“Computer science department must reflect society”

Computer science at UU will expand considerably in the near future: there are currently five vacancies for full professors and another three will follow in the next two years. The aim is to work on diversity. One of the professorships is even only open to female candidates. "Women are sometimes too modest."

Judith Masthoff en Johan Jeuring van het departement Informatica

In a recent research assessment, a formal assessment that takes place every six years, Utrecht University's Department of Information and Computing Sciences received the great compliment to be ahead of other Computing Science departments in the Netherlands in terms of its work on staff diversity. The department’s attention and organisational structures for supporting diversity in e.g., gender, nationality and ethnicity is even called a model for other departments to follow. But department head Johan Jeuring and research director Judith Masthoff are far from satisfied.

Masthoff: "It is important that your staff composition reflects society. It benefits the atmosphere in an organisation because people feel they belong. Moreover, they also attract people who feel at home with them, which creates a reinforcing effect. By computer science standards, we are doing well in Utrecht, but still currently only 15% of our full professors are women and we want to improve that. Additionally, ethnic minorities should also get more opportunities with us."

Westerdijk Chair only for a woman

To take a big step, the department has created a chair that can only be held by a woman. Jeuring: "Our new 'Westerdijk Chair' is named after Johanna Westerdijk, the first female professor in the Netherlands." A few years ago, the UU already had the Westerdijk fellowship, which was used to attract 'outstanding female beta scientists with leadership qualities'. Jeuring: "But those were positions up to the level of assistant professor. Now we are going even further: we are keeping one of our professorial vacancies only open for a female candidate."

Masthoff explains why this is justified: "There are female researchers who are outstanding. But women are more often modest than men. They meet all the job requirements for a full professorship but still hesitate to apply. With this chair, we want to send out a signal: go for it! They can be a role model for girls who are thinking about studying computer science. At the same time, we are opening up four other professorial positions to everyone. Also men are cordially invited to respond to those vacancies until 30 June next."

Close contact with other disciplines

According to its managers, the strength of Information and Computing Sciences Utrecht is that its research is both fundamental and application-oriented. Masthoff: "We do more fundamental  research than the Universities of Technology. At the same time, we have many partnerships with industry and the public sector."

But in particular, the UU stands out because Information and Computing Sciences is in close contact with other substantive disciplines, both within the natural and life sciences, and with the humanities and social sciences. Jeuring: "Through our UU-wide research themes, we collaborate with Philosophy, Linguistics, and Psychology, for instance. This offers fundamental research with great societal relevance."