Science - April 21, 2005

Debate/ Women role models

Women who want to pursue a career in science should study in Wageningen. Compared to at other universities, women in Wageningen have the highest chance of becoming a professor and they have to ‘share’ a female professor with only 212 other female students. This is the conclusion presented by researchers of the Centre for Gender and Diversity at Maastricht University in their alternative guide to higher education. Is having a woman at the top really a stimulus for the scientific careers of women?

Ir Birgit Boogaard, trainee research assistant in animal production systems, has a female professor:
‘Akke van der Zijpp is a role model as far as science goes, but that’s true for every professor. They demonstrate what you can achieve in a scientific field. I find the professor’s personality to be more important than his or her gender. A personal approach will stimulate research assistants more, but both men and women can have this. Maybe some women feel less comfortable with a male professor, just as with male driving instructors, but this depends on the individual.
I think of my mother more as a role model, because she was able to attain a high management position, thanks in part to my father’s encouragement. The fact that there are fewer women in higher scientific positions is possibly due to the combination of work and family. I personally don’t have any immediate plans to become a professor. I am 26 and have only been working as a research assistant for a year. I’m pleased that I even knew that I wanted to do this.’

Prof. Ariena van Bruggen, professor in biological farming systems:
‘The high rank attributed to Wageningen surprises me. In departmental meetings I am only one of two women among a group of men. I do think that I have an exemplary role. I also try to help students present themselves in a self-assured way.
I have never felt discrimated against. Maybe this is because I worked my way up to professor in America. The percentage of women is higher there than here, and you climb up more automatically. I was a professor there for 13 years before coming to Wageningen. Maybe my career path encourages students to pursue a career in the US.
I think that it is more difficult to climb up here anyway because of internal selection procedures. If more women hold higher positions it is easier to network. I now have a number of good contacts with women professors at other universities in the EU. The fact that we are all women is not the most important factor, but it helps, because we understand each other better.’

Dr Margreet van der Burg, co-author of a book on women in Wageningen:
‘I think that it would be good if we talked more about the importance of role models. The twenty percent foreign students would also benefit if they had more role models of their own to look up to.’

Yvonne de Hilster

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