How not to promote women in science

The Technical University of Eindhoven (TU/e) has announced that in the next eighteen months, all hires of scientific staff are to be women exclusively. This concerns about 150 scientific jobs. Only when a vacancy has been open for six months and no female candidate has been found, men can be considered for the job. With this, the TU/e hopes to improve the percentage of women on the scientific staff, which is currently at a low, low 16 percent.

Why is the percentage of women on the scientific staff so low for the TU/e? That is very simple: the university specializes in technical sciences, like mathematics, computer science, physics, chemistry, etc. The percentages of women who enter these sciences are low in the whole of the western world. Why is that? It is not because women cannot do these sciences. It is also not because they are not interested in them. It is because women, on average, tend to prefer other sciences. In the western world, women have a lot of choice in what they will do with their lives, whether or not they will work, and if they work, how long, how hard, and in what business. This freedom of choice has lead to most women choosing not to work in technical sciences. In medicine, law, psychology, sociology, educational science, and the humanities, women dominate. In physics and computer sciences, men dominate. If a university specializes in those sciences which women, on average, do not prefer to work in, it is no surprise that there will be a low percentage of women on the scientific staff.

Why do women, on average, prefer to focus on topics outside the exact sciences? Is it the female nature? Has it something to do with culture, perhaps? Is it education or parenting? Is it a combination? Many explanations can be proposed, but the TU/e is not interested in explanations or solving this “problem” at the root: the TU/e is only interested in fighting the consequences. I can certainly imagine that the TU/e feels that something needs to be done about the low percentages of women, considering that having so few women working there may make women feel unwelcome. However, this particular measure is an affront, as it will automatically lead to the TU/e saddling up other universities with their problems. I will explain:

The TU/e forces their staff to let vacancies go unfilled unless they hire women. But where are these women going to come from? Overall, there are simply very few women working in the exact sciences, because very few women choose to work in them. So how is the TU/e going to fill the vacancies? By enticing women who work at other universities to come work for them. There is no other source for female candidates. The TU/e, with their measure, has not magically created a fresh pool of women who specialize in exact sciences.

The TU/e offers great facilities to women who join up, like an extra 100,000 euros for research (only women get that, men do not). So they will steal women away from other universities, thereby maybe improving the situation at the TU/e in this respect, but hurting the situation at other universities at the same time. The overall situation of women in the exact sciences does not change one bit. Moreover, the measure creates problems (1) for departments at the TU/e who will see vacancies go unfilled for a long time and who will have to go for the “lesser” candidate because they are not allowed to hire the ideal candidate, (2) for other universities which see their personnel stolen by the TU/e, (3) for the male PhD students and postdocs at the TU/e who were hoping to continue their career there and now have to seek a job elsewhere, and (4) for women who may feel forced to change jobs with all the consequences for their personal lives. It is very sad that the TU/e evidently believes that they are doing a good thing.

If the TU/e really wants to get a higher percentage of women on their staff, what they should do is start new educational programs or change existing programs so that they are more appealing to women. If you change what you do to cater more to the interests of women, they will come. If you refuse to change what you do but just tell your staff to start stealing from other universities, you may end up giving the impression that you are improving the situation of women in science, but in actuality you are just creating more problems than there already are.

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