Cathrien Bruggeman Cathrien Bruggeman Sacha Ruland

We need women at the top

Written by  Jolien Linssen Tuesday, 23 October 2012 14:42

The future of the academic world belongs to women. A bold statement? Perhaps. Yet it seems a justified conclusion when looking at the figures: not only do women tend to have higher grades than their male counterparts, but they also outnumber men among university graduates. Paradoxically, however, the female presence in top academic positions is best characterised by its absence. For this reason Cathrien Bruggeman, one of the first female professors at Maastricht University (UM), took the initiative of creating an all-female PhD committee this summer. "I wanted to draw attention to women's underrepresentation in a frivolous manner", she says. "I want young women to get equal opportunities to reach the top."

It looks as though the Flemish Bruggeman chose precisely the right moment to make her statement. In September, after 37 years at UM, she gave her valedictory lecture as head of the Department of Medical Microbiology at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences. "I enjoyed a great working life here and I’m neither frustrated nor bitter. But I have to conclude that virtually all decision making at the top level of both our university and our academic hospital is done by men. So I thought it would be interesting to reverse the roles for once."

Bruggeman's efforts to create awareness of the absence of women in top academic jobs turned out to be an outright success. "I was surprised at the amount of attention we received", she admits. "My male colleagues all felt the need to comment on the initiative, and all of them were quite positive. Moreover, during the PhD defence itself I perceived that we were doing something special, which the audience sensed as well. Even though we were wearing academic dress, the atmosphere was less stately and theatrical than is usually the case. As women tend to be concise and to the point, we were focusing purely on the content and quickly finished our deliberation. It was a fantastic day."


Bruggeman's all-female PhD ceremony may be more than just an occasion to call attention to the problem of women's underrepresentation. Instead, it also highlights one of the reasons women often do not make it to the top of the academic world.

"Men, in general, are apt to boast about their accomplishments, whereas women are rather reserved”, she says. “We may do the same things as men yet instead of being pompous, we remain silent about it. Although I view modesty as a virtue, in this world it seems to be necessary to make yourself visible. I remember that when I started working as head of the department, my predecessor told me always to speak up in a meeting – even if there was nothing to say! Such are the rules of the game."

Add to this the fact that executives are more likely to hire employees who resemble themselves, and the vicious circle is complete. "I don't believe there’s a lot of conscious discrimination going on", she says. "These are unconscious mechanisms. Still, I’m making a value judgment. Ignorance is no excuse because well-educated people in high positions ought to know better."


Aware of the workings of the old boys' network, Bruggeman has attempted to foster young women throughout her career. "I experienced myself that someone needs to give you a leg up. If you want to achieve the same as men, you need to work at least as hard as them. But that alone is not enough; someone has to recognise your talent. I find that even young women themselves are not aware of this. Theoretically, all possibilities are open to them. But the higher up the hierarchy one goes, the fewer women one sees."

Working hard seems to have been the leitmotif of her own career. "My mother was an emancipated woman avant la lettre who told me that women need to be able to take care of their own", Bruggeman explains. "In Belgium in the early 70s it was accepted for mothers to continue working, so giving up my career has never been a real option for me. I think I’ve been ambitious in my own way. I decided to just do my utmost and see where it would lead. I’ve invested a lot, but my work has always been an important part of my life."

Although Bruggeman is no advocate of quotas, she realises that at this point they may be the only measure that could increase the number of women in top academic positions. "If we aren't going to force things, the situation will never change", she says. "If one third of the university and hospital board members consist of women, more female applicants will have a chance to actually access the traditional hierarchies. That would be a good starting point."

Cathrien Bruggeman (1946) studied pharmaceutical sciences in Leuven, Belgium, and obtained her PhD at Leiden University. In 1976, she started working at Maastricht University's Department of Medical Microbiology at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences, where she became one of the first female professors in 1993. Bruggeman also headed the Department of Medical Microbiology at the Maastricht Academic Hospital. She retired on 1 August, giving her valedictory lecture in September.


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