“We still miss out on a lot of good women, because we don’t see them”

It’s 2021, but female scientists are still “behind” on their male colleagues. They stop earlier in their scientific career and therefore make it to the top less often. How can this change?

See here for the full article in Leiden University’s weekly magazine “Mare”, which states that, judging on the numbers, an answer to this question has not yet been found, but a lot has already been set in motion to change this.


There are fewer female than male scientists, and we also know why (see this article): fewer role models, uneven distribution of care responsibilities, prejudices – not only about women, but about everyone who is not a white male.

An obvious but controversial solution to hiring more women is a quota. TU Eindhoven started a trial in 2019 to, in principle, only institute women, but ended up in court last year and lost the case: too drastic and in violation of equal treatment, according to the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights. .

Eindhoven’s tactic was rigorous, but it did ensure a new growth of female scientists. This does raise the question whether we should perhaps have a more moderate quota.

The most frequently heard counter-argument is that a quota does not hire the most suitable person. “People then think that a woman with fewer qualities will be chosen more quickly. That can indeed happen. But the fact that we are now missing out on good women because people don’t see their qualities is a greater risk.”

At the moment, Leiden does not work with quotas, but with a target figure for the percentage of female professors. Leiden University is now aiming for 35 percent of female professors by 2025. At the end of 2019, 29.3 percent were female.

Such a target is substantially different from a quota, diversity officer Aya Ezawa explains: “you don’t have to achieve it, it’s an incentive.”

Systemic inequality

Ezawa is not in favor of a quota. “It only resolves something on the surface. It can help to take steps, but the cause is structural.

“In addition, hiring more women helps with representation, but it is not up to the women to resolve systemic inequality and prejudice.”

Biological clock

You simply cannot change some inequalities, such as the biological clock. According to Suze Zijlstra, this is one of the reasons that many women between thirty and forty leave science. Zijlstra herself worked as a university lecturer in history until last summer, but opted for a different career because after ten years she still had no prospect of a permanent position.

“Scientists work very hard and often have long temporary contracts. Women who want to become pregnant usually cannot wait until they have a permanent contract. With duties of care it is not possible to devote all your free time to your scientific research. Men often have more flexibility in that regard.”

More money for science and a different subsidy system would make a big difference, Zijlstra thinks. Working overtime is normalized, which means that people who have the opportunity to spend their free hours on their research are more likely to get a permanent contract.

“People should have the opportunity to do their job within the scope of their contract. If there was enough time and money for everyone, the culture would look different too.”


The culture is slowly changing, it seems. Six years ago, for example, it was still very revolutionary to talk about this subject, according to Amir Ali Abadi, project leader at the Europa Institute of the University and core member of the diversity network LUDEN.

“It was kind of a taboo,” says Ali Abadi. “The credo in our society is: success is a choice and if you work hard enough, you will get there. So looking around and concluding that all communities within the university look the same, that was very revolutionary.”

“Now, six years later, we have a new female rector and vice-rector and you can see that the university is changing inside. The first step was awareness, we have had that, and so we can take action now.”


Ezawa also sees that change is taking place. “In my lecture I often ask the question what good leadership means. I used to get the answers: authority, perseverance, decisive. Recently, students are much more likely to say things like: empathy, can work as a connector, inspiring.”

“That is a completely different way of leadership, but it can be just as effective. I don’t want to say it’s feminine, but it’s more inclusive. This makes leadership interesting for other people as well.”

That is one of the things that could easily be improved according to Ezawa: vacancy discriptions, the way in which a job is described and the job requirements. “I never thought before I would work at the administrative office. But now that I do, I see that it can be very interesting. You can do a lot with the way you shape a position.

“The vacancy for the new rector provided, for example: “We are looking for someone who strives for inclusivity and diversity.” Firstly, this makes it clear what you stand for as a university, and secondly, you are more likely to be qualified for the position if you have gained experience with diversity yourself. In that respect, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it was interesting for female candidates.”

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