MAASTRICHT. Take the board of governors of Duke University, a top American university. It now includes women, but they are a minority. The point is that the conference table is too small, so a second row has been created, against the wall. That is where the women usually sit.
The example was given by Donna Lisker, who previously worked at Duke and is now the keynote speaker at the UM diversity event organised in the Bonnefanten Museum last Wednesday afternoon. Lisker's message was that improving equality between men and women will not happen by itself. A female president was appointed at Duke and she has really shaken things up. An extensive programme to fight inequality among men and women in all kinds of positions, but especially in higher positions. This is slowly but surely showing results. For example, women more often sat at the conference table itself, instead of in the second row. How did the men react? They ordered a bigger table.
What helps, Lisker said, certainly at an American university, is if the president wholeheartedly supports the diversity policy. The lower echelons wouldn't dare to go against that. Matters are different in the lesser hierarchical Dutch academic culture. Rector Rianne Letschert also realises this and it is at her initiative that the diversity policy at the UM received a new impulse after the summer. Still, constant attention from the top for this policy is indispensable, said Roeli Pot, who is responsible for diversity policy at the Rabobank and the second speaker this afternoon. “Only when the board backed the initiative, did something happen.” At the Rabo, the number of women in management positions subsequently rose from 5 to 25 per cent, in two years’ time.
Letschert interpreted the feeling of the hall excellently when she expressed her impatience about the languid progress of this policy at the UM. At the moment, 19 per cent of the professors are female, and this must be 22 per cent in 2020. “This ambition is freakishly low. A rise by merely 3 per cent in three years? If that was all, I would be very annoyed,” she said. Certainly, she continued, because research has shown that the advantages of diversity only occur when 30 per cent of the group is ‘different’. This impatience reflected like an echo from the hall: we have talked long enough about more diversity, about more women in higher positions, it is now time for action.
University professor Peter Peters suggested an unorthodox measure: have people like him, the professors who are over 60 and earn top salaries, sponsor a female postdoc for a thousand euro per month, “someone around 33 who has a young family and gets into financial difficulty and falls by the wayside. Because you never see them back as academics.” He is already doing that, he revealed.
What about other categories, other than women, some suggested in the audience. After all, diversity policy is not just about gender, is it? Indeed, the policy is broader, it was admitted.