Marja Elsinga Dewis TU Delft Delta
Professor Marja Elsinga, chair of Dewis (Delft Women in Science): “People are more afraid to speak out if they are dependent on someone else for renewing their contract.”

The number of female professors at TU Delft has increased only slightly in recent years. An interview with Dewis, TU Delft’s women’s network, about culture, ambition, prejudice and #MeToo. “How macho do you want to be as a woman?”

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In 2016, 12% of all professors were female; five years earlier that figure stood at 9%. That’s only an increase of 3% over 5 years. That’s not really satisfactory, is it? What are the stumbling blocks at TU Delft?
Marja Elsinga, chair of Dewis (Delft Women in Science) and professor at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment: “It varies from faculty to faculty. There are very few female students at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering. They just don’t have the numbers in the student body there. At our faculty, Architecture and the Built Environment, the majority of architecture students are women, but there is not one single female architecture professor.”

Why is that?
“I haven’t looked into this yet. Perhaps it’s down to culture, the ambition to become a professor. How macho do you want to be as a woman? You might think it’s because we are a university of technology and there aren’t that many women here, but it’s different in other countries. The Netherlands is lagging behind the rest of Europe. This is partly due to our model of part-time work for women. As a mother, you just don’t work four or five days a week; it’s not really accepted in society. My husband was congratulated in the school playground because he only works four days. I was a bad mother because I worked four days. This is an issue which goes beyond TU Delft, but it does have an impact.”

Women aren’t thought to be ambitious enough.
“There are plenty of very ambitious women out there. Research shows that people have unconscious prejudices. They unconsciously look for someone who is similar to themselves. If the majority of members on the Advisory Appointments Committees are men, they are more likely to see a man as being a good leader than a woman. Dewis aims to raise awareness about this, and the university now organises courses for members of Advisory Appointments Committees.

Astrid Taal, Dewis coordinator: “Dewis has also worked to change the tenure track system [the career programme for academics, ed.], because it’s precisely in the period when women are expected to further their career that they tend to have children. Now, temporary contracts are extended if they have a baby and go on maternity leave. All in all, these measures should help.”

‘Many people have unpleasant experiences that go unseen’

In December, ScienceGuide published a three-part series about sexual harassment in the academic world. Dozens of women from eight Dutch universities shared their experiences anonymously. ScienceGuide included, among other things, the following statement: “People say that women don’t make it to the top at universities due to their desire to have children or a lack of ambition. No one dares talk about the culture and harassment.”

Is harassment a problem at TU Delft?
Marja Elsinga: “The Employee Monitor revealed that 1023 employees (28 percent) had experienced 1375 cases of undesirable behaviour. I think that’s a lot, even though ‘undesirable behaviour’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘sexual harassment’. There is a big gap between this percentage and the number of concrete reports passed on to confidential advisers. There were only 28 of these. That’s alarming. Mind you, the large gap between the 28 reports and the anonymous results in the Employee Monitor doesn’t surprise me. I used to be a confidential adviser. It’s a sensitive issue. For many people, it’s a huge step to go see a confidential adviser. And a lot of people don’t actually know that we have confidential advisers at all.”

Do women come to Dewis to talk about the #MeToo debate?
“Yes, we hear stories. We are a contact point and that’s the image we project. I’ve been aware of some cases for a while. The debate is definitely picking up speed.”

If women come to you, what do you do?
“They don’t just talk to us about sexual harassment, but also about other forms of intimidation. Then I ask: what are you going to do? Are you going to go see a confidential adviser? Can we help? Do you want to do something about it? Usually, the answer is ‘no’. People are afraid. They do nothing at all.”

Are they afraid it will affect their career?
“Yes, especially if they’re on a temporary contract. People are really scared. We were just talking about the tenure tracks: the competition is huge, and every minus point is a step closer to someone else being chosen instead of you. People are more afraid to speak out if they are dependent on someone else for renewing their contract.”

If women are too afraid to do anything about it, do you just let it go?
“No. People come and talk to us and we try to work something out together. And we learn. Sometimes you think: ‘Oh, is this going on too?’ You can learn from this kind of conversation, and see where there’s a problem in our organisation. Perhaps we can address that issue in our next meeting with a dean.”

Universities were not mentioned by name in the ScienceGuide articles. Did you see or recognise, or were you aware of things that took place at TU Delft?
Astrid Taal: “I didn’t.”
Marja Elsinga: “No, we don’t know everything by a long way.”

I heard that Dewis is working on a letter due to an incident related to #MeToo.
”Yes, but I’m not going to discuss that case. It did lead to us taking action. We wrote a letter to the Executive Board and called for another review of the entire organisation: the confidential advisers, all consultations regarding safety and security at the university. And we told them that Dewis would dearly like to be involved in finding ways to create a diverse and inclusive environment at TU Delft, where people feel they are safe and belong. That’s really quite difficult”.

Is that because it isn’t safe enough at the moment?
“That appears to be the case from the gap between the many anonymous reports in the Employee Monitor survey and just 28 complaints to confidential advisers. Lots of people have unpleasant experiences that go unseen. We also wrote the letter because we have a new rector. It helps if you can say: Hello, Tim! [President of the Executive Board and Rector Magnificus Tim van der Hagen, ed.] We’re here, too! That’s reassuring, for example, if we think that a theory put forward in a dissertation shouldn’t be allowed. I used to be able to say to Karel (former Rector Magnificus Karel Luyben): ‘Karel, we don’t think this is worthy of TU Delft.’”

What was the proposition?
“It was anti-women. Something like: ‘A good abstract is like a skirt: short enough to create interest and long enough to cover...’ Very suggestive. It was a man who came to me and said that this shouldn’t be allowed. I went to Karel and he discussed it with the Board for Doctorates. The proposition wasn’t included.”

I’ve heard female researchers in laboratories complain about women-unfriendly posters on campus. Does that still happen?
“Oh, yes. (Sighs.) Complicated. Someone reported another one last week. Women sometimes complain about it. I think it’s difficult to decide. Is it art? Is it beautiful? What I’m afraid of is that we’ll no longer be taken seriously, because we moan about the small things. Pick your battles. We want to achieve something. And preferably in a way that is positive.”

Is that not a typically female approach?
“Perhaps. I am a woman. The TU Delft Feminists think we’re a bit institutionalised. (Laughs). Not activist enough. I see their point. I think they’re right, but activism isn’t our strength. I just mentioned our relationship with the Executive Board. You have to make sure that people take you seriously, now and in the future.”

Do you think that the TU Delft Feminists are taken less seriously if they’re activist?
“Yes. I don’t think they’re taken seriously enough. I think they do a good job. It’s great the response they manage to get from both men and women.”