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Erasmus Prize winner on diversity: “Universities should dare to make a statement”

Erasmus Prize winner on diversity: “Universities should dare to make a statement”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Martha Stewart

“It's time for more flexibility in PhD and career tracks, taking into account that people have or want to start a family.” Only then can you achieve diversity at the university. This statement comes from Harvard professor Michèle Lamont, who carries out research into diversity in areas such as science. The King presented the Erasmus Prize to her this week.

Only 18 per cent of professors in the Netherlands are female, Maastricht University scores slightly better than average with 19 per cent and wants to reach 22 per cent by 2020. “That ambition is bizarrely low,” felt the critical rector Rianne Letschert recently during the UM diversity meeting.

The number of female students has only increased in the last decade. But, with each step further up the academic career ladder, the percentage of women decreases drastically. Does the world of academia itself preserve this white male stronghold?

“Scientists have a strong preference for those who are like-minded. This is often subconscious, but it goes against the ambition to be a reflection of society. It makes universities hesitant to see diversity as a criterion in the selection of students and employees. The idea is that it would be at the expense of quality.”

Are they right in thinking that?

“If you don't consider diversity in the process of recruitment and promotion, you will continue to see the same quality criteria. If you do consider it, this won't necessarily lead to better research, but it will lead to new insights and new research fields. It is not just about a researcher with a different cultural background, but also his or her political preference or gender.”

Willem Schinkel, professor of Theoretical Sociology at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, previously spoke about male professors who would solely promote their ‘crown princes’. Do you recognise that image?

“That is a phenomenon in particular of second-class universities. At the top, in the fight for European research grants, however, these old boys fail miserably. That is when real quality counts. Within the international research community, this type of practice is looked down on. It is at the expense of good research and creates social barriers.”

Various Dutch universities have recently set up a ‘diversity office’; in addition, there is also talk of introducing a female quota. Is this the correct approach?

“I question the validity of both. Research shows that giving diversity training leads to poor results. Often employees feel that they are being pressured and that in turn leads to lack of understanding. Quotas invoke the same emotion: they even have a negative effect on people's self-esteem, the very people who are supposed to benefit from that quota.”

What does work?

“The supervision of young researchers is still done on an informal basis too often, which elicits ‘crown prince’ behaviour. For thirty years, we have been pointing out this ‘leaky pipeline (with each step on the academic career ladder, the percentage of women drops, ed.), but until now, too little attention has been given to proper supervision of academic talent.”

How should supervision change?

“Lack of awareness is no longer the main problem. Many white males also encourage structural change. But such changes must then be brought about. The old model, in which a man works eighty hours on his research with a wife who takes care of everything at home, is outdated. It is only possible for men and because of that, many women choose a career outside the academic world. The time has come for more flexibility in promotions and career tracks, taking into account that people have or want to start a family.

“Universities should also dare to make a statement. At my own faculty, we can choose twelve master's students from four hundred applications every year. Last year, Harvard selected five black women. They are extremely clever, but we also know that if we choose five, they can motivate and support each other. And they will set an example for each other and for others.”

Job Zomerplaag

Erasmus Prize

The Erasmus Prize is awarded annually to a person or institution that has made an exceptional contribution to the humanities or the arts, in Europe and beyond. The award consists of a cash prize of € 150,000.



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