The Dutch experiment barring men from faculty applications

When it comes to gender equality, desperate stats call for desperate measures. Paddy Smith looks at how one Dutch university is forcing men out of its recruitment drives to address the issue

It’s no secret that women get a raw deal when it comes to career prospects worldwide. Culturally, women are expected to have children. Regardless of whether they can or intend to, that expectation carries a bias. Old-fashioned employers may resent the idea of paying maternity leave costs, or fear reduced commitment to the role in future. New-fashioned employers may lose their footing too. When Facebook announced it would pay for its female employees to have their eggs frozen, it was immediately hit with accusations that it was trying to stop them from starting families at the company’s expense.

The problem is universal, and higher education is by no means exempt.

When UB interviewed the Open University’s vice-chancellor, Mary Kellett, earlier this year, she was keen to point out that she wasn’t a typical candidate for the job, not because she came to academia later in life, but because she was “a full-time mother for 10 years”.

“A lot of people seem to think to be successful in any career you can’t afford to stay at home, whether you’re male or female,” she said, “that that will scupper your chances.”

In Times Higher Education’s rankings for gender equality, the most progressive and successful universities in this endeavour favour a strategic approach. Western Sydney University – which holds the top spot – has been named the employer of choice for gender equality by the Australian government’s Workplace Gender Equality Agency for 14 years on the trot, thanks in part to a gender equality strategy and action plan that started in 2015.

Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit (in second place) has an ongoing mentoring programme and events to promote equality. The University of Gothenburg (third) channels its efforts through its Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Research and the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research. The University of Bologna (fourth equal) has a gender equality plan which commits to the UN’s fifth sustainable development goal (SDG5), which aims to “end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere”. Also borrowing from national strategy is the UK’s University of Worcester (fourth equal), which reported a government-mandated gender pay gap divide of just over 3%, against a national average of 17.4%.

Not everyone has the benefit of a well-forged strategy to move towards gender parity. Many organisations struggle with even top-line business strategy, let alone funnelled goals. It may be that getting the buy-in of senior management is difficult owing to competing business priorities. In higher education there can be a relatively high percentage of women on the payroll, even if it rolls off as salaries get higher. That can be enough to convince the executive (which, let’s remember, is probably majority male) that further progress can wait.

Either by way of calling attention to the lack of strategy, or to move the issue up the agenda, one ploy is to introduce a shock tactic. Blunter and less reliable than a carefully wrought ongoing strategy, it has the benefit of generating awareness at board level, starting a conversation that may lead to improved strategic direction. It also creates wider conversation, unofficially inviting feedback from the staff, students and broader community. And, of course, it can create the odd headline. QED.

The university is only accepting applications from women for the first six months of any hiring call – it’s drastic but also perhaps necessary

Such is the move from the Netherlands’ Eindhoven University of Technology (TU Eindhoven), which from 1 July has shifted the goalposts on its application process for new faculty members. The university is only accepting applications from women for the first six months of any hiring call for the next year and a half.

It’s drastic, but also perhaps necessary. TU Eindhoven’s rector, Frank Baaijens, says the school, one of the leading science and tech institutions in Europe, has the lowest proportion of female full professors, at 15%. Baaijens wants to have women account for 35% of associate and full professors (up from 15%) and half of assistant professors (up from 29%). “We’re putting females on top of the pile of candidates,” he says.

And while the move has drawn the opprobrium of the usual detractors – discrimination against men has been cited, perceived lack of professional reputation from being ‘helped’ into a role – TU Eindhoven insists roles will only be offered on merit. “We are looking for outstanding scientists,” Baaijens adds.

Globally women make up 42% of university and college academic staff. While the Netherlands does better than average (45%) in the sector, it fares less well with academic scientists and engineers, with 38% against an EU-wide 41%.

And TU Eindhoven’s gambit has attracted praise from afar as well. Martha Potvin, provost and vice-president for academic affairs at Springfield College in Massachusetts, told Nature: “I like the bold move… this an opportunity to really kick it up a step.”

It is unfair, though, to suggest that such a singular tactical play is happening in isolation. The university has been trying to move towards gender parity for at least a decade. Assessment committees have a minimum of two female members and faculty members are trained to spot unconscious gender bias.

Neither would it be fair to suggest the idea is entirely new. Germany’s Max Planck Society has a women-only hiring initiative, as do Delft University of Technology and the University of Groningen, both also based in the Netherlands. The latter two inspired TU Eindhoven’s programme, but Baaijens believes his institution is the first to implement it across the whole university.

Over the five years, TU Eindhoven expects to recruit more than 150 faculty members, with all being opened to women first (exceptions will be considered for particularly well-qualified male candidates), with the role only being extended to men if it hasn’t been filled after six months.

While the programme is intended to last for five years, a review after 18 months will assess how well it is performing, and there is a chance it will be adjusted. For now, we watch and wait. Should it work, expect recruiters at UK universities to take their cue.


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