15 October 2019

More women in science? Lose the masculine stereotype

Efforts to raise the number of female professors in the Netherlands have so far proved fruitless. Belle Derks, professor of Social Psychology at Utrecht University, blames this on, among other things, our persistent stereotype of the male scientist. 'Our idea of the scientist is very masculine. When Dutch people think of science, they picture a man.'

In early October, Utrecht professor Belle Derks was the keynote speaker at the 17th European Gender Summit in Amsterdam. In the presence of people such as Dutch minister of Education, Culture and Science Ingrid Engelshoven, she tackled the question of why the Netherlands in particular is not progressing in its efforts to introduce more women into the scientific top.

meisjes en techniek

Sciences: men

Derks used comparative research between countries on the image of researchers in the sciences to show that the Netherlands is struggling with a dogged gender stereotype in science. 'Dutch people grow up with the idea that science is just for men. Nowhere in the world is this subconscious preconception that scientists are men as strong as in the Netherlands. You can see it in technical studies: few girls in the Netherlands follow those courses.'


Derks also researched what characteristics scientists believe they need in the Netherlands to rise to the top in universities. 'The results showed that people believe a scientist should be dominant and performance-oriented. A good researcher is focused on personal gain, competitive and performance-oriented. Research has showed that these traits are more commonly associated with men than with women. We also found during our research that such a masculine professional stereotype acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforcing the under-representation of women in top positions in the academic world.'

For example, a target number of female professors could be agreed on.

Guiding role for the government

When asked how the Netherlands can gain more female professors, Derks cites the 'Westerdijk year'. 'In 2017, that initiative resulted in the appointment of 100 extra female professors in the Netherlands.' Derks suggests that another round of such an initiative could not hurt. 'We do need to keep an eye on and fill the rest of the pipeline, so that there are enough associate professors who can take the next step.' Derks also believes that the government should have a stronger guiding role, such as by agreeing a target number for female professors and waiting to pay out until universities can show that they are making progress. 'At the Gender Summit, I heard of research funders who only fund universities who can show that they are making progress on the gender diversity front. The only way universities will be forced to prioritise diversity is if diversity requirements are taken just as seriously as quality requirements.'