Women in (science) careers; it remains difficult

The Council of Canadian Academies released its report ‘Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity; the gender dimension’ in November 2012 and organized a panel discussion on the topic on April 23, 2013. Read all about it here. This report came about after the embarrassing absence of any female nominees in the Canada Excellence Research Chairs Program, a prestigious and welcome nationwide injection of scientific super stars. I regard the Council highly and commend them on a job well done.

I am a woman geoscientist with 25+ years experience in government and academia and 10+ years as an independent. I have been close to two blatant instances of professional discrimination against women, one of which pertained to myself. I decided to write about these two cases here after all these years. I anonymized these stories for obvious reasons. The reason I publish them is to show how subtle and yet persistent the type of behaviour is that favours men. I don’t think either case is unique to science, this could happen anywhere where there are more men than women who pull the strings.

1.       Recruiting a Professor

More than a decade ago, I was a member of a recruitment committee for a full professor in an applied geoscience field in a reputable department of an equally reputable engineering university.

The committee had five members. Three were professors from the department itself and two were outsiders. One outsider was a professor from a different university, the other one was me. At the time I was a dean of research and graduate studies at a different institution.

This university had a history of recruiting industry professionals in a later stage of their career as professors. Typically, these people had impressive industry experience and a publication record, but not necessarily a PhD. Non-PhD professors were common in this institution.

In our first meeting, we discussed the job profile. There was some discussion about who might apply (it’s not a big field, we had a fairly good idea who might be interested) and one of the committee members, a full professor from the recruiting institution – we’ll call him Al – mentioned that he had talked to a woman we’ll call Sarah about this upcoming job opening and that he had encouraged her to think about applying (or words to that effect). Sarah did not have a PhD (nor did Al, incidentally), had worked for a large well-known corporation for 25 years and was widely respected. We all knew her. The committee made a unanimous decision that someone like Sarah would be a candidate of interest and that we thus should drop the PhD requirement.

The text of the advertisement reflected this position explicitly and it was published internationally. Five people applied, one of whom was Sarah. We knew three of the other applicants, one was a surprise.

There were two rounds of interviews. The committee eliminated two candidates after the first round, Sarah was one of the three remaining candidates. The final round evolved.

At this point, I should point out that the following rule was on the books in this university: if more than one candidate qualifies for a job, and if one of the qualified candidates is a woman, the job should be offered to the woman.

We gathered in a final meeting. All committee members (including myself) were especially impressed with the surprise candidate. I then asked the committee members if they thought all three candidates qualified. The entire committee agreed that all three candidates qualified. I then confronted them with the university rule cited above and moved that we offered the job to the woman. A heated discussion followed. It was clear that the three committee members from the department all wanted to recruit the surprise candidate. I agreed that this surprise candidate appeared impressive, but that the university had rules that we should abide by. “But” said Al, “she doesn’t have a PhD and we have been told by the Board of Governors (BoG) that we have too many non-PhD professors”.

Excuse me?

Before being published, the ad had been approved by the university’s personnel department, so I didn’t think that Al’s argument held water at all. If the BoG would indeed have been of this opinion, the personnel department would have been instructed accordingly and the ad wouldn’t have gone out as it did.

In the end, the three departmental committee members voted to recruit the surprise candidate. The other external committee member only cast his vote at the very end of the discussion. He stated that he didn’t want to go against the department’s wishes, because they had to work with the new colleague and he didn’t, but he made explicit that my position was basically correct.

I repeated that there was no question that the surprise candidate was excellent, but that offering him the job would be wrong. I stuck to my vote for the woman candidate.

My position created a difficult situation because these committees are expected to advise the BoG unanimously. I offered to write a dissenting opinion, to be submitted with the recommendation of the committee to the BoG. We went home.

The next day, one of my fellow committee members called me (at home!) to put the guilt trip on me. I was making life difficult for the committee chair, he wouldn’t be able to deal with the fall-out of the Board of Governors, this would reflect badly on the department, etc.

Excuse me?

I wrote my dissenting opinion letter and submitted it. I never heard anything. The surprise candidate was recruited shortly afterwards.

Conclusion: I was the token woman on the committee and the woman candidate was the token candidate. It was window dressing for the boys to play their own game.


2. How I failed to wedge in

I was dean of research and graduate studies at a small independent institute in the Netherlands for 7.5 years. It was an unusual institute in that it originally existed purely to train young professionals (with at least a BSc degree) from non-western countries (i.e. ‘the south’) in this particular field. It had existed for about 45 years as a post-graduate training institute and it was clear that – if you read the political tea leaves correctly – it would eventually become incorporated in the country’s existing higher education system.

