‘Early focus on
strategic personnel

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‘Make implicit

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‘Better work-life
balance for
better quality’

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What instruments can you use to encourage the advancement of women? Three people in the field share their opinion.

If you are going to start working with strategic personnel planning you also need to design the selection processes differently.


Strategic personnel planning: early focus
Frank Nienhuis, policy adviser HR
University of Groningen


‘Of the 21 professors who will be retiring here over the coming years, 11 are women. Naturally this will affect the targets. We need to deal with this sort of information strategically and engage in a discussion at an early stage. Can a professor who is leaving be replaced by a woman? And what is needed for this to happen? It is important to link quantitative data with qualitative data and obtain a good insight into the required financial resources. Strategic personnel planning (SPP) can help with this assessment. It is an integrated way of seeing things, based on a variety of scenarios. This way you can anticipate on future developments in good time.’

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‘It is no secret. If you extend today’s growth statistics into the future, we will not achieve our targets. The tendency is: the higher the position, the lower the number of women applying. That is why we are now setting up improved monitoring of the entire application process. We can’t wait until the deadline has passed and then realise in amazement that no women have responded. Beyond our Rosalind Franklin Fellowship programme (RFF), not enough women are applying for the tenure track programme either. How can this be? That is the question we are focusing on. Because we can’t apply the Rosalind programme in every field of science.’

A different focus

‘For a long time the policy focused on women themselves, with support and training. Currently, there is a shift towards the organisational aspects. One area where you can exercise real influence is in the recruitment and evaluation process. Employment data are very helpful when entering into this discussion. What is most noteworthy, and what does it tell us? For example: women are applying, but then don’t make it to the final round. What is happening in the process? And are there differences between faculties? Those differences may provide additional input for possible causes. By scrutinising all the data and linking personnel information to job vacancies we can identify the main bottlenecks.

There are enough situations from which we can learn. For instance, just recently we had a vacancy for a professor of Dutch Literature.

You might expect that there would be sufficient female candidates for this, but of the eleven candidates only two were women. Then you have to ask yourself immediately: did we use the right recruitment channels? Was the text of the announcement too focused on men? These are the sort of issues that we now wish to look into. One of the two female candidates did not make it because she did not meet the requirements for the position. Consequently, the committee then made a selection which only included men. Of course this doesn’t help to create equal opportunities.’

Reorganising processes

‘We need to call for a focus on gender equality at a much earlier stage in the process. For example by drawing up long lists and short lists with an equal number of ideal female and male candidates. And to only make a selection if there are sufficient female candidates on the list. We also need a stronger focus on the start of the process of appointing professors[MS1] . There is already a greater emphasis on an equal gender mix and we are very pleased with this. However, at present the people who are supervising gender equality within the organization are only involved at the end of the application process. I would like to see them engaged at an earlier stage.

If you are going to start working with strategic personnel planning you also need to design the selection processes differently. An example that occurs to me is the time allocated for assessing the candidates’ dossiers. If you look at the whole process, relatively little time is allowed for this, which increases the risk that people will make a decision based on an implicit bias rather than logic.’


Make implicit bias visible
Former Head of central personnel services FOM,
Institute for Fundamental Energy Research


‘When I joined the management team of our organisation it had been 60 year without a  female member. And it is possible, that the fact that I was able to become a member can be put down to ‘manly behaviour’. A crazy situation. Because I think the people at the top of FOM are not ‘anti-women’ at all. But it also made me wonder why these well-meaning men never chose a woman before? It was only when I learned about implicit biases that I understood.’

If you are unaware of an implicit bias you can’t question it either.

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‘When I started talking to women who gave up working in science, it became clear how frequently prejudices play a role in their decision. And also how implicit biases are. For example, one woman was told by a male professor that a particular postdoc position in Berlin was terribly far away. How could she combine that with her family? However, she had given the distance some consideration. But the question is: would that professor have said the same thing to a man? At a later stage I repeated this to the gentleman in question and it came as a great shock to him. He really intended the best for the candidate and was only trying to help her think things through. After that he didn’t dare to say anything anymore, out of fear that he might make such a mistake again. This demonstrates: he had no bad intentions at all.’


