A 14% gap

November 24, 2019

Every two years, Intermediair Magazine and Nyenrode Business University (note: despite the term “university” Nyenrode is not a scientific institution, but a business school) perform a study of Dutch salaries, which they call the National Salary Survey (NSO; Nationaal Salaris Onderzoek). Their 2019 report shows (among other things) a 6% discrepancy between the salaries of men and women up to 35 years of age, to the detriment of women. Naturally, journalists, in particular those with feminist sympathies, grab this “fact” to once more discuss the “wage gap” and how bad women have it in the western world.

I was rather surprised by the report’s findings, as the Dutch Bureau for Statistics (CBS; Centraal Bureau voor Statistiek) has reported since 2014 at least (I have not looked further into the past) that the salaries of women up to 36 years of age are 8% higher on average than those of men. In De Volkskrant, two articles in the same issue bring up both the 6% less and 8% more figures, without noting the discrepancy. I tried to ignore the discussions on the wage gap this time around, as I am getting rather tired of them, but since the 6% figure is now coming up in more articles I feel obliged to say something (despite the fact that few people read this, but sometimes I need to rant a bit).

The first question is: which of these figures is correct? The answer to that is clear: the 8% more for women figure of CBS is correct, as CBS writes its reports based on objective studies for the government — a government, I might say, which has rather feminist leanings as far as social justice is concerned. Note that, according to CBS, this figure is explained for the most part by the higher level of education that women tend to have.

The second question is: where does the difference between the results of CBS and the NSO originate? That is also clear: CBS has access to salary data of all Dutch citizens and bases its study on millions of data points. The NSO bases its results on data which are derived from a website, where they asked people to self-report on their salaries. They came up with close to 44,000 data points, which sounds like a lot, but is nothing compared to the millions of data points of CBS. Moreover, self-reports are notoriously unreliable, and salaries are something which men typically like to boast about and women tend to be humble about. So we may conclude that the NSO’s findings are unreliable and should be thrown into the garbage.

The third question is: why the hell does the NSO exist at all, when CBS produces a report on Dutch salaries every two years, based on objective data of every working person in the country? Producing the NSO is just a waste of time and money. Moreover, I cannot imagine that the leaders of the NSO research do not know about the CBS figures, and they should therefore have realized that their data must be skewed far too much to draw any conclusions from. Had they been responsible scientists, with the knowledge that their results are worthless, they would have declined to produce the report. So the only answer that I can come up with for this question is that the research leaders of the NSO are just interested in the attention that their report gets, and have no qualms about closing their eyes to the truth.

Note that CBS has examined the variance between salaries of all Dutch citizens using factor analyses, and has concluded that gender is in no way an explanation for observed salary differences. Therefore, any article or report which tries to pose salary differences between men and women as a gendered issue are fundamentally wrong. You may expect journalists and activists to erroneously state something along the lines of “but the fact that women earn less than men means that gender discrimination is at work, right?” but a scientist who bases their studies on statistics should understand their statistics better. Thus the NSO is no more than a pseudo-scientific manifesto and does not deserve the attention that it gets.


How not to promote women in science

June 19, 2019

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.


Domination achieved

January 24, 2019

My post before this one was on the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), which is used by many news media, institutes, and even governments, as a foundation to argue that “women are disadvantaged compared to men in all countries in the world, and need to be awarded advantages to compensate for that.” I criticized the GGGI on three points, showing that it clearly purports a feminist agenda rather than trying to fight for parity between the sexes. Two weeks after I wrote that post, an article appeared in the high-quality scientific journal PLOS One, on this very topic. The article by Gijsbert Stoet and David C. Geary, titled “A simplified approach to measuring national gender inequality,” not only makes the same arguments as I did, but also demonstrates, using literature references, that in many areas men fall behind women. The article proposes a more objective measurement of gender parity than the activist one used by the GGGI, which is called the Basic Index of Gender Inequality (BIGI).

The BIGI is based on three components, namely (1) educational opportunities in childhood; (2) healthy life expectancy; and (3) overall life satisfaction. These three components share the fact that they are independent from life choices. For example, education is only examined in childhood, while tertiary education is excluded; the reason is that education in childhood is not a choice, while the decision to get into tertiary (university) education may be. So the fact that far more women than men go to university in developed countries is not giving women an advantage, as you cannot know whether this is because men are disadvantaged or that men on average simply do not like to go to university.

Education and life span are also components of the GGGI, but two notes should be made for the GGGI: (1) education is capped at 1.00, meaning that the fact that women are highly advantaged over men in developed countries in this respect is counted as ‘equality’; and (2) life expectancy is counted as equal when women live 6% longer than men, i.e., in a country where women only live 3% longer than men, the GGGI calls them ‘disadvantaged.’ The most remarkable thing, however, is that the third component, life satisfaction, is not even taken into account for the GGGI, while Stoet and Geary rightfully argue that “while it is very difficult to determine the degree to which men and women are disadvantaged in any particular aspect of life, an overall assessment of life satisfaction likely reflects the combination of advantages and disadvantages they have experienced, whatever they might be.”

Stoet and Geary use the BIGI to rate gender inequality in 134 countries. They also calculate the AADP, which basically is the variance in calculating the BIGI, to account for the fact that a country may have a BIGI close to zero (reflecting parity) while there are still high disadvantages for each of the genders, but in different areas. The “best” situation for a country is having both the BIGI and the AADP close to zero, meaning that men and women are treated in exactly the same way.

Stoet and Geary reach the unsurprising (to me, at least) conclusion that in underdeveloped countries women are usually disadvantaged over men, which is mainly the result of restricted education, while in developed countries women tend to be advantaged over men, which is mainly the result of a higher healthy life expectancy. It should be noted, however, that even though men tend to be disadvantaged compared to women in more developed countries, the higher the level of development in a country is, the closer it tends to be to complete gender equality.

