The first PhD students will begin working at the RUG in September. Over the next few years, 850 of them will come to Groningen. They are young researchers, often unsure about their future and unaware that if they are not careful, they could be urged in a certain direction by those around them. Professor of life sciences Ingrid Molema wants to train them so they can make good choices themselves.
There is so much female potential that is lost, and that’s just bad
‘Everyone knows that 50 percent of the students are women’, Molema starts. ‘You can also see those numbers among PhD candidates. But if you look closely at senior lecturers or professors, the percentage of women is much lower. There is so much female potential that is lost, and that’s just bad. Bad for the university, bad for the economy, bad for the country.’
Molema clearly cares a lot. Wide-eyed and speaking quickly, she is on the edge of her seat. As president of the National Network of Women Professors, she is confronted with numbers showing women trailing behind on a daily basis. This is the same everywhere, but she knows that it is exceptionally bad in the Netherlands. ‘We’re at the bottom of the list of European countries. We are in the fourth lowest position when it comes to the percentage of female professors.’
And that is not because women more often choose to take care of the children. It is much more complicated than that: Molema says implicit bias is at play. ‘The fact remains that a lot of people still think that a woman can’t do things as well. That is in all of us: in you, in me. There is this subconscious idea that men are better at things. And what you then get, for example, is that women aren’t challenged as much in their academic work, because their male department heads don’t give them any of the challenging work. Because as I said, women aren’t as good as that, so all the exciting work goes to the men. This then demotivates women, and when they have to make a choice about who stays home to take care of the children, there’s a bigger chance of women saying: ‘You know what, I don’t really like my job anyway.’’
Impostor syndrome is when you feel like you are fooling everyone
Not just women, but also non-native Dutch people face these barriers. And a lot of women, as well as approximately a quarter of men, limit themselves by thinking they are not good enough. ‘It’s called impostor syndrome. That is when you feel like you are fooling everyone when it comes to your capabilities. We’re prone to thinking: ‘Sure, people are applauding me for this lecture, but I don’t actually deserve that.’ We’re masters at being self-effacing.’
Students should be made aware of the existence of these subconscious boundaries ‘to ensure that they will find their optimal way in their professional life’, feels Molema.
That is why she is developing an empowerment course for future PhD students. What that course will look like is not yet clear; it is still being worked out. But that it will come is certain, now that minister Bussemaker has approved of the bursary experiment.
‘A lot of young adults think that gender inequality is a thing of the past. But when they are evaluating a lecturer’s course online, a male lecturer’s course often scores an entire point higher than a class that was developed by a woman. This was shown in a study done last year’, says Molema.
In other words, the issue is still very relevant. Also at the university. ‘In other countries, when a woman gets a job as a research leader, they often only get one student to supervise, while men immediately get three. So women are trailing behind from the start’, says Molema. ‘That means that not just PhD candidates, but their supervisors need training as well. We should ensure that they realise that the world doesn’t consist of only white men, but that there is so much more: the international and female PhD students. Ideally, I would like to raise this issue at the universities in many different ways and at many different times.’
The empowerment course is part of a programme called career perspectives, which should help the PhD students to get rid of another prejudice: the idea that you have failed as a PhD candidate if you do not continue down an academic path but chose a commercial career instead.
‘Getting your PhD is so much more than just writing papers. You’ve learned so much: management, communication, facilitating teamwork. PhD candidates working outside the university is actually great, both for them and for society. They bring so many things to the table’, says Molema.
Some supervisors are really narrow-minded
The professor knows from personal experience that each PhD candidate is different. ‘They shouldn’t be forced to be a certain way’, opines Molema. According to her, she has been saying this to the university for over ten years. ‘It used to be considered blasphemy. But even now, many people are afraid to speak up to their supervisors, because they’re afraid they’ll leave them hanging. They’re told that ‘there’s no point in me supervising you if you don’t pursue an academic career’. Some supervisors are really narrow-minded.’
But Molema thinks that the academic world has changed, and the RUG has to change with it. ‘I’m not expecting any real resistance against the career perspectives programme. Nobody will actually be against it. But not everyone will be equally enthusiastic about the project. The Graduate Schools are interested, the students are enthusiastic. And deep down, most professors know that it’s 2016, and this is the way it’s supposed to be.’
Molema certainly will not be holding back. In collaboration with the Graduate Schools, she is having alumni give workshops to the PhD candidates, putting the students in contact with business people and offering them a personal career plan.
‘This is really important to me. PhD candidates should be well-educated when they leave university, and they should continue to be successful. That won’t happen if we keep treating them like small children, holding their hands. But it will happen if you offer them the opportunity to grow. That’s really what I’m all about.’