• The battle for equality

    Academic discrimination

    Figures from the RUG’s human resources department show that – among professors – the University of Groningen is a much whiter and more male-dominated place than Dutch society at large. Women and ethnic minorities remain underrepresented at the RUG, so what can the institution learn from its own in-house expertise to do better? 
    in short

    Although the RUG set a goal of ensuring that 25 per cent of its professors would be female by 2015, the organisation fell short: only 18 per cent of full professors were women as of December.

    The Rosalind Franklin Fellowship, which is exclusively for female scholars, is seen as a positive means to change that balance. The university also recently appointed two Chief Diversity Officers to that end.

    But the seeds of inequality in academia begin long before entering university. Some primary school teachers underestimate students who are female or children of less educated parents.

    The RUG has a significant mix of nationalities represented in its research staff, but it is illegal in the Netherlands to register the ethnic background of employees. That makes it difficult to know exactly how many professors are persons of colour.

    The notion of male and female, or majority and minority, job applicants being assessed strictly on their merits may overlook the systematic disadvantages that certain groups face, which is why many scholars argue that affirmative action is vitally necessary.

    full version

    Reading time: 24 minutes (4,836 words)

    At the Rosalind Franklin commemoration day in April, RUG president Sibrand Poppema could only have been preaching to the choir more literally if he was addressing the crowd of 35 women (and 5 men) from behind a pulpit with an open bible before him. The theme of the day was the next generation of diversity, but Poppema’s opening remarks took stock of what the university is doing for equality right now.

    ‘We have one great thing: the Rosalind Franklin Fellowship’, he began. ‘But in a way, this fellowship is an electrical bike. It’s helping us to achieve something, but an electrical bike also requires that we bike ourselves, and maybe we are not biking fast enough.’

    The fellowship has existed since 2003 and offers a tenure track toward full professorship specifically for female scholars. By 2015, the RUG’s goal was that at least 25 per cent of its full professors would be women, but they fell short: as of last December, only 18 per cent were female.

    When Poppema opened the floor for comments, life sciences professor Ingrid Molema did not hold back. ‘I have this hypothesis that there is fear among men who are less competent holding positions that could be filled by a woman who is highly competent. What is your personal and professional opinion on that?’

    Poppema replied without hesitation: ‘I think that is true. Males are humans, too. I know that’s a surprise, but yes, that is part of it. In a way, it’s a rightful fear’, he says.

    Too quickly

    That feeling is something one of the other speakers, professor (and Rosalind Franklin Fellowship winner) Floor Rink, has been made all too aware of. ‘I never want to get a promotion based on being a woman, so it is quite hard for a university to do this in a good way’, she says. ‘If you do it too quickly, you get the downside of having men act against it and people feeling that women are in these positions for illegitimate reasons.’

    The seeds of this gender imbalance – as well as a lack of ethnic diversity – in academia are planted long before university. According to a report by the Dutch Inspectorate of Education, students who are female or whose parents are less educated are less likely to receive a recommendation from their teachers that actually reflects their skill level. In particular, the education level of the parents of a child may lead a teacher to suggest the student move on to a level of secondary education that is not commensurate with their test scores.

    Breaking through

    ‘We often see that teachers have higher expectations, albeit subconsciously, of students whose parents are highly educated than students with less educated parents’, Monique Vogelzang, education inspector general of the Netherlands, says via email. ‘When giving a recommendation, teachers take into account the likelihood that these students may have less support and guidance at home, and that can result in students being underestimated or overprotected, even though the teacher has good intentions for doing so.’

    Among students with a non-western background, the up-and-coming generation seems on the verge of making a breakthrough: roughly 10 per cent of young people on the pre-university track in secondary school are of non-Western origins, which nearly reflects the 12 per cent of the total Dutch population that has a non-Western ethnic background.

    Students may be underestimated or overprotected, even though the teacher has good intentions

    Still, Vogelzang acknowledges that on average, the non-western Dutch immigrant population is underrepresented. The lack of a tradition of higher education among immigrant communities in the Netherlands is one serious obstacle, among others, and that has a direct effect on educational outcomes for generations.

