Committees ask too much of women

More women, more pressure

In order to have more women in top positions, you need more women on selection committees. It sounds like a great plan. But the women on those committees are in danger of being overstretched.
By Anne Floor Lanting / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Why should women be on BACs?

Selection committee members tend to choose candidates that are like them, Radboud University professor of gender and diversity Marieke van den Brink determined. She studied the recruitment of professors at Dutch universities between 1999 and 2005.

Committees that consist of several female professors more often hired women. But 44 percent of the committees consisted of nothing but men.

That’s because committee members want people that they know and trust. That means they mainly look at their own, homogeneous networks. This means they often overlook candidates outside of these networks.

It’s a tricky one: the RUG would prefer to have at least two women on every BAC (selection advice committee) for professors. This would increase the chances of women being hired. This is important, because the percentage of female professors at the RUG has been languishing at a measly 19 percent. The goal is to raise this to 27 percent by 2020.

But where does the university get the women for the committees. On the faculties that need the new women the most, the same women get asked to be on the committees over and over again. And being on a BAC is not easy work.

The Faculty of Science and Engineering (FSE) is one of the faculties struggling with the problem. ‘I get asked to be on committees all the time. That’s because at my institute, I’m the only female professor’, says Ida van der Klei, professor of molecular cellular biology. ‘But if I don’t do it, they have to ask someone from a different department. And that’s a problem.’

‘With the current number of open positions at FSE we should be lucky to get women on all the BACs’, Petra Rudolf, professor of experimental solid state physics, adds.

Attract female candidates

And then they also have to do everything they can to draw female candidates to the position, since they will be a minority. ‘It’s not easy. We don’t have as large a pool to choose from, so we have to work extra hard to find them. They’re just so scarce’, says Rudolf.

Nevertheless, the two women think it’s worth investing their time and effort in. ‘It’s usually about positions within our own departments, so about our future co-workers. I’m always keen to be involved in that’, says Van der Klei.

It’s a sacrifice that the women already here have to make

The approach appears to be working. The number of female professors at FSE and the RUG in general has increased, not just because of actions like this, but also because of the the Rosalind Franklin programme, which is aimed at bringing female scientists into the university. ‘When I was appointed professor fifteen years ago, I was only the third woman in the Netherlands with the chair in physics. But now there are six in Groningen alone’, says Rudolf.

Besides, how else can they fight the lack of female representation? ‘It’s a sacrifice that the women already here have to make. If our goal is to hire more female professors at the university, someone will have to do the work for that’, council member and professor of astrophysics Mariano Mendéz during a faculty council meeting.

But, that same council concluded, that doesn’t mean these women aren’t in danger of being overstretched. ‘Please be wary of constantly asking female professors for help’, former chair Marc van der Maarel pleaded.

Three working days

Work for a BAC takes approximately three working days, Van der Klei estimates. A seat on the Rosalind Franklin committee takes even more. ‘For that, there are many more candidates, from different areas. Last year, I think I spent about two weeks on it.’ And this is work on top of their regular duties, such as writing applications, running the lab, and doing their own research. But Van der Klei is loath to complain. ‘It’s part of my job description’, she says.

But Laura Spierdijk, professor of econometrics at the Faculty of Economics and Business (FEB) disagrees. When she started work at the RUG in 2006, she was asked to be on practically every BAC. ‘I simply had no other female colleagues. I complained about this, because it just takes so much time.’

Irene Burgers, who works as a professor of fiscal economy at FEB and the law faculty, is familiar with the issue. ‘We’re constantly busy. Accepting a seat on a BAC means that your own writing and supervising your PhD students will take a back seat for a while.’

Fortunately, the past five years or so have seen an increase in female colleagues to share the work with, but the pressure remains high. Spierdijk was awarded a VIDI grant by research fund NWO in 2012. Since then, she is regularly asked to be on the advisory committee for these grants. For these, too, equal distribution is important.

After the third time I said enough was enough

‘After the third time I said enough was enough. Because man, was that a lot of work. That, plus the work for multiple BACs at the RUG, meant I had no time for my regular job’, the professor says.


So what is the solution? Only ask female professors to be on committees for actual professorial positions. ‘We also have appointment committees for associate professors and university lecturers. They should ask other associate professors and lecturers to be on those’, Ingrid Molema, professor of life sciences, suggests.

It might also be a good idea to temporarily lighten the committee members’ regular workload. ‘University employees are loath to refuse these requests’, says Van der Maarel. ‘Protect them from themselves by giving them the opportunity to dial down their regular activities for a little while.’

‘You could offer them a trade: if they take a seat on two serious BACs this year, they won’t have to teach a certain class, or they can skip other committee work’, Molema says.

But Spierdijk doubts whether this is actually possible at FEB. She fears there is no room, due to the lack of staff. ‘So many people are already overstretched at this faculty; they can’t just be asked to take over classes from a colleague.’

But it’s not all bad. Committee works brings you closer to your colleagues. These contacts can come in handy when you’re looking for people to sit on PhD committees, or when you need a research partner.

Nevertheless, women would prefer to be asked to do committee work because of their expertise rather than their gender. Clara Mulder, professor of demographics, says: ‘Sometimes the letter will actually say: we’re asking you for this because you are a female professor. That’s just not okay.’

But she takes it in stride. ‘Being on a BAC is a really useful experience, and it’s a lot of fun. So the fact that women are more likely to be asked for them is also kind of a good thing.’




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