So where are all the women?

8 March was International Women’s Day. Statistics reveal that there’s still an urgent need to focus on the position of women, also at TU Delft. The number of female professors still isn’t rising – so is it time for tougher quotas?

How does one write an article about the current disparity in professorial positions between men and women in Delft? As time went on, the idea of asking young female academics to describe their ambitions and the obstacles anticipated seemed less and less appropriate. I started by phoning a number of women who I presumed were doctoral students. They refused to take part, or preferred to stay anonymous. They didn’t want to offend their colleagues, said they hadn’t experienced any problems, or were afraid of being portrayed as ‘whinging women’.

I anticipated having more success at the Dewis symposium on Gender, Power & Politics, held on 12 February at the Science Centre. Perhaps women who attend Delft Women in Science (Dewis) events are more used to talking about this subject, I believed. Notwithstanding, they all declined politely, for the reasons stated above.

Perhaps it was due to a lack of persuasiveness on my part, nurtured by doubts that became even stronger during the lecture given by Naomi Ellemers at the Dewis symposium. A lecturer in social psychology for the organisation at Leiden University and a university professor at Utrecht University, she made a case for focusing on facts. Individuals’ feelings and personal experiences should not be given the upper hand, for they can be easily dismissed by men or women who deny there is a problem. Rather, she argued, the overwhelming evidence from hundreds of scientific studies should speak for itself. However, on her website, Athena’s Angels, she does call on women to share their experiences, as these can form the basis for more in-depth research.

What convinced me in particular to leave those young scientists in peace were the short presentations given by the nominees for the Dewis Awards, following Ellemer’s lecture. Four brilliant young women (they’d all graduated with distinction) told us briefly about their doctoral research. They were also asked to comment on what it’s like to be a woman at TU Delft. None of them had experienced any discrimination, they said. The fact that they were women made no difference at all.

A different reality

That’s great, but does this mean that all is well in academia? No it doesn’t, and this is actually borne out by statistics. The problem starts not during, but after, the undergraduate and doctoral phases. Take 2014: in that year, 25 per cent of students and 29 per of doctoral students were women. The higher up in the hierarchy, the fewer women there were. Women accounted for 24 per cent of assistant professors, 16 per cent of associate professors and 11 percent of professors.

This has been very slow to change in recent years, despite the university’s best efforts (see text box). Although percentages of assistant professors and associate professors have risen slightly in the last three years, the percentage of female professors has remained unchanged since 2012. Women do come up hard against a glass ceiling at some point in their careers, according to the Dutch Network of Women Professor’s Monitor of November 2015. Or, as Minister Jet Bussemaker put it earlier: “In the Netherlands, we have a problem with a pipeline that has a massive leak.”

In order to change this, we hardly need to hear stories from a few ambitious young women. Instead we need to find out how the world in which women live differs from that of their male colleagues – for they live in a different reality, according to Ellemers.

First, we should all stop denying that there’s a problem. Ellemers and the other speaker at the Dewis symposium, Paul Walton, professor of chemistry at the University of York, cited many examples of quantitative research showing that there is a great deal of implicit disadvantaging of women going on in academia. Women at universities earn less than men in the same jobs, female academics are awarded research grants less often, and institutions give male academics more starting capital than women. As their careers progress, women are overtaken by men and firmly left behind. At a certain point, many of them simply pack it in.

Implicit bias

Walton and Ellemers both reflected at length on the implicit bias faced by women. They described research studies showing that people – men and women – associate women with family life and men with careers, that people think of professors as being essentially male, and that they identify creativity with masculinity. All this despite the fact that men and women have been shown to have the same capacities and ambitions, say researchers. There is no difference between the female brain and the male brain. Cognitively and psychologically, in their behaviour and in their personalities, women are the same as men.

The existence of implicit bias against women is further revealed by a detailed analysis of academic letters of recommendation. Apparently, such letters written about women use different wording compared to letters recommending men. And indeed: letters about men often feature words such as ‘brilliant’ and ‘excellent’, whereas women are described as ‘reliable’ and ‘conscientious’. These are also fine qualities, but which would you employ?

Another research study has shown that people – women, in this case – perform worse when confronted with stereotypes of the group to which they belong. In an experiment, women were complimented on their looks, after which they turned out to perform worse in an intelligence test. It made no difference if the compliment had been genuine and if the women did or did not believe in stereotypes.

According to Walton and Ellemers, we should be alert to the different ways in which we view and treat men and women, for that’s how change starts.

Support for quotas

What about quotas – do they believe it’s a good idea? Universities do not use quotas at present, but all universities have target figures. The target set by TU Delft is the lowest of all: 15 per cent female professors by 2020, compared to 11.3 per cent in 2014. By contrast: TU Eindhoven aims to reach 20 per cent by 2020, compared to 8.6 per cent in 2014. Leiden University is aiming for 30 per cent. Walton said he believed that quotas might help accelerate the growth in the number of women. Ellemers also believes external pressure to be effective; take the example of Scandinavia.

TU Delft has quite a different take on the matter, however. Rector magnificus Karel Luyben, for example, is not in favour of quotas. “In my view, you can make the best prediction for the future by extrapolating exponentially [extending the line – Ed.]. That’s how we arrived at 15 per cent. I don’t believe in setting a target figure that is not achievable.”

Luyben does support the generally accepted principle that when the share of women reaches 30 per cent, a self-sustaining balance will emerge. “Then the culture will adapt to the people you’ve got.” But Luyben cannot give a conclusive answer to the question of how TU Delft should achieve this 30-per-cent female share. There’s also the problem that all universities want more women at the top. “We’re all trying to attract them.” The rector is considering doubling the frequency of the TU Delft Technology Fellowship from ten to twenty women every two years, but that still wouldn’t cut it.

“It’s a tough issue,” confirms Marja Elsinga, professor of housing institutions and governance at TU Delft, visiting professor at Tongji University in Shanghai and chair of Dewis. “I’m not that interested in target figures. Quality and focusing on diversity are more important. We have to put all our efforts into increasing the number of women, whatever it takes. This should be the concern of deans, department chairs, and central and faculty personnel departments. Take, for instance, tenure trackers who are pregnant. Make this possible without all those women having to find out for themselves how to arrange things.”

The chair of Dewis, Elsinga, also argues that there should be more awareness on the part of both men and women. More than that, Dewis has been trying to bring the issue to the attention of the deans for years. “If we regularly show all those involved that there are many implicit mechanisms disadvantaging women, then perhaps the academic world will also succeed in creating equal opportunities for everyone. With greater diversity, more women and more people from different cultural backgrounds, we will simply become a better university.” And that, too, is backed up by the research.


The TU Delft Technology Fellowships were established by the Executive Board in order to get more women to the top in academia. The Executive Board finances two-thirds of each five-year appointment, the faculty covers the remainder. The first fellowship round was held in 2011, the second in 2013. Recruitment is presently taking place for the third round. There is significant interest this time, with 350 women applying. The goal, as always, is to get ten talented academics to Delft. They will be appointed as professors, associate professors and assistant professors.

Editor Redactie

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