidate could be found during this period.

The introduction of the program was greeted with mixed feelings within the university. Supporters defended it by pointing out that previous measures aimed at increasing the percentage of women on the staff had been virtually ineffectual. Opponents believed that the decision whether or not to recruit a candidate should depend solely on a person’s qualities. Rector Frank Baaijens said the following about it at the time: “Women have had a 1-0 disadvantage at our university for many years, and we want to turn that situation around in a short period of time and give them a 1-0 advantage.” The program came into effect on July 1, 2019.

Thirteen months later however, the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights ruled that the program was ‘not proportional.’ The CRM was asked to look into the case by antidiscrimination agency RADAR, which had received fifty complaints. The CRM asked the university to submit a revised version of its program for scrutiny.

Two criteria

Last Tuesday, the Human Rights court announced that the revised program no longer makes prohibitive distinctions based on gender. With these revisions, TU/e now applies two criteria before it publishes a vacancy within its Irène Curie Fellowship program, the CRM says. First, a vacancy can only fall within the ICF program when the percentage of women in a certain job category – assistant professor, associate professor, or full professor – is under thirty percent. Second, thirty to fifty percent of vacancies that meet this requirement will fall within the ICF program. As before, only female candidates will be eligible for those vacancies during the first six months of recruitment. The program will run at least until 2024, with annual reviews, the Executive Board announced.

Enough room

Professor Kees Storm, who had already professed his staunch support back in 2019, says that he is very pleased that the university can continue with the program in this modified form. “I felt that the original concept also left enough room for exceptions, but I’m not a judge of course. It’s good that the departments that have their affairs in order will be exempted from this obligation. I wouldn’t want TU/e to meet its university-wide targets because the department of Applied Physics consists exclusively of women, to use a random example. That clearly isn’t a solution, so it seems to me that this is a good way to keep an eye on the distribution.”

Storm says that that there are a number of departments where one or several of the designated job categories are currently under thirty percent, which makes them eligible for the ICF program. “Enough room to press ahead,” he says. “What I do worry about, however, is that the internal discussion will now be framed in a wrong way, and that people will start to look for legal loopholes. No matter how you felt about it, the previous rule was clear. Now, I expect some wrangling over whether or not a new vacancy should be in that 30-50% group. I hope, and expect, that our administrative bodies will monitor the situation and ensure that the university will also recruit a reasonable number of women for vacancies that do not fall within the ICF program.”

What Storm worries about in a broader sense, is whether the university pays proper attention to the people that are currently being recruited. “I’m thinking of the care for new colleagues. There are quite a few of them, but do the departments have their support systems in order? Do we have the right agreements about startup? How do we approach on-boarding, and do new colleagues know what to expect with regard to ‘recognition and rewards'? In short, do they know what they have to do in order to continue to grow in this organization? We have a duty to care for our new employees, and the sustainable support of a more diverse workforce will require a lasting cultural shift on a number of points.”


Professor Boudewijn van Dongen, who was a prominent critic of the ICF program at the time, says in an initial response that the decision to apply the program to specific job categories and on a smaller scale is a “wise” one, “as is the decision to maximize the number of vacancies within this program to fifty percent.” Van Dongen does wonder however what different conditions apply to the ICF program in its revised form. “The original concept also stipulated that only female candidates are entitled to a startup package, for example. That was never implemented, at least not at the department of Mathematics & Computer Science, but it would lead to all kinds of unfair differences. Does that still stand? Or do those startup packages apply to all vacancies?”

He also believes that TU/e keeps new employees uncertain for too long. “A five-year tenure track – or five-year temporary contract – is something you hardly see in other sectors. This is only partly unrelated to the ICF program. In an earlier stage, I already urged the university to provide certainty instead of prioritization, but that hasn’t happened. I still believe that the entire concept of five-year tenure tracks, where the risk of not meeting the target lies exclusively with the employee, isn’t in line with being a good employer. In order to create a more pleasant work environment, it would be better to place that risk with TU/e. We already notice that scientists in a tenure track have a different attitude than those with a permanent position. The first category is much stricter when it comes to accepting extra work, even though that extra work is often generated by their surroundings, which we have no control over. Think of higher inflow, externally imposed educational reforms, students’ freedom to choose courses, et cetera.”

More freedom

Executive Board president Robert-Jan Smits says that he is very pleased that this “successful" program can be continued. “Our goal remains that within five years, at least thirty percent of the scientific staff will be women. Because at that percentage, a minority will no longer be perceived as a minority. The minority feels more freedom to contribute, and it has the position and influence it deserves.”

In practice, the modified policy means that less than half of the vacancies for permanent scientific staff will fall into the Irène Curie program. “The number of women (55) and male (59) scientists that we attracted since the start of the program is almost equal,” rector Frank Baaijens says. “We hope that the modified program will enable us to maintain this ratio.”

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