‘ Role models

Professor Nele Jacobs is still getting used to her title: in April of this year and at the age of 41 she was appointed as Professor of life-cycle psychology. Her new chair at the Open University focuses on a person’s lifelong development. Under Jacobs’ responsibility the Masters degree in life-cycle psychology is being developed into an activating online educational model, and associated lines of research are being established.

‘After my doctorate in 2005 I became a university lecturer in clinical psychology at the Open University. At that time the faculty of Psychology had three specialisations and the Dean believed that a fourth specialisation was necessary: Life-cycle psychology.

After a tough application process I was appointed as senior lecturer of Life-cycle psychology. In that position I was responsible for the development of the Masters degree and the research lines from 2011 onwards. The Dean at that time emphasised people’s capacities and was prepared to invest in them.

What I learned from him was that a leader must, above all, empower people. You have to show that you trust that they will do what is necessary. His attitude was: you can do it, and if you need me you know where I am.

That freedom and that complete confidence gave me wings. In addition I was lucky enough to be able to work on building up something entirely new, with a team that I was allowed to put together myself. That five person team of University lecturers/researchers has grown greatly (in terms of substance) over the recent years. Everyone delivers excellent work and is ready to help each other. The team forms the key to success.’

‘The team is the key to success.’

And was the time ripe then for a professorship?

‘At a certain moment I realised: I have achieved this result and that deserves a cheer. But the fact that I may think so is not enough. You have to explicitly tell yourself that the professorship has to happen, but also make this known and keep the idea warm. I learned this gradually. At first I was scared of bothering the (new) Dean. I didn’t want to seem too pushy and to keep asking how the process was going. But when I raised the matter again a while later she had apparently forgotten all about it. From then onwards I knocked on her door regularly. This way I learned that you mustn’t be ashamed of your ambition.’

Role models and limiting yourself

‘It is only now, a few months after my appointment, that I dare to say out loud that I am a Professor, and to use my title to sign off my emails. This is partly thanks to a female colleague of mine, a real role model. She says: ‘You have worked hard for that title, so use it.’ I can see that it is important to pay attention to these aspects. If you don’t, they can become a barrier of your own creation. I am aware of this now and I believe that it is important that I, in this position, can also fulfil this role for the members of my team. Role models are essential.’

National network

‘The national network of female professors and university senior lecturers plays an important role in fostering equal opportunities’.

We meet a few times each year and those gatherings offer a great deal of recognition, advice and support. In many cases that is much needed.’

What preconceptions have you had to overcome?

‘In general, but especially in the case of job applications, women encounter the preconception that they will probably have children, and will therefore be less available for work than men. Many people also think: you have a child now, so that signals the end of your career. But that is not necessarily the case at all. You can have a career, with or without children. If you enjoy your work, there is no reason not to pursue a career. Even if it places many demands on you and your partner. One of my colleagues has three children and that works just fine.’

‘I took on one university lecturer when she was visibly pregnant. As a manager I created the conditions to enable her to go on maternity leave and made it easy for her to come back to work. She works three or four days a week and is an excellent and committed colleague. On the days that she is not at work, she still checks her emails regularly. . By taking account of each other’s needs women have more equal opportunities.

As a (younger) woman I have observed personally that some male colleagues do not always recognise your true value. Since obtaining the title of Professor I notice that they view me differently. I am seen for who I am.’

In terms of output women score equally, and when it comes to publications and promotions they are no better or worse than men. They do add something though: a woman’s touch.’

Why should women in the sector be given more equal opportunities?

‘Of course I believe it is a good thing that the sector wishes to improve the opportunities for women to advance their career. If we don’t we will miss out on talent with an added value. With a balanced mix of men and women, but also of different age groups, we add different perspectives and different approaches to leadership. That doesn’t only offer us social and communicative benefits; it also offers a broader perspective on  on performance. In terms of output women score equally, and when it comes to publications and promotions they perform the same as men. But they do add something though: a female touch.’

What does your employer do in order to improve the advancement of women?

‘The Open University is already heading in the right direction, with a relatively high proportion of female professors (25 to 30 percent). Women are represented fairly in the selection and grant committees. Our current Dean is a woman and the dual Board of Governors sets a good example: the rector magnificus is a woman. She focuses explicitly on coaching and career advancement. Not just for women, but for the whole group. And in order to encourage better working relationships and communication within the group, some 30 to 50 of us regularly meet up for a bite to eat.’

What do you have to do personally, to attain a high position?

‘Apart from making your wishes known, and from keeping on pushing and chasing people up, you have to make sure that your Curriculum Vitae is in good shape.

It has to match the profile of a professor. In 2011 I didn’t perceive this as my goal, but I gradually realised what I wanted. Then you have to identify what you need in order to achieve your goal. First, make sure that all your paperwork is in good order, that you can demonstrate objectively that you satisfy all conditions. You also have to believe you deserve it. You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror and say out loud what you want. I was given this tip by a female role model.’

What barriers did you encounter? And what did you do to overcome them?

‘There are people everywhere who don’t want you to succeed, either for competitive reasons or out of pure jealousy. In itself that is normal, but members of an appointments committee have to be able to get over this and look at your CV objectively. The ‘goodwill factor’ is also relevant, but as a candidate that is something you cannot influence. The thing that helps me is knowing that you cannot expect anything more or better from certain people, however unfortunate that sometimes may be. I have also learned that it is often better to wait and see if a opportunity presents itself. If you are always very open about what you want, it may be used against you.’

Tip: Dare to grasp opportunities

‘If you see an opportunity, take it. Loyalty among colleagues is a good thing, certainly when it comes to people who have helped you in the past. But loyalty can also prevent you from taking on new challenges, for example a new project, a new position, or a place at another university. Be open to new opportunities and be ready to take the plunge!’

In April 2016 Nele Jacobs (1974, Gent) was appointed as the first Professor of Life-cycle psychology at the Open University, where she had served as a university lecturer since 2005 and as a senior lecturer since 2011. Before that she completed her doctorate in 2005 at Maastricht University with her study: Gene-environment interaction in depressive disorders: a population-based twin study.



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