    ‘Hopefully in the coming years, the academic environment will see more people from the immigrant communities, but that can only really happen if the first generation is well educated’, says Marion Stolp, director of the RUG’s human resources department. ‘You cannot become a professor without that.’

    Race laws

    A lack of diversity in Dutch academia in general is apparent at the RUG, too. Out of 469 full professors across all university faculties, less than a dozen are persons of colour. And because it is illegal in the Netherlands to keep track of the ethnic background of employees, Stolp says the only way to even figure out that number is to literally look at their personnel pages and, based on their surnames, contact them to try to confirm what their race is.

    discrimination is…


    When people are saying ‘racism’, what do they mean by that? There are three kinds: historical, which is the business of the slavery past; then explicit racism, when you just say, ‘black people are inferior’; and the third type is implicit racism. When it comes to Zwarte Piet, people get offended when you tell them it’s a racist tradition. The way they interpret that is that you are saying the tradition is racist, and they enjoy it, therefore they must be racist. – Catarina Dutilh Novaes

    ‘Registration of ethnicity is prohibited because it is reminiscent of race laws in South Africa and Nazi Germany’, explains labour law professor Herman Voogsgeerd. A national registry in the Netherlands – burgerlijke stand – requires citizens to sign in at their local municipality when they move there. But during World War II, that meticulous record keeping was abused to deadly ends. ‘That made it relatively easy for the Germans to locate the Jews and to know things about them that made them vulnerable to prosecution and deportation’, says history professor Doeko Bosscher.

    Blind spot

    The urge to protect personal privacy weighs heavily on the Dutch conscience to this day as a result. But does that inadvertently create a blind spot for organisations by enabling them to say they simply cannot know how ethnically diverse their employees are?

    Isabel Hoving is a diversity officer at the University of Leiden, which is one of four Dutch universities with such a position (including the RUG, the VU Amsterdam and the Erasmus University Rotterdam), and she questions that herself.

    ‘How can you gain insight into the make up of your employee base? The only thing that we know is which people come from abroad, and they are our international staffers’, she says. ‘The diversity officer from Oxford University has told me that they use a self-identification system – which many employees do not participate in, by the way – and that they also visit the faculties in person to get an impression of the degree of diversity among their staff.’

    People can list themselves as a particular ethnicity or even sexual orientation

    Self-identification means that employees choose whether or not to indicate what their race or gender is. Philosophy adjunct professor – and another former Rosalind Franklin fellow – Catarina Dutilh Novaes says that a similar initiative, called the open directory for philosophy, was recently introduced to enable more diversity in panels and conferences in the field. ‘This is a database where people can list themselves as a particular ethnicity or even sexual orientation’, she explains.

    International does not equal diverse

    Whether the RUG will adopt similar measures in the future remains to be seen. For now though, human resources departments are allowed to register the nationality of their staff. Even though the RUG is proud to say how very international it is, that is not the same as being able to say that the university is truly ethnically diverse.

    discrimination is…


    Language is part of our culture, and it mirrors that culture as well. When I was a kid, dirty children were called ‘Turks’. ‘Go wash up, you Turk! Wash your hands!’ With so many people of Turkish descent living in the Netherlands, it’s more difficult to call someone a Turk nowadays. It’s largely disappeared. And neger was always a neutral term in the Netherlands, just like Negro used to be in English. I never really felt that it was derogatory, but suddenly, it wasn’t ‘in’ anymore, probably because it sounded too much like the n-word. We are following in the footsteps of English, but we’re approximately 30 years behind. Jack Hoeksema

    ‘There is this idea that by pressing internationalisation, you are automatically developing diversity, but that is not how it goes. You could be very diverse while staying national’, says Dutilh Novaes, referring to Dutch ethnic minorities from former colonies – Surinam, The Antilles, Indonesia – and people with a non-Western background – Turkish and Moroccan in particular.

    Yet for the recently established Chief Diversity Officers at the RUG – dean Gerry Wakker of the arts faculty and dean Jasper Knoester of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences – the first priority of their job is realising gender equality among university staff, not racial equality.

    ‘We have not even reached the point of the discussion of other types of diversity’, Poppema said during his commemoration day address. ‘We are not yet there, and that is a failure.’