‘I have collected more of these examples. In order to make implicit bias literally visible we used actors to play out these situations. That in itself was very enlightening. We then carried out a gender awareness test with 100 people. That was also an eye-opener. Some were completely dumbstruck by the results. All fifteen participants in my group had implicit prejudices. Me too, even though this is ‘my issue’. We are unaware of many things. This can also be learned from research among crime witnesses. And if you are unaware of an implicit bias, you can’t question it either.

We are now drawing up instructions for appointments committees to ‘force’ them to check their objectivity.

There is still a need for someone to monitor the process, but at least we are taking action. That is what is so good about working with physicists: once something has been proven they no longer have any doubts about its validity. There is still room for improvement with soft skills, but we are working on that. Moreover, it is really nice to see just how my contribution has instigated change. For example, the feedback on new ideas is formulated in a way that is more friendly than before. Everyone regards this as an improvement. And for me this proves; we need more women at the top.’

Transitional phase

‘My generation of women are in a transitional phase. A phase in which we have to work hard to establish our position and keep shouting out the message that we are good at what we do. That we to some extent are adapting and doing what men do. I am helping to pave the path so the next generation can leave all this behind. Then there will be room for female talent without all this adaptation. I believe  this is achievable. It really is not true that men (and women) are lacking in good intentions. We really believe that we are making the best choices. We just have to stop excluding women equally suited for the job.’

Renée-Andrée Kooistra is currently Director HR Arbo en Milieu at VU. FOM has been merged as part of NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.

It seems like there is less and less time for a life alongside science.


Better work-life balance for improved quality
Ingrid Molema, Chairwoman Dutch Network of Women Professors


All around me I see that people have had enough of the pressure of publishing and carrying out research, in addition to the core business of teaching. There is a need for more thinking time and less publishing pressure. After all, our aim is to contribute to the scientific discussion, and not to publish as much as possible. In science there is often barely any space for a private life. A number of successful scientists gave up for this reason. Women and men. Moreover, not enough provision is made for the life events that you experience as a person. So we need tools to improve the work-life balance.

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Working and achieving a career in science can have the consequence that you  need to deal with things largely on your own. That is already an issue in the PhD phase. It is a very individual process, regardless of whether you work in a team or have a good supervisor or mentor. The effect is that the ‘leak in the career pipeline’ of women in science already starts at post-doc level, because women are often more interested in achieving things together rather than on their own. And as soon as the home front demands more attention it becomes a balancing act that is hard to keep up. Highly talented young female scientists give up for this reason. This is a terrible waste!

New approach to work, new mind-set

Besides a tight work-life balance in the first phase of your academic career, you also encounter other major developments at a later stage. For example, some of us may be asked at some point in time to take a (temporary) management role. This might be as head of a department, (research or teaching) Dean, or director of an Institute. Strangely enough you are expected to carry on publishing at the same time. It seems that if you decide to go back to teaching and performing research five years later, having a ‘gap’ in your CV is not acceptable. You have engaged your knowledge and expertise in a different way and have acquired new experiences, but clearly that doesn’t count. I believe that the world has got things back to front. This certainly contributes to the fact that highly qualified colleagues do not opt for these types of functions at this stage in their career, or give up on them later.

It seems like there is less and less time for a life alongside science.

You have to continually obtain grants and write articles in order to stay in the game. This all takes place at a time that the teaching demands on staff members are increasing. The bureaucracy also demands that we keep filling in more and more checklists, perform more and more evaluations, etc. After all we have to become more transparent, offer smaller-scale education, and give more attention to excellent students. Within the universities we are heading towards a more commercial approach. What we are forgetting in the meantime is that a good work-life balance is also essential for high quality of work within the business world.

Facilitating a good work-life balance

The Radboud University has recently appointed a family coordinator; someone  employees can turn to with questions about facilities offered by the University for a better balance between work and private life. For example, there are schemes for (replacement during) maternity leave, and broader schemes for childcare. Furthermore, some institutions have child care facilities on the campus. These are good developments, but probably more is needed.

What we need to achieve is a scientific world in which no ‘special’ measures are necessary, but where the above is simply standard policy. An inclusive and diverse organisational culture in which there is space and appreciation for all sorts of people with all sorts of career paths. Not just a monomaniac focus on research output and a rigid perception of research quality and excellence. The right conditions are important. If those conditions are met there will automatically be more women in relevant positions


What do you believe is the biggest success factor for encouraging the advancement of women in science?

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