Where are all the women?

A father and son are in a car crash. The father is killed instantly and the son is brought to the hospital. The surgeon walks into the operating theatre to operate on the boy, and the surgeon says: ‘I cannot operate on him, he’s my son!’ Strange - how can this be explained?

Although the solution is simple, a large portion of the population cannot come up with the right answer. Prejudices about men and women are evidently so deeply rooted that no one seems to realize that the surgeon could be a women and is the boy’s mother. This immediately touches a nerve; without realising it, we unintentionally judge men and women differently.

Nothing to be proud of

This problem is also recognisable at universities; where are the women? As an undergraduate, this is not a problem: half of the student body is female. But from that point onward, it all goes downhill: the average number of women who can call themselves professor is a meagre 15 per cent. The RUG fairs better than most universities, and in 2014, 20 per cent of professors were women. ‘But neither figure is anything to be proud about’, feels Ritsert Jansen, the dean of the talent development programme at the RUG.

Talent is so important, and by not letting women participate, a large portion of that talent disappears ‘while there are also Einsteins among them’, says Jansen. Furthermore, working in a mixed team brings other positive changes along with it. Women look at problems differently and come up with other innovative solutions and ideas. Ingrid Molema, president of the Rosalind Franklin Fellowship committee, has seen this in her own team, which is made up of women and men equally: ‘A different atmosphere or team spirit prevails there.’

Everyone is in agreement that there should be more female scholars, and that men and women do their work equally well. That being said, there are still many examples of the disproportional number of men over women at universities. Flyers, books and brochures about science almost always depict men, and in letters to professors, there is standard use of the masculine title Mr. This month, an NWO investigation was carried out into the VENI requests. In the assessment of the candidates of these requests, it was found that women were possibly being disadvantaged.

Although there is criticism of the statistics and the question remains whether women are really underrepresented, it is clear that when applying for financing, women are already severely in the minority. ‘And that is what it is about’, says Jansen. Evidently, something goes wrong in the build up to a Ph.D. candidate submitting a VENI request, resulting in the loss of women. ‘That is not really the NWO’s problem, but something which is at play in the whole academic system’, Dorina Buda thinks. Dorina received a VENI this year for her research into tourism in conflict areas.

He or she

The researchers call out the use of language as a possible explanation for the differences between men and women. ‘In the documents for candidates and members of the assessment committee, the masculine form is often used instead of he/she’, says Naomi Ellemers, one of the researchers. This caught Dorina Buda’s eye as well: ‘On a previous application in 2013, I had to expound on man-years of research’, says Buda. She was creative with it and filled in what her woman-years of research had been instead.

There are also words with which we unconsciously associate a man or woman, ‘like excellent, ambitious or adventurous’, says Ellemers. These words are words which we unconsciously associate with a man. The committee is therefore more likely to choose a man. However, Jan Kok, a molecular genetics professor who was on the assessment committee in 2011 and 2012, does not believe that he allowed himself to be influenced by language use: ‘If I see ‘researcher’ on the page, a man comes to mind just as much as a woman.’

‘Tell us what is holding you back or why you want to stop’
But is that really the case? The existence of your own volition is nonsense, says modern history professor Mineke Bosch. This is also true for judgments about others, and for judgments about yourself. ‘If women see a job vacancy which asks for five requirements but they only have three of those, then they do not apply because they think they won’t get the job. Men, on the other hand, do apply’, says Petra Rudolf, director of the Graduate School of Science.

Via a diversity policy, the RUG is trying to make people aware of these differences. By recognising the problem, it can be addressed. It is not only awareness, which is important, but also the acknowledgement that there is a lack of women in the sciences.


In order to address the problem, concrete figures are needed. The annual report provides a little information about the number of women at the RUG, but more is needed. ‘We also have to have information about how quickly people finish their studies or Ph.D., which prizes or subsidies they have received and how many of these people are female’, Bosch thinks. Jansen goes a step further: ‘We should also move towards asking them to ‘tell us’. Tell us what is holding you back or why you want to stop.’

One person who can talk about that is Elise Langenkamp. She was a Ph.D. candidate at the RUG in 2010 and then left for Sweden, where she worked for four years as a postdoc. ‘I liked that you were always busy trying to solve a puzzle’, she says. Yet despite that, she stopped working as a postdoc and now works in the business sector in Sweden. ‘In the end, I did not see a future in the sciences’, she tells. It was, among other things, due to the lack of stability and certainty, but mostly due to the competition, which made opportunities hard to come by.

‘I have also felt like the sort of ‘token woman’ before’
Good guidance from the RUG could help. ‘In the past, the RUG had a mentor programme, but as far as I know, it does not exist anymore’, says Rudolf. A mentor would give feedback, answer questions, makes you familiar with the field of work and trains the mentee. It would be a good thing if this programme was reinstated’, says Rudolf.

Gender of qualities

The RUG is trying to increase the share of female scholars through the Rosalind Franklin Fellowship (RFF) programme. Through the RFF, talented female scholars can obtain a tenure track position and can eventually become a professor. This won’t solve the shortage, but it does contribute towards gaining more female scholars. Molema does not agree with the criticism that the RFF favours women. ‘While there is an undesirable and unnecessary difference being made between men and women, a programme like this is needed.’

Nevertheless, there are also female scholars who do not find a programme especially for women appealing; they get the feeling that they are chosen solely because they are women. Molema dismisses that argument: ‘It is about quality.’ But the fact that women sometimes wonder whether they have been chosen based on their gender or their qualities is something she understands. ‘I have also felt like the sort of ‘token woman’ before.’

There is harsher criticism of the upcoming bursary experiment, in which candidates pursue their Ph.D. without having a position at the university. Langenkamp experienced a similar situation in Sweden. ‘The majority of postdocs in Sweden do not have a tenure position and they therefore do not have the right to a pension or parental leave’, says Langenkamp. It is frustrating, as the women are often around the age at which they want to start a family, something which plays less of a role for men. ‘They take two weeks off and then get back to work’, says Langenkamp. Women that take part in the fellowship experiment are in the same sort of situation, which can present a limitation.

The shortage of women persists for now. ‘Complicated illnesses cannot be cured with one pill, and that is also true for this problem’, says Molema. For her, the solution lies in a combination of changes by creating awareness, but also by getting rid of stereotypes, for example: ‘After all, there are not only grey, dusty, male professors at the university’, says Molema. She remains optimistic: ‘If I take my pension in 18 years, then it will be better.’