Organisation - November 17, 2011

Typical girls' subjects

Wageningen is becoming a real 'girls' town. Once a bastion of male agriculture students, Wageningen University now has 117 women to every 100 men. This has changed the university, say the teachers. 'Girls are more motivated, more hardworking and perhaps smarter than boys.'

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The rise of women is perhaps most obvious in the Animal Sciences programme. 'In the early nineteen nineties Animal Sciences was almost exclusively a male preserve', says assistant professor Henk Parmentier. This was especially true of the really agriculture-oriented programmes such as Livestock and Plant Sciences. 'There you found almost only boys from farming families', recalls Parmentier. 'Ladies would be stared at as if they came from another planet.'
That changed when the programme began to lay more emphasis on pets and less on farm animals. Animal welfare became important too. In the shrinking Dutch agricultural sector, farmers were not sending their sons to Wageningen so much anymore. In their place came girls from the big cities. And now there is one boy to every four girls, says Parmentier. 'In the old days girls had to listen to macho stories about how many metres of beer the men students had drunk at the weekend. They don't have to do that anymore. Now they have secured a place of their own, with their own stories.'
From straggler to frontrunner
The trend for increasing numbers of women to find their way into higher education is society-wide. Women began to catch up back in the nineteen sixties, but the process has accelerated in the last 20 years. And now the balance seems to be tipping the other way. The predominance of women in primary education and a 'feminine' education system (with projects and group work) now put girls at an advantage, according to many experts.
But in the case of Wageningen, this is not the whole story. In the same period, new degree programmes and course tracks were developed, which met society's needs better.  Parmentier: 'It may sound a bit dismissive, but 'softer' disciplines were added, and particularly in the 'hard core' agriculture programmes.'
Result: the 'feminization' of Wageningen is stronger than the national trend. Much stronger in fact. Figures from the Central Bureau for Statistics show that the proportion of female students in scientific education between 1995 and 2010 grew by 5 percent, from 46 to 51. In the same period, the number of women in Wageningen grew by 12 percent, from 44 to 56 percent. So Wageningen went from bringing up the rear to leading the field, when it comes to the rise of girls in scientific higher education.
All men together
The influx of women students has made a big difference to teaching, says Cees van Woerkum. This professor of Communication Strategies retired at the end of October after 40 years of teaching. 'When I first came to work in Wageningen there really was an atmosphere of 'all men together'. The conversation was about football and cycling. Forty years later both my associate professors are women and so are most of my students.'
Not only did the nineteen seventies bring more women to Wageningen, but their role changed too, recalls Van Woerkum. At that time, students began to take their education into their own hands, in imitation of the student protests in Amsterdam and Nijmegen. 'Professors were sent away, students decided the content of the classes themselves and gave lectures.' Women took the lead in this, says Van Woerkum. 'Extraordinarily strong women, real pioneers. They were especially involved in shaping the content and atmosphere in the education programme.' In terms of content, it was not always up to scratch, admittedly - 'those students had no presentations technique at all, I could do that much better myself' - but it did make the classes much more interactive. 'The women students were more committed and felt more responsible. They really took it very seriously indeed.'
Girls are still more committed to their study programmes, thinks Parmentier. 'Girls are more serious, they put more time into their studies.' According to Van Woerkum, girls like a stimulating atmosphere to work in. 'They want to deliver quality, and to get all they can out of the experience. They are not as strident as they used to be - studying has become more a matter of course for them too now.  But somehow I can't help feeling that girls are generally more motivated, more hardworking and perhaps also smarter than boys. Women are at university to get their degree, to achieve something. Boys study because it will get them a piece of paper that will help them launch a career. They are less diligent and less sharp than girls.'
Flick of a switch  
A new social problem then? There is not really a problem, according to Parmentier. He does acknowledge the motivation gap, but he thinks that is temporary: 'Certainly for the first three years of their studies, boys are more preoccupied with other things: parties, having fun. At the Master's stage these differences disappear. Then men and women are equally motivated. It's as though someone flicked a switch.' According to Van Woerkum, part of the reason for this is pressure from the girls. 'Men have learned to see that attention to personal matters and the quality of relationships can be very rewarding. They pay more attention than they used to, to creating a positive atmosphere in the group and to supporting each other.'
According to the student advisor Hermien Miltenburg, physical factors play a role too. 'During the student years not all the connections in a boy's brain are fully developed yet. Their communication, language and social skills are not yet as well-developed as those of girls. This makes it hard for boys to keep up, both at university and at secondary school. Girls are disciplined whereas boys just sit back and take it all in. By the time they are 24 or 25, those connections are there.'
Miltenburg will shortly be organizing a discussion day for deans in Leeuwarden on the subject of study-related differences between boys and girls. 'It's great that the glass ceiling for girls at university has disappeared, but boys shouldn't lag behind. In today's society, students need to be able to apply an interdisciplinary approach; and you don't solve problems with your intellect alone. It is a good thing that education is tuning in to this. The question is, how can we prepare boys for this? We hope to find a solution together with the deans from secondary schools.'
More gents' than ladies'
Nowhere is the changing sex ratio at the university better illustrated than in the toilet facilities in the Mathematics building. The nineteen fifties building boasts twelve gents' toilets to six ladies'. 'That means queues in the breaks', says Janny Snijders, caretaker at the building on the Dreijenlaan. 'There used to be loads of men and very few women here. Now it's roughly fifty-fifty.' But she does not get many complaints. 'The women are just used to having to wait sometimes. And it won't be long now before we move to Orion.'
A boy among the girls
Who? Sander Biesbroek

What? Fifth year student of Nutrition and Health
'Nutrition and Health is a programme that is totally dominated by women, there is no doubt about that. In my year we started with 6 men as opposed to 110 women. And it definitely isn't a myth that women talk a lot; certainly at the Bachelor's stage, there were a couple of teachers who had great difficulty getting silence in the room. There is a lot more to the programme than just nutrition and diets. I myself am primarily interested in the health aspects of the programme. That this is linked with nutrition in Wageningen only makes it more interesting. The preponderance of women has its advantages. During lectures you learn things about women that, as a man, you would otherwise never have known. It might be a bit noisy, but it is very sociable. And the proof? After six months I got to know my girlfriend, who I married last week.'   RH
Girl among the boys
Who? Marleen Hermelink

What? First year Agrotechnology
'Of course everyone asked during the AID why I was doing a 'men's degree'. The answer was always the same: the programme interests me because of its combination of technology and nature. And I had no intention of being put off by a bunch of 'farmers'.
In my year there were 3 girls among 22 boys, so I am not alone, fortunately. So if the guys start talking about tractors or cows again, at least the three of us can launch a counter-offensive. This helps us to stand our ground amid all the crude jokes and comments. And of course, there is one obvious advantage to a high percentage of men: you have a lot of choice. We also like to spend a fun evening with the girls from Heeren XVII [the agrotechnology study association]. At least then you get a nice compliment if you're wearing something nice and new.'

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