    Not all at once

    Dean Wakker says, ‘After the initial steps, diversity in a broader sense – immigrants, ethnic diversity, foreigners – will also be paid more attention, but it is not possible to do all of that at once.’ Their initial goal is to ensure that women make up 30 per cent of professors as quickly as possible. ‘To that end, we will start with the nomination procedure: is the candidate list good? Have women been actively recruited? Are there an even number of men and women among the candidates?’, Wakker explains via email.

    But Rink points out that research shows that female members of hiring committees are just as likely to discredit female job candidates as their male colleagues. ‘Women also tend to think that women should take on their motherhood role, so you have these stereotypes which are not only endorsed by members who don’t belong to the group being stereotyped: it’s endorsed by society, so that is also including those minority members themselves.’

    If you say it also benefits men, and a man says something about it, people listen

    Jolien van Breen, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, says that emphasising how gender equality is also advantageous to men – and for men to speak favourably and publicly about it – can further the cause in the public’s mind, because a man’s opinion is still taken more seriously than a woman’s. ‘If you say it also benefits men, and a man says something about it, people listen’, she says.

    Feminism and greater professional equality can indeed mean tangible benefits for men, according to Rink. ‘For women, it’s hard to look up and see opportunities above them, but for men, it’s hard to look out the window and think they want to be with the children because that is not easily achievable’, Rink says. ‘You really have to make programmes for men, because otherwise, you have this zero sum belief.’


    While men may benefit from changing social expectations of gender roles, Molema, who chairs both the Rosalind Franklin Fellowship committee and the Dutch Network of Women Professors, suspects that once more women are in positions of power, other minority groups will reap the benefits in turn. ‘If you have more women in higher functions in general, then they will pay keener attention to other forms of diversity’, she says. ‘Perhaps because they are confronted with potential discrimination themselves, they are more attuned to that treatment toward others.’

    discrimination is…

    In human resources

    We now have diversity officers, and on paper, that’s ticking the boxes, but if a woman or a member of minority group were to come up to the organisation and say, ‘there is this gender bias’ or ‘I do feel discriminated against’, then they can just wave their boxes and say, ‘That cannot be. We tick all these boxes!’. It has the effect that minority members are less likely to recognise whether they are being discriminated against or not, because if it still happens, it must really be quite subtle. – Floor Rink

    For Rink, whether the people in power are male or female or not, one additional measure that could really have a lasting impact is regular classes to raise awareness of inequality – especially for the powers-that-be at the university. Wakker says that is exactly what the future holds: human resources is organising a training course for the deans about inclusive leadership and diversity this fall.


    Wakker adds that on account of her and her fellow Chief Diversity Officer’s positions as faculty deans, they will also look at full professor nominations in terms of gender and racial equality. Bhanu Sinha, a professor of medical microbiology at UMCG, is one of only a handful of minority professors currently working at the RUG. He was born and raised in Germany, where his mother is from, and his father is Indian.

    Although he admits to having some unfortunate experiences with the police when he lived in Switzerland for a few years, he says that he has never had negative encounters either professionally or personally in Groningen. ‘People are very friendly and very open here, in my experience at least, and it’s probably also due to the fact that it’s a small, young city with a lot of students’, he says. ‘Within this institution, I’ve been well received by colleagues.’

    The paltry number of reports submitted to the Discrimination Report Groningen reflects that assertion: Inge Haverkamp, an adviser at the organisation, says that there has only been one report of discrimination which took place at the RUG in 2016 so far, which was on the grounds of sexual orientation and nationality. There were no reports in 2015 or 2014, but there were two reports filed in 2013 by people who felt discriminated against because of their nationality at the university.

    While Sinha witnesses his colleagues at UMCG doing their utmost each day to take care of every person who comes in the door, he recalls one incident that highlighted the challenges the hospital faces in handling an increasingly diverse patient population. When a man was suspected of having been potentially exposed to Ebola was brought in from a refugee centre in the region, it was a challenge to assess the situation until Sinha, who speaks French, was able to gain his trust and speak with him about what was going on.

