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Women in Science: Why we must pay attention to equality and diversity

31 March 2021

Cisca Wijmenga, Rector, University of Groningen


Every other year on March 8th, International Women’s Day, the University of Groningen awards the Aletta Jacobs prize to a woman who has served as an example to others. Aletta Jacobs was the first woman who officially attended a Dutch university. She graduated on March 8th, 1879, as a medical doctor from our university but, more importantly, she became a leader in the international women’s movement and she founded the world’s first birth control clinic. As early as May 18th, 1901, Aletta Jacobs had proposed organizing an international women’s day, but it was not until 1977 that the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed March 8th as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and World Peace.

The 2021 theme ‘Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’, is timely and more important than ever. An article in Nature last year (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-0921-y) had already indicated that Covid-19 was not affecting all scientists equally, with female scientists, especially those with young children, experiencing a substantial decline in the time they could devote to research. While in 2017 it had already been shown that gender diversity leads to better science (https://www.pnas.org/content/114/8/1740).

Despite having had Aletta Jacobs as a frontrunner in addressing the equal rights of women, it took her university more than a century to apply her ideas to its own gender policy. With a history of 405 years, in 2020 the university appointed me as its first female rector after 227 men! Although we have more female than male students nowadays, only 23% of our full professors are women. Along the career development path, we observe a widening gender gap: the higher the academic rank, the larger the male over-representation. A similar situation is found at all Dutch universities.

As a society we have a responsibility to offset the under-utilization of the brains of so many talented women. We need policies to stimulate the careers of women in science, e.g. by assuring that there is no wage gap, by providing family support, by providing a socially safe environment in our universities, and by counteracting the ‘more-of-me’ bias in appointment committees that have male over-representation. Setting target rates will also help, in combination with special programs like those implemented at the University of Groningen for female tenure track candidates (Rosalind Franklin Fellowships, https://www.rug.nl/about-ug/work-with-us/rff/). We have been able to appoint more than 120 highly qualified and ambitious Rosalind Franklin fellows in the last decade and last year we appointed an additional 16 female Aletta Jacobs professors, a program announced during the 2019 Aletta Jacobs prize ceremony. We hope we are now on track to reach our target of 33% female professors in 2025.

Of course, we do not stand alone in Groningen in our struggle for equality and diversity. We do our best to promote equality in our university by welcoming staff and students regardless of their gender, race, nationality, age, religion, sexual orientation and/or cultural background, and we provide equal rights and opportunities to everyone. We can certainly learn from experience at other universities and I therefore strongly support the establishment of the new Coimbra Working Group on Equality and Diversity; I would like to thank my colleagues Annalisa Oboe from Padua University and Věra Sokolová from Charles University (Prague) for their strong leadership. Among trusted partners, we are able to share our views and thoughts, and exchange best practices related to these important topics.

As a professor in Human Genetics, I know the importance of diversity, not only in human genetics but also in the gut, where a more diverse microbiome is always better! More importantly, in my research I had the privilege of working with many talented colleagues and students from around the world and trained in many different disciplines. We, as university leaders, must be aware of the importance of equality and diversity, and work firmly towards a more equal future within academia for all staff and students to the best of our skills and capacities.