Leading national and international female scientists and engineers gathered in Delft last week to discuss key issues facing women in science during Dewis’ 2012 Lustrum Symposium.
Dewis (Delft Women in Science), the networking organization for female scientists at TU Delft, hosted its fifth annual lustrum anniversary symposium last week at the university’s faculty of Architecture. The theme of this year’s symposium was “Women in IT”, which served as a starting point issue for a broader discussion of women pursuing Stem (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers.
Dewis sponsored the event with the goal of providing a networking opportunity for TU Delft’s female scientists, where they can listen to their peers share perspectives on women in IT and science generally, while also continuing to facilitate important, ongoing discussions of a current key issue: retaining women in scientific positions in academia.
Three distinguished women in science and technology were invited to speak at the event, Dr Judith Redi, Dr Danica Kragic, and Kate Bellingham, who were joined at the podium by Professor Isabel Arends, the Dewis chairwoman and professor of chemistry at the faculty of Applied Science, who opened the event.
TU Delft’s Redi, a newly appointed assistant professor of computer
science, discussed her current projects, while also segueing into her future research aspirations, saying, “Here is what I want to do when I grow up here [at TU Delft]…,” before quickly correcting herself, “… as I am growing here.” As the co-Dewis ambassador in the Faculty of EEMCS, Redi isn’t only taking advantage of the university’s resources in order to nurture her early career but is also cultivating a close network of female scientists in her field.
Redi’s speech was followed by that of Dr Danica Kragic, a professor of computer science at the Royal Institute of Technology (Swedish: Kungliga Tekniska högskolan, abbreviated KTH), in Stockholm, Sweden, who seemed to personify Redi’s future career aspirations, as she discussed her trajectory from a PhD student to scientific leader who is regularly invited to speak to the media and professional organizations. Climbing the ranks through the hierarchy of academia has been, for her, a process of risk-taking, Kragic said: “I’ve never been afraid of daring to do things. I knew I could always buy a ticket to go home and live with my parents.” Nowadays, however, she is responsible for a group of 40 researchers and is the vice dean of KTH’s School of Computer Science and Communication.
If Kragic is a model for female scientists to follow, the other invited guest speaker, Kate Bellingham, an honored ambassador for the UK government’s ‘Science [So What? So Everything]” campaign, is tolling the bell from the media mountain tops. Bellingham made her early career as a sound engineer working for the BBC and has since tirelessly endeavored to promote the studying of science and mathematics among all young women in the UK. Working with her male colleagues was intimidating in her early days, she recalled: “I was the shortest engineer there, but I went to work everyday with a professional attitude, just like them.” Indeed, playing by the men’s rules got her far, she confirmed, but her uniqueness as a woman in a tech field was what catapulted her career shift to being a television host for a science and technology magazine program on the BBC.
The Dewis symposium was also the occasion of another key event: revealing the winner of the Dewis Award 2011, which, in its third year running, is given annually in honor of one female PhD student whose doctoral dissertation was awarded with a cum laude distinction, among other criteria. Three women were nominated for the 2011 award: Doris van Halem, from the faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences; Linda Kester, from the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering; and Janneke Toussaint, from the faculty of Technology, Policy and Management.
The three nominees were in attendance at the symposium, and as they and the audience waited for the name of the final winner to be announced by TU Delft’s Rector Magnificus, Karel Luyben, the rector explained how the university’s Executive Board (cvb) has strived in recent years to make it more difficult to obtain cum laude distinctions for dissertations, citing new decisive criteria such as completing the degree within five years of starting it and demonstrating professional involvement in the non-university domain.
Based on the votes of a jury comprised of various Dewis and Executive Board members, Luybens revealed the winner to be Linda Kester, whom, at eight months pregnant, was presented with an award of 500 euros and a pink Senz umbrella. Rector Luyben praised her dissertation’s ‘creativity and thoroughness.’ Van Halem and Toussaint meanwhile received 250 euros each as runners-up.
Seeing the three women accept their honors was quite a sight, especially given the fact that two of the three female scholars were visibly pregnant, which foreshadowed a further discussion, as the Dewis Award finalists represented what many of the symposium’s attendees cited as a major roadblock women face on the road to obtaining tenured faculty positions in academia: a women’s need to balance her career and family.
The symposium’s discussion then turned to another important point pertaining to women in science: the falling numbers of women relative to their male peers who transition from assistant and associate professorships. As of this year, 23 percent of all TU Delft assistant professors were female, while only eight percent of associate professors were women.
This year was the first year in which the symposium encouraged real-time tweeting, via Twitter, the social networking platform. During presentations, the participants were encouraged to use either university-supplied iPads or their own devices to log onto their Twitter accounts and quote the speakers and pose questions relating to the concluding discussions, with representatives from TU Delft’s marketing and communication office on hand to help first-time users of Twitter.
This year’s Dewis symposium was open to all TU Delft students and staff members. At present there are some 650 female scientists at TU Delft, including PhD candidates, post-doctoral fellows and professors, all of whom automatically become members of Dewis.