    Lower strata

    ‘He was afraid that everything he would reveal of his history could be used against him in order to send him back’, Sinha says. ‘Of course staff at the camp site had been facing an enormous challenge taking care of so many refugees with often dramatic histories.’ The encounter brought Sinha in contact with a group that is much discussed in Dutch politics but seems little understood. RUG history professor and former rector magnificus Doeko Bosscher has sympathy for these men and women, yet also seeks to understand what motivates the most vociferous critics of accepting refugees in the Netherlands.

    ‘You can’t deny that it’s always the people in the lower strata of society who are the first to be confronted with the influx of foreigners’, Bosscher says. ‘They are the ones who have foreigners as their neighbours, and that will always be the case.’ That is not to say that he defends the violent reactions some protestors have had against refugees. ‘I think any kind of discrimination is utterly wrong and should be fought and opposed’, he says.

    A person who is poorer, less educated or a member of a disadvantaged group is less likely to be seen as an authority

    Ironically, those same people – traditionally not university educated and working in more blue collar professions – are just as likely as the immigrants they may resent to be negatively impacted by epistemic injustice: the notion that a person who is poorer, less educated or a member of a disadvantaged group is less likely to be seen as an authority than a better educated, wealthier or, in some cases, whiter person.

    Boudewijn de Bruin’s 700,000 euro NWO grant-winning research is looking into that form of injustice. Specifically, his work will focus on how people may be treated differently in the medical and financial sectors if they come from a certain ethnic background or economic class.

    ‘It turns out that immigrant women go in for breast cancer screening less frequently than native women’, he says. ‘It has been suggested that doctors find it difficult to explain to these women that it’s just a scan and not a form of treatment, and that it doesn’t mean they have a higher risk for cancer, but that it’s meant to decrease the risk of any cancer becoming incurable.’


    That difficulty in getting through to these patients about preventive care can also manifest itself in doctors doubting those same patients when they ask certain questions about their own health, or for a bank to be less inclined to give a disadvantaged person a loan. ‘When a bricklayer tells you something, doctors have to take him as seriously as someone who has been more highly educated.’

    discrimination is…


    Until 2002, Dutch political culture was very politically correct. Immigration was not politicised between 1990 and 2002: every party made sure there were sufficient people of every ethnicity on their candidate lists. There was extreme political correctness, but after 2002 and the rise of Pim Fortuyn, the extent to which you could politicise immigration and Islam increased dramatically. Since that period, I would argue that there has developed this reverse political correctness. – Simon Otjes

    Even though no doctor would ever deliberately handle a patient unequally, an increasing number of non-white medical professionals at UMCG may put minority visitors to the hospital more at ease simply because they look like them. Sinha says that while he recognises greater equality among medical staff and professors is the ideal goal, he is not in favour of affirmative action measures in general.

    ‘You should be open for everything, and if you prefer any group – it doesn’t matter how – you put other groups at a disadvantage. To me, it’s not a solution’, he says. Although he recognises that affirmative action may be necessary at times to alleviate an acute situation, he is more interested in eliminating obstacles in everyone’s way. ‘I’d rather look at the factors that work out as a disadvantage for women and solve these. Then, there will be more similar conditions for all applicants.’

    On the other hand, every female researcher and instructor interviewed for this story is firmly in favour of the university utilising affirmative action. Van Breen suggests that assertions that job candidates are judged purely based on their merits is pretty much delusional. ‘It suggests that affirmative action detracts from meritocracy, but it doesn’t. It allows it to develop, because meritocracy is not a real thing at the moment.’

    Good fit

    Van Breen argues that affirmative action does not create unfair advantages, but is instead designed to reduce structural disadvantages faced by certain groups. For example, if the members of a hiring committee are all older white men and a job applicant is a person of colour or a woman, the differences in their lifestyles could leave the committee with the feeling that they would ‘not click’ with the job candidate.

    ‘In such a case, the applicants’ group membership influences hiring decisions in subtle ways’, Van Breen says. ‘Unless you have affirmative action in place to cope with that, you may have people thinking things like, ‘Oh, we don’t want to hire her just because she’s a woman’ – but that’s because otherwise, you wouldn’t hire her.’

    Medical sciences professor Deniz Başkent, who is originally from Turkey, says that affirmative action is vital, but that it should account for other types of diversity, such as sexual orientation, social class and physical ability, as well.