The Netherlands has a three-tier higher education system as a logical follow-up to their 3-tier secondary education system: vocational colleges, polytechnical colleges, universities. The president of the institute thought that the institute deserved (eventually) to become part of the university system rather than the polytechnic system, where he was concerned it would end up. So, in order to make the case, the institute would need to be more prolific in research. While it was an innovative place, there was not a real research culture and the institute didn’t have the right to grant PhD degrees.

The president recruited me to produce an advisory report on how to move forward – this was an interim job of a few months. On completion and presentation of my report, I was invited to join the institute to carry out my own advice. The advice consisted essentially of two recommendations: 1) create a fair and transparent process to allocate research resources within the institute on the basis of merit and 2) build an North American style PhD program (with students formally graduating from Dutch universities).

At the time of my recruitment, the institute had two Deans (that wasn’t the official title, but it’s the title that best describes the positions): a Dean of education and a Dean of consulting. This latter position may seem unusual, but it was perfectly logical for this organization.

My position was newly created. When negotiating about my salary (it was a 5-year contract, i.e. no tenure, i.e. I accepted insecurity, which usually carries a higher price), the institute’s HR chief stated that their rank for this position was one level below what I was making at the time, but that they would continue me in my existing pay scale (all government institutions in the Netherlands have the same pay scales). I accepted that as it seemed fair. Only a year or so later did I find out that my two colleague deans were each one pay scale higher than me and that the HR chief had referred to two staffers who were clearly working at a level below me. Intentional? Misunderstanding? I’ll never know. At that point in time, I wasn’t too much worried about it, as there was a large overlap between these pay scales. For me, it wasn’t about money, but about recognition and I thought I’d get there.

Then the institute’s president retired, was succeeded by a new president who became a catastrophic failure and was asked to resign and then by another president. In other words, about 5 years of chaos – not a good time to negotiate job and salary conditions. I continued to receive very positive job evaluations over that period and waited for a better time.

When things settled down, I asked for my position to be re-evaluated with the explicit objective of moving one pay scale up. Now, if you want to be a successful dean of research, the one thing you shouldn’t do is build an empire of staff, because the academics will consider you a thief of their resources – rightly so. So I had not done that (I had been an academic myself, I knew). I relied on two capable financial guys in the business office and two capable staffers in the education office and one administrative assistant for myself.

With that support I had built a successful PhD program in a complex environment: the institute didn’t have the right to grant PhD degrees itself, so we built bilateral agreements with specific Dutch universities so that candidates could obtain a legal degree (and this required having 2 supervisors, indeed!). Time-to-degree averaged 4.5 years – the best in the country. I had also built in opportunities for non-PhD faculty to work on and obtain their PhD and built a fair resource allocation system.

I didn’t do this just with the few loyal staffers: I relied heavily on the institute’s scientific committee, consisting of 7 professors. This was the body that approved (or rejected) all my proposals. One of the reasons that I cooperated so well with this committee, was that I had an excellent working relationship especially with the committee chair, who kept that position the entire time I was there.

My position was finally re-evaluated. The job description was thoroughly analyzed, rewritten etc. A meeting was scheduled between the new president and the new HR chief and myself. They flatly informed me that the position couldn’t be formally reclassified because ‘not enough people were reporting to me’. In exchange they offered me a permanent position. I raged – this was certainly a very old fashioned way of looking at positions – and I had explicitly not built an empire! But I had to accept it. I considered resigning (I had two offers), but personal circumstances were unfavourable: my husband and I were planning to move (back) to Canada the next year.

Hence I resigned a year later. The institute then had to find a successor for me. It turned out that the chair of the scientific committee, my long-time loyal colleague, had an interest in the position. I thought that was fantastic because he knew all the ins and outs and I regarded him highly. Some day over coffee, I told the institute’s president as such. Now comes the clincher: “yes” he said “it’s great. Of course, we’ll have to do something about the job description, otherwise we can’t justify continuing to pay him in his current pay scale…………………”

Excuse me?

The scientific committee chair did get the position. We kept communicating by e-mail and he repeatedly informed me that he changed nothing in what I had set up as it was all working swell.

Some years later, the institute became a faculty of a nearby university.





About earth science society

I am an earth scientist. Understanding earth is essential for the well-being of our global society. Earth is fascinating, science is fascinating and a better understanding of both can help society forward. This blog attempts to make a contribution to raising awareness of these issues.
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3 Responses to Women in (science) careers; it remains difficult

  1. Pingback: In Delft, men need not apply. (Yes, it’s legal.)

  2. Pingback: In Delft, men need not apply. (Yes, it’s legal.) | Curt Rice

  3. Pingback: Mooie achtergrondverhalen om eens rustig te lezen | De Zesde Clan

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