“Let women speak first and men hold their tongues for a minute”

Launch event and panel discussion about Female Empowerment


Female Empowerment, or FEM for short. The name of this new network at Maastricht University – which was launched with a panel discussion and workshops at the Jan van Eyck Academie last Tuesday – is criticized by many in the audience. By women as well as men. While the first say, “it is setting us apart”, the latter feel “the term scares us off”. Human Empowerment was announced as a good alternative. Or is Fe-Male a better term? It's up to FEM.

We need to help men to help women, is the first statement for the four-headed panel. The only male member, Professor Peter Møllgaard, dean of the School of Business and Economics, doesn’t agree. “We have to help men to understand, to develop the language to talk about this. They need to feel comfortable in the discussion and not guilty or accused.” He recalls a situation, not in Maastricht, in which a department head of a male-dominated area started his speech, saying: ‘The men and the girls…’ “He was immediately killed because of the political incorrectness of what he said.” But don’t kill him, open the discussion is Møllgaard’s main message.
Moderator and Professor Pamela Habibovic (Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life sciences) fully agrees.  “I hate the word ‘help’.” Panel member and Professor Esther Versluis (Faculty of Arts and Social Scienceshas an issue with the statement. “It assumes that women have a problem, as if something is wrong with us, as if we need to change. But it is the academic culture that needs to change. It’s male dominant.” Later on, she adds that many female academics quit their careers, usually after receiving their PhD, because “they hate the competitiveness, the blabbing, feather fluffing”. 
Let’s start with getting more men to events like these, says panel member Kirsten Engbersen, head of marketing and communication at FHML, to an almost exclusively female audience. Møllgaard: "Yes, make it everybody’s agenda.” He shows a graph of SBE’s Leaking Pipeline, the metaphor for the way that women fail to acquire higher positions, leading to underrepresentation. The slide shows the percentage of male versus female students, PhD students, assistant professors, associate professors, and so on, for the last few years. “I want to say something positive first. After that, you can get depressed”, he grins. “At one point in their careers – breaking news! – there’s equality: at PhD student level. The division male/female is around 50/50. After that it gets worse again.”

Hold your tongue
“Let women speak first,” says Professor Sally Wyatt, who works at FASoS, sitting in the front row of the hall. “Research shows that if you allow women to speak first during conferences and discussions, more will follow automatically. It’s a small suggestion that encourages women and lets men know that they should hold their tongues for a minute.” With a broad smile: “I have now already heard more from the men than the women.”
The discussion leads to female role models, whether there are enough of them, discussion leader Habibovic wants to know. That is all sorted at FASoS, where they have lots of female professors, a largely female board and a considerable number of female education directors, panel member Versluis reports. But she does also has some criticism: “Why are most of the women professors of endowed chairs, while most men are regular professors?” To continue by saying that HR policies still focus too much on individuals and too little on teams. “Nobody is excellent at everything, look at the level of the team, then you can see the various qualities that people have, which works much better.”
Professor Lisa Brüggen from SBE emphasises the importance of a female role model for her career. “I learned a lot from Gaby Odekerken (professor at SBE, ed.), she showed me that after my PhD, an academic career and having children can be combined. So when I was asked who my role model was, I chose her. My male supervisor didn't understand, felt it was strange that I didn't choose him. I respected him, of course, but Gaby was always there, she helped me at difficult and important moments.” Someone in the hall applauds for Brüggen.
Dean Møllgaard produces figures in support: “Studies into culture on the workfloor show that minorities no longer feel a minority if one third of the staff members are from that minority.” He realises that a lot of work is still to be done at SBE when it comes to the percentage of women among the academic staff. “In the coming years, eight full professors, all men, will retire. Six of them, 75 per cent, will be replaced by women. By 2022, the percentage of female professors should have risen from 11 to 22 per cent.”

Breakfast table
A little later, university professor Peter Peters from FHML walks to the front with the microphone in his hand. For years, he has been a mentor and tells the hall that the solution to inequality between men and women can be found at the female researcher's kitchen table. “She is there with her husband, who is usually a couple of years older and a little further along in his career. They have one or two children and are thinking about having another child. What happens? Who is going to work less? Often it is the women, because the man is more dominant and earns more. If we gave all those women 1,000 euro extra per month, they would win the battle.” Peters himself donates a thousand euro every month out of his own pocket to a female researcher in his group.
That sounds great, says someone in the hall. But “I work at SBE and have completed my PhD. I have two children and take care of my mother. I work part-time so that I can do everything. That thousand euro wouldn't help me, my priority is my family. I'm all for job sharing, I now work with a male colleague and we are a perfect match. Why do all the jobs have to be full-time?” Panel member Kirsten Engbersen, who argues for more flexible career paths, supports her.
Later on, Engbersen refers to SBE’s Leaking Pipeline as the discussion is about different qualities. Engbersen graduated at SBE and was offered a PhD track. “I declined. I explicitly didn’t want a career in academia. Management in industry can also be an explicit choice for women. The fact that they leave SBE doesn’t mean they don’t strive for a career, they just choose something else.”

Career paths
Ambition is a drive or motivation, no matter how or where, is the overall message from the panel. And everyone is equal and has to be given chances to grow. But the way the faculties help differs at the university. At FHML they forge careers in the area of education, while at FASoS, says Versluis, the HR policy is still focused on research. It’s all about attracting money.”
A female professor from the School of Governance hopes that the university will reconsider the criteria demanded for professorships. “I always focused more on socially relevant research instead of articles in peer-reviewed journals. If I had not done that and had written more for those journals, I probably would have become a professor sooner. But that’s not what I’m interested in.”
“I’m for different career paths,” says Martin Paul, Chair of the Executive Board, who did the official opening of the event. “I like to see people develop their talents, educational, administrative or in research. We support all of them.”

Wendy Degens and Riki Janssen


Four workshops: “To shape action”

In four workshops, participants brainstormed about mentoring, networking, work-life balance and training. The objective was to determine what the participants want, what they need. In short: “To shape action,” as the founders called it.
In the work-life balance workshop, the emphasis was on cultural change within the UM. There is life outside work (family, hobbies) and that needs to be recognised. This didn't go on deaf ears, because the UM, as diversity officer Constance Sommerey told us, wants to become a Family-Friendly University over the next years and also hopes to acquire the accompanying certificate. The certificate is awarded by berufundfamilie GmbH, an initiative of the non-profit Hertie Foundation, to universities and colleges that pursue a family-friendly personnel policy and create a work environment for employees, researchers and students that guarantees a balance between work/study and family life.

In the mentoring workshop, the focus was on the importance of a mentor in actually every phase of someone's career. This mentor need not necessarily come from one's own faculty and can be male or female. Sometimes it is helpful to have an individual mentor, sometimes it is useful to tackle things collectively. In the latter case, attention can be paid to subjects that go beyond the faculty bounds. A striking point in this workshop was the fact that the focus was strongly on academic staff, not on support staff.

A group of female academics and support staff from different faculties have decided to support the empowerment of women and female leadership. They want more diversity and gender equality at Maastricht University. That’s why they established the FEM network.
FEM is going to organise lunches, workshops and a mentor programme, as well as an annual event; an opportunity to get in contact with others and exchange information. The board members are Christina Peristeridou (chair), Aurélie Carlier, Alie de Boer, Constance Sommerey, Christel van Gool, Jessica Alleva, Aida Abiad Monge and Luana Russo.


“Let women speak first and men hold their tongues for a minute”