    ‘I’ve tried to hire disabled students, and we saw all kinds of obstacles’, she says. There was a student who had a huge electric wheelchair, but we didn’t know how to make it possible to get to the only office which was available at that time. I had another student who could only work part time because of getting headaches so she didn’t have the physical strength to work full time, but if you don’t work full time, you cannot apply for grants. She couldn’t get funding.’

    Given that her work environment is a teaching hospital, Başkent feels there is even more urgency to provide for students who may be effectively discriminated against because of failing to accommodate their needs. ‘By definition, we are supposed to help people, and I think that under the diversity umbrella, disability is also very important.’


    Before moving to Groningen as a Rosalind Franklin Fellow, Başkent studied and worked as a researcher in the United States. There, she saw first hand what a difference legal provisions can make: ‘In America, there is a lot of law in place against discrimination. I sit on hiring committees here, and even now, people still make comments about women and dare to ask about them having children, and I have to tell them, ‘You cannot ask that’.’

    The numbers: minorities at the RUG

    According to figures provided by the human resources department of the RUG, roughly 25 per cent of research staff members are non-Western, and 44 per cent of tenure track instructors are female. That suggests that academic staff may be more diverse in years to come (providing they remain in Groningen) but current demographics of full professors tell a different story: out of 469 full professors (hoogleraren) at the university, 96 are female, but fewer than a dozen full professors are ethnic minorities. On average, most RUG faculties hover around 76 per cent male, 24 per cent female and most professors who are persons of colour are employed in the medical faculty. To see an overview of the specific numbers per faculty, click here.

    Başkent attributes such a line of questioning to the likelihood that the men making hiring decisions may have grown up in households with a stay-at-home mom, or that their own wives may have left their careers behind to raise their children. ‘It’s a foreign issue to them’, she says. ‘But when you explain, sometimes they listen, and eventually relate. Times are changing.’

    President Poppema himself acknowledges that lack of awareness. ‘It’s mostly that we simply do not see it. Very few people in a university environment would ever say that it’s not a good thing to have equal representation of women, but that is not the point. The point is to actually see the way that many of the decisions we take can work against women.’

    Failure to recognise obstacles that may disproportionately impact minorities is part of De Bruin’s research, too. ‘We often don’t notice discrimination of minorities in the job market or on religious grounds as much, and I do think that’s a problem given the fact that the groups affected by it are often much more vulnerable.’


    Another sector that can be a minefield for minorities is the housing market. Although many foreigners in Groningen warn each other about realtors declining to rent to them because of their ethnicity, such claims remain difficult to prove.

    The message you are receiving is that you are not welcome here as a customer because of where you are from

    One foreign RUG instructor, who asked to remain anonymous, has little doubt that nationality and race played a role in how she and several of her colleagues, who are Latin American, were treated.

    Her colleagues offered to take the lead in searching for a house. ‘They were embarrassed because there were a couple of agencies that rejected them as clients. They said, ‘As soon as they asked us where we were from and we told them, they went, ‘Oh, yeah…’ and kind of trailed off. Of course no one comes out and tells you, but the message you are receiving is that you are not welcome here as a customer because of where you are from’, she says.


    Some university faculties provide relocation services for foreign staff via International Welcome Centre North, which can make moving easier for new employees by closely examining their rental contracts and often serving as Dutch-speaking intermediaries. But such services are not yet standard across the university, which struck Başkent when she arrived.

    ‘I felt that this university wanted to be a world player and wanted to be in the top 100 universities in the world and be very international, but there was no clear infrastructure to help us transition’, she says. ‘If you hire new people, there really needs to be this structure to help them right away. I think you cannot ask people to do their job if you do not give them the right conditions.’

    The conditions do seem to be improving, though. Nowadays, there are two Chief Diversity Officers, along with Dual Career Support for the partners of staff who seek to gain better access to professional networks in Groningen. The university is even considering starting a gender studies minor programme. Dutilh Novaes says that social justice arguments aside, there is also a deeply pragmatic reason for the university to put more effort into recruiting minority and female employees and keeping them.

    ‘We’re losing too many potential students because we’re not attracting the women’, she says. People are more likely to feel they belong in an organisation where they can identify mentors and leaders who are like themselves: ‘You may be losing them because they are not recognising themselves here.’