Naturally, you can have a critical discussion about the components in the BIGI. However, the BIGI is a scale without an agenda: it tries to measure gender inequality in an objective way, rather than explicitly sell a biased message, as the GGGI does. One can only hope that research such as this makes governments in developed countries realize that the notion that women as a group are disadvantaged is not grounded in reality, and that letting radical feminists set their agenda is not a good idea.


108 years to total domination

December 19, 2018

The World Economic Forum just published their Global Gender Gap Report 2018. It is an extensive report which investigates gender differences in 149 countries in the areas of health, education, economy, and politics. Some of the key findings of the report are: “Globally, the average (population-weighted) distance completed to parity is at 68.0%, which is a marginal improvement over last year. In other words, to date there is still a 32.0% average gender gap that remains to be closed” (page vii) and “Projecting current trends into the future, the overall global gender gap will close in 108 years across the 106 countries covered since the first edition of the report” (page viii).

There is a lot that you can say about this report, and it certainly makes clear that there are many countries in the world where significant improvements in female empowerment must be made. It does sound rather disappointing, though, that according to the report there is no country in the world where the gender gap is closed. The best performing country on the list is Iceland, which has closed 85% of the gender gap, which leaves 15% still to close according to the report. So anybody who thinks that the genders are pretty much equal in countries such as Iceland or The Netherlands (27th on the list) should think again.

This is where most of the headlines will stop. However, you should really read the report a bit more in detail, to find out what is meant by the “gender gap” and how it is measured. To the report’s credit, it is explicit about these facts to those who are willing to read further. The report uses three underlying concepts, which are explained on pages 3 and 4: (1) gaps versus levels, (2) outcomes versus inputs, and (3) gender equality versus women’s empowerment. What do these concepts entail?

Gaps versus levels means that the report examines the differences between men and women per country. So a country in which men and women are both oppressed is considered to have a smaller gender gap than a country in which men and women are both completely free but men use their freedom a bit more actively to increase their prosperity than women do. This entails that a country being high on the list does not necessarily mean that you would want to live there as a woman. For instance, Namibia is number 10 on the list — with its life expectancy of 66 for women, versus 83 in The Netherlands, do you really think that Dutch women would want to exchange their comfy lives for the harsh reality of a third-world country?

Outcomes versus inputs means that the report ignores equality of opportunity but looks at equality of outcome instead. This means that a country which offers women all the freedoms and opportunities that men have (or even a few more, as is the case in most countries in Western Europe), but where women on average choose to be less economically active than men (again, which is the case in most countries in Western Europe) is considered to have a gender gap. While certainly there is a gap in absolute terms, the only way to close it would be to take away people’s freedoms (either by forcing them by law to do things that they do not want to do, or to culturally brainwash them to do things that they do not want to do). This is a price that few people would be willing to pay to achieve such an abstract concept as a “closed gender gap.”

Gender equality versus women’s empowerment is the most egregious concept. The report says: “[the report] ranks countries according to their proximity to gender equality rather than to women’s empowerment” (page 4). That sounds reasonable, until you read what it entails a few lines further: “it neither rewards nor penalizes cases in which women are outperforming men in particular indicators in some countries” (page 4). If you need a further translation: this concept means that if in an area men do better than women, it is considered unequal, while if women do better than men, it is considered equal. This is why Iceland, where female enrollment in universities and colleges is double the male enrollment, scores 1.000 in tertiary education. In my view, this should be considered a gender gap to the detriment of men which really needs some attention, as it clearly indicates that men have a big problem as far as their education is concerned. But the report does not care about that: women doing twice as well as men is considered “equality.” The report has a clear feminist agenda to sell, and it has no qualms about it.

Even if you look at the dry numbers (where you can see that there are many areas where men do a lot worse than women), there is little of value in the report, because not only does it ignore many relevant factors (such as conscription, crime & punishment, legal & social protection, etcetera), it also refuses to look at underlying reasons (concept #2). I think that if it had examined underlying reasons, it would have discovered that it is highly unlikely that the gender gap, in the way it is defined, will ever be closed, since to close it the world needs total domination of women over men in each and every category in each and every country in the world. Apart from some rabid feminists, I hardly think that what needs to be done to achieve that is something that most people find desirable.

Additional: Together with the report the World Economic Forum also published an article called “The 10 best countries to be a woman.” Number 5: Nicaragua. Number 6: Rwanda. Number 8: Philippines. Number 10: Namibia. While these countries may have a small gender gap according to the standards of the World Economic Forum, I dare to express doubts that they are among the “best countries to be a woman.” The fact that the World Economic Forum sees no problems in publishing an article under a headline like this one, clearly demonstrates how limited their thinking process is. Translating their vision on a gender gap to standards of living is ostensibly bone-headed.


Levels of sexism

December 15, 2018

Research has shown that on the highest level of secondary school in The Netherlands (VWO), large groups of children left primary school with a recommendation for a lower level of secondary school. This holds for 21% of the girls, and 14% of the boys. The reason for this difference is not known, but the cries of “it is sexism against girls, who are systematically underestimated by their primary school teachers” are already sounding.

I would just like to point out that these numbers could equally well be pointing at sexist attitudes towards boys. The advice of primary school teachers (predominantly women, by the way) is supposed to be leading in distributing children over secondary schools. This advice is far more often ignored for girls, providing them access to a higher level of school, than it is for boys. This sounds a lot like girls getting the benefit of the doubt far more often than boys get it. It just depends on which perspective you take: the primary school perspective which is holding girls back, or the secondary school perspective which is welcoming girls in.

