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‘We sometimes forget that everybody has a different start in life’

In the academic world, there are still large groups who are underrepresented, such as students with a migrant background and female professors. The government and knowledge institutions want to turn the tide with a new action plan.

Onderzoek najaar 2020. Nationaal Actieplan. Credits Aisha Zeijpveld

Text: Merijn van Nuland, Malou van Hintum,  Photography: Aisha Zeijpvled

For a while, it seemed that the coronavirus crisis had united us all. It was a shock when we could no longer go to the office, but with renewed enthusiasm, we got on with our work in our study, at the kitchen table or on the sofa. Perhaps the biggest revelation was how much work could actually continue and that also applied to activities at universities and knowledge institutions. Isn’t it amazing how flexible we all are!

Reverting to traditional gender roles

‘But at home, another trend was emerging’, says Professor of Health Psychology Semiha Denktaş, who is also chief diversity officer at Erasmus University Rotterdam and a member of the committee for the National Action Plan Diversity and Inclusion. ‘There are strong indications that many couples fall back into traditional gender roles during a lockdown. It is mainly women who assume responsibility for the children, the informal care tasks and running the household. Men did that far less and were therefore in a better position to continue their career from home. You saw that, for example, in the special COVID-19 research programme from NWO: most of the laureates were men who clearly found enough time to write and realise a research proposal.’

Redressing inequality

This example is just one of the symptoms that reveals the inequality present in the scientific world, according to Denktaş and her fellow diversity officers from other universities. The figures also disclose inequality in a range of other areas. For example, scarcely one-quarter of Dutch professors are women and the number of students with a migration background is smaller than one would expect based on the composition of the population.

The aim is to bring those people without that? advantage to your level

On 1 September 2020, in an effort to reduce that inequality, the Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Ingrid van Engelshoven, presented a national action plan to encourage diversity and inclusion in Dutch university education and research. It contains several ambitious objectives (see box) to ensure that the research world will be a better reflection of society by 2025. The plan was put together in close collaboration with almost all relevant parties in the field, including NWO.

Not a pure meritocracy

The main aim of the plan: create equal opportunities for everybody irrespective of their origin, gender and other personal characteristics. Then, according to Minister van Engelshoven, everybody can ‘fully and equally’ participate. ‘That is necessary because the Netherlands has for too long considered itself a pure meritocracy in which the smartest and most ambitious people would automatically make it to the top’, adds Denktaş. ‘However, we all too easily forget that everybody has a different start in life. You can be intelligent and motivated, but if you grow up in a disadvantaged position then, often from your birth onwards, you lag behind children who grow up in a better-off family.’

The five ambitions for 2025

  • Better embedding of diversity and inclusion, for example during the assessment of research proposals and accreditations.
  • Better and broader monitoring of diversity in education and research, including social safety and inclusion.
  • Establishing a reward system to make policy and funding diverse and inclusive.
  • Consolidating and supporting diversity plans from institutions so that more collaboration can take place.
  • Establishing a national knowledge centre for diversity and inclusion. This knowledge centre will develop, consolidate and share knowledge and expertise.

More obstacles to overcome

As far as the signatories are concerned, those inequalities will now be tackled. That will first of all happen high up in the tree with ambitious target figures for female professors. But preferably the problem will also be tackled at a far earlier stage. The writers of the plan refer to the “leaking pipeline” which ensures that certain children find their way less easily into university and are even less likely to become a professor. If you come from a family with a migrant background, you have lower educated parents, you are a girl who scarcely has female role models or you suffer from a functional disability, then you need to overcome more hurdles. The career pipeline has more holes at each successive level, as a result of which it is easier for you to drop out.

Sealing the leaking pipeline

‘Take, for example, the primary school’, says Vinod Subramaniam, rector magnificus of VU Amsterdam and chair of the National committee that will advise about the realisation of the action plan. ‘The first selection already takes place at that level. In the case of an equal performance, children from migrant families are less likely to receive a recommendation to enter pre-university education, as a result of which going to university will become less of an obvious option. If you want to seal the leaking pipeline, then we need to tackle the entire chain.’ At present, the integral approach is still beyond the scope of the action plan, which focusses entirely on higher education.

