‘Women with a fellowship are being called token women’

Prof. Marja Elsinga has resigned as chair of the TU women’s network DEWIS. She looks back with Rob Mudde at her time there. A talk about role models and token women.

Marja Elsinga en Rob Mudde. (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

What were your plans when you became chair of DEWIS?
Marja Elsinga: “I didn’t actually intend to become chair. The previous chair resigned and her successor became ill. So I just took over the role five years ago, and they said I did a nice job.”

Rob Mudde: “What attracts you about DEWIS? This question is not meant to be silly.”

Elsinga: “DEWIS organises training courses about how women can make a career within our university as university lecturer or professor. They taught that the situation is different for women and men. This concerns small, subtle things.”

Mudde: “Do you have any examples? It seems fascinating to me.”

Elsinga: “It concerns removing the idea that a professorship is out of reach for you. I had the feeling of having to be a five-legged sheep, but with four and a half or four and some self-confidence it was apparently also possible. One eyeopener was that it’s not just about how well you’ve done, it’s also how you present yourself and how you act in the university networks. This seems to be more natural on average for men than for women. The course taught me that women share this discomfort and how you can cope with it.” 

Mudde: “There are tons of role models for boys.”

Elsinga: “Men have another way of attending meetings, they have to let you know they are there. If a woman says something, men tend to simply repeat their point. You need to realise as a woman that it can be done and that you have peers. That makes a big difference. I have been a professor for ten years, and often young women tell me that I am a role model for them… Isn’t that great?”

How should the TU ensure that today’s female students will become the professors of the near future?
Mudde: “Ensure that you have enough role models and that there is a natural path to professorship for them. Let’s take it a step further: in some parts of our education, we are biased towards boys by the examples that we present. Is shooting off rockets the smartest example to use? The education that primarily attracts boys may have gained a masculine framing. Can I fix that by tomorrow? No, but it starts with understanding that we must pay attention to that aspect.”

TU Eindhoven is currently only recruiting women. Only if none have been found after six months will the university open a vacancy to men. What does your group think of that?
Mudde: “I think it’s a great PR stunt. But you could do it without making such a noise about it. You could say that you want a better balance in all sorts of aspects and agree to strive for 33 percent women in all positions. You want a mix. We are trying as a university to look at it that way.”

Elsinga: “But TU Delft is the least ambitious in its targets…”

Mudde: “Yes, but that is because we mean it. In the monitor of the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH), we are the only one that matches the targets well.”

‘Do you find the target to be important or the result?’

In that monitor, the target for the TU for the number of women professors in 2020 was 15 percent. In 2017 the percentage was 14.6, the lowest target.
Mudde: “Do you find the target to be important or the result? I want targets that we can achieve. You can exclaim that in three years’ time half of our professors will be women, but that is nonsense. That is not the point. I want us to pay attention to it and do something like the Delft Technology Fellowship. And then every year have so many women appointed. Then you are taking steps. That is more important than shouting.”

Elsinga: “I agree with you there. You need to be critical about what you are doing. The fellowships are now granted annually instead of once every two years, but there is less support from the faculty for the financial foundation. I would like to argue for not saying it is a success too easily. There is criticism that internal candidates are being disadvantaged. Women with a fellowship are already being called token women.”

Mudde: “That is certainly annoying. These women are above the Delft quality standard, otherwise they would not get in. You can also say that we can bind good people to us in this way and that they happen to be women.”

‘Inclusivity is at least as important as diversity’

Elsinga: “How do you communicate about this? Is the department that the woman joins proud of this? Or not? It doesn’t always go well. It is important to think about that as a university, because inclusivity is at least as important as diversity.”

Mudde: “I entirely agree.”

Elsinga: “If we make a lot of effort to recruit them, we must also ensure that they stay. We could improve there. We need to have an exit interview with them.”

Mudde: “We don’t do that automatically with anyone, and I would like to know that from everyone: why are you leaving? If it is because you have found a better place elsewhere: fantastic. If it’s because something is troubling you here, then I want to know what that is.”

Recently, the Volkskrant newspaper wrote that the gap in income between young women and men has grown. Is that true of the TU as well?
Mudde: “I don’t know.”

