Gunther Cornelissen wins Westerdijk Award

'People tend to think: we've got a policy now. Box checked. Done.'

During the opening of the new academic year, the Faculty of Science presented the first Westerdijk Award to employees in recognition of their efforts to create a more diverse organisation. Prof. Dr. Gunther Cornelissen, head of the Mathematics department, received by far the largest number of nominations. The letters of motivation submitted clearly showed that he has raised the issue of diversity within and outside the department in a wide variety of ways, and that his work in this area is appreciated by all of his colleagues. But what does Gunther himself think of the award? An interview.

Gunther Cornelissen Westerdijk Award 2017

“The award is a great honour, and is very useful,” Gunther says, “but it also presents a risk, just like announcing a diversity policy and the activities that go along with it. People tend to think: Ah, we’ve got a policy and someone is working on it. Box checked. Done. Then they go on with their day-to-day work, without it changing anything in their behaviour.”

Step-by-step plan

When Gunther was appointed head of the department of Mathematics in 2015, he immediately recognised that encouraging diversity would be an important part of his duties. Not because it was part of his job description, but because he himself felt it was vital. He had noticed that far fewer women were employed at the Faculty of Science compared to his previous positions and partnerships. 

“I knew from experience that it was possible to do things differently, so it became one of my priorities,” Gunther explains. “So over the past two years as head of the department, I’ve implemented a simple step-by-step plan that I came up with on my own.” According to Gunther, a plan like his would only work if at least half of all of the administrators cooperated. In other words: diversity should not be an issue that is limited to a small group of people, while the rest of the staff continue doing what they have always done.

Draw up lists, avoid implicit bias, practice positive discrimination

“My step-by-step plan consisted of 10 steps,” Gunther says.  “I formulated the steps with gender diversity in the back of my head, but of course they can also be used for other diversity issues.”

Gunther’s steps:

  1. Convince yourself. Create a file on your computer with excellent women in your field, young and old all mixed together, including people you’ve never met. Make sure you know a bit about what their work entails. Ask questions. Update the list periodically (2 hours per month). Read through the list and convince yourself that there is enough quality available. If that doesn’t work, take a sabbatical to think about yourself or your field of expertise.
  2. When you organise a seminar, colloquium or conference, ensure that at least half of the speakers are women. If you don’t think that this is possible, then you urgently need to work on your list. If you notice someone in your surroundings scheduling only men to speak, award them the ‘Congratulations, you have an all-male panel!’ seal of approval.
  3. Consult your list to determine who is eligible to apply for a Marie Curie, VENI, VIDI, etc., grant. Support them in submitting an application. Look for a female PhD candidate instead of a male. Actively recruit female temporary staff.
  4. Abide by the following rule: when scouting for candidates to fill a new job opening, if at least half of the serious candidates are not women, then cancel the whole scouting assignment. That will force talent scouts to focus more on women in their search. 
  5. When recruiting for a position, pay attention to implicit bias (unconscious and automatic prejudices, and the resulting behaviour, ed.) Clarify the selection criteria in advance, and discuss them with each candidate. This can be uncomfortable for some committees...
  6. Don’t be afraid of ultra-positive discrimination: make sure that you make job openings only available for women. We’ve done that at Mathematics, with 75 serious applicants as an excellent result. (And yes, if you want to reach your goal, you might have to treat candidates ‘unequally’ for a while.)
  7. Look for encouraging stories, and make them public. Some good examples are:  the exhibition on women in (European) mathematics, which was on display during the open days and the national mathematics conference, with the accompanying book with interviews, lectures about female mathematicians for teachers at the National Mathematics Days, etc.
  8. Stabilise your organisation: set a goal of 30% female professors, instead of just 20%. A minority that is too small runs the risk of disappearing before it can grow.
  9. Learn from women. They often approach problems differently, and have a different perspective on things. That can make some men uneasy...!
  10. Pay attention to unacceptable behaviour in a more diverse workplace. Make sure that you can discuss this topic, and offer coaching.


According to Gunther, implicit bias is the most difficult thing to defeat. “Only once you’ve raised enough awareness can you begin a diversity transition.” When it comes to gender diversity, Gunther has contributed to a significant increase in the number of female staff members within the department of Mathematics: from 5% to 15% over the past two years.

However, he will soon hand over his responsibilities as the head of the Mathematics department. Is he not worried that the department will lose sight of the importance of diversity? “Nope,” Gunther smiles, “because of course I’ve talked about it at length with my successor.”