‘Change now supported from the top down too’

Sherilyn Deen is a PhD student at the Department of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. Since her student days, she has worked together with other committed students and staff to get diversity and inclusion on the agenda. How does she view the publication of the action plan?

Onderzoek najaar 2020. Nationaal Actieplan. Sherilyn Deen

‘When I joined the student platform Amsterdam United in 2013, we formed the first bottom-up initiative to put diversity and inclusion on the agenda at the University of Amsterdam. Although the University of Amsterdam said that everybody was welcome, you could nevertheless see from the composition of the student and employee population that certain population groups were underrepresented. Back then there was far less attention for this subject. We spoke out because this kind of knowledge was not yet available at the institute.

The action plan reveals that now the initiative is not only being taken from the bottom up, but is also supported from the top down. I think it is a positive development that the Minister of Education, Culture and Science and various knowledge institutions are supporting this plan. Of course, it still needs to be seen how the plan will be implemented in practice because many of the action points still need to be made tangible. One such example is the target figures for people with a migration background. However, a solid advisory committee has been appointed, and so I am hopeful that this will happen.

Now that I supervise workgroups myself, I notice the changing opinions among students. The Eurocentric canon is still at the heart of many disciplines, and that is reflected in the curricula. The literature contained in the curricula is mostly written by white, heterosexual men. At best, attention is devoted in the last lecture to alternative theories, for example from the feminist perspective. Many students are now no longer prepared to accept this. They also want to hear what sociologists with other backgrounds have to say about subjects such as “race” and colonialism.’

The strength of different perspectives

Ultimately, an inclusive research world is not only a matter of justice but also vital for the worldwide competitive position of Dutch science, according to the writers of the plan. Subramaniam: ‘You should not forget that diversity and inclusion are a strength. If you use everybody’s talent to the full, then that leads to teams which perform better. A team that contains a range of backgrounds will be in a better position to tackle a problem from various perspectives. That is a strength, certainly in the highly international world of research.’

The question is not whether but how

At present not everybody is convinced about the need for measures, as can be seen for example on social media, although Denktaş notices little of that at “her” Erasmus University Rotterdam. ‘Colleagues and students no longer wonder whether we should do this, but mainly pose constructive questions about how we will do it.’ And for the more persistent critics, she has a reconciliatory message: ‘Perhaps you got a head start in life compared to others. We’re not out to take that head start away from you, but to bring those without that advantage up to your level?.’

Read more about the national action plan to enhance diversity and inclusion in science

Onderzoek najaar 2020. Nationaal Actieplan. Credits Aisha Zeijpveld

Refugees in Science 

Ali Aljasem

PhD student in humanities at Utrecht University

‘I have mixed feelings about the programme Refugees in Science. It’s great that it works for me, and I was pleased with the funding I received. Yet at the same time, I feel uneasy about the fact that I had to make use of the programme. Because its very nature enhances certain stereotypes.’

How? ‘An instrument such as Refugees in Science is a social and scientific experiment to demonstrate: “look, we funded a refugee, we’re doing the right thing, we’re working towards diversity and inclusion”. But I’m not a refugee who needs to prove the success of the funding instrument. I’m an academic who fled and who wants to do research.’

You feel you’re not seen in that way? ‘When I was admitted to a master’s programme somebody said to me: “We’re taking the risk”. It was undoubtedly meant well, but such a statement is offensive. I’m academically trained, and I’m qualified, so what do you mean by taking a risk with me?

Onderzoek najaar 2020. Nationaal Actieplan. Ali Ajasem

Yes, it has helped me considerably, but I’m concerned about how the instrument is deployed

Ali Ajasem

I’ve now been working at Utrecht University for more than three years, and things are completely different here. I’m part of a fantastic team. I have a great supervisor, and my colleagues genuinely give me the feeling that I make a valuable contribution. They’re enthusiastic about it, independent of my background.’

So all things considered, it is still a useful instrument? ‘Yes, it has helped me considerably, but I’m concerned about how the instrument is deployed. Use it to stimulate changes within the university system and not as an instrument that, in practice, makes it harder for academics who have fled to gain access to the academic world. Because if you don’t receive this funding, you won’t get in. But if you use it in that way, then the prejudices will only increase. Instead, you could also use it to build bridges and work towards diversity and inclusion in a good way.’

