Ingrid Weerts: 'It is a misconception that women are less ambitious than men.' Photo: Simona Evstatieva

After reading these nine misconceptions, you’ll be in favour of gender quotas


The debate about policies to make sure more women occupy position of power is often dominated by gut feelings instead of hard facts, argues Ingrid Weerts, former University Councillor and Master's student at Leiden and Utrecht Universities. 'A shortage of women in science can be catastrophic,' she says. 'Anyone who looks at the hard data cannot ignore gender quotas.'

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I admit: I gave in to the temptation to lure you in with a titillating title. Falling for it is your own fault, though. Perhaps you could barely control your pretentious jitters and you’re sitting on the edge of your seat, ready to prove me wrong. Who knows, maybe you’re one of those DUB readers who agree with De Vrije Student and find diversity policy discriminatory. Well, you too are very welcome! Take a nice cup of tea (I would recommend chamomile), or something else to swallow the bitter (for you) pill called "gender quota". Because I can tell you, after this hard data analysis, you're not going to be able to deny its efficacy any longer.

Perhaps you will find it a weakness that I am hardly concealing my stabs to cisgender heterosexual men in this introduction. After all, I could have started this opinion piece with a eulogy to female scientists. Let me explain my reasons. I cannot deny that additional opportunities for minorities often come at the expense of the dominant group. It is, therefore, not surprising that diversity policy offends said group. They are the ones with the most to lose, but also the ones with the most influence. This is the group that can stand in the way of a good diversity policy. That is why I will guide you through a series of data that indicates why quotas are desperately needed, by means of nine common misconceptions.

Disclaimer: the studies cited here only distinguish between men and women. Other genders are not mentioned. Since other genders are also gender minorities, the findings for women are assumed to be generalisable.

Misconception one: "Striving for equal representation does not make sense. Men's research is relevant to women as well”
I myself have long believed in this thesis. After all, scientists are critical of their research methods and papers go through the peer-review mill. In the book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (which I’d highly recommend), however, one can find 321 pages debunking this argument. For example, the 19th century artist Lousia Daley has produced many more paintings than previously assumed. Those works were wrongly attributed to her husband -- same surname, small mistake. Another example concerns a Viking warrior from the 10th century who was excavated in the 19th century. For 130 years it has been believed that those bones belonged to a man, despite the obvious presence of a female pelvis. After all, the existence of female warriors could only be a myth, a fairy tale. It wasn’t until 2017 that DNA research exposed the truth.

I could go on and on with other examples of misconceptions about women which have shaped society’s image of them throughout history. But it is not only our image that may have been distorted by these misconceptions. Women living in this day and age are in serious danger because of them. For example, heart attacks in women often go undiagnosed because their symptoms are considered to be 'atypical'. Crash test dummies were until recently 1.80m tall and weighed 75kg – the average height and weight for a man. When tested on female dolls, those same accidents were fatal. Autism and ADHD are frequently underdiagnosed in women. The archetypical ADHD person is a restless boy who can’t control his rage after a day of school, not a creative, chaotic, and impulsive adult woman.

Additionally, we leave more and more tasks to generalising deep learning algorithms, which are often programmed with a bias. When a deep learning model analyses a pile of CVs based on previously chosen candidates, the model ends up selecting them in an old-fashioned way. Even when using neutral, genderless terms such as 'user', 'participant' or 'person', people appear to think of a man 80 percent of the time.

Therefore, without women in the research world, there is a much greater likelihood of unjust generalisation, with sometimes catastrophic consequences.

Misconception two: "The problem of under-representation of women in top scientific positions will get solved by itself. There are more women in science today than in the past”
The latter is true. The latest Women Professors Monitor (in Dutch), published by the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH in the Dutch acronym), shows that women formed 53.9 percent of graduates in 2018. However, the number of women per job group is decreasing. Women formed just 23.1 percent of those occupying the highest job category, professor.

Each job category can be seen as a breeding ground for the next one. Assistant professors (universitair docenten, or UD's, in Dutch) are selected among PhD candidates/postdocs, while associate professors (universitair hoofddocenten, or UHD's) form the group from which professors are selected. So far, the thesis seems to be correct: the breeding grounds grow along with it, so in the long run, the skewed growth stops. Doesn't it?

Percentage of men and women in academia, from student level to professor level. Source: Women Professors Monitor 2019, LNVH, via 1cHO2018, VSNU, WOPI. Excluding the field of Health Science.

No! There is a hitch when it comes to the appointment of associate professors. If you look at this year's monitor, you will see that the number of female associate professors has not risen, but fallen. This is partly explained by the effect of the Johanna Westerdijk Impulse. As a result of this impulse, one hundred additional women professors were promoted from the associate professor breeding ground in 2018.

In order to keep the number of women associate professors at the same level, one would have to appoint 100 extra women. This is, of course, quite artificial. A more realistic expectation is to simply maintain a 50/50 male/female ratio in the increment. But that doesn't happen, not even a little bit. The group of associate professors in the Netherlands increased by 62.4 FTE (fulltime positions), despite the promotion of 100 extra women. Only 20.9 percent of that growth was filled by women. In short: the grounds are not growing. In fact, they don’t even remain stable, they’re actually shrinking. Fast.

Number of men and women in the roles of associate professor and professor in the Netherlands, by full-time workers (FTE). Source: Women Professors Monitor 2019, LNVH. Via: VSNU, WOPI. Excluding field of Health Science.

Over the next ten years, 906 professors are expected to take emeritus status (for our novice academics: to retire). Purely hypothetical: suppose every professor and associate professor fills one FTE and you promote all women associate professors in the Netherlands to the role of professor. Then, there would no longer be any experienced associate professors in the pond and 230/906 FTE (25 percent) would still have to be filled by men. The trend is clear: it is simply not possible at all for the university to achieve gender equality in top positions over the next ten years.

Misconception three: "It is not surprising that there are fewer FTEs available to women in top scientific positions. After all, women are more likely to work part-time.”
I will not comment on the entire labour market, but the opposite is the case when it comes to top academic positions. The Monitor shows that male professors have an average contract size of 0.83 FTEs. For women, that’s 5 percent higher: 0.87 FTEs. This means that there are less women professors working part-time than men.

Misconception four: "Women are less ambitious and career-driven than men.”
This argument is often accompanied by assumptions concerning their wish to become mothers. That’s a misconception deeply rooted in society, even among women professors, as evidenced by research into the Queen Bee Effect. The Queen Bee Effect is when women professors describe themselves as an archetypal power woman: tough, ambitious and, above all, masculine. In other words, exceptional, which means that ambition remains less recognised among young women colleagues. However, anyone who blindly assesses the performance and ambitions of candidates will find no fundamental differences among men and women.

Misconception five: "A selection is fair when each candidate is judged on their merits. A woman should only be chosen in the case of equal suitability.”
Those who oppose quotas often come with the same platitude: the woman of lower quality selected at the expense of a man of higher quality. A hypothetical example without too much foundation. Selecting candidates solely on the basis of quality would eventually lead to gender equality, right? So why, then, so few women are appointed as associate professors?

Bias tests show that people's assessment of women's qualities is lower, even when there is no objective difference between them and male candidates. When a man and a woman have the same grades, the man is judged more positively. In fact, achieving high marks turns out to be disadvantageous for women. Also, when letters of recommendation are written about men and women of similar qualities, the ones about the men contain less doubt raisers. In many economic journals, pieces written by several authors often feature the names in alphabetical order, not on the basis of contribution. However, the more often a woman appears as co-author instead of solo author, the less chance she has of finding a permanent job. For men, solo authorship and co-authorship appear to weigh just as heavily.

This was investigated in the Garcia project. Researcher Channah Herschberg was a "fly on the wall" in such application procedures. What did she notice? The fact that several candidates have similar qualities is never the final conclusion. They always search further for distinguishing factors. More often the 'best candidate' turns out to be, you guessed it, a man.

The chance that a less qualified woman will be selected at the expense of a qualified man does exist. However, we are much more likely to overlook a lot of qualified women and not select them through inherent bias. How do we solve this? Do we want an evaluation committee for application procedures, as De Vrije Student proposes? That’s a good idea, but an obvious conclusion is that application procedures are inherently biased. Should people apply to jobs anonymously, then? Again a good proposal, until the inevitable job interview is held. Prejudice is so inherent that even sympathetic quota-free methods are never objective.

