‘We need women’

TU Delft still struggles to increase the number of female professors among its academic staff, but a reinvigorated Delft Women in Science (Dewis) and new, well-funded fellowship programme offers newfound hope, according to Professor Isabel Arends, Dewis’ current chairwoman.

Like a car put back into gear to continue its ascent of a steep hill, TU Delft recently put in place the Dewis Fellowship, aimed at significantly increasing the numbers of women on the university’s scientific staff. “We want to bring in more females, and one instrument is to create extra positions,” says Professor Isabel Arends, a professor of biocatalysis and organic chemistry, Dewis’ chairwoman and a member of the fellowship’s central direction committee. 

In July 2011, TU Delft’s Executive Board approved the Dewis Fellowship, to be used to attract new, female academic faculty staff members, with funding amounting to upwards of 14 million euros. The fellowship’s funds will be dispersed to select female candidates, in order that they may pursue tenure-track positions for a period of five years, after which control of the funding will be taken over by the faculties where the female professors work. The Executive Board has agreed to appoint ten female candidates to the fellowship in 2012, and another ten in 2014.

Dewis is an organization that formally advocates for professional standards on behalf the TU Delft’s female academic staff. Or, in Arend’s words: “We act as a counterpart to the human resources’ department and to the university’s Executive Board”, while also providing networking and mentoring opportunities among female scientific staff in Delft and encouraging professional success. All women holding scientific staff positions at TU Delft are automatically members of Dewis.

The Dewis group laid down its first roots back in early 2006, through a series of lunchlezingen (lunch lectures), at which keynote speakers would discuss various gender-focused career topics in an informal setting during lunch hours. “One of the first goals was of course to stimulate the participation of women,” Prof. Arends says. “Why is the participation of women so low? We subsequently went through a cycle of a few years trying to understand why that was.”

A yearly conference was also instituted in 2006, and Dewis has since gradually evolved into an influential body regarding the university’s resources and female academics. However, Dewis has had its struggles. “At a certain moment there was a critical moment,” Prof. Arends explains of a period in 2008 when TU Delft signed a charter called ‘Talent to the Top’. “Dewis was the catalyst in that process, because we had invited the charter’s chairwoman, Sybilla Dekker, to the conference. She was very influential over our [then university] president. She said: ‘You can be the first university to sign this charter’. The board decided, ‘Ok, this is important to us; we’ll do this.’ So, at that Dewis conference we brought everyone together.” As a result, the university’s Executive Board formally engaged the human resources department into creating an action plan, of which one point was the Dewis Fellowship.

Lagging behind
In line with European Union mandates calling for increasing female faculty members in academic settings, many Dutch universities have maintained recruitment programs and increased their female faculty levels since 2000. In 2005, TU Delft, supported by the Dutch Ministry of Education, set a goal of increasing its number of female faculty members from 4 percent to 10 percent by 2010.

However, as of 2010, TU Delft had only managed to increase this total to 7 percent - 3 percent short of the goal set back in 2005. “What you see is that for tenure track positions, the percentage of females university-wide is lagging behind further and further,” Prof. Arends admits, but adds that the Dewis Fellowship will strive to close that gap. “But we’re also in competition with a lot of other universities.” The general consensus is however that TU Delft has a clear advantage over other Dutch technological universities in this regard. Arends: “In Eindhoven, for instance, they focus on biomedical and health topics, while TU Delft is open to all technical subjects.”

Despite having put in place a solid strategy for bringing in female faculty through 2014, TU Delft seemingly also needs to brainstorm about how to retain female talent. “I sometimes see a lot of PhDs at the end of their research periods, when perhaps they want to start families or want to make sure that their husbands are happy,” Prof. Arends says, citing one reason for low female academic retention rates. “One of the things Dewis does is visit all the faculties every two years, to speak to the deans and support staff about diversity and things we can do to stimulate bringing in more women to their staff positions.”

TU Delft’s efforts to increase female faculty members were upstaged earlier this year, when Dr Maaike Snelder, an outstanding graduate from the faculty of Civil Engineering & Geosciences and the 2010 recipient of the annual Dewis Award, presented to the university’s ‘most talented female PhD student’, did not immediately consider an academic career. Instead, Snelder decided to continue her scientific career at TNO, the Dutch innovation center. “But that has now changed,” Arend says, noting that Snelder is now considering a part-time contract with the university. “I think the award stimulated her to think more about an academic career, and now she’s looking for a way to combine her job and academic career.”
Moves to bridge the gender disparity among academic staff has now assumed a new vigor. Dewis will shift its communication focus closer to the source of change. “As Dewis, we not only want to speak to the deans, we also want to talk to the department heads, as that is often where the real decisions are made about personnel,” Prof Arend notes. “The dean cannot pick the personnel; it’s the department heads that have to do that.”

With Prof. Arends at the helm, Dewis will continue to strive to attract female scientists to the TU Delft community. The Dewis Fellowship is her priority for this year, she adds, with the preliminary candidates being announced in April 2012: “It brings a clear message to women that: ‘We need you. Please come to us’.”