How (wo)men can reach the top of the academic career ladder Rafaël Philippen

How (wo)men can reach the top of the academic career ladder

In Society
Written by  Jolien Linssen Thursday, 15 October 2015 14:07

Maastricht University (UM) aims to be a place where talent can flourish. But with only 15.5 per cent of all professors being female, it seems there’s still a long way to go. Three young academics dove into the topic of female underrepresentation in the higher ranks of academia. Their conclusion? “This is not only a women’s problem.”

UM is no exception when it comes to the dearth of women in top jobs: the statistics at universities nationwide are virtually the same. In fact, the Netherlands has the lowest proportion of female professors in Europe. Women outnumber men among students and PhD candidates, but the higher up on the academic career ladder you go, the fewer women you see. How to explain this dropout?

“It’s a difficult question to answer without resorting to the sorts of stereotypes that are repeated over and over again”, says Annemarie Künn-Nelen. As a project manager and researcher at the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA), she took part in the academic leadership programme Steep Face. After teaming up with fellow participants Lisa Brüggen, associate professor of marketing, and Roy Erkens, lecturer in the Maastricht Science Programme, the three came up with a new approach to tackle the issue.

“We started by reviewing the literature, which shows that women in general are more risk-averse than men, and have a different negotiation style”, Brüggen explains. “They also tend to underestimate their abilities, whereas men tend to overestimate theirs.” In an environment in which the rules have traditionally been made by men, these characteristics clearly do not work in women’s favour. More damaging, however, are the implicit biases shared by men and women alike. Brüggen: “On an unconscious level, we associate leadership roles and capabilities more with men than with women. To put it differently: John has a greater chance of being hired than Jennifer, even if they send out identical applications.”

These are relevant, perhaps shocking insights, yet not wholly new. “It’s very important to take these factors into account when addressing the issue of women in academia”, Erkens says. “But at the core of our analysis lies the observation that the university has become extremely focused on research, and there’s little room for diversity. If you want to build an academic career, the number of publications you have seems to be all that matters.” The price you pay can be high, as Brüggen knows from experience. “My two daughters were born during my tenure track period. Despite the fact that I was absent for eight months, I was expected to produce the same research output as everyone else if I wanted to remain a research fellow. It’s been tough at times, and I felt this was symptomatic for a culture with little awareness of the problem.”

This prospect made Künn-Nelen opt for a different career path upon finishing her PhD. She now combines academic research with policy research. “I knew I’d want to work part time as soon as I started a family, and I was aware that this would disadvantage me in terms of output. I just couldn’t see how I’d be able to advance in a purely academic career in the long run. In addition to that, I really value policy research.”

Those who choose to devote a considerable amount of their time to teaching face the same problem. “In that sense, I’m also a woman”, Erkens jokes. With a Veni grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) in his pocket, his qualities as a researcher are undisputed. He nevertheless decided to focus on teaching. “That’s what I like to do most, and I think I’m good at it. Besides, I have a family I also want to spend time with.” The inevitable consequence is that Erkens’s chances of landing a traditional, research-based professorship have rapidly decreased. “It seems as though my scientific ideas are less valued now I’m spending more time on teaching. This made me realise the problem is not restricted to women only. It’s a matter of diversity.”

The university’s role in society has changed, and as a result the tasks and responsibilities of professors have become increasingly varied, ranging from research and teaching to management and valorisation. “Seen in this light, it’s all the more awkward that performance is evaluated only on the basis of research output, regardless of input”, says Brüggen. “To bring about structural change, we’re calling for a more holistic view of performance. So we’re happy that UM’s new HR policy seems to be moving in this direction.”

Women in particular would benefit from such a change, although not exclusively. Künn-Nelen, Brüggen, and Erkens are striving to transform UM into a modern employer with a family-friendly policy in terms of HR options and facilities; a place where the most talented and qualified people receive the support they deserve, however different they may be. “This starts with creating awareness that a lack of diversity is a problem for an institution that aims to let talent flourish, especially on the part of the decision-makers”, Erkens explains. Their report makes a number of policy recommendations that would help the university achieve its aim, such as a reverse-mentoring programme in which male leaders learn about specifically female qualities and their value for the organisation. Of the utmost importance, in their view, is to position UM as an attractive employer for men and women alike. “After all,” Erkens says, “we not only want to attract talent, but also retain it.”

Annemarie Künn-Nelen (1983) studied International Economic Studies at UM, where she obtained her PhD in 2011. She is currently a project manager and researcher at the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA). Her research interests include labour economics, health economics and family economics.

Roy Erkens (1976) studied biology at Utrecht University, where he finished his PhD in 2007. He joined the Maastricht Science Programme as a researcher and lecturer in 2012. His main interest lies in understanding the evolution of biodiversity. He also plays an active role in the popularisation of science.

Lisa Brüggen (1977) studied economics at UM, where she completed her PhD in marketing in 2006. Her research focuses on financial services, services marketing and online marketing research. She has been an associate professor of marketing since 2014. She is also the founder of the Elinor Ostrom Fund, which aims to support female scholars.

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