How does the RUG keep women on board?

Time for the balance bitch

The RUG is doing its best to recruit as much female talent as possible. But aren’t the standards for successful academics due for reassessment?
By Thereza Langeler / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

The RUG is looking for a new rector magnificus. The job description in the advertisement was extensive, but the communication department summarised it neatly on Twitter: ‘She or he represents the academic community, with an emphasis on high-quality education and research.’

We can assume from the wording of the post that the RUG is invested in gender equality. And they are. Thanks to an initiative put in place by the chief diversity officers who were instated in 2016, managers are now trained to combat subconscious gender prejudices. And during promotion procedures, faculties take care to promote associate professors to full professors. So, the number of female associate professors has been increasing steadily: from 22 percent in 2011 to 35 percent today.

Now for the bad news.

The university’s goal was for 25 percent of professors to be female by end of 2015. But they only made it to 18 percent. Today, 20.7 percent of professors are women. The goal for the near future (late 2020) is to reach 27 percent, but HR calculated that unless the current policies change, the RUG will add no more than two percent over the next two years, ending up at only 22.7 percent.


Arts faculty dean and chief diversity officer (cdo) Gerry Wakker acknowledges that it’s a difficult process. ‘If it were easy, we would have solved this problem decades ago.’ She says there are several reasons that the number of women in senior positions is still so low. ‘Some women retired and we simply didn’t have any other women in the field to succeed them. And because of unconscious bias, we still hire more men than women.’

Unconscious bias is at play when people, asked to picture a typical professor, envision a wise old white guy with grey hair. It’s at play when selection committees don’t mind when a male candidate doesn’t meet all the job requirements (he can improve!), but reject a woman for the same deficiencies (what if she can’t handle the job?). It’s at play when men are celebrated for strong leadership qualities that women are judged harshly for.

To combat unconscious bias, Wakker and her fellow cdo Jasper Knoester, the dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering, set up training courses. They also created guidelines for equitable selection procedures.

But the question remains whether the RUG will actually reach its goal – for 27 percent of professors to be female – by 31 December, 2020. Wakker is guardedly optimistic: ‘I’m not sure we’ll get there exactly. But we’ll be close.’

30 percent increase

University council members were less optimistic when they discussed the issue in November. Personnel faction member and statistician Casper Albers calculated that, in order to reach the desired percentage, the number of female professors would have to increase by more than 30 percent over the next two years. ‘It’s not particularly encouraging.’

The RUG has plans for a renewed call for twenty Rosalind Franklin Fellows, as well as a promotion procedure for women who don’t have a tenure track position but who are eligible for a professorship. ‘We have to have a good hard look at our hiring policies’, rector magnificus Elmer Sterken said. ‘Right now, we need to focus on recruiting people. We should be working much harder on that.’

The RUG should be focusing on keeping women

Recruitment is important, but Rocio Aguilar Suarez, a PhD candidate in microbiology and a member of the personnel faction in the university council, isn’t so sure it should be the university’s primary focus. ‘The RUG’s current actions are mainly focused on attracting women – rather than keeping them for the long term’, he said.

Fellow council member Nikolai Petkov with the science faction wondered if the standards for successful academics are perhaps due for reassessment. His own daughter started an academic career. She made it to associate professor and then left the academic environment for a corporate one, because the latter was easier to combine with having a family. The work stress at the university was killing her. Petkov: ‘If many women are facing this problem, shouldn’t we try and solve it?’


Ellen Nollen was the first Rosalind Franklin Fellow at the medical faculty in 2007. She did manage to climb her way up the ladder from associate to full professor while also having a family at home. ‘But I’m not at the top in my field’, she says. ‘That hurts sometimes.’

Last year, she was very disappointed to be rejected for a prestigious VICI grant. ‘Someone in the selection committee said they didn’t understand something in my proposal. I responded by saying that maybe I hadn’t explained it clearly enough.’ When the committee called to tell her she had been rejected, the caller referred to that remark. ‘The committee said I shouldn’t have said that; I shouldn’t have admitted that I might have done something wrong.’

The academic world centres on relentless self-promotion, and Nollen is tired of it. Researchers always have to sell themselves: to managers, to selection committees, to financiers. They are hardly allowed to prioritise anything else in life. Instead, they’re expected to publish articles, get promoted, win awards, chase grants, and go to every conference in the world, over and over and over again.

Role model

Nollen goes to two conferences a year at most. Her male colleagues accept practically every conference invitation, but she very deliberately turns them down. Otherwise, life would be a logistical nightmare: she has a partner who also has a demanding job, and children who would need someone to look after them.

