Organisation - October 8, 2015

Column: 'Women are cleaners'

I think I am racist. Or misogynistic. When I first saw our new female African scientist walking along the corridor, for a second I honestly thought: hey, that’s the new cleaner. Apparently my brain thinks that women who look African are probably cleaners. I wish it weren’t true, but I did think it. Sorry.

Actually I’m behaving the same as NWO. In giving research funding to talented researchers, this Dutch Organization for Scientific Research gives men preferential treatment. Men are more likely to be awarded a grant, even though the proposals from women are assessed as being equally good. Abhorrent. However, I do not think that NWO hates women. It is just that the organization unconsciously treats specific groups differently, just as I do.

And, really, our discrimination is very understandable. Left unfiltered, the world is one big jumble of information. People who do not pre-sort soon find themselves on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It just so happens that in my lifetime I have seen more African cleaners than African scientists, and NWO just happens to have seen more successful male scientists than female ones. It is logical that we discriminate. Preconceived opinions are only a sign of intuitive pattern recognition. So in my view we should come up with a friendlier word for unconscious discrimination. Not to approve of it but to make it something we can openly discuss.

I bet that almost everyone implicitly excludes people, but who admits to breaching the Dutch Constitution in their thoughts? What right-minded man calls himself a racist or misogynist or carries on listening to others once that label has been applied to him? A milder name for discrimination offers a way forward. Because as long as discriminatory thoughts meander about only in people’s heads, no one can ever talk them out of existence.

Stijn van Gils (28) is doing doctoral research on ecosystem services in agriculture. Every month he describes his struggles with the scientific system