Left to right: Ashley Monteiro, Beatriz Noheda and Ruby Schofield Photo by Reyer Boxem

Power women of the UG

More confidence without boys

Left to right: Ashley Monteiro, Beatriz Noheda and Ruby Schofield Photo by Reyer Boxem
On March 8, International Women’s Day, women all over the world celebrate not only their womanhood, but also the feminist struggle. Three power women of the UG share their story on female empowerment.
6 March om 11:05 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 11 March 2024
om 15:51 uur.
March 6 at 11:05 AM.
Last modified on March 11, 2024
at 15:51 PM.
Photo by Reyer Boxem

The established researcher Beatriz Noheda

Photo by Reyer Boxem

It took years before CogniGron research centre director and engineering hotshot Beatriz Noheda realised that women have to fight for their position. She believes she has her education in a Spanish nun school to thank for that.

Door Christien Boomsma

It’s counterintuitive, to say the least. Still, Beatriz Noheda thinks she benefited from the fact that when she was a girl growing up in Spain, a good education meant going to a religious school. ‘And that meant being separated by gender. So if you were a girl, you would go to a girls’ school.’

Since she grew up in a household of four sisters, it meant that in her early years, she never had to compare herself to boys. ‘Boys and girls behave differently. Girls doubt themselves more. It helps a lot to increase your self-confidence if there are no boys around.’

So there was no one to tell her implicitly or explicitly that physics and engineering might be a challenging career for a woman. That she might not be good enough. ‘I just went for it to see if I could manage. And now I look at myself and say: hey, you’re fifty-five years old and still here.’

Rosalind Franklin Fellowship

Beatriz Noheda more than managed. She specialised in ferroelectrics – materials that create a tiny electrical charge of their own that are useful in all kinds of electronic devices – and worked in New York at one of the large United States National Laboratories. 

She followed her Dutch partner to the Netherlands when she was thirty and subsequently changed focus, re-specialising in creating ultra thin layers of a few atoms. ‘I had applied for a job at TU Eindhoven’, she remembers. ‘But then the only Dutch professor working in my field at that time told me Philips were abandoning all investments on ferroelectrics. I thought: if these guys think it’s over, what am I still doing researching this?’

I just went for it to see if I could manage

Then in 2004, the University of Groningen started with the first Rosalind Franklin Fellowships – a tenure track position for women with innovative ideas – and she applied with a project that combined her brand new expertise of thin layers with ferroelectrics, aiming to create novel memory devices for future computers.

These days, she heads one of the most prestigious research centres at the UG, she’s a Fellow of the American Physical Society, and has published many articles in top magazines like Science and Nature

Big grants

It took her a long time to actually encounter any of the subtle ways in which society holds women back. The number of women in science in Spain was relatively high when she started out. ‘It wasn’t very competitive and you didn’t have to go abroad, so it was a good choice for women who wanted to combine their job with a family.’

Noheda did go abroad though, to New York and Oxford. And when she decided to leave the former, she was immediately offered a permanent position there. Partly because she had gotten great results, but also – she thinks – because the department wanted more women. In Groningen, it was the Rosalind Franklin position that gave her a push. ‘My gender worked well for me’, she thinks. In those first years, grants came easily too.

Until they didn’t. 

Only when she had to compete for the really big grants, like VICI, did she discover that she might not be considered entirely equal to the people around her. ‘Not only to my male colleagues, but also Dutch colleagues.’

Subtle things

It’s illusive, she says. It’s about people having known each other for years. ‘But you’re an outsider and have no one lobbying for you.’ She’s sure it has cost her grants that she really should have gotten.

For quite some time, she was convinced that the issue only existed later in her career. But when the number of women in science increased and she heard the experiences of those around her, she started to recognise her own – she had just ignored the signs. 

You end up very, very tired of having to fight constantly

It is often subtle things that keep women – and other minorities – on the outside. Not having the right connections. Having to deal with promises not kept, because priorities changed and you were not part of the discussion. Or not being part of informal talks at the coffee machine. ‘You have to force yourself into those if you don’t want to miss out on vital information’, Noheda says. ‘These things are nothing that you can easily go to court over. But you end up very, very tired of having to fight constantly.’


Not that the men in academia don’t want the women there. ‘I believe it’s a general problem. We don’t look with the same respect to people who have not gone abroad, for example, or who chose a different path.’

The key to solving this, she says, is making sure that academia is as diverse as possible. If you make sure your research group is diverse – whether it is in gender, career paths, age, or nationality – women will come too. At her own institute, 39 percent of the principal researchers – the people who bring in the subsidies – are women across seventeen nationalities. ‘You become very understanding of people saying: I know you have always done it like this, but I find it’s not the best way.’ 

And that’s not only good for science, but for the people in science as well.

But even though Noheda sees things are progressing, she believes not everyone is convinced of the benefits of diversity. She believes the university should act locally, and actively identify and change these institutes and faculties where diversity is not happening.  ‘The problem we have is not because there are people disliking women scientists, but we just don’t dare to let academia be different from what it always was.’

Photo by Reyer Boxem

The student Ashley Monteiro

Photo by Reyer Boxem

To Ashley Monteiro, female empowerment is all about black girls supporting each other. She’s president of the ‘sisterhood’ Black Ladies of Groningen, aimed at bringing together black women.

By Ingrid Ştefan

Growing up in Luxembourg, Ashley Monteiro was often the only black kid in her class. ‘You could easily spot me in all the album pictures’, she says. And while everyone was nice to her, she couldn’t help but feel like something was missing. Or rather, someone; she didn’t have anyone to whom she could relate. ‘I never felt left out in my class, but I wish I’d had another black girl to talk to about things only other black people can understand. Like my hair.’

She was never able to shake that feeling, so when she came to the University of Groningen two years ago to study international and European law, she wasn’t just looking for an education. It was also very much about finding a community. ‘When I came here, I was very eager to meet other black people who are not my family or my family’s friends.’

Of course, Groningen isn’t a very ‘black’ city. But Groningen does have BLOG – Black Ladies of Groningen – an organisation of young black women in Groningen who seek each other out to build friendships and support each other.  


The community of BLOG grew out of a WhatsApp group in 2018 that became so popular that it is now a full grown organisation with a five-member board, a website of its own, and around 260 members. ‘In BLOG, I have found other black women empowering me’, Ashley says. ‘People who always tell me how much they believe in me.’

You just need your own community, people who understand your problems

Ashley found out about it when she came to Groningen last year, and even though she was shy about meeting all the others at first, BLOG soon became her family away from home, just like it is for many other black women. ‘You just need your own community. It’s not only about support, but it’s about people who understand your problems. White women can’t relate with my hair issues, for example. But black women can.’

The organisation has brought her so much that she wanted to pay it forward, by becoming its president. 

Better place

However, BLOG is not just important for black women, Ashley thinks: it’s necessary to the white community as well. ‘If you want to make the world a better place and come up with solutions to racism, we need people at the table who actually have experienced the things you want to solve.’

Groningen is an open and international-friendly city for black women to thrive, says Ashley, but it’s still important to talk more about their struggles. ‘Just because they don’t affect everyone, it doesn’t mean they’re less relevant.’

Like so many other black women, Ashley has been struggling with being underestimated all her life. ‘It’s not something I can pinpoint. But sometimes people see me in a way, and then they act so surprised when I turn out to be totally different than they thought. Just because of my skin tone.’ 

Role model

Like that one time last December when she worked as a receptionist in Luxembourg. A man came to her desk and asked her a question, to which she responded in fluent Luxembourgish. ‘He was so surprised, he even complimented how well I speak Luxembourgish. But I grew up there, so of course I speak the language. And I told him that.’

My mom brought me up in a feminist environment

It wasn’t just the Black Ladies that made her want to do something to empower black women. Her mother had already created a community for black women in Luxembourg, Ashley says. ‘I have strong women in my family. My mom brought me up in a feminist environment. She’s my role model.’

Women have it harder than men, generally speaking, she says. ‘And black people have it harder than white people. Therefore, black women just have work even harder because of our skin tone.’


It’s all in the little things, Ashley says, from people wanting to touch your hair to men fetishising you because of cultural stereotypes. ‘There are these daily microaggressions that black women go through. Like how my mom got her hair grabbed by a white woman in a supermarket, or how people often ask me if they can touch my hair.’

That’s why the representation of black women is so necessary within the UG too, she says. To bring awareness and offer feedback. Ashley is trying to do just that, not just as president of BLOG, but also as part of the university’s Diversity and Inclusion Office.

Representation is what counts the most, but it’s also about getting people to listen. ‘Not even to try to find a solution. Just to acknowledge their privilege and learn something, understand more about our community’, she says. ‘I know we have so much potential. And even though not everyone recognises that, I do. I see our progress, I see our change. So we’ll keep pushing.’