In the end, however, I would like to stress that in this reporting it is explicitly stated that the reasons for the difference are unknown. Therefore, cries of “sexism,” whether it is against boys or girls, are at this time unwarranted.


Strumia’s lament

October 6, 2018

On September 28, 2018, Professor Alessandro Strumia gave a talk at CERN at a conference on “High Energy Physics and Gender.” In the talk, he took the unpopular view that the reason that there are fewer women than men in physics is primarily because of inherent differences between men and women (on average) as far as talent and interests are concerned, and not because physics is oppressive of women.

The organizers promptly distanced themselves from his talk, and removed the video recording and his slides from public access. CERN, where he is a research leader, suspended him, and his home university of Pisa put him under investigation. The ERC is considering to retract Strumia’s 1.9 million euro grant. While his talk is not available for viewing, his slides can be found online. The media have reported a general outcry and wide condemnation of the talk. A collection of physicists published an open letter, signed now by over 1600 people, in which they express their anger, and state that Strumia’s ideas are unsound.

I should mention that the impression that the media give that the whole of the scientific world condemns Strumia is incorrect. I examined some of the twitter feeds which followed the talk, and I found that besides a minority which vocally condemns Strumia and another minority which vocally supports him, the reasonable middle states that Strumia presented facts, and that they would like to see counterarguments against either the facts or Strumia’s interpretation of them, before dismissing Strumia’s statements.

What I find striking about all of this, is that most people who condemn Strumia have not witnessed his talk. For instance, the open letter starts with “[t]he statement here is based upon widely reported events, publicly available slides, and eyewitness accounts.” I.e., the only input that the writers used which is not hearsay are Strumia’s slides. I find that a weak basis for publicly raking someone over the coals.

It has to be said that Strumia’s slides give the impression that he has an axe to grind, and that rather than limiting himself to objective facts, he spent a considerable portion of his talk on his personal experiences, on politicizing his ideas, and on insulting his audience which consisted for the majority of young female physicists.

Within the slides, however, there is also some solid research. Basically, what Strumia does is examining scientific quality based on an objective measure, namely number of citations. Using a very large dataset, he makes comparisons between men and women in physics in relation to citations, and shows that with regards to citations on average women underperform compared to men. You may rightfully argue that citations do not give a complete picture of scientific quality. However, there are few other objective measures which you can use for such research, so at least he provides a factual starting point for a discussion. The question is: how do you explain the observations which Strumia makes?

Strumia compares the “mainstream” explanation (“all the differences between men and women are culturally determined and thus physics is oppressive of women”) with the, what he calls, “conservative” explanation (“women are inherently less interested in physics, and the people with the most talent for physics are predominantly men”). Neither of these explanations can be shown to be “the correct one,” but Strumia at least gives some indications on why the mainstream explanation can be considered faulty. The most damning argument against the mainstream explanation is the “gender equality paradox,” which entails that the more a country does to erase the cultural differences between men and women and the more it does to erase the barriers that women face to make free choices in their careers, the fewer women choose a career in science and technology. This observable fact falsifies the notion that there are no differences between the interests of men and women.

Strumia also rightfully wonders why people are so concerned about the fact that men form the majority of the people in the STEM fields, while nobody cares that women form the vast majority in education, psychology, the humanities, and medicine. He also notes that “equal representation of women” in a field that is dominated by men is demanded where it concerns STEM, but as soon as it concerns jobs that are dirty or dangerous (such as construction, firefighting, or mining), the fact that almost no women are found in these jobs is not seen as a problem at all.

Unfortunately, these sensible statements are overshadowed by Strumia’s wailing about his personal experiences, his suggestion that physics is a men’s job, his complaints about the way institutes tend to assume that men have no issues and that all women are oppressed everywhere, his annoyance with the widespread support that women get but men lack, and his explicit mocking of domains such as gender studies. Mind you, there are grains of truth in his wailing, but he should not have included it in his talk as it undermines the other things he says.

Strumia should simply have presented observable facts, and then either leave the interpretation up for debate, or weigh his own arguments against the arguments of “the other side.” While simply ignoring counterarguments is something that a majority position can do without penalties, Strumia is talking from an underdog position (especially at this conference), and as such he has to be much more careful about how he explains his ideas.

The open letter I referred to does provide some interesting counterarguments to Strumia’s statements. Some of these are convincing (in particular where they concern Strumia’s obsession with citations), others much less so (for instance where they refer to “unconscious biases” and where they attempt to dismiss the “gender equality paradox” by stating that oppressive countries have more women in STEM because of a lack of choice, which only underlines Strumia’s statements).

But is does not matter whether your sympathies lie with Strumia or the open letter (or neither): the point is that both Strumia’s statements and the statements of the open letter should be up for debate. And that debate is not going to happen because (a) CERN tried to erase all of Strumia’s materials, making it impossible to know what he actually said, and (b) Strumia immediately got punished so harshly for expressing his ideas that few people will be willing to examine his statements objectively, as they know that they face similar punishment if they publicly reach the same, “abject” conclusion.

The open letter, in the first paragraphs, states in bold font: “We write here first to state, in the strongest possible terms, that the humanity of any person, regardless of ascribed identities such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, disability, gender presentation, or sexual identity is not up for debate.” I find this text rather unworthy of serious scientists.

The statement makes clear that the authors of the text want the reader to believe that Strumia was attacking the humanity of women in physics. As far as his slides are concerned, there is absolutely no evidence of that, unless you assume that stating that there are inherent differences between men and women amounts to attacking someone’s humanity. You will find that most people believe that there actually are inherent differences between men and women, and rightly so, as these differences can be observed. Claiming that such differences do not exist is dogma and not science.