    Zwarte Piet

    It is not really possible to write an article about what discrimination is in the Netherlands without examining the continued tradition of the Zwarte Piet character. When the first interviews for this piece took place in August of 2015, the average Dutch person would have been unlikely to believe that Erik van Muiswinkel, a cabaretier who has played Sinterklaas’s main Zwarte Piet for eighteen years, would step down from the role because he no longer feels comfortable with how the traditional black face depiction has not changed quickly enough.

    That depiction is undeniably anchored in the history of Vaudeville, according to arts, media and culture lecturer Kristin McGee. In the early twentieth century, black and white theatre troupes and minstrel acts that originated in America took their show on the road to Europe, including the Netherlands. ‘They performed in black face here and helped popularise the idea’, says McGee. ‘There was an international representation of black face in Europe in the early twentieth century, and it was very popular.’


    Last year, the annual debate about whether Zwarte Piet is a racist tradition was shoved into the international spotlight when the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on the Dutch government to ‘actively work to change the features’ of Zwarte Piet, stating that ‘deeply rooted cultural tradition does not justify discriminatory practices and stereotypes’.

    Whether a Dutch holiday tradition is worthy of comment by the UN is up for debate, but De Bruin agrees that determining what exposure to such imagery does is very worthy of investigation. ‘We have to look at how that symbolism affects the way white people treat black people’, he says. ‘How do white Dutch people rate black Dutch people’s credibility during or after Sinterklaas? That might seem like a small question, but it’s an entirely new question.’

    Coming from Brazil, a nation shaped by the slave trade, Dutilh Novaes is acutely aware of how uncommon it is in the Netherlands to discuss race, be it in a historic or contemporary context. ‘Some Dutch people seem to think that because they never had slavery here in the Netherlands that they’re not on the wrong side of the story’, she says. ‘But the Dutch East Indies Company was very directly involved in the slavery trade. So I think that is a responsibility shared by a lot of people, and it tends to be ignored because it didn’t happen here.’ To that end, she is planning to teach a course on the philosophy of race in the coming academic year.


    The kneejerk reaction often lobbed at people in favour of Zwarte Piet – that they must be racist if they support the continued use of black face – is an affront to a person’s sense of who they are. ‘It’s very threatening to personal identity to be seen as a racist, and people will really try to avoid that’, says Maja Kutlaca, a researcher in the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences who is originally from Serbia.

    But the flip side of that is that those who complain about sexism, racism or any kind of discrimination are likely to be perceived very negatively, Van Breen says. Kutlaca says that is the ‘do-gooder derogation’: witnessing somebody calling out discrimination and taking a stand against it can actually cause others who perceive themselves as champions of equality to dislike them. ‘That can also be threatening to our identity, which paradoxically can make us devalue the ones who do stand up. Being the one who voices it out loud draws attention to you.’

    Professor Bosscher expects that the current depiction of Zwarte Piet will go the way of the rebel battle flag in the United States. ‘Ten years ago, no one would have believed what happened in Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina [last year] could occur.’

    What occurred was government buildings in those southern states finally removed the stars and bars flag, which was used by the confederate army during the Civil War, from their grounds last summer. ‘People always said, ‘Oh no, that won’t happen because they’re so attached to the symbols of this lost cause’, but it’s just not like that’, Bosscher says.

    ‘The majority of people have enough of a sense of history and common sense to accept changes they cannot prevent, and I don’t think it’s a matter of preventing it from happening, but rather welcoming changes.’

    Traci White has been conducting interviews in person, via telephone, Skype and email since August of 2015 for this article. The original focus of the article was to address perceptions of race in the Netherlands in general, but as the year progressed, matters of how women and other minorities are represented in academia were also incorporated into the story.

    Academics from psychology, political science, medicine, philosophy, economics, linguistics, media studies, organisational behaviour and history were approached to explain what the notion of discrimination means in their respective fields. Members of the human resources department of the RUG, diversity officers from the RUG and other Dutch universities, and the education inspector general of the Netherlands were approached about the role that Dutch education on all levels plays in the academic and professional outcomes of people of minority groups in the Netherlands.