Women in science


For the first time ever, more women than men earned a doctoral degree in the past academic year in the Netherlands. Even though you literally need just one hand to count the difference, this constitutes a milestone. Thirty years ago, the percentage of women with a doctoral degree was even less than 25 percent. But don’t think that this equal distribution is a matter of flipping some coins and that one of those coins just happened to land on the side of women. It’s the result of a long-standing uphill struggle.

In the Netherlands, women still have less chance of getting a PhD position, or of getting promoted in general, than men. This has to do with the fact that ours is a rather conservative system. Take parental leave, for example: since the pregnant person is entitled to a longer period of leave, that person carries out most of the care duties. As a result, female PhD candidates usually experience more delay than men.

We still have some work to do when it comes to the higher functions. Today, the percentage of female professors in the Netherlands is 25, and TU/e scores even lower than that: 20 percent. It would be naïve to think that the equal distribution of PhDs is an indication that it will all work out, because it’s not easy to make progress in a conservative system. Academia is a leaky pipeline, where the number of women decreases the higher up you climb the ladder. Our academic culture poses obstacles to women, because the ideal image of a scientist – the competitive individualist – is based on male values.

TU/e will need to actively support its female staff members, because progress that has been made can rapidly turn in the opposite direction. Take the United States for example, where conservative believes are more rampant within the administrative and court authorities today than the dandelions in my backyard. Key figures within the Republican Party are trying to take back control of the female body, under the pretext of protecting unborn life. Under circumstances like these, equal gender distribution is practically unthinkable in any field.

It would be easy to think that the US is a faraway country, but we too have parties in our parliament (BBB, FvD, PVV) that cherish the idea of hotlines for reporting teachers and schoolbook scrutiny; a conservative effort that’s not dissimilar to the ban on books about racism and homosexuality in certain states in the US.

Given the public response it elicited, TU/e already took a radical step forward a few years ago with its Irène Curie Fellowship program, the university’s temporary preferential policy for hiring female scientists. But starting a cultural change from the bottom up isn’t the only thing we need to do. As long ago as June 2019, when the ‘women’s quota’ was announced, the University Council discussed ways to counter biases at the university, but how much did we actually accomplish? We’re not just dealing with a leaky pipeline, but with an end-of-pipeline problem as well. Those who have been part of the academic system for the longest period of time, the current professors, have thrived within a conservative system. They are the ones who will have to do most of the adjusting after all these years.

The new generation of men within the TU/e pyramid, including me, have already taken a step aside. Many of them went to a different university. Now, it’s up to the older generation to (also) make a move.

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