Now, the statement gives the strong impression that it considers a number of topics as “not up for debate” at all. Because as soon as you bring one of them up, you are probably going to be condemned for attacking someone’s “humanity,” and such topics may not be debated. To declare a topic so sacred that it cannot be debated is as unscientific as you can get. You may find a person’s statements despicable, but if they are supported by falsifiable claims, then your responsibility as a scientist is not to dismiss them outright (and penalize the perpetrator), but to have the debate, offer counterarguments, and if possible falsify the claims.

Unfortunately, Strumia is a proponent of reason and free speech that we could have done without. He is a man who let his frustration with certain trends in science and society get the better of him. The best thing you can hope for with a talk like this is that at least certain topics are opened up for debate rather than being untouchable. However, the steps his opponents took, making him suffer personally for daring to speak his mind, ensured that fewer people will be willing to speak up about these topics in the future.


Identity politics and retirement

August 1, 2018

Researchers of the Dutch demographical institute NIDI argue in an article that retirement age should be lower for people who have a relatively low level of education than for people who have a high level of education. They would like to introduce three categories of people, based on their level of education. In their proposal (depending on the chosen scenario) the category of people with the lowest level of education retires 4 to 5 years earlier than the category with the highest level of education, and the middle category will end up somewhere in the middle. They state that there are two reasons for this proposal: people with a low level of education tend to start earlier with working, and they tend to die earlier.

In summary, they argue for applying identity politics to the setting of the age of retirement; i.e., they divide people into groups along some demographic criteria (in this case education level), make a comparison in some areas between the averages of the groups (in this case life span and age of entering the job market), and distribute advantages and disadvantages over people based on the group in which they end up (in this case with respect to retirement age), regardless how distant each individual person is to the average of the group they are assigned to. That this approach is an aberration is clear from the fact that according to the proposed system, an academically educated sociologist who cannot get a job in sociology and thus works in construction, retires at a far later age than an uneducated person who works in construction.

The researchers make at least two basic mistakes. The first mistake is that “correlation does not imply causation” (as this is a mantra for social scientists it surprises me highly that they make this mistake). The fact that someone has a low level of education is not the cause for them dying earlier. The reason that people with a low level of education tend to die earlier is that they tend to live more unhealthy lives — on average, they smoke more often, drink more, use drugs more often, eat more unhealthy food, etcetera. Also, some of the jobs that low-educated people hold are quite detrimental to physical health (e.g., jobs in construction). But that does not mean that everybody with a low level of education lives unhealthily or works in a physically demanding job. Neither is the starting age of work life necessarily lower for a low-educated person than for a high-educated person (in fact, unemployment is higher among low-educated people than among high-educated people). Moreover, despite the fact that on average high-educated people indeed start their work life later than low-educated people, that does not entail that they work less hours in total in their lives (in fact, high-educated people tend to spend much more time at their jobs than low-educated people).

The second mistake is that the level of education is not the demographic factor that has the biggest impact on how long people live. The factor that has the biggest impact is sex. Women live, on average, 7 to 8 years longer than men. If you are going to apply identity politics to retirement age, the logical first division that you have to make is splitting men from women, and then add 7 years to the retirement age for women. I am sure that the researchers from NIDI know this. However, I fully understand why this fact never comes up in the proposal of the researchers: bringing up this fact would be seen as “sexism.” But realistically speaking, if you want to use demographic factors to make retirement age more “fair” with respect to distribution between years of work and years of retirement, women should retire much, much later than men.

I can see that there is a “problem” in setting the age of retirement purely on the basis of birth year, in that the system is, from some perspectives, not fair. But the solution is not to apply identity politics on a grand scale, on the basis of level of education. As retirement basically should account for the fact that at some point people are too old to work in a particular job, the content of the job should be the only factor in determining retirement age. Therefore, a solution is to make age of retirement part of work packages. A possible implementation for such a solution is as follows:

The “standard” number of work years could be set to 40, or 480 months. You can retire when you have worked that long. However, in certain jobs, 12 months of work would be counted as longer, while in others it would be shorter. Any year after 20 years of age in which one does not work is counted as 9 months. If, for instance, a year of work in construction is counted as 14 months, someone who starts working in construction at 20 years of age, would retire at 54. If a job in academics would count a year of work as 10 months, someone who starts in academics at 25 would retire around 69. Without a job at any time in one’s life, “retirement” would begin at 73. Such a system would account for the kind of job that people do, the number of years that they work in different jobs, the age that they start working, the number of years that they work, etcetera. The most important advantage is that it would relate retirement age purely to the content of the work that someone does.

NIDI examines correlations between certain demographics and certain social facts. That is fine. But when they then notice a correlation which might make one think “it looks like some demographic is getting it in the shorts,” the solution is not to apply identity politics, create some demographic groups, and reward certain groups and punish others. The solution is to determine the cause of the “injustice” and try to deal with that cause. Or, if the cause proves to be an individual choice rather than a systemic issue, shrug and tell people that certain individual choices have negative consequences — if you want to be pedantic about it.


Terechte klachten

May 5, 2018

(This post is in Dutch as it relates to several articles in Dutch.)

Aleid Truijens is schrijver, recensent, biograaf, en voornamelijk bekend als columnist bij de Volkskrant. Ze schrijft over diverse onderwerpen, waarvan “educatie” er een is. Ik lees haar columns altijd met interesse. Meestal ben ik het eens met de strekking van haar verhaal. Zo ook met het stukje dat ze schreef in de Volkskrant van 27 april 2018, getiteld “Ik hoop dat de universiteit een intellectuele vrijplaats is, maar ik ben er niet zeker van.” De conclusie die ze met haar betoog bereikt, onderstreep ik volledig. Maar ze maakt een aantal bochten waar ik grote vraagtekens bij zet, en waarvan het me verbaast dat ze kennelijk de betreffende denkwijze omarmt. Bij deze mijn commentaar.

