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Insights from the Gender Summit in Amsterdam

Date:07 October 2019
Susanne Täuber
Susanne Täuber

Welcoming speakers and chairs from over 20 countries, the 17th Gender Summit took place on 2-4 October in Amsterdam. It offered a great podium for the sharing of the latest research and developments on gender balance in Academia. Susanne Täuber had been invited to chair a session during the summit and also presented a poster together with her PhD student Esther Neven. Below, Täuber will share some insights from the summit.

Minister Van Engelshoven opened the Gender Summit, stressing that “when we lack diversity the quality of our research suffers”. In a great keynote speech, Belle Derks, currently chair of the Dutch National Young Academy, showed that the exceptionally masculine occupational stereotype in academia is responsible for gendered leadership and the gaps in pay and resources.

Simone Buitendijk from Imperial College London said the title of her lecture – The Pernicious Effects of Bias and Discrimination in Academia – reflects her frustration with lack of progress in achieving equality, diversity and inclusion in academia. She demonstrated convincingly that bias is at odds with meritocracy, and that, the more we say we select or promote based on merit aka quality only, the more biased our decisions are in the favor of the overrepresented group.

‘Diversity of perspectives is what we are really after, and a focus on inclusion.’

Naomi Ellemers from Utrecht University, underscored that diversity in the workforce is not only about sex and race, but also includes different visions, ideas, and characters. She showed that current diversity policy is expecting people to fit in, which leads many employees with different opinions and ideas to opt out again – not because they don’t want to belong, but because they cannot be themselves if they do. Ellemers provided data showing throughout their academic careers, women adapt to the masculine stereotype to be successful. They are squeezing into the mold of the successful male academic, or are opting out. Thus, universities lose the benefits of diversity both when women try to fit in and when they opt out, leading to a great loss of talent and human capital.

There was a strong emphasis on the need for inclusive leadership. Stephen Curry from Imperial College London, stated that leadership is absolutely crucial for equality, diversity, and inclusion: “A premium must be on put on people management skills – you cannot become a Dean or Head of department if you can’t show us your people skills!”. Marcel Wubbolts, CTO of Corbion, complemented this perspective from the business side. He highlighted that leaders’ care and courage lead to trust and a safe environment for employees to speak up. His advice to policy makers and leaders: “Stop seeking evidence that diversity makes teams better, start working.”

Strong and inclusive leadership needed

A great example for a leader who started working was the Dean of the Maastricht School of Business and Economics (SBE), Peter Møllgaard. He shared with the audience the distribution of SBE’s male and female academics at different levels of the academic hierarchy, starting at 50/50 at the PhD level and finishing at 13% female and 87% male full professors. While SBE’s scissor-shaped distribution is quite similar to other Faculties of Economics and Business in The Netherlands, this faculty has an advantage: their Dean Peter Møllgaard, who made it his mission to build a gender balanced institution: “It comes down to changing the culture, just getting the numbers right doesn’t help” says Møllgaard. “How do you work on the culture as a leader? You work on the leadership. Because Heads of departments usually don’t support the agenda, you confront them with their gender bias.” To do that, he commissioned an interview study that resulted in a collection of quotes on issues of gender equity, diversity and inclusion. Møllgaard aims to use these quotes to make heads of departments aware of their biases, and to introduce culture change building on this awareness. One result of his efforts is that SBE now has open calls for all positions, including Heads of departments, directors of institutes, and so on.

Drastic change of culture required

The call for action and leadership was echoed in the panel on sexual harassment in academia. Marijke Naezer shared insights of the report Harassment in Dutch Academia, featured harrowing stories of women being denigrated, intimidated, bullied, and excluded on a daily basis. Victims of harassment are often being silenced, which puts additional trauma on them. Frederik Bondestam, Director at the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, followed up on this showing that harassment in Academia is not incidental, but epidemic. Based on a review of international research on sexual harassment, he shared some mindboggling insights:

  • Existing policy does not decrease the prevalence of sexual harassment, there is no data to support that. We need to start making policies based on the needs of the victims.
  • Training has short-term positive effects, but no long-term effects. Therefore, training does need to be attended regularly and frequently.
  • Research shows that universities’ management of complaints about harassment is so ineffective that it is counterproductive and reinforces the negative effects of harassment.
  • As a consequence of this, underreporting of sexual harassment is a major problem.
  • Leaders must be proactive in preventing sexual harassment, not reactive.

Bondestam calls for research on perpetrators and bystanders, as well as more intersectional perspectives to prevent sexual harassment in academia. His request is to stop focusing on policies, and start to drastically shift the toxic culture in academia.

Funding agencies as catalysts of change

Rhonda J. Davies, Head of the Office of Diversity & Inclusion of the American National Science Foundation (NSF), demonstrated that funding agencies can play a crucial role in enforcing such culture change. The NSF has implemented a policy that allows them to retract funds if PIs are found to engage in sexual harassment. Similarly, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has boosted their applications from women by broadening and adjusting their calls’ eligibility criteria, as Rochelle Fritch explained.

The positive role of funding agencies in fostering change is also associated with a different perspective on research assessments. As Stephen Curry notes, to make assessments less biased, we need to rely less on metrics and build more qualitative, nuanced peer review into the formal processes. This aligns with the initiative towards changes in rewarding and valuing researchers. Because the current “meritocratic” system is so biased and thus reproduces inequality, Curry states that “We have a fundamental responsibility to change the system”.

Where do we go from here?

The Summit certainly underlined the urgency of change, reflected in Minister van Engelshoven’s announcement to design an action plan for more diversity in Academia based on the Gender Summit. Professor Derks provided a number of concrete ways forward in her key note speech: We need to raise awareness of gender bias triggered by the highly masculine definition of excellence, we need to redefine recognition and valuation of academics, we need to focus on teams more than on individuals, and because people base their stereotypes of successful academics on what they see, we need to increase the number of women in academia. Citing Stephen Curry: “Words were a good start – now it’s time for action”.


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