Cisca Wijmenga, rector magnificus, Groningen Univerrsity. Photo © Ewoud Rooks
Author profile picture

On 1 September 2019, the University of Groningen will welcome its first female rector: Cisca Wijmenga (55). How does she view the position of women in the world of universities? And what does she think of the TU Eindhoven’s scheme to let only women apply for science positions for the time being?

Professor Cisca Wijmenga is completely at home walking around in ‘her’ department of Human Genetics, part of the medical faculty of the RUG. Next week, she’ll have been working there for 12 and a half years: “I’ve never worked anywhere that long before,” she laughs.

Now she is going to write history as the first-ever female rector who knows the Groningen university’s history. “In the job description for a new rector, it looked like RUG was looking for the veritiable Holy Human Grail. Of course, there is no such thing as that. After talking to some friends and with Elmer Sterken (the current rector, ed.), I decided to just give it a try.”

She was chosen as the new rector from 28 candidates. Wijmenga believes that women are less likely to apply for a job if the job requirements are very precisely defined and they do not meet all the requirements. “Even if men only meet half of all the requirements, they are already likely to think: ‘it’ll be OK’. It’s different with women.”

Lack of female role models

The fact that the emphasis is on her being a woman, is problematic for her. She prefers to be judged on her qualities instead of her gender. On the other hand, she understands and wants to use her position to set an example for other women. “Female role models in senior academic positions, that’s what’s missing in the science world.”

Figures from the  Monitor Vrouwelijke Hoogleraren (Female Professors Monitor) also demonstrate this: one in five professors in the Netherlands last year was a woman. Whereas in 2018, a small majority (53%) of graduates are women. The higher the position within a university, the fewer women there are. However, as the graphs below illustrate, there has been a sharp increase in the number of women in senior academic positions: in 2005, less than 10% of professors were women, while in 2018 this figure was around 20%.

Token Woman

There is also a great deal to be done within the RUG: the university set the target for ‘female professors’ for 2020 to 25%, but in 2018 this was still only 20%. How come women don’t go for the top jobs? Wijmenga is unable to give a clear answer to this question. “It’s a complex problem with many different sides. So I think that with the current recruitment procedures you are already losing a large number of potential female candidates. Moreover, many admission committees are made up mainly of men, which I think is detrimental to women.”

So more women in committees. Tricky, because the pond is small. Wijmenga herself has very often been asked to participate in appointment advisory committees. These kinds of advisory committees conduct interviews with candidates for a position and advise the selection committee on who is the best candidate. “It is therefore important for women to be represented on this committee, but at one point I said to the dean: don’t ask me any more, because it takes me too much time’, says the future rector. The duties were at the expense of her research, whereby that is the output on which you as a researcher are judged. “I call myself the token woman as a joke. It should not be the case that you are put on a committee just because they need a woman.”

This small pond of women in senior academic positions is due to more reasons. Wijmenga explains, for example, that the academic world makes virtually no distinction between women who work part-time and men who work full-time. “Despite the fact that women nowadays are able to clearly state why they work less. In addition, because of the small pond, women often perform extra duties, such as sitting on advisory committees. On a net basis, they have less time than their male colleagues, yet only the results are taken into account. That’s not fair.”

TU/e draws inspiration from Groningen

Within engineering, the natural sciences and agriculture, the number of women in academic positions is lower than in other scientific fields. The Technical University of Eindhoven recently took a drastic measure: as of 1 July, only women are allowed to apply for scientific positions. When a position is still open after six months, only then are men allowed to try for it.

In an interview with Innovation Origins Jan Mengelers, former chairman of the board of directors of the TU/e, reveals that the Rosalind Franklin Fellowship at the RUG was an inspiration for taking such a measure. This fund focuses specifically on women who have a doctorate and aspire to a career in science. A nice way to straighten the female/male ratio, although RUG still has a long way to go. However, Wijmenga does not believe that her university should introduce a similar rule. ” We are a very broad university, so we don’t have to take such far-reaching steps. ”

Wijmenga thinks the TU/e measure is a good thing: “They have a huge catch-up to do there. I’m sure women will apply more quickly because they know there’s no competition from men. Then men can act very pathetically and say that they are being discriminated against. Yet all this time, when women were being discriminated against, we did not hear them. I think that’s extraordinary.”