Event on diversity: ‘Who is listening to the different voices?’

DEWIS, TU Delft’s women’s network, marked Diversity Week. Speakers, panel members and a small audience talked about participation for women and men at TU Delft.

Seated on the auditorium stage are (from left to right) Marije Severs (diversity officer at the TU administration office), Nitesh Bharosa (professor and diversity officer at TPM), Babette Pouwels, Just Herder and Josephine Vos. (Photo: Thijs van Reeuwijk)

The announcement stated that the Gender Diversity, Work and Caregiving: What academia can learn from business event was intended to celebrate Diversity Day (3 October). But there was not much to celebrate. “If we read the news, we see that there is still much work to be done,” says Ingrid Mulder, DEWIS Board Member and Associate Professor, in her welcome speech.

And indeed, last week Delta published an article showing that the percentage of female full professors at TU Delft has hardly risen, and that before the summer Associate Professor Daphne Stam had left because of the ‘macho culture’ at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. Despite these news items, the event was not full. About 40 people, including the speakers and the panel, sat in groups in the Aula’s auditorium. There were very few men who made up less than a quarter of those present.

‘There is no silver bullet’

The keynote speech is no more cheerful. Ivy Koopmans, Programme Leader at the Economic and Social Council (SER), and independent sociologist Babette Pouwels talked about challenges and their research findings on diversity and inclusion in the boards of Dutch companies. The SER published a report on this in 2019 that became the backbone of a new law (in Dutch) that introduced a ‘quota of women’ on 1 January 2022.

“There are very few people here, and they are mostly women.” (Photo: Thijs van Reeuwijk)



However, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index that was published in summer shows that the gap between genders in the Netherlands has barely shrunk over the last year, in contrast to that of Germany and Belgium. They were already above the Netherlands in the ranking, but have now shot up. Pouwels believes that this stagnation is entirely due to the labour market.

The income gap, for example, grew last year. “A lot of people in the Netherlands had a pay rise because of the tight labour market and inflation. But the pay rise for men was 15% on average, while for women it was only about 9%.” The percentage of women on boards and supervisory boards of large Dutch companies has risen slowly between 2012 and 2020 to 13.8% and 21.9% respectively. But, warns Pouwels, “that slight increase is completely due to the achievements of a very small group of companies that have taken action. A large group of companies lags behind. In 2020, there were no women at all in about 60% of boards and 40% of supervisory boards.”

Companies can no longer lie

The gap is not easy to close, says Koopmans. “There is no silver bullet.” The advisory group found loopholes while compiling the report and the new law. Pouwels shares a few examples.

‘Should TU Delft’s entire system be redesigned?’

Policy must be specific, noted the group. “In Germany, companies had to set goals a couple of years ago and report on them to the ministry every year. The ministry collected the reports, but did little with them. After a while, when the system was evaluated, it appeared that many companies had set the ambitious target of having at least 0% women on their board.” In the Netherlands, the data collected under the new law must be made public. Companies can then learn from each other and be checked by their employees, the media and researchers. “We are talking to companies that are afraid of publishing their data. They cannot lie as anyone can check it,” explains Pouwels.

“Get rid of the upper echelons”

So there is little cause for celebration, but it does give a strong subject for the panel discussion. It may only be a small audience, but those present have more than enough questions to fill in the time. The very first question cuts to the chase: is it desirable for mentor programmes to start teaching women to behave like men to move up the career ladder? An assistant professor goes even further: should TU Delft’s entire system be redesigned in line with inclusion? “In 100 years’ time will we still expect women to adjust to a system that is not designed for them and may never work?”

“We should encourage people to care of someone.” (Photo: Thijs van Reeuwijk)

Just Herder, part of the panel in his role as member of the Council of Professors, explains that these questions frequently emerge in discussions in the Council. They are often in the context of a job involving care, for which people apologise. “If you take care of someone, be it children, grandparents or a social organisation, you are taking your responsibility. This is good so we should encourage it. We try to turn it around. If we have a candidate with an amazing research CV but have no indication that the person takes care of people around them, we reject them.”

His story is received with approval, but it does not go far enough for the person posing the question. “I was thinking about something more radical, such as getting rid of the upper echelons of TU Delft. Then we would have no more problems about women at the top as there would be no top.”

‘No clear action is taken’

The people present are also critical about Recognition and Rewards (the proposed new method to evaluate academics, including, for example, on teaching tasks). “I do a lot of research on equal pay,” says Pouwels, who is also a panel member, “but I see little of this in TU Delft’s salary structure. There are separate salary scales for teaching, but there is hardly anybody at the higher levels. The policies of some universities even state that they do not invest in teaching careers, only in combining it with research.” She notes that the teaching personnel is often comprised of a relatively large number of women. “And nothing is done for them in terms of remuneration or career.”

To lighten the mood for the drinks, the Plankgas theatre group closes the afternoon with some fun. The three actresses poke fun at some of the stereotypes and everyday hurdles that women face at TU Delft in a series of sketches and songs. “Fantastic,” says doctoral candidate Man Jiang, “they have really thought about the sketches. I hope these scenes will be regularly shown to students and staff members at TU Delft.”

“You always hear that we have to tackle this together, but I do not have the power.” (Photo: Thijs van Reeuwijk)

“Who is listening?”


Less enthusiastic about the afternoon are two other PhD candidates who wish to remain anonymous. “No clear action is taken. It is nice that they organised this, but there are very few people here, and they are mostly women. And everybody that is here already knows about this.” Her table companion agrees. “You always hear that we have to tackle this together, but I do not have the power so I don’t know what I can do. We recently went to the dean to talk about parental leave for staff members on temporary contracts. The UWV (Employee Insurance Agency) continues to pay part of their salary, but as their contract is not extended they have to do the same work in less time. TU Delft does not have to pay them while they are on parental leave, so it even saves money!”

The low turnout also bothers post-doc Markus Westberg. “I have asked some people to come along, but many of them were too busy. Even a lot of female researchers were not interested. But there are even fewer men, and they are the ones that should really hear this message. I am pleased that this event is held. The panel discussion in particular is a way to make different voices heard. But who is listening?”

‘How can we get the people who do not see it, to see it?’

Nevertheless, moderator and doctoral candidate Josephine Vos is happy with the afternoon. “We could talk a lot about solutions and what does and doesn’t work. Babette [Pouwels] was very good for the event as she could explain what she had learned in her research.” For Vos too, the low turnout was ‘a great shame’. “There are a lot of people who do not find this important or do not think it is relevant for them. We need to find a solution for this. How can we get the people who do not see it, to see it?”

News editor Emiel Beinema

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