With the programme Refugees in Science (and its successor Hestia - Impulse for Refugees in Science) NWO makes it possible to fund an appointment for academics who have fled from their fatherland and who want to continue their scientific career in the Netherlands.


Ciska Veen

Ecologist and senior researcher at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, NIOO-KNAW

‘NWO organised Talent Days for while, and I visited those as a PhD and postdoc. If you saw the numbers there about women in science, then you’d understand why instruments are needed to facilitate diversity. There is far too much unconscious bias in the system to expect that things will automatically improve. If you do not actively tackle that bias but allow things to take their natural course, then it will take far too long for women and all other groups who are now poorly represented in science. That is unfair.’

Does an Aspasia Grant help in that regard? Or is the result that you no longer receive funding from another budget because people feel the balance has been redressed already? ‘It works differently: the disadvantage of a funding instrument like Aspasia is that it goes to women who were already successful. So you first of all need to get into the system, then be successful and afterwards you receive confirmation that you can stay. However, the first hurdle is the most difficult to overcome. I had submitted a Vidi application. I did not get that grant, but I did end up in the highest qualification category. I could therefore receive an Aspasia grant, and I was offered it.’

Onderzoek najaar 2020. Nationaal Actieplan. Ciska Veen

There is far too much unconscious bias in the system to expect that things will automatically improve.

Ciska Veen

Did you benefit from that? ‘Yes it certainly did: thanks to the Aspasia I have received a tenured contract, and I really appreciate that! So it does work. It was a fantastic chance and I wanted to take it. I knew that immediately even though I was initially somewhat disappointed by the fact that I failed to bag a Vidi.’

What is your advice to other women? ‘Make sure you have a good mentor and a good network. That is really important. Women are far too modest and hesitant. Stop doing that, because men are not like that at all. When I applied for a postdoc position, there was a list with ten criteria. I thought, I’ve only got five of them. My husband said: “You can already do half of the things, that’s an awful lot”. That’s the mindset you need to have.’

Aspasia is linked to NWO’s Talent Programme and awards grants to stimulate the number of female researchers who hold an associate or assistant professorship.

Caribbean research: a multi-disciplinary approach

Francio Guadeloupe

Social and cultural anthropologist at the University of Amsterdam and senior researcher and staff member, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, KITLV-KNAW

‘Through a process of trial and error, the Netherlands is transforming into a society in which nobody is categorised according to his or her appearance. Diversity politics is facilitating that transition. The word transition also implies that this process has an endpoint: the moment at which diversity and inclusion are no longer issues but are an automatic part of how society functions. I hope that my children will be able to experience that moment.’

What has the programme Caribbean research: a multi-disciplinary approach got to do with this? ‘NWO has a wide range of research grants for which researchers have to compete with each other, and this is one of them. The Caribbean Research programme is special because it also has a political component: with this grant, NWO is contributing to the transition that is now underway and with that to the normalisation in which that transition will end. Researchers who receive this grant have already overcome many hurdles to get this far. Therefore the aim of the grant is not to help insufficiently qualified people to advance, but to correct the institutions. They admit too few talented researchers of colour - and also too few women and people with physical vulnerabilities.’

Onderzoek najaar 2020. Nationaal Actieplan. Francio Guadeloupe

There is not yet a broad acceptance and appreciation of cultural diversity

Francio Guadeloupe

How have you benefited from the programme? ‘The grant gave me the opportunity to connect my research at the University of Amsterdam and at the University of Sint Maarten and, by doing that, to increase the diversity within the universities. The Kingdom of the Netherlands is actually very diverse as it contains the Netherlands, Aruba, Curaçao, Sint Maarten, Saba, Bonaire and Sint Eustatius. Four languages are spoken: English, Friesian, Dutch and Papiamento. However, this diversity has not yet translated into a broad acceptance and appreciation of cultural diversity. Thanks to the Caribbean Research programme that can change. It helps to understand the Netherlands as part of a larger transatlantic entity.’

Does more still need to happen in this area? ‘All ethnic groups contain people with talent, engagement and motivation. And that is exactly why you should expect more people like that at universities than there are now. There should be more possibilities for them to develop themselves.’