Aleid’s aanleiding voor haar betoog is een hetze van een aantal studenten van de Universiteit van Amsterdam tegen hun nieuwe “diversity officer,” Anne de Graaf, gepubliceerd in Het Parool als antwoord op een interview met De Graaf in Trouw. De Graaf, die veel ervaring heeft met het thema “diversiteit” binnen Amerikaanse universiteiten, is onder andere aangesteld naar aanleiding van een fel rapport over de “diversiteit” binnen de UvA. Dit rapport, opgesteld onder leiding van activiste Gloria Wekker, schuift “witte mannen” allerlei vermeende misstanden binnen de universiteit in de schoenen, en pleit voor quota. De studenten eisen op hoge toon dat De Graaf afstand neemt van bepaalde uitspraken, zoals haar weerzin tegen quota. Ze is ten slotte aangesteld om inhoud te geven aan de bevindingen van het rapport, nietwaar? Dus waarom stelt ze zich niet net zo op als de activisten die het rapport in eerste instantie hebben geschreven?

Kennelijk hadden de studenten verwacht dat ze met hun “diversity officer” eindelijk de betreurenswaardige slachtoffers van het witte, mannelijke schrikbewind aan de macht zouden kunnen brengen. Dat De Graaf een objectief en realistisch beeld van de werkelijkheid heeft, stoort hen in hoge mate. De studenten meten “rechtvaardigheid” af aan “percentages gemarginaliseerde groepen,” terwijl De Graaf expertise voorop wil stellen. En hoewel de studenten zeggen dat “quota een laatste redmiddel zijn,” stellen ze ook fijntjes dat “er voldoende bewijs is dat quota werken” (waarbij ik denk: natuurlijk, als je enige doel is dat er meer medewerkers van een bepaalde demografie zijn, en je niet geïnteresseerd bent in andere gevolgen van je maatregelen, dan is het instellen van quota ongetwijfeld effectief).

Aleid Truijens begint met een kort historisch overzicht. “Drie jaar geleden stelden de Maagdenhuisbezetters terecht dat de universiteit te wit en te mannelijk (de docenten) was, en het curriculum ‘te westers’. Wat er wordt gedoceerd is voornamelijk wat witte mannen eeuwenlang hebben bedacht.

Daar gaat mijn eerste alarmbel af. Wat bedoelt Aleid met dat woordje “terecht?” Is zij het eens met de Maagdenhuisbezetters? Je kunt stellen dat het op zijn minst opvallend is dat de wetenschappelijk staf gedomineerd wordt door mannen, terwijl de studentenpopulatie gedomineerd wordt door vrouwen, maar dat is onder andere een gevolg van het verleden waar veel minder vrouwen studeerden en van het feit dat mannen gemiddeld (met nadruk: gemiddeld) ambitieuzer zijn in hun werk dan vrouwen. Je kunt eventueel beargumenteren dat het belangrijk is dat er een redelijk percentage vrouwen in de staf vertegenwoordigd is, in ieder geval als rolmodel voor de ambitieuze vrouwelijke studenten die een toekomst in de wetenschap willen. Ikzelf denk dat dat percentage er al is, maar je kunt er een discussie over voeren. Dan blijft over “te wit” en “te westers.”

Hoezo “te wit?” De overgrote meerderheid van de Nederlandse bevolking is “wit.” Dan kun je dus ook verwachten dat de overgrote meerderheid van de staf op universiteiten “wit” is. Dat gezegd hebbend: als ik om me heen kijk op de universiteit waar ik werk, zie ik medewerkers van een groot aantal verschillende nationaliteiten. Goede staf is heel moeilijk te vinden, en er zijn in het buitenland veel wetenschappers die graag aan een Nederlandse universiteit werken. Aangezien expertise bij selectie voorop staat, is het geen wonder dat het percentage stafleden van niet-Nederlandse afkomst veel groter is dan je op grond van bevolkingspercentages zou kunnen verwachten. Okay, misschien is het percentage “medewerkers met een donker kleurtje” wat lager dan de bevolkingspercentages (velen komen namelijk uit Oost-Europa, Azië, of het Midden-Oosten), maar er is geen aanwijzing dat zij minder vertegenwoordigd zijn vanwege “structureel racisme.” De studentenpopulatie immers reflecteert ook niet de maatschappelijke demografische percentages.

Tenslotte: hoezo “te westers?” Nederland is een westers land, dus mag je verwachten dat aan de universiteiten de westerse normen voor educatie gevolgd worden. Deze normen zijn gebaseerd op het wetenschappelijk benaderen van kennis. Deze benadering is dermate succesvol, dat overal ter wereld universiteiten deze aanpak volgen. Kennis wordt gedeeld over de wereld als geheel (uitgezonderd bepaalde landen waar Internet sterk aan banden is gelegd). Kortom, vrijwel alle universiteiten ter wereld volgen een “westers curriculum.” Wat is er “terecht” aan het curriculum als “te westers” beschouwen? Moeten we onze gedachten over wat feiten zijn gaan laten bepalen door religieuze inzichten, zoals we zien in bepaalde niet-westerse landen? Of wellicht door politieke stromingen, wat in bepaalde Aziatische landen gebeurt? Moeten we, zoals ik een aantal zwarte studenten heb zien verkondigen, voodoo-rituelen serieus gaan nemen?

