Do we end with discrimination?


While most teachers are busy giving their final lectures and preparing exams, our rector dropped a bomb earlier this week. He announced that from July 1st the next 18 months only women can apply for scientific jobs. Twitter, Geenstijl, NOS and Omroep Brabant were ready to share a wide selection of opinions in no time. Of course I can't stay behind then.

I’m happy with diversity. I wrote earlier that forty percent of the permanent scientific staff of my department consists of women, and among PhD students that is currently thirty percent. All these women were once selected for their substantive qualities and not because they are women.

However, diversity is much broader. Among the scientific colleagues in my department, there are, as far as I know, at least eleven nationalities, three religions, all sexual orientations and the age ranges from 25 to 46 years old. No, I do not feel addressed when people complain about diversity within departments.

However, TU/e believes that diversity should be translated into ‘a percentage of women’. And to reach the goal of twenty percent, all vacancies have to become available just to them. What an incredible nonsense. I agree with the remark of a university lecturer, who wants to remain anonymous, in the Eindhovens Dagblad: "This is completely nuts."

I can substantiate that view. Because even though politicians invoke the ‘white men in selection committees’ argument, which doesn’t apply anymore to TU/e since quite some time, I did decide to look into the figures. The most important job requirement for academic staff is a ‘completed promotion in a relevant field’. To start working as an assistant professor, you must have a PhD in the field. And to get your PhD, you must have completed your master's degree in that field.

The numbers

The Rathenau Instituut once calculated that the average age for a PhD is 29.5 years and for graduation 24.5 years. The average age at which someone is appointed as assistant professor is 37 years, 42 years for an associate professor and 47 years for a full professor. So on average an assistant professor graduated 12.5 years ago. The student population of 12.5 years ago is therefore a good reflection of the candidate pool.

According to the CBS, the percentage of female students in the Netherlands was fifty percent in the academic year of 2005/2006. For the category ‘Natural Sciences/Informatics’, that was only seventeen percent. Five years earlier, in the academic year 2001/2002, nineteen percent of the students were women and in the academic year 1996/1997 it concerned seventeen percent at a national level. Very slowly you see this percentage grow to 23 in the academic year 2014/2015. We should therefore expect that among the university lecturers, associate professors and full professors appointed in 2019, respectively around 17, 19 and 17 percent are women.

We recently recruited broadly within Informatica department for new people at all levels. Of the 107 serious applications, only 11 were women - that’s 10 percent. We are therefore not achieving the expected percentages. So you cannot keep saying that it’s the fault of the selection committees. There are simply not enough female candidates responding.

Of course you can argue that we should therefore attract women from abroad, but as a university we also actively encourage students to go abroad after their studies, so for the sake of convenience I assume that this balances out.


I have recently discussed this with a large number of female (former) colleagues. Why are they not even applying? The answer is as surprising as it is clear. The academic world offers insufficient guarantees and is too competitive. A woman between 30 and 40 years of age (the starting range for university lecturers and associate professors) is trying to build a family alongside of her career, together with a partner. This requires steadiness and certainty. Whether in the Netherlands or abroad, most families do not like having to move every few years and to always experience uncertainty about the future. So often a mutual decision is made for a place where at least one of the partners has a permanent job.

A second argument that was mentioned often was the enormous competitiveness in science. Scientists are always competing with each other for money, for publications and for the best students and PhD students. This eternal struggle sometimes requires long working weeks, unorthodox working hours and a lot of traveling, which is difficult to combine with family life, especially when one has young children.

The rector's plan for the starting budget of a 100K is a good idea to at least relieve the pressure coming from the competition. However, that does not solve the bigger problem, namely the uncertainty of our tenure tracks.

If the TU/e wants to attract more women and, in general, wants to be a better employer, we should stop with giving temporary contracts for tenure tracks. Simply hire people directly with a permanent contract. Agree on clear criteria for the first few years and ensure a decent HR policy, so that there is a proper portfolio to decide after five years whether someone will be promoted, will not be promoted, but is allowed to stay, or that we have to say goodbye. No longer let the employee bear the risk for the future, but take the risk as an organization. Not just for women, but for everyone.

We bet you will get more women interested in applying for a job. Without us having to discriminate and anyone who will be hired in the future can assume that this is based on their knowledge and skills.

PS: Funny enough, I am the least diverse person in the group. I am a white male, from Brabant, happily married and have two children, one of each gender. At home I am the only one with just one nationality. I studied at the TU/e, obtained my PhD here and never worked anywhere else. I think I am a minority. Am I now also entitled to special vacancies?

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