Photo by Reyer Boxem

The up-and-coming philosopher Ruby Schofield

Photo by Reyer Boxem

Philosophy PhD student Ruby Schofield has been studying empowerment narratives and feminism for three years now. What she’s learned: ‘We’re all so socially embedded that it’s not possible to just kind of step outside of society and realise what you really want.’

By  Julianne Veltman

It’s become a popular view these last few decades: women shouldn’t behave like they were victimised by society. Instead, they should speak up, be strong, and fight back.

In short: they should be empowered. But is that a fair thing to expect? ‘This obligation means that women don’t feel able to talk about their vulnerability and instead have to be self-reliant and assertive’, says philosopher Ruby Schofield. And she doesn’t like that at all

Schofield is in the third year of her PhD project on empowerment. It brought her from Leeds to Groningen in 2021. ‘My research is basically an analysis of the concept of empowerment’, she says. She wants to shed light on the fact that women are competent, autonomous individuals. However, they are also facing structural oppression, which influences the choices they make. 

Patriarchal structures

Take tradwives, women who believe in traditional gender roles, with the men going out to provide and women staying at home to cook and clean and have children. Some feel that these women represent feminist choices because they consciously choose to be a tradwife. ‘But why does someone make that choice? I think it has something to do with oppression, injustice, and the values that we’ve inherited from patriarchal structures’, Schofield says.

There was this moral obligation to make the best out of a difficult situation

She traces the idea of the individualistic, self-reliant empowered woman back to the 1990s, which saw a surge of writing about empowerment by feminist authors. ‘Empowerment used to be understood in much broader terms; it was initially about empowering people in settings where there might be power dynamics at play.’ At the same time, there was a shift from thinking about feminism in structural terms to more individualistic ones, with an emphasis on personal responsibility. 

Feminism was influenced by the neoliberal desire to be an autonomous individual who maximises their own self-interest. ‘And so there was this moral obligation to put on a brave face and make the best out of a difficult situation’, says Schofield. 

Power feminism

Feminist writer Naomi Wolf was one of the people to bring these ideas to the wider public. She wanted to move towards an empowering ideology which she calls power feminism. ‘Wolf says that we should learn to speak up, be strong, and fight back.’

But Schofield strongly disagrees with Wolf’s idea. ‘She said women just need to stand up on their own two legs and walk out the door if they feel uncomfortable in a situation where they’re being mistreated. But I think this just completely obscures all of the power dynamics that might be at play in a situation like that.’

Wolf’s narrative does not offer much clarification about what exactly it wants empowered women to do, either. ‘Where does this emphasis on individual power take us? It’s no real political movement. Just a group of people doing whatever they want.’

Leaning in

Within academia, there has been pushback against the idea of the return to essentialised and oppressive gender roles portrayed by, for example, tradwives. In some popular feminist domains, however, she sees the opposite. 

One example would be famous gender-based TikTok trends such as ‘girl dinner’ where women and girls share their dinner portions, which are generally far too small. This trend is problematic because it can lead to a situation where women feel like they have to eat a certain way or to eat less than men. 

I also still wear makeup and shave my legs; I’m so conditioned

Not only does it move us away from using empowerment as a political framework which has as its goal to end gender oppression, Schofield argues, it also comes at the cost of acknowledging and challenging those who are disempowered. ‘I think this is something we should be critical of.’

Take the idea that women should ‘lean in’. In other words, they should speak up, get themselves into rooms that they’re not invited to, and empower themselves in the workplace. ‘This kind of popular feminist narrative focuses on the experience of one individual empowered woman. But that does not acknowledge the disempowerment which a lot of usually less wealthy, often not-white working-class women are experiencing’, she says. 

Gender injustice

Schofield proposes to move away from the idea of individual choice. We should think about empowerment in more structural and collective terms. ‘It should be a tool of a broader political framework which aims to end gender oppression.’

She also feels empowerment shouldn’t just be about gender. Popular feminism has oversimplified the picture of gender by simply seeing women being oppressed by men. ‘It doesn’t really account for non-binary people or androgynous people who very often experience gender injustice.’

Breaking free from the patriarchal structure might be easier said than done, she realises. ‘We’re all so socially embedded that it’s not possible to just kind of step outside of society and realise what you really want’, Schofield admits. ‘I also still wear makeup and shave my legs. I’m so conditioned by these gender roles and norms. Just because you kind of realise it’s happening, it doesn’t mean that you can actually stop. Society benefits you when you conform to these expectations.’ 

But it is a good starting point to think about these empowerment narratives more critically, and to be able to see them in their complexity. ‘In the end, empowerment should be about solidarity between all the different kinds of marginalised groups.’