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Starting on 1 July, the Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE) in the Netherlands will not allow men to apply for permanent academic jobs for the first 6 months of the recruitment process under a new fellowship program. If no suitable applicant has been found within that time, men can then apply, but the selection committee will still have to nominate at least one candidate of each gender.
“We have been talking about [gender balance] for ages,” says TUE President Robert-Jan Smits. “All kinds of soft measures are taken and lip service is paid to it. But the stats still look awful.” Currently, 29% of TUE’s assistant professors are women; at the associate and full professor level, about 15% are women. With this program, TUE wants to reach 50% of women for assistant and associate professors, and 35% for full professors.
The plan was announced today and is already attracting controversy. “People say it’s illegal; they say we will lower standards. That’s a load of baloney,” Smits says. Some critics say the program discriminates against men. “Yes, absolutely,” Smits says. “For years, men have been discriminating against women, and women haven’t been paid the same as men for the same jobs.”
Dutch and EU laws allow policies to recruit underrepresented groups, TUE says. But across science, a gender gap persists: In 2011, women accounted for just one-third of all EU researchers, and, at the highest level of the academic career ladder, just 21% were women in 2013, according to the European Commission’s She Figures 2015 report.
Biologist Isabelle Vernos, a group leader at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona, Spain, prefers that jobs be open to everyone whenever possible. “But depending on the discipline, I understand that sometimes you need high-impact action to change a pattern,” adds Vernos, who is a member of CRG’s gender balance committee and chairs the European Research Council’s working group on the same topic.
She worries TUE’s program could place a burden on female recruits, who may face suspicion about their abilities and anger about the process. CRG, she says, has tried a softer approach: No group leader is recruited until enough top female candidates are shortlisted. The number of group leaders who are women has doubled in the 2.5 years since this rule was introduced.
Smits likens the new policy to Plan S, a radical mandate by a group of research funders to require immediate open access to scientific publications, which he co-created in his previous job as the commission’s director-general for research and innovation. “If you don’t take bold action, things will not improve,” he says, adding that he hopes the program will have a snowball effect on other university recruitment policies.
TUE now has about 500 staff members and 150 permanent jobs will be up for grabs in the next 5 years. After 18 months, the university will review what percentage of vacancies will fall under this program.