Science - December 11, 2008


Women are still in the minority when it comes to top jobs at Wageningen UR. This is unlikely to change as long as we continue to think that the situation will improve of its own accord, according to a report by a Wageningen working group led by Martin Scholten. Research on the causes of the gender imbalance at the top of Dutch academia points to unconscious social processes in male-dominated appointments committees, and the myth of excellence.

In Wageningen 11 percent of professors are women.
‘Wageningen UR has a thick glass ceiling’, says Dr. Martin Scholten, director of the Animal Sciences Group, summarizing the report produced by the working group at the request of the Executive Board. ‘Up to scale 11 here, 46 percent of the employees are women, but above that things are different. From scale 12 on, only 18 percent are women. At the DLO research institutes the cut off is even more extreme.’ Scale 12 and above includes positions such as assistant professor (uhd) at the university, senior researcher at DLO and management positions.

The low numbers of women at higher levels mean large loss of potential, and this is the most frequently heard reason for the need to adjust the imbalance. Others say that diversity itself should be an objective in science: the more dissident thinkers you get together, the greater the chance of new ideas emerging.

The average representation of female professors in the Netherlands has fluctuated around 10 percent for many years. In 2007, 11 percent of the professors in Wageningen were women. In the lower scales there is greater equality of the sexes. Among the PhD candidates, 49 percent are women. Whereas in most other universities equal numbers are found up to and including the level of assistant professors, in Wageningen the proportion of women among the lecturers is just 26 percent and among assistant professors the figure is only 14 percent.

Scholten’s working group has made a number of recommendations. The most important is the introduction of a target of 30 percent women for new appointments in scale 12 and above, implying that a conscious search for talented women at that level will start. One way of going about this would be to include more women in management teams and appointments committees. Another is to stimulate talented women by offering career coaching and master classes. The working group also recommends regular monitoring, as is done for absenteeism. Scholten: ‘If we don’t reach the 30 percent target for new appointments, we’ll have to seriously start questioning whether we really are gender neutral.’
Responding to the working group’s recommendations, Rector Professor Martin Kropff comments: ‘The Executive Board welcomes Scholte’s report, but we don’t intend to work with a target. Our criterion remains quality when it comes to filling the top jobs. Going for more women cannot be placed above quality.’ Kropff says there are sufficient talented female employees. ‘We have just created seven new professors, four of whom are women. They were not appointed because they are women, but because they are good. It’s good that we have these role models.’ Kropff agrees that it is important that there are more women on appointments committees and adds that this is already being implemented.

Professor of Meteorology Bert Holtslag, who is also a member of the working group, says that his chair group consists mainly of men. ‘This is certainly not because of a conscious policy. We’d really like more women in the group, but female scientists are difficult to find in our subject area. And when it comes to filling vacancies for professors, my experience is that unfortunately there are few female applicants.’ Either the women aren’t there or they aren’t willing. Marieke van den Brink is doing a PhD, ‘Behind the scenes of sciences. Gender in recruitment and selection of professors in the Netherlands’ at the Radboud University in Nijmegen. She is familiar with these reasons given for the lack of female professors in the Netherlands. But the figures from her study indicate that that there are enough female assistant professors who would like to become professor. Van den Brink examined 848 appointments dossiers and concludes that women miss the boat as a result of the way in which candidates are sought and appointed.

‘Clone behaviour’ plays a big role in the process. Members of appointments committees choose someone who resembles them – generally a man. ‘A male candidate is easier for a man to identify with.’ It’s not done out of malice, but as a result of a lack of awareness of social processes, Van den Brink thinks. She is convinced that giving the members of appointments committees training in professional recruitment and selection would help. As would having more women on appointments committees.

But it’s still not enough. To find more female professors, the job description needs to be broadened. Van den Brink: ‘The mould into which a professor has to fit is extremely narrow. Added to that, there’s a myth of excellence. Candidates have to be at the top of their research field, and they have to be excellent managers and excellent teachers: a tall order. If women candidates are rejected, the argument often put forward is that they lack one of the requirements. If a man performs less well on one aspect, the reaction is usually that he’ll pick it up on the job. These are unconscious processes, but it does mean that there is more confidence in men, and that women have to be convincing on all fronts.’

A quick survey in Wageningen confirms that a number of prominent researchers – men and women – recognize this scenario. In their view, a certain kind of usually conservative white male, working in a single scientific discipline, is more likely to be regarded as promising. One of the researchers, who prefers to remain anonymous, says: ‘The bottom line is that you are only likely to be considered for promotion if you meet the mark in the committee’s eyes, but if you don’t, they’ll cite the official criteria in your rejection notice.’ Kropff responds: ‘I think scientists are primarily concerned with quality. We make sure that the appointments committees are composed of both men and women, so that the balance is achieved here and so that men and women have equal opportunities.’

Scholten counters: ‘The working group also discussed whether this image exists in people’s heads, but it’s subjective. I can’t confirm it, but I don’t reject it either. That’s why we made the firm recommendation that there must be a good gender balance in the committees. Then we can monitor and check.’ But to give members of appointments committees training, as Van den Brink suggests, is going too far, says Scholten. ‘We are concentrating on the managers who we expect will take the selection of talented women seriously, because they are the ones who will take responsibility for their decisions.’