Rob Mudde: ‘We need to be more alert on diversity and inclusion’

Vice Rector Magnificus Rob Mudde too believes that TU Delft should be more diverse and inclusive. But how? ‘Hard quota will not bring us any further.’

Rob Mudde: "We have an overrepresentation of young people from the more elitist layer of society. (Photo: Guus Schoonewille)

TU Delft is well below par when it comes to the share of female professors: 17.4% this year. This should be 25% by 2025. This is still a heavy underrepresentation. “But it is a realistic target,” says Vice Rector Magnificus Rob Mudde. “We have to set achievable targets otherwise we will just be a talking shop.”

Delta spoke to Mudde shortly after the Diversity & Inclusion Week at TU Delft about the societal responsibility of TU Delft to be open to everyone and give everyone equal opportunities, about prejudices and ways to deal with the harmful effects of these, and about quotas. Mudde advocates for soft quotas, as he said during a debate at the Diversity & Inclusion Week.

What are soft quotas?
“Goals should be ambitious but they must be realistic and not hard. We need to work towards certain targets, such as having at least three female deans and 25% of the professors female. If we do not achieve one of the quotas, it should not be a drama as long as we do achieve the other. If that too is not achieved, we have some explaining to do. This is what I mean by soft quota.”

Will the share of female professors grow fast enough like this though?
“If the proportion of female professors is only 24% in 2025, should we then only hire females? If we would do that, we will push ourselves into a corner. That would not be very useful. Our task is to allow the wave of change that moves through the generations to continue freely. There were no women in my degree programme when I was at university so it can be expected that there are now few female professors of my generation in my field.  The number of women has increased over the years. We now see that 30% of university teachers are women.

“But only 17.4% of professors are women. There is thus a mismatch here. It seems like more women step out of the career path to the top. The pipeline is leaking. We need to do something about it. Every time a woman leaves us, we need to talk to her. If she leaves because she has found a better job elsewhere, fine. Congratulations. We then need to find out what it is that makes that job more attractive. Is she leaving because of old-fashioned men who do not give her the recognition she deserves? This is important information that we need to do something about.”

You could also set higher targets to show that TU Delft is serious. Push more and create role models. Young women should see that there are female professors, shouldn’t they?
“Hard quota will not bring us any further. Imagine that you are looking for a professor who specialises in dyke reinforcement. Worldwide there may be only 20 people who qualify for the position. If there are only three women among them, you could make it hard for yourself if you are only prepared to hire a women. The position may remain unfilled for a very long time. I doubt whether that would be good for the organisation.”

‘We should be open to everyone’

But you are now only looking at a small area in CEG. You could also look at fields in which many women work to compensate for the fields where there are few.
“That would mean that another faculty will have to solve the problem. It would then face ever higher quotas. The system would come to a halt at a certain point. Soft quotas do not, of course, mean that we do nothing and just assume that everything will work out by itself. The top must be made clear throughout the organisation that we are serious about the soft quota. We know that we need to be more alert. If we issue a vacancy and no women respond, we will see if we need to change the text to attract women to apply. Vacancies are sometimes written in such a way that it seems you need to be a miracle worker to be considered. This puts some women off.”

At the Diversity & Inclusion Week you also said that you want more young people from disadvantaged neighbourhoods to study at TU Delft. Is this an important goal for TU Delft?
“Definitely. We are a public institution. It is our core business and societal responsibility to accept young people and to set them on their way to the top of the world in the disciplines in which we work. One important aspect is that we try to avoid selecting people on other criteria than ability and interest. We should be open to everyone.

“That said, we do have an over representation of young people from the more elitist level of society. Well before students come to us, they have been subject to a socio-economic pre-selection. This is related to how people are shaped by society at a young age. We are the last step in education. Young people with lower educated parents do VWO (pre-university education) less often and choose scientific and technical studies less often as these have a reputation of being hard and thus more risky. ”

What can TU Delft do?
“Look at where our students come from by checking their postal codes. We want to make contact with secondary schools in the areas where we attract few students and ask if we can send our Student Ambassadors along. We need to choose these Ambassadors carefully. We want to avoid the stereotype of the white boy with thick glasses. We want to see if we can show that TU Delft is accessible and interested in all young people who have the right interests and the right intellectual baggage.”

After that you naturally want everyone here at TU Delft to have equal opportunities to have a career and that people are not left behind because of their backgrounds.
“We must be aware that we are biased. Everyone has their biases and we now have training for this. A recent study showed that career committees judge women harder than men if they do not express a clear vision about their subject. Often, neither the committee members nor the people who appear before the committee have any inkling that they have these types of biases. It helps to go through the rules in advance and to keep the discussions non-accusatory.”

Is the training that you mentioned obligatory?
“No. We do not want to work with obligatory training.”

‘We have a moral and business obligation to strive for diversity’

So many things are obligatory, so why not these?
“Because our colleagues are already very busy. The workload is a serious issue and if you make a course obligatory you do not foster much motivation in taking it. The question is then whether the training will work. It is better to manage on the basis on motivation and need.”

We tend to spend time with people who resemble us. People of the same gender, age, educational level and so on. Does this affinity bias, or the mini me bias, play a role at TU Delft?
“Yes of course. Everyone seeks out like-minded people. We do not live in a perfect world. This does not mean that TU Delft should not have a moral and business obligation to strive for diversity. Many of our processes need a high degree of creativity. Diverse teams are more creative than six copies of me.”

But how do we create diverse teams?
“The career committees are required to be diverse. They always have to have a woman, for example, so at least part of the diversity is covered. But do they always have people of African heritage? No, because we do not have enough people in this group. There are all sorts of other aspects to diversity that are hard for us and that are much less visible, such as the flow of first generation students to academic positions and the flow of people of diverse backgrounds to higher positions in the support services.”

Isn’t it time then to go full steam ahead?
“That would be good. On the other hand, I believe that we should avoid unreasonable expections or lip service. It is easy to set high and ambitious targets, but you need to be able to achieve them. The goals we have now set ourselves will already take a lot of effort. Take the goal of a more diverse inflow of bachelor students. It will really not be easy as society has already done a pre-selection. This means that change will take longer than you would like. I have no quick fixes.”

Read also this earlier interview by Delta with Rob Mudde about women in science

Editor Tomas van Dijk

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