News - October 11, 2012

Wageningen prof is still male

The proportion of women professors at Wageningen is still less than one in ten. There is a taboo on using positive discrimination to change this, but other approaches do not seem to be working. 'It is possible at other universities, so why not here?' By Linda van der Nat and Rob Ramaker

'This is getting us nowhere!' It was with this cry of frustration that 30 Wageningen scientists responded in an open letter to the news that the proportion of women professors at Wageningen is still lagging behind. According to the female professor monitor that comes out on 11 October, only 9 percent of Wageningen's full professors are women. The national average is 15 percent. And this year, if nothing is done, Wageningen UR will even bring up the rear nationally, as several women professors are retiring.
One thing is clear: the underrepresentation of women in high positions is not for want of talent but because of what is called a 'leaky pipeline'.
Sixty two percent of Wageningen students are women. Among the PhD students 56 percent are women. But as you climb the academic ladder, the proportion of women drops with every rung. The biggest bottleneck occurs between the position of assistant professor and associate professor, where the proportion of women suddenly halves. The number of female candidates for a full chair is therefore limited.
Professor of Meteorology Bert Holtslag notices this in application procedures. 'I have been on several appointment committees for professors, ' he says. 'And every time we had few women candidates.' Other Wageningen professors confirm this picture.
Wageningen is not the only university that struggles to correct the skewed gender balance at the top of the scientific tree. All the Dutch universities are below the European average. But while the emancipation process stagnates in Wageningen, other Dutch universities are tacking the issue proactively.
The Radboud University in Nijmegen is one such university. There, according to VSNU figures, the number of women professors has gone up over the past five years from 15 to 21 percent. And the number of associate professors went up from 19 to 27 percent. The secret? 'Hard agreements,' says Anton Franken, vice chair of the Nijmegen executive board and former Wageningen researcher. 'On the board we decided that one in four of all the professors appointed must be a woman. And we try to stick to that as closely as possible.'
In 2007, after a stiff talking-to by the then board chair, the Radboud university pulled out all the stops on gender policy. Franken: 'An action plan was drawn up, there were grants and financial incentives for talented women researchers, lecturers and postdocs.' Franken is also proud of a mentoring and coaching programme which linked women with experienced researchers or deans.
According to Franken, the response in the university has been largely positive. 'The only signal I am getting is that people think men should get these opportunities too. They are right about that, but right now we have got some catching up to do. It is not men's turn just yet.'
Target figures
In 2008 in Wageningen a sounding board committee pondered ways of increasing diversity in the university. One of the committee's proposals was to establish a target of 30 percent for promotions of women and for the make-up of appointments and applications committees. Martin Scholten, now director of the Animal Sciences Group, chaired this committee and noticed that the establishment of target figures raised particular resistance. 'It is associated with positive discrimination: something the executive board is strongly opposed to.' But Scholten sees the recommendation as intended to streamline promotions between scales better. 'Once 30 percent of assistant professors are women, the proportion getting promoted beyond that ought to be just as big. That has nothing to do with positive discrimination.'
Target figures are indeed undesirable, says rector Martin Kropff. 'You have to avoid a situation in which you make strange decisions about appointments just because you've got targets. Quality must come first.' Nevertheless, he emphasizes that Wageningen really does want more women at the top. After the Scholten report, three steps were taken, Kropff explains. 'On every appointment committee we now have two women and the committees actively look for women candidates.' He also believes a lot of attention is paid to female talent within the tenure track programme and when a personal professor is appointed.
But these are cosmetic measures, says Ellis Hoffland, herself a personal professor and one of the initiators of the open letter. Personal professors do not have their own chair groups and therefore wield less influence. She also claims that tenure track suffers from a glass ceiling. Kropff has indicated that he would be happy to enter into a discussion about this with Hoffland and other critics.
Specific attention
Fortunately not all the Wageningen statistics tell a tale of gloom and doom. For instance, the proportion of women assistant professors has grown in the past five years from 25 to 31 percent, while the proportion of associate professors has grown from 14 to 16 percent. Scholten sees some glimmers of light too. 'The glass ceiling is already one salary scale higher. And women are well represented in talent programmes such as tenure track at the university and the Talent Development Programme at DLO.'The number of women being appointed to line management posts in DLO is rising too.
However, Scholten still does not think Wageningen is following through on the policy enough. 'Our recommendations may have been adopted but they are not really anchored in staffing policy.' Nor is Hoffland very impressed by the level of proactivity or the policy at Wageningen. 'Nothing has been done with the Scholten report,' she says, 'and we've got enough reports and analyses by now anyway. It is now time for action on a strong policy. The existing policy is really inadequate.' What it takes, says Hoffman, is guts. 'It is possible at other universities, so why not here?'
The leaky pipeline
Promotions of women to higher academic posts are at a standstill, whereas the influx of talented women has grown considerably in recent years. What is the reason for this 'leaky pipeline'? In her 2011 report Professorial appointments in the Netherlands (m/f), Marieke van den Brink focuses on appointment procedures, which do not seem always to be transparent. Talent scouting, for example, usually goes on within the network of the (male) committee members. Committees do not stick to protocols and they are not accountable enough. Lastly, strict appointment criteria make for subjective assessments. Since hardly any candidates can meet all the requirements (anyone who did would be a walking miracle), individual qualities are weighed up against each other. In this process there is scope for implicit value judgments (and prejudices) about the competence and role of women.
How women in top positions are seen, even in 2012, was revealed by a Yale publication in PNAS last August. Researchers got professors to give feedback on the same application letter with either a woman's name or a man's at the top of it. On average they assessed the 'female' applicants as less competent and less interesting, and they gave them a starting salary that was thousands of dollars lower. This skewed perspective was shared, incidentally, by male and female professors alike.