No more lost potential
Recent headline-grabbing rector elections and new initiatives by Flemish lawmakers to get more women to the top at universities have begun to push the gender gap in research into the mainstream. At the same time, they have brought to light just how serious the gender gap in Flanders is.
What Flanders is doing to get more women to the top of academia
A couple of years ago, Hannelore De Grande stumbled into research. Not long after she graduated, an opportunity opened to work in Ghent University's sociology faculty. Still not sure what she really wanted to do, she took the leap. The 27-year-old is now a junior researcher pursuing her doctoral degree at the Free University of Brussels (VUB).
As much as she has enjoyed doing research over the past few years, she still can't see an academic career for herself. She's seen what has happened with too many of her postdoctoral colleagues who finished their PhDs but couldn't secure teaching positions - forever on the hunt for project funding, never certain they'll be able to stay on. "I can't see myself sticking around much longer," she says. "I have no ambition to stay at the university."
That makes De Grande one of many young female researchers in Flanders who check out before they realise their full potential. Though women outnumber men at bachelor, graduate and PhD level, they fall off the career ladder at the more senior levels - and more so in Flanders than almost anywhere else in the EU.
"We have an ever-increasing number of women succeeding in higher education, and yet we do not see that reflected when you move into the management regions of science and the top and well-paid functions in science," says Alison Woodward of the VUB's RHEA Centre for Gender and Diversity in Flanders. "Something is happening along the way, and there's an enormous loss."
Recent numbers show that women make up just 11% of highranking academic positions at Flemish universities. That contributes to Belgium being the second-worst performing country of the 27 EU member states. If Flanders hopes to be become a competitive knowledge-based economy, nothing less than an all-hands-on-deck approach will do. Simply put,Flanders cannot afford to waste half of its potential research talent.
"That's the economic argument for gender equality," says Veerle Draulans, a professor in gender and diversity at the universities of Leuven and Tilburg. "An organisation should put to use every talent and ensure that the pool of talent from which to fish is as big as possible."
A couple of weeks ago, Flanders came very close to taking one giant step towards more gender equality. In the days preceding the rector elections in Ghent and Leuven, it looked like Flanders' two biggest universities would both put a woman at the helm. In the end, Anne De Paepe (pictured on cover) won the election at the University of Ghent, while Karen Maex lost with just 36 votes in Leuven.
A lucky coincidence
The gender gap dominated the rector elections in a way it hadn't ever before. In daily newspapers and on-campus debates, the candidates were grilled on their views about quotas, work-life balance and the under-representation of women in academia. One working group at the University of Leuven (KULeuven) even rated the candidates on their gender-friendliness and gave voting advice accordingly.
"The simultaneous elections were a lucky coincidence," says Draulans. "I think it's good they have really concretely drawn attention to this issue."
De Paepe's appointment was the direct result of a decree adopted last year that required male and female candidates to be put forward for all rector and vice-rector positions. De Paepe, a physician and head of the university's centre for medical genetics, is the first female head of a Flemish university in 10 years and only the second in the history of Flemish universities.
Still, these appointments shouldn't lead lawmakers and university administrators to rest on their laurels. "Just because you have a woman at the head of your university doesn't mean you're a gender-friendly university," explains Elke Valgaeren, a former researcher at the University of Hasselt's SEIN group for Identity, Diversity and Inequality Research. "If you want to change the ratio, you have to appoint more women. This is a positive development, but it's not a guarantee for the many women dying to get more opportunities to move on up."
Twice as tough
In Flanders, the glass ceiling in science is firm and high. Though women outnumber men at the bachelor, graduate and PhD levels, they are sorely under-represented at the highest echelons. The Glass Ceiling Index literally puts a number on how difficult it is for women to reach the top ranks of research compared to their male colleagues. The European average stands at 1.8, meaning it's nearly twice as difficult for women. For Belgium, the number is 2.25. Of the 27 EU member countries, only Luxembourg, Lithuania and Cyprus do worse.
Even more work remains to be done when it comes to diversity at large. Marc Hooghe, professor in political sciences at KULeuven, says that diversity is still not an explicit policy goal at Flemish universities. That concern for faculty to reflect the diversity of society at large, he says, "is completely absent here, which is kind of strange. Students often look for role models. And what they see here in Leuven is white men between 40 and 60."
With 22% of its faculty members women, the University of Hasselt has the smallest gender gap in Flemish universities. Valgaeren says that the university's small size might be key to understanding why it outperforms other institutions. "When a couple of women join, that has a much bigger impact percentage-wise than at larger universities."
According to Valgaeren, the university's administration is concerned with gender and, crucially, its words lead to actions. "When a few people consider gender equality important and support it, that fans out across the university - because it is so much smaller, because the lines of decision-making are much shorter, and there are more informal meetings."
Stop the waste
The recent attention to the gender research gap comes at a critical moment. Over the next few years, an entire generation of baby-boomer professors is expected to retire and thousands of new professors will have to be recruited. It's time to turn the tide, Ingrid Lieten must have thought.
Lieten, Flemish minister of innovation, together with the minister for equal opportunities and education, Pascal Smet, recently demanded that all six Flemish universities come up with an action plan to stop the waste of female talent. She wants those action plans, due in January, to coalesce into an inter-university charter for gender equality. Presenting her proposal, Lieten underlined that gender imbalance would never be a selfcorrecting phenomenon. "At this rate, we'll have to wait another 70 years for gender equality," she said. The range of responses to Lieten's plan - with some commentators suggesting women themselves were to blame, others arguing there aren't enough talented female candidates - irked Hooghe. In a powerful op-ed in De Standaard, he debunked those arguments. Citing the numbers of women in research in the rest of Europe where "women have exactly the same psychology as far as I know", he said: "It's such an easy lie. ‘Oh, but women are not ambitious, and they don't want to'."
Instead, Hooghe put the blame on the boards that get the final say on who is promoted and who gets tenure: "What Belgian universities still have is this kind of closed-shop attitude," he said.
According to Hooghe, these boards, made up mostly of men aged 50 and older, shun outsiders. "They always tend to select people like themselves, basically. The old-boys network says to half of the population: ‘Well, we don't know you that well, so you don't really belong here'."
It's hard to know if those boards are indeed the reason that Flanders lags behind most of the rest of Europe, but the gender gap in research is causing many to question how Flemish universities operate. And getting more women to the top inevitably means overhauling universities' traditional opaque approach to recruiting and hiring. Woodward contrasts the situation with Scandinavian countries where the recruiting process is more open - when was the job announced, who was on the jury, who were the other candidates. "In Belgium, no one knows about two-thirds of the jobs. How did that guy get it?"
That's why when candidates compete for a job, they need every bit of help they can get, particularly from their informal networks, she continues. "If not they're not in these networks, they don't get these two or three extra stepping stones into their CV."
That's where foreigners, people of different ethnicities and women typically draw the short straw, says Woodward: "people who do good work, but are not at the lunch table, who don't have a friend on the inside."