Dean Henri Werij on the culture at Aerospace Engineering: ‘We cannot burn people at the stake’

Planetary scientist Daphne Stam recently told Delta that she left her Faculty because of its ‘macho culture’. Henri Werij, Dean of AE responds.

Dean Henri Werij: “You cannot change culture in just one year.” (Photo: Faculty of Aerospace Engineering))

We always get the same response: ‘we cannot talk about individual cases’. This means that these questions are never answered.  
“We really cannot discuss it. I am prepared to talk about the culture and what we are doing about it at the Faculty.”  

In the Student Council, Vice-Rector Magnificus Rob Mudde said that ‘her (Daphne Stams’, Eds.) views are not necessary 100% true’. This implies that there is another side to the story.
“I do not want to talk about it. It is not right for Daphne. I recognise her feelings, but I cannot say more. I can never share this. This goes for everything related to personnel. Sharing information even goes against the AVG (privacy regulations, Eds.). It is really important that you understand this.”

At the opening of the academic year, you gave a speech at the Faculty in which you said that you ‘could not sleep’ because of the news about Daphne Stam. What stopped you from your sleep?
“Two things kept me awake. First, it really is terrible that someone apparently felt so unhappy and that we then stood on opposite sides of the fence.

Second, we are feeling the backlash while we are genuinely and intensively working on clarifying the things that are not going well. Everyone has an opinion and that is hard because I cannot defend myself. There are insinuations that our organisation has been approached by a law firm. That’s a worry. It hurts.”

Who  insinuated that?
“The Volkskrant newspaper. It wrote that ‘we had access to a confidential report from a law firm’. So everyone now thinks that we have a law firm coming down on us. And this while it is also a mediation firm and we ourselves commissioned them to do an investigation.
We hired the agency when we read worrying signs in the employee monitor (in 2021, Eds.). We wanted our staff members to be able to express themselves confidentially. The agency had 43 meetings with staff.
We first shared the outcomes with the Personnel Committee (the local representation body, Eds.) and later, in consultation with them, to all staff members. If the Volkskrant then writes about a confidential report, it gives the impression that nobody may read it.”

Both Daphne Stam and the report talk about a ‘macho culture’. Do you recognise this?
“I would not call it a macho culture.”

Or a female unfriendly culture, a male culture, paternalism … So many terms have been used.
“These terms are so black and white. It may include male-female relationships, but perhaps it is more about minorities versus majorities. Among the academic staff, we have seven men for every two women. This will always create inequality. I believe that in some positions women may have problems. But not everywhere. I also hear women say that they have no problems at all and have no idea what we are talking about.”

Perhaps the women who are disadvantaged would be reluctant to discuss it with the dean.
“Not at all. Talk to some of the women here. I think most women know that I am working on the proportion of men and women. When I became Dean, I found it terrible that we only had 14% women. This is far too few. We managed to increase the percentage of female researchers with a new policy.”

Nevertheless, the number of women at the Faculty, and certainly in the higher echelons, remains small.
“I agree with you that it is creeping up much too slowly. We set ourselves the target of 25% at the levels of assistant professor, associate professor and professor by 2024. We are rising very fast at the assistant professor level.”

The proportion of female assistant professors is now 25.7%, but the proportion of associate professors is still lagging behind at 18.7%. And there are only two female professors (8.7%). How can you make sure that the relatively high number of female assistant professors really can climb the career ladder?
“The policy states that there does not need to be a vacancy to grow internally. If you are ready, you take the step.” 

Daphne Stam said that she was not taken seriously because she was a woman. How can you make sure that gender does not unconsciously play a role in doctoral dissertation defences?
“I do not want to say that it does not happen, but I hear similar things from men. Since Daphne’s story, men have also come to me saying that they are being blocked by their supervisor. We want several people to be involved in an application to reduce dependency on the supervisor.”

The report ends with a series of recommendations, such as better implementing TU Delft’s Code of Conduct. Is this being done?
“Absolutely. The Code of Conduct is emphatically discussed during the induction of all new staff members.”

And the people who have been there a long time? Do they also know about the Code of Conduct?“Absolutely. In my new year’s speech I also said that 2023 was for me the year in which we concentrate on culture. In part because of the report we have set up a very serious programme. You cannot change culture in just one year.” 

How can you change the culture?
“We held a Faculty week in March. This was the start of a wider programme on getting on with each other. People were very sceptical about it, but in the end, three quarters of the staff members joined in. And this included 100% of the professors. I said to them that if anyone can set a good example, it is them.
The programme covered questions such as how do we communicate with each other? How can you recognise if a staff member is facing an issue but does not dare say so? And how can you give feedback and how can you recognise bias? The intention is that there is open dialogue and that open dialogue remains.”

What happens now if people come to you with reports about a lack of social safety?
“We take them seriously. Some reports are so real and so severe that we have to take serious action. We always listen to both sides and have a serious discussion with the supervisors. Some people believe that this should be visible for everyone, but we cannot burn people at the stake, in part because of the desire to create a safe environment for everyone.”

But if you never reveal the perpetrators, are you not simply keeping things going?
“No, we really are not doing so. We inform everyone involved about the steps we are taking. It can happen that several reports are made about the same person. In this case the person has a serious problem.”

What does that entail?
“You can issue an official warning to someone.”

Does this ever happen?
“That is hard to say here. Someone may always recognise themself if I say anything about the case. So just believe me when I say that we take serious steps if people do things that are not acceptable. If someone’s behaviour does not change, it could mean that we start a dismissal procedure.”

In your new academic year speech, you said that men and women are different. What do you think the differences between men and women are?
“This is a very tricky question. I based it on what women had told me about the issues they face. And when I said it, I was criticised by other women. What I wanted to say was to use this situation as a wake-up call. Of the 20 minutes, 19 were about this. And then the only thing discussed was that one sentence in which I talked about differences.”

And what are the differences?
“In relation to Daphne’s story, I talked to women who said that it is important to state that women may approach things differently to men. And that as a woman, you come up against largely male dominated thought processes.

The one person wants you to state this, while another does not want you to talk about any differences between men and women. Try to find the right words for this. It is a very loaded issue.
But if we have to talk about the differences between men and women – and I have to be careful here – I do see that men have a big mouth more often, while they may not even be up to the task. Women act more modestly and uncertainly. We need to make sure that we hire capable people.”

Despite all the good intentions, you are a man who has always worked in a male environment. Does this make you the right person to lead this shift in culture?
“I hope so, but it is really up to the Faculty. I can only say that I am trying to address it seriously. We are definitely not perfect, but we do want to improve.”

Science editor Kim Bakker

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