But there’s a downside to balance: fewer invited talks on your cv. This is a major disadvantage when you’re applying for grants. Nollen often feels bitterly torn: on the one hand, she is determined to fight for her work/life balance in order to be a role model. But on the other hand, that approach stalls upward professional progress. ‘The bar for my research is extremely high. The higher I climb on the academic ladder, the more my particular way of working becomes a detriment, since the only thing that matters for financiers is how many awards you have. That’s what it feels like to me, anyway.’

Asking for help is seen as a weakness

According to Selma van Dijk, a career and leadership coach who works with RUG employees and many Rosalind Franklin Fellows, people are becoming ‘in general more focused on the kind of choices they’re making, asking themselves what’s really important, what’s worth investing their time in.’ In her experience, women have to work extra hard for notoriety and appreciation. They also struggle with managing the different aspects of their life. ‘The university doesn’t always provide guidance for these kinds of struggles.’

But advice from colleagues and managers has been shown to help people. ‘Everyone is convinced that you’re not allowed to ask for help unless you’re truly desperate. It’s seen as a sign of weakness’, says Van Dijk, which is a terrible shame. Because unless the situation changes, many talented women will continue to give up while men stay where they are.

Balance bitch

Van Dijk praises the unconscious bias training initiative. ‘People still fall prey to stereotypes. But she says the RUG needs to do more. ‘If you really want to hire women, and you want them to stay with you, then you have to ask yourself how you can change the workplace culture.’

Jojanneke Bastiaansen is a RUG psychiatry researcher, a GGZ Friesland freelance writer, and the mother of a one-year-old, who recently wrote a blog post in defense of ‘balance bitches’. She first encountered the phrase on dictionary publisher Van Dale’s shortlist for Word of the Year (the list also included ‘flying shame’ and ‘testosterone tweets’). A ‘balance bitch’ is a working woman who is too focused on finding a work/life balance to make it to the top.

‘I was so angry’, says Bastiaansen. ‘It was such a dirty word, like something we weren’t allowed to be.’ She says this attitude towards working women needs to change. ‘We’re more than just employees.’

In her blog post, Bastiaansen made a call to arms: ‘It’s time for balance bitches (m/f) to come out: we are role models who show the world that things can be different. You can work hard and have a family, play the trumpet, dance ballet, bingewatch shows. We have to encourage young researchers to find their own balance.’


She didn’t have these kinds of role models when she was a PhD candidate. ‘Neurosciences was full of men who did nothing but work. I sometimes wondered where all the normal people had gone.’ She thinks a balanced approach could make for better results. ‘It’s our job to do good work. But it should be about the quality of research, not about how much time you spend just churning out articles for publication.’

Time for the balance bitches to come out

Diversity advocate Wakker agrees that the criteria for academic success are ‘particularly masculine’. Rector Sterken also says the university ‘should focus on quality over quantity’. This is in line with what the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) recently decided. They removed the criterion ‘productivity’ from their research evaluation protocol: ‘More does not equal better. The focus should be on the quality and impact of academic research.’ Academic financier NWO understands the need for change; last year they expanded their so-called extension rules: fathers and adoptive parents will also be given extra time to submit a proposal for a Veni scholarship.

Start small

It’s a start. ‘But what we’re talking about here is a culture change, and that always takes time’, says Van Dijk. ‘Especially in large organisations. An institute like the RUG is like an oil tanker; it takes a while to get it to turn.’

But she’s convinced the changes are possible. ‘What’s most important is that the women in academia stay in academia; they can’t leave whenever something gets difficult. They have to find a solution for the problems, and help each other.’

‘It’s a matter of perseverance, and starting small’, Bastiaansen thinks. ‘I try to think about the image I project. If I’m constantly running around like a chicken with its head cut off, complaining about how busy I am, how must I look to people who are currently doing their PhDs?’

Bastiaansen might want to start small, but doesn’t she want to finish big? ‘Ambition can be at war with the desire to enjoy your life.’ She takes some time to think. ‘Maybe we could introduce part-time professors?  Or shared jobs?’

The job description for the new rector doesn’t mention hours or FTEs. But there’s a good chance she or he will be working eighty-hour weeks.


Notify of

De spelregels voor reageren: blijf on topic, geen herhalingen, geen URLs, geen haatspraak en beledigingen. / The rules for commenting: stay on topic, don't repeat yourself, no URLs, no hate speech or insults.


1 Reactie
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments