On the left of the frame, with her arms crossed and her body facing left, stands a woman with mid-length hair and a green jumper. She looks seriously into the camera. In the background are, blurred, trees.
Daphne Stam resigned from TU Delft because of the ‘macho culture’ at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Paternalism and unequal power relationships were the reasons for Daphne Stam, a planetary scientist, to leave AE. She tells Delta what led up to this.

Lees in het Nederlands

What kind of reactions have you had to the news of your departure?

“Only supportive and positive ones, luckily. A lot of ‘good lucks’ too, but I am glad that I’ve left so it’s fine. I received a lot of messages from people who identify with my story and praise me for being brave enough to talk about it. I have heard nothing – not entirely unexpectedly – from my old Aerospace Engineering Faculty.

“I resigned at the end of January and left when my three month notice period ended at the end of April. I am now looking around to see how I can continue my career in a different way. I still have my contacts. I am not bored as I am working on a lot of enjoyable things. I do not see myself joining another university soon.”

You were an Associate Professor and were much appreciated by the students. Apart from that you were seen as an eminent researcher and someone who had an important voice in your field. Did you feel pressurised to stay?

“I mostly felt pressure because of the students to be honest. I still had some graduating students, but luckily many of them could graduate with the supervision of colleagues. That was not an option for one of them as I was the only one with enough expertise in that graduation research subject so I continued to work with that person.

“But I had not felt comfortable for a very long time. At a certain point you start enjoying everything less and less, even working with students which had previously always given me so much energy. It is then hard to give something your all. I did not feel this was right for them anymore. If you have to put so much energy into conflicts, that is not good for anyone.”

What was the direct reason to leave?

“I received an email (seen by Delta, Eds.) from the Head of Department at the end of December which stated that I ‘was not living up to TU Delft’s good reputation’. The accusations were clearly nonsense. That was the last straw. I had worked hard for 10 years, published a lot, always had excellent performance evaluations from both students and my supervisor, contributed to international projects, and done a lot in terms of scientific communication for TU Delft. And then this? I decided to leave at the end of January.

‘Decisions were taken about me all the time without my being consulted’

“I had been advised against applying for the position of professor in my own field. I was also not asked to be part of the selection committee, while I would have to work closely with the person appointed. This was very telling. Decisions were taken about me all the time without my being consulted.”

You had worked at TU Delft for 10 years and at the Faculty since 2007. When did things start to become a burden?

“When I joined TU Delft, I did not notice much of the power games. But when you move up, you want to be part of the conversation. You are an expert and have a lot of worthwhile ideas. But if you never get the authority to be part of the decision-making process, you are stuck.

“Insofar as there is one decisive point in time, one occasion was in 2017 when funds were made available through the Westerdijk Talent Scheme to appoint more female professors. I was identified as one of the potential female professors. I worked hard preparing everything in advance.  

“But then it got stuck at the Faculty. Nobody talked to me, nobody phoned by references. I did not receive any official feedback. What I did hear from my supervisor is that I had not supervised enough TU Delft doctoral dissertation defences and that it was a ‘real shame’ that I had not given any references from ESA and NASA. That was it. I thought to myself that if the requirements had been shared earlier, I would not have had to go through the whole procedure and need not have asked any top scientists for a reference.

“You would think that if you had been on the professorship list, you could also become an associate professor 1 (the highest professorship position, Eds.). But that took another three years. When I was finally called to be told that I had achieved this, the person also said ‘we need more women in these positions’. Thanks a lot.”

To what extent did being a woman play a role?

“You see it constantly in small things. The mansplaining on subjects in which I actually got my doctoral degree or being sent vacancies that are completely unsuitable for me with the comment that ‘it is open for women’. Also things like the assumption that grants are easier for me to get because I am a woman, and hearing that you are ‘piggy backing’ on a major proposal while you were one of the initiators.

‘It’s often things that are not done politely, but that do not go directly against the rules’

“Also having to defend your work because they listen to a man who clearly has no understanding of the subject and hearing that you are aggressive because you are sitting with crossed arms. After I resigned, the only reaction I received was an email which said that they know that I am ‘very unhappy’ and ‘devastated’ while this is not the case and I have never said this to anybody.

“I am a physicist, but it always seems like they first see you as a ‘woman’ with all the associated advantages. I get excellent evaluations from my students and publish a lot of research – judge me on those things.

“It is not only a gender issue though, but I do believe that the skewed power relationships at TU Delft make it harder for women than for men. And definitely so for female experts who generate more resistance.”

Leaving TU Delft is a serious decision. Had you tried anything to improve the situation?

“I mentioned it to my supervisor many times. I had meetings with the Department Head and the Dean. Their response was usually that it must be annoying for me and to continue talking about it. Either that or they thought that I had seen or heard something wrong.

‘I now know that a lot of women share the same experiences’

“Look, it’s often things that are not done politely, but that do not go directly against the rules. There are no firm rules for a lot of things so I do not think that a formal complaint would have had much effect. I now know that a lot of women share the same experiences. But we did not talk about it much among ourselves. And, of course, there are very few women working at the Faculty.”

The Faculty investigated the working culture at AE in 2021. It led to a ‘faculty culture programme’ being set up, in part, according to the Faculty, to improve mutual communication and prevent inappropriate behaviour. Have you noticed this in practice?

“I did not work on this investigation myself. I thought my case was a little extreme and thought that it would sway everything. After the report was issued, the staff members had to join a discussion. They put you in a room with a group of random colleagues for one-and-a-half hours under the leadership of two ladies (from the law agency that carried out the investigation, Eds.).

“And you had to share the difficult experiences that you had gone through. There were mostly men of course, who had not experienced anything negative so there was little point in doing this exercise. A one-time session like this will not solve anything.

“In March, when I was abroad for work, there was a Faculty week for which a special website was used with films and workshops. The How not to do it film under ‘Videos’ shows exactly how things go at AE.”

One fifth of the staff and students at your old Faculty are women. For years there was only one female professor. Would a quota for women help break the ‘paternalistic atmosphere’?

“Not if it is only about counting heads. That would only give men the opportunity to say that you are only here because you are a woman – as though you are not good enough to be there because of your expertise.

“Or they put a woman in a committee so that they can say that they have met the rules. But if that person is a young, inexperienced woman among a group of experienced men who have known each other for years, the power relationship will remain skewed.

“Women must first be respected for their expertise instead of being judged for being a woman.”

You are not the only academic who has left because of these kinds of problems. In an advisory report (in Dutch) in July 2022, the KNAW (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences) refers to ‘recurring problems with undesirable behaviour’. What makes academia such a good feeding ground for this?

“It is not easy for researchers to continue their work elsewhere. Most academics are passionate about their research. They enjoy sharing their knowledge with young people and think it is interesting and important. As their work is strongly linked to a specific faculty, there is little turnover, not even if they are treated badly. If they could find another job easily elsewhere, things would be different.

‘If nobody says anything, nothing will change’

“It would help if in the Netherlands you could apply for funds for research as a freelancer without being connected to a university or research institute. Then you would not be so dependent and you could leave without having to give up your career.”

Stories like yours do not make it more attractive for women to opt for a technical study or even enter an academic career. Is there anything you would like to say to them?

“I would say to not be scared off. The important thing is to do what you enjoy. But on the other hand, I am no longer involved in special doctoral dissertation defence discussions for girls. It is a bit like pretending that everything has been solved. Actually, it is very misleading.”

You said so yourself: many women will recognise themselves in your story. What would you say to them?

“Let your voice be heard. You may experience problems doing so as you will be thought of as difficult. I thought about keeping quiet for a long time. Then I opened my mouth because I am hoping that the system will become fairer. If nobody says anything, nothing will change.”

  • Delta has asked Aerospace Engineering to respond to this interview. For this, the faculty refers to the statement (see below) published on 31 August following the news of Stam's departure. An interview with Dean Werij is planned.

“The Faculty of Aerospace Engineering aims to be a good employer. We strive for a safe and inspiring working environment in which employees can excel. Progress has been made in this area in recent years, but there is still room for improvement.

On Tuesday 29 August, national news broke that earlier this year Associate Professor Daphne Stam left our faculty. We regret her departure. TU Delft does not comment on matters concerning individual employees - the same obviously applies to us as a faculty. What we want to emphasise is that we want to appreciate Daphne Stam's critical signal about her former working environment so that we can learn from it.

In an academic work environment, being able to share your thoughts freely is of great significance. An inclusive and collegial working environment contributes to people being able to speak up and be heard. Because we consider this incredibly important, the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering commissioned an external survey in 2021, the results of which were shared with all employees. Based on these results, we set up a faculty culture programme aimed at improving mutual communication and preventing transgressive behaviour, among other things.

Within a technical environment such as our faculty, gender diversity is an issue that deserves special attention. At the level of Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Full Professor, the percentage of women was 14% in 2018; it is now 21%. The percentage of female first-year students has increased from around 14% to around 20%. This is progress, but unfortunately less than we aimed for. Therefore, we want to and will continue to work for equal opportunities for all. To start with, we do this by implementing TU-wide policies on recognition & appreciation (‘erkennen & waarderen’), career development, diversity, inclusion and integrity. Specific instruments such as the Delft Female Technology Fellowship are also bearing fruit. Moreover, the faculty has rolled out a unique programme to support women on maternity leave and all parents on parental leave to overcome significant delays in their career development. We are open to recommendations from, for example, DEWIS, the network of women scientists at TU Delft.

We are working on solutions, fully aware that structural changes require focused and continuous attention. I, in my role as Dean, take to heart the signal sent by Daphne Stam. The management team, together with colleagues within the faculty and key actors within TU Delft, will continue to work on necessary improvements to create a safe and inclusive working environment.

Prof.Dr. Henri Werij, Dean Faculty of Aerospace Engineering TU Delft