Wouldn’t you like to have that information?
Elsinga: “We at DEWIS asked that question once. It was investigated, and I think that the conclusion then was that the numbers were too small for statistically reliable answers.”

Mudde: “If the system is working correctly, you are rewarded for the work that you do. That is the measure of things. I would find it a sorry state if we ascertained that there were divisions by gender or anything else.”

Elsinga: “When DEWIS asked the question of whether female doctoral students were awarded cum laude less often, the analyses were not done.”

Mudde: “Oh yes, there are fewer cum laudes awarded to female doctoral students. That is a point of attention. How is that possible? It’s not that easy to find out.”

Elsinga: “They have fewer cum laudes, and it seems that of the women candidates proposed for a cum laude, 100 percent receive cum laude. But only 66 percent of the male candidates receive a cum laude. Why?”

What is the problem?
Elsinga: “That a promotor is more likely to propose a man. Women have to get over a higher threshold before they are proposed.”

Mudde: “Currently, I only have the figures, I find it difficult to interpret them. I want to share this with all supervisors and promotors and then ask the question out loud of how is this possible? No one has an answer. That is not so bad in my opinion, as long as the understanding penetrates that there is apparently a bias here.”

In our previous interview with Marja, she said that DEWIS heard #metoo-stories, but that women don’t do anything about it because they are afraid of damaging their careers. What should the TU do about this?
Mudde: “We have employed an ombudsman for the personnel. You must be able to talk about it sooner and approach each other about behaviour, but you must also be willing to accept criticism yourself. Ombudsmen must be able to do their work and be suitably trained.”

But what if women don’t want to take it further because they only have a temporary appointment? 
Mudde: “I consider it part of our responsibility to create a sufficiently safe environment. It is already difficult enough to talk about it. A safe environment can only be created with openness and transparency towards each other. You must be able to trust one another, even if you are saying difficult things.”

Elsinga: “And in the meantime we are in a competitive environment with people who have temporary contracts and are dependent on references for the continuation of their career. It is a system in which people are vulnerable. The only thing you can do is offer the best possible infrastructure, because the system itself creates vulnerable positions for many young people.”

Mudde: “I cannot envisage a possibility to resolve that. As a university, we want to matter, and that automatically makes you more competitive. That is not so bad in itself. You have to get rid of the excesses. It primarily concerns integrity.”

Elsinga: “TU Delft must listen, for example, using exit interviews.”

Mudde: “That is necessary within a department. Department heads must listen, that’s where it starts.”

What is your reflection on the uproar after it became known that Marc de Vries was behind the Nashville declaration?
Mudde: “That example shows that diversity and inclusion are difficult topics. And that it is not that simple to determine how much room there is for differing opinions.”

Elsinga: “My conclusion is that TU Delft was not ready for it at that time. You would need to have a script, and let the TU-community know first of all that we are diverse and inclusive. Then you have to report that it is a complex issue and that you are going to deal with it.”

‘I may not insult you, but you must also not be too easily insulted’

Mudde: “I mean that we have done the former. I have conveyed from the beginning that everyone is welcome here. Even the more extreme thoughts, if I can call them that. I may not insult you, but you must also not be too easily insulted because then you dig your own grave. I do not like this example but it is one that you can learn from. This will happen more often if you are diverse. If you do not want that, you must definitely not be diverse.”

It is a case that you can learn from, you say. What did you learn from it?
Mudde: “The most important lesson is that some people react fiercely and faster from emotion – not making any accusations – and want to take steps quickly. I can understand that. I think it’s great when people sit here at the table fuming. You can even speak to me in a somewhat accusatory tone, but before I do something, I want to hear both sides so I know how it all fits together.”

Would you like to add anything in conclusion?
Mudde: “Thank you for all the effort. If an organisation doesn’t have any people who give the management a kick in the shins once in a while, it’s not doing well. It hurts briefly, but that is part of my function.”

Elsinga: “DEWIS contributed ideas about the design of a diversity office that the university will soon announce, and a diversity and inclusion award. It would be great if the awarding ceremony would take pride of place in an academic event. My message is that we must try to make diversity and inclusivity attractive primarily. We are competitive so let us compete for coming up with the best idea for coping well with diversity and inclusivity.”

News editor Connie van Uffelen

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