Of slaat het “te westers” zijn op die tweede zin, dat de stand van de wetenschap het gevolg is van “wat witte mannen eeuwenlang hebben bedacht?” Wetenschap is niet wetenschap omdat het bedacht is door witte mannen. Wetenschap is wetenschap omdat het gaat over falsificeerbare feiten. Wetenschap is zelf-corrigerend. Als iemand een bewering doet zonder er argumenten voor aan te dragen, wordt de bewering niet serieus genomen. Als er falsificeerbare argumenten worden aangedragen, die ontkracht worden, wordt de bewering verworpen. Wat overblijft is een bouwwerk van feiten waarvoor de bewijsvoering zo sterk is dat we erop voort kunnen bouwen. En als er nieuwe feiten worden aangedragen, of feiten ontkracht worden, wordt het bouwwerk aangepast.

Zelfs al zou het zo zijn dat, historisch gezien, witte mannelijke wetenschappers oogkleppen op hadden en daarom de wetenschap in een bepaalde richting duwden, dan is het al heel lange tijd het geval dat wetenschap internationaal en inclusief is. Iedereen, waar ook ter wereld, ongeacht geslacht, ras, of afkomst, kan wetenschappelijke vindingen doen, bekritiseren, of onderuit halen. Een wetenschapper die een tegenargument poogt te ontkrachten door te verwijzen naar het geslacht of het ras van degene die het tegenargument brengt, wordt weggehoond en verguisd. De natuur van de wetenschap is dat het blind is voor de demografische kenmerken van wetenschappers. Daarmee getuigt de uitspraak “wetenschap is niet goed want het is gebaseerd op wat witte mannen gedaan hebben” van een dermate onwetenschappelijke houding dat degene die hem maakt slechts hoon verdient.

Kortom, het minder “westers” maken van het curriculum staat gelijk met het afbreken van de wetenschappelijke integriteit, en dat kan niet worden aangeduid als “terecht.”

In dezelfde paragraaf gaat nog een tweede alarmbel af, zij het iets minder luid dan de eerste. Aleid stelt: “Er zijn beschamend weinig vrouwelijke hoogleraren of hoogleraren en onderzoekers met een migratieachtergrond.” De alarmbel klinkt bij het woord “beschamend.” De rest van de zin is een feit. Aleid vind dit een “beschamend” feit. Mijn vraag is “wie moet zich hiervoor schamen?”

Ik heb het sterke vermoeden dat Aleid vindt dat universiteiten of de Nederlandse samenleving zich hiervoor moeten schamen. Maar waarom? Onze samenleving biedt mensen een grote keuzevrijheid, en universiteiten doen dat ook. Als je je kapot wilt werken om een hoogleraarspositie te verwerven, dan mag dat. Als je het liever rustiger aandoet, een leuke baan hebt en daarnaast gezellig met je gezin veel tijd thuis doorbrengt, of een rijk sociaal leven erop na wilt houden, dan mag dat ook. Vrijheid, blijheid. Dat die witte mannen (en een enkele witte vrouw) zo nodig statusbelust moeten zijn, hun gezin verwaarlozen, hun vrienden verliezen, maar wel veel subsidies binnenhalen en veel publiceren, is hun zaak. Dat moeten ze zelf weten, de sukkels. Zitten ze daar tot diep in de nacht op kantoor, hun gezondheid naar de knoppen te helpen, een leuk salaris binnenslepend dat hun partner vervolgens kan spenderen. Lachwekkend, maar ze willen het zelf.

Als het werkelijk een beschamende zaak is dat er relatief weinig vrouwen en weinig mensen met een migratieachtergrond zijn die carrière maken op een universiteit, dan moet die schaamte gezocht worden bij degenen die te weinig hun best doen om te concurreren met de hardwerkende carrièremakers. Maar ik persoonlijk vind er niks beschamends aan dat mensen ervoor kiezen te doen wat hen gelukkig maakt. Het is een van de grote verworvenheden van onze maatschappij dat dat mogelijk is.

Na het korte historische overzicht geeft Aleid aan dat het weinig zinvol is de samenleving in groepen te verdelen waarbij mensen met bepaalde demografische achtergronden op één hoop worden gegooid. Ze hoopt dat het niet de bedoeling is dat alle geledingen “divers” worden samengesteld, “keurig van alles wat,” want het gaat tenslotte om professionaliteit. Ze geeft aan dat de gedachte van De Graaf dat er meer smaken zijn dan “racist” en “slachtoffer” niet vreemd is (een understatement), en dat studenten per definitie gepriviligeerd zijn. Je kunt beter de grote uitval van migrant-studenten aanpakken (of de grote uitval van mannelijke studenten, zou ik daaraan toe willen voegen), of de eenzijdige samenstelling van selectiecommissies (wat ik nooit geobserveerd heb, dus ik zou daar graag eens objectieve feiten voor zien). Al met al geeft Aleid hiermee aan een redelijk gezonde kijk te hebben op maatschappelijke fenomen.

Dan gaat een derde alarmbel af bij de volgende paragraaf: “De Graaf is een tegenstander van quota voor vrouwen en minderheden, omdat ze het ‘vernederend’ vindt om ergens binnen te komen omdat je vrouw bent of een kleur hebt -– ik kan me daar iets bij voorstellen. Maar de studenten in Het Parool hebben ook gelijk als ze stellen dat ‘vanwege structurele discriminatie achtergestelde groepen vaak niet worden aangenomen, ondanks hun expertise’.” De eerste zin van deze paragraaf komt overeen met wat ik veel vrouwen heb horen zeggen, dus daar heb ik geen problemen mee. Maar de tweede zin doet mijn nekharen overeind staan.

