Women leadership in academia: “But professor, you are not a man?!”
For decades, the percentage of male and female-students is about the same – one will be surprised to find that in the universities top-ranks, women are highly underrepresented. Only 17% of the professors in universities is female, and in the KNAW (Royal Dutch academy of science) they hold 19% of the membership. In the world-ranking of women in science that leaves us far behind other EU-countries, somewhere in the range of Estonia. The foresight is that the fifty-fifty rate of female professors will only be met by 2055. That is when todays’ TopFem-generation will already be retired.
Why is this going so slow? What extra obstacles are there for women in academia? For one of the chapters in my research I interviewed six leading women in academia, from different sectors and ages; four professors, and two doctors working outside the university. In this short summary for TopFem I singled out three aspects that I found interesting and useful for everyone.
One professor told me how important a mentor is in academia. She had started her PhD-thesis together with a friend, herself with a female professor and her friend with a male. Now, she is a professor herself. Her friend only just finished her doctorate, while working on a high-school as a teacher. “And I wasn’t better or anything. But apart from being my promotor, my PhD-supervisor was also mentoring me. In other words: how to work towards an academic career, not only supervising my thesis. The male-professor wasn’t interested in mentoring a female. And that made the difference in the end.”
We know people hire people that are like them: a male search-committee (hires academic staff) will be much more likely to choose another male. And with a lot less women at the universities, most members of these search-committees will be men. And it is not only that. Universities and the KNAW are very hierarchical: the ‘academic pecking order’, as one doctor called it, was a set-back for her. “In the meetings with my co-directors, I was their equal. But decision-making didn’t happen there. That was when the men were smoking cigars, so to say.”
What comes to your mind when you picture a professor? If I’m honest: for me, that would be an instant image an old man with a beard and glasses, only before I think of the great female professors I know. Priming in stereotypes is everywhere: the 2025 science-vision of the ministry of education for example was filled with pictures of men only. This rather ignorant move of our government (what other word to use..) was followed by an apology later: they just ‘couldn’t find’ women to illustrate the rapport with.
Future hopes and plans
Shortly after the rapport was published, it was photoshopped and sent back to the ministry: all men were replaced with female scientists. This is one example of how attention for gender inequality in academia is addressed: changing the stereotype of the professor as a middle-aged male.
And this is the point I’d like to complete this summary with, for also this recommendation made by the respondents surprised me. This mentality change, most respondents thought, would be the most effective tool for reaching the 50/50-percentage well before 2055. We just need to see women as leading academics. And let’s hope that will be soon!
www.athenasangels.nl – four female professors to defend the interests of women in academia. Knowledgebase and action group combined. (Dutch/English)
www.lnvh.nl – National Network of Female Professors, with surveys and the latest on women and universities. (Dutch)
Many thanks to these women in academia who collaborated in this research:
José van Dijck
Yra van Dijk
Ernestine van der Wall
Josine was in the Leadership Programme 2015-2016 and is now graduating on feminism around 1900 at the Leiden University. She has a column in the Leidsch Dagblad and is working as a journalist.