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How a Dutch university aims to boost gender parity

Female applicants will receive priority consideration for faculty positions at Eindhoven University of Technology for at least 18 months.
Amber Dance is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, California.

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Researchers assembling a laser experimentation in a lab

Eindhoven University of Technology aims to boost recruitment of female faculty members through an initiative that will prioritize their hiring.Credit: CasarsaGuru/Getty

In an effort to balance the gender mix of its faculty members, Eindhoven University of Technology (TU Eindhoven) in the Netherlands will soon accept applications only from women for the first 6 months of any faculty hiring call over the next 18 months. The initiative begins on 1 July.

“We’re putting females on top of the pile of candidates,” says university rector Frank Baaijens.

The university, which is one of Europe’s leading science and technology institutions, hopes to bring its faculty ratios for new hires to 35% female associate and full professors, and 50% female assistant professors, over the next five years. Currently, 15% of the institution’s associate faculty members and 29% of assistant professors are women. The school’s proportion of female full professors, which is also at 15%, is the lowest in the Netherlands, says Baaijens.

Worldwide, women comprise 42% of university and college academic staff, including faculty members; in the Netherlands, the figure is 45%. In the European Union, 41% of academic scientists and engineers are women, compared with 38% in the Netherlands.

“I like the bold move,” says Martha Potvin, provost and vice-president for academic affairs at Springfield College in Massachusetts. Although universities have tried a variety of approaches to recruit and hire more women, such as training search committees to avoid gender bias, those efforts have yielded slow and incremental results, she says. “This is an opportunity to really kick it up a step.”

But the approach could create tension among newly hired female faculty members, warns Samrad Ghane, a clinical psychologist and anthropologist based in Amsterdam who works on diversity for the Parnassia Psychiatric Institute, a nationwide mental-health organization. “Once you have a group of females that are recruited through this policy, there is a lot of pressure on them to prove they really belong there and that they deserve their positions,” he says. “It may turn out to be more destructive than constructive.”

Quest for equality

TU Eindhoven has tried to increase gender parity for at least a decade, says Baaijens. Every assessment committee has at least two female members, and committees scout for female candidates for faculty membership. Faculty members undergo training to recognize and minimize implicit gender bias, the unconscious tendency to see male applicants as superior.

The university’s efforts have helped, says Adriana Creatore, a chemist at TU Eindhoven. She was the first female assistant professor in the applied physics department in 2007. Now, she’s one of 8 females in a faculty with 57 members. “That’s not enough,” she says. “Sometimes you have to take drastic measures, and this is one of them.”

Working with faculty members, the university developed the new programme, known as the Irène Curie Fellowships. Although rare, such plans are not entirely unheard of — the move was inspired by successful, smaller-scale initiatives to recruit women at Delft University of Technology and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The Max Planck Society in Germany also has a women-only hiring initiative. Those schemes recruit a handful of women at a time; but Baaijens thinks that TU Eindhoven is the first to implement the system on a university-wide scale.

TU Eindhoven expects to hire more than 150 faculty members over the next five years because of natural staff turnover, a growth in student population and a Dutch initiative to fund extra faculty recruitment in engineering and natural sciences.

Under the programme, all faculty vacancies must first be opened to women alone. Female recruits will receive mentoring and an extra €100,000 (US$113,400) in laboratory start-up funds.

Baaijens and a committee will consider exceptions for stellar male candidates. But otherwise, men will be permitted to apply only if a suitable female candidate has not been found after six months. The hiring committee must then nominate at least one woman and one man.

After 18 months, the university will reassess its progress and might scale back on the requirement in some departments.

Potential issues

Some critics charge that the programme amounts to discrimination against men, but EU law allows employers to recruit specifically from under-represented groups. The university says the measure was “checked against European legislation”.

Others suggest that the women hired as Irène Curie Fellows will work under a shadow, because their path to faculty positions will be perceived as easier or less competitive. But Baaijens counters that candidates “will only be hired if they meet the criteria”. He adds, “We are looking for outstanding scientists.”

Katta Spiel, a postdoctoral researcher studying human–computer interactions at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, praised the initiative, but wondered whether non-binary applicants would be considered in the women-only round.

TU Eindhoven’s human-resources department says that the programme is aimed at female scientists, and that it will go by the gender listed on a potential recruit’s passport. It will look into the issue if a non-binary researcher applies.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01998-7

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