De tweede zin is een beschuldiging van crimineel gedrag. Het is in Nederland verboden om te discrimineren op basis van demografische kenmerken. Er rusten straffen op. Dus als het objectief is dat iemand de geschiktste persoon is voor een open positie, maar niet wordt aangenomen op grond van het feit dat de persoon tot een minderheidscategorie behoort, dan is er een strafbaar feit gepleegd en moeten juridische maatregelen worden genomen.

Waar komt die bewering dat universiteiten structureel discrimineren vandaan? Zijn daar objectieve feiten voor? Zo ja, dan zou ik dit graag voor een rechtbank uitgezocht zien. Of zijn dit slechts roddels? Is er iemand niet aangenomen op een plek, en roept die persoon dat dat duidelijk vanuit racistische motieven is, zonder dat hard te kunnen maken? In dat geval kunnen we deze bewering rustig naast ons neerleggen, en stellen dat de studenten in Het Parool uit hun nek kletsen.

Maar ik vermoed dat ik wel weet wat er achter deze uitspraak zit. Het is de gedachte: “als er geen racisme zou zijn, zouden we hogere percentages mensen met een donkere huidskleur aangenomen zien worden, en omdat dat niet zo is, is dat het bewijs dat er racisme is.” Deze gedachten klinken sommigen redelijk in de oren, maar zijn het niet. Ze gaan er namelijk van uit dat er tussen groepen mensen geen andere verschillen bestaan dan alleen demografische attributen. Ze houden er bijvoorbeeld geen rekening mee dat Nederland geen homogene samenleving is waar iedereen in alles gemixt is. Demografisch onderscheidbare groepen trekken zich vaak terug in “eigen kring,” met hun eigen culturele normen en waarden. Bijvoorbeeld: moslims in Nederland worden vaak religieus opgevoed, waarbij wetenschappelijke inzichten worden afgedaan als “in tegenspraak met de Koran.” Is het verwonderlijk dat we minder moslims aan universiteiten zien dan het percentage moslims onder de Nederlandse bevolking? Dat is verklaarbaar vanuit de moslim-cultuur, en er hoeft geen verklaring gezocht te worden in “discriminatie.” Een soortgelijk verhaal kun je uiteraard ophangen over de autochtone Nederlanders die met de Bijbel in de hand geboren zijn.

Kortom, zolang er niet aannemelijk kan worden gemaakt dat racistische motieven spelen in de aanstelling van medewerkers, is het lasterlijk om te beweren dat dit toch gebeurt. Het feit dat Aleid expliciet stelt dat de uitspraak van studenten op waarheid berust, vind ik griezelig.

Het verdere verloop van Aleid’s stukje kan ik alleen maar van harte onderschrijven. Haar laatste paragraaf start met de volgende zinnen: “Natuurlijk moet de universiteit een veilige plek zijn. Ik hoop dat het voor iedereen dít is: een intellectuele vrijplaats. Een plaats waar afkomst, sekse of voorkeuren niet tellen, maar waar je die onderwerpen onbedreigd aan de orde kunt stellen.” Bravo.

Ik heb de laatste jaren in diverse landen, waaronder de Verenigde Staten, Canada, Australië, en meerdere Scandinavische landen, verontrustende ontwikkelingen gadegeslagen waarbij bepaalde universiteiten veranderen van wetenschappelijke bolwerken in instituties waar vooral gestreden moet worden voor “sociale rechtvaardigheid,” met programma’s waar geen wetenschappers maar activisten worden opgeleid. Ik heb gezien dat studenten veranderen van zelfstandige, weldenkende, kritische mensen die beseffen wat voor een gepriviligeerde positie ze innemen, in watjes die menen dat zij slachtoffers van maatschappelijk onrecht zijn, en die alle kritiek op hun gedrag afdoen als racisme, seksisme, genderisme, ableisme, of een ander neologistisch -isme. Ik zie studenten die zich gedragen als verwende kleine kinderen die door hun plaatsvervangend ouder, de universiteit, beschermd moeten worden tegen de boze buitenwereld.

Gelukkig heeft dit soort ontwikkelingen in Nederland nog niet veel aan momentum gewonnen. We zijn doorgaans een nuchter en realistisch denkend landje. Maar we gaan dit soort onverkwikkelijke zaken, waarbij eisen gesteld worden op basis van vermeend slachtofferschap, steeds meer zien. Wat de studenten van de Universiteit van Amsterdam in Het Parool zeiden, geeft me het ongemakkelijke gevoel dat ze in Nederland hopen te imiteren wat in de Verenigde Staten en Canada een aantal universiteiten aan het ondermijnen is. Het verheffen van slachtofferschap tot het hoogste goed, en het toepassen van “social engineering” om mensen macht en posities te geven die ze niet verdienen op basis van hun prestaties, moet bestreden worden teneinde de wetenschappelijke kwaliteit van universiteiten te waarborgen.

Redelijk denkende mensen met een platform, zoals Aleid Truijens, kunnen daarin een leidraad bieden door deze ontwikkelingen kritisch te beschouwen. Het feit dat Aleid termen als “terecht” en “gelijk hebben” gebruikt waar ze spreekt over sommige van de slecht-gefundeerde gedachten die de activistische studenten koesteren, kennelijk zonder het nodig te vinden enige twijfel over die gedachten uit te spreken, vind ik daarom beangstigend.