Misconception six: "In comparison with other European countries, the Netherlands is still doing quite well in terms of equality in the academic world.”
The Netherlands is that progressive forerunner in the field of same-sex marriage, soft drugs, and sex work. Surely the liberal Netherlands will perform at least just as well as the rest of Europe when it comes to the inclusion of women in science, right? Well, no. In fact, according to the report She figures (2018), the Netherlands is at the bottom of the list in regards to the “proportion of women among researchers”. Not one European country scores worse when it comes to a proportional male/female ratio in science.

The graph in question is from 2015. Now, of course, you can say: "Come on, it’s five years later. To make up for the outflow of old men into science, many young women are hired". That is true. However, the same report calculates the Glass Ceiling Index of both the Netherlands and Europe, which also includes lower positions in Dutch science. Here, too, the Netherlands scores well below average, which makes it unlikely that we have risen significantly in the rankings in recent years.

Misconception seven: "Collective agreements for universities are well regulated. Men and women in the same job earn the same amount.”
On average, a female scientist earns 390 euros less than a male scientist of the same age each month. Within the same job group, there’s a difference of 173 euros per month. The wage gap is greatest among professors. A simple explanation of the collective labour agreement is: for professors, salary scales 15 and 16 are considered 'low' and scales 17 and higher as 'high'. Guess what? The number of men within scale 17 or higher is 40 percent larger than the group of women in that scale.

Source: Dutch Women Professors Monitor, via VSNU, WOPI, in FTE. Excluding field of Health Science.

This is partly due to the fact that a hundred women professors have recently been appointed in one fell swoop. As a result, they have been working in their current position for less time and logically earn less. Do they? That statement, too, is not entirely fair. The wage gap was also identified well before the appointment of 100 additional women professors. Moreover, the gap at universities is much higher than in the Dutch labour market in general (25 percent versus 16.1 percent). Finally, the gap increases with age, with a peak at 30percent in the 55+ group. It is precisely in this group that the chance of women professors who have been working in their current position for a long time is highest. Nevertheless, after a large number of loyal, active years, this group is not compensated proportionally.

Misconception eight: "Promotors are objective in the assessment of their PhD candidates.”
The assessment of a dissertation is also vulnerable to bias. After all, there are no rules attached to the final assessment and the awarding of the cum laude designation. Did you know that men graduate cum laude one and a half to twice as often as women (link in Dutch)? And this while there is no evidence that men write better dissertations. Moreover, there is no evidence that men also receive the cum laude designation more often if they are tested more objectively, for example in the Master's phase. There is, however, evidence that it is easier for scientists who have a cum laude PhD to find a job in the academic world (link in Dutch).

Misconception nine: "Female scientists are valued the same as male scientists.”
Making a name for oneself in the academic world is done mainly by publishing articles and obtaining funding. Earlier in this article, I mentioned that women in the economic sector do not receive equal recognition for co-authorship. In addition, it appears that in other sectors, with equal contributions, men are significantly more often mentioned as first authors. That’s not all: women scientists are less likely (link in Dutch) to receive an allowance. With a blind inspection, however, women's papers receive the same high quality assessment as men's papers when applying for grants. But when the quality of the scientist of the same paper is assessed, the woman receives a lower quality assessment.

Course evaluations and websites such as RateMyProfessor also show that women are assessed negatively more often. This difference disappears when a teacher is indicated as 'hot' with a pepper icon on RateMyProfessor. When an identical online course is published under the name of a man and a woman, the course by the woman is rated lower. Finally, in course evaluations, male lecturers receive significantly more responses commenting on their personality and less responses commenting on their appearance.

So, what now?
Without proportional representation, we take the risk of producing biased research. With the current measures, we are not going to achieve equal representation in key top positions in the next ten years, probably not even in the next 20 or 30 years. The associate professor input is simply too small, and even methods that should be purely quality-based are biased. Moreover, there are few incentives for women to move on: financial rewards and appreciation lag far behind men.

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