Extensions vs. careers

May 2, 2018

NWO is the Dutch organization which the government supplies with funds to distribute to scientists for their research. One of the programs that NWO runs is the “Vernieuwingsimpuls” (VI), which supplies big personal grants to scientists at different stages of their careers. The three programs in the VI are (with increasing grant sizes) VENI, VIDI, and VICI. These programs have a time limit associated with them, related to when someone got their PhD. VENI has to be applied for within 3 years after getting a PhD, VIDI within 8 years, and VICI within 15 years. These time limits are extended for biological mothers. This extension amounts to 18 months per child, for a maximum total of 5 years. The reason that NWO states for providing mothers with extensions is to allow them to spend extra time on taking care of their children.

Very recently, NWO decided to also allow the partners of the biological mothers to get extensions to the time limits, to the tune of 6 months per child. According to NWO, due to changes in societal opinions, they decided to stimulate a “more balanced distribution of professional and parental tasks between the parents” by also giving the partners an extension.

My question with this decision is: “why do partners only get 6 months, and biological mothers 18 months?” Is that really stimulating a better balance of parental tasks between the parents? If two young scientists get two kids, and one of these young scientists gets 4 years to apply for a VENI grant, and the other 6 years, who of them is under the biggest pressure to get that grant application in? Who will need to spend more time on advancing their career? The only way to ensure that these young parents can distribute their parental tasks better is to supply both of them with the same extension. NWO may think they are being progressive with their decision, but in the end they are only putting a spotlight on there being more pressure on the partner (usually the father) to advance their career than on the mother. And once one partner’s career is advancing while the other one’s career is lagging behind, when a decision needs to be taken who will spend more time at home and who will spend more time at work, it is obvious which way that decision is likely to go.

Overall, I wonder whether these extensions, especially with a length of 18 months per child, are a good idea anyway. By giving these extensions, it takes off the pressure to get grant applications in. The main way to progress one’s scientific career is to get grants. My experience is that working in science is a challenging job with a lot of tasks. There is usually little time to spend on writing a grant proposal, which may easily take months of work. There is always a high-priority task which takes precedence, and putting in a grant proposal only becomes high priority when the deadline looms. Adding 18 months per child to those deadlines basically means that a young mother is stimulated to stop advancing her career for several years.

Having a career means that you have to make certain choices. These extensions are an easy excuse to choose to put one’s career on hold, because “you get extra time to restart your career.” Unfortunately, after taking a considerable pause in advancing one’s career, it tends to be hard to get it moving again. The extensions may therefore very well be a prime cause in mothers dropping out of the rat race and deciding that they do not really need to go for the higher-level positions. Not that there is anything wrong with deciding that a nice balance between home life and work is preferable over sacrificing one’s home life for a career. That is a perfectly valid choice. My problem is that the extensions which NWO provides, which are evidently meant to allow mothers to have a home life without sacrificing their careers, may actually stimulate mothers to give up on their careers.

Moreover, I wish to point out that there are many reasons why someone’s work life may suffer from a set-back. Wanting to stay home with a new-born child for a while is only one of them. But how about going through a divorce? Changing jobs? Having to take care of an ailing family member? Being a single parent who is not the biological mother? Wanting to take a sabbatical? Needing health recovery after an accident? Most people with a job find that they sometimes get into personal situations which need them to put career advancement on hold for a while. What makes young mothers such an exception that they should be richly compensated for choosing to stay home with their children?

I am definitely not against time limits on submitting grant proposals. Time limits ensure that people submit these proposals at the “right time” in their careers, and, in particular, heed people against giving too much priority to tasks other than writing strong grant proposals, which harms them in the long run. However, automatically extending the time limits for specific groups of people is rather arbitrary and may very well be harmful to the careers of many of these people.

I am not opposed to giving people extensions to the time limits, but I would not make them automatic (and not this long). Simply let people apply for extensions and let them state their reasons for wanting one. This takes off the arbitrary edge, while also putting up a barrier for making use of extensions. Such a barrier is a necessity, as it is a harmful illusion to think that these extensions allow a parent to have a full home and social life without damaging their career.


Diversity VIII: Fly to the top

March 9, 2018

This week we could read in Dutch newspapers that the new CEO of the national airport Schiphol (one of the biggest and busiest airports in the world) will be a man. The reason given is: “At the moment the board consists of two men and two women. We want to maintain that balance.” This reason is ridiculous and I was surprised that the board presented it in this way.

Suppose that they start looking for a suitable candidate and find a good man for the job. As is the norm nowadays, the media and some politicians will ask “Why not a woman?” as if being a woman would make someone more suitable for the job. At that point, the board could say “We already have fifty percent women on the board, so we decided not to use affirmative action for this vacancy, and we simply picked the best candidate regardless of gender.” Nobody could fault them for that. But, by their statements, they deliberately set out to appoint a man, i.e., they used affirmative action in favor of males this time.

In my view, using affirmative action is always wrong, regardless of which gender it favors. For any job, what any company and the whole of society really should want, is that the most qualified person is appointed. Rarely does gender by itself make someone more or less qualified. For top positions, such as being CEO of Schiphol, the pool of suitable candidates tends to be small, due to requirements of experience, network, availability, and willingness to spend one’s whole life at their job. Partly for historic reasons this pool is mostly filled with men, so it is understandable that you will probably end up with a man if you do not specifically let gender weigh in. But who cares if it turns out that the board of Schiphol gets filled with only women? If they are the most suitable for the job, that is the best guarantee for optimal decision making!

Maybe, just maybe, the board of Schiphol tries to be smart and hopes that society will respond in exactly this way to their statements that they will only appoint a man for gender-balance reasons. Because if society predominantly responds with “but gender should not matter, you want to hire the best person for the job,” for the next round of hires they may be able to throw affirmative action out of a plane without a parachute.

If their goal is to ensure that the quality of their board members is the sole selection criterion for the future, making such blunt statements at this stage might be just one of the tactical maneuvers you can expect from a good CEO.