Ask Hanneke Takkenberg why she assumed the position of Chief Diversity Officer in the autumn of 2015 so as to help make Erasmus University a more diverse institution, and she’ll be quick to bring up the name Don Quixote. Because it’s true – at this university, which is pretty much at the bottom of the list of Dutch universities in terms of diversity, and where many faculties hardly seem to recognise that they have a problem, she feels like she’s tilting at windmills sometimes.

The percentage of female professors working at EUR has been stable for several years. Worse, there has been a downward trend in recent years, but this year the numbers have gone up, Takkenberg optimistically reports. “Our 2015 Annual Report will see us exceed ten percent, even if only just.” However, this does not hold true for the Erasmus School of Economics (ESE) and the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), which have zero and two female professors, respectively (2014 Annual Report).

Sticking your neck out

It is no coincidence that Takkenberg should have been appointed Chief Diversity Officer to this university. She began actively to try and promote the position of women at Erasmus MC in 2007. When she was appointed Professor of Thoracic Surgery – “a field of medicine dominated by men,” Takkenberg notes with a smile – in 2012, she began to supervise talented female scientists, among other things, and was elected Chairwoman of the Erasmus Network of Women Professors, ENVH. “As a woman in this kind of position, I owe it to others to stick my neck out,” Takkenberg says. “One must try to be a role model.”

20 percent by 2020

Her dream, which is to create a critical mass of at least 30 percent female professors, is no more than a pipe dream at present. “If we don’t act now, we won’t achieve that percentage until 2050,” Takkenberg states. For now, she has set herself a more modest target: 20 percent by 2020. This is 5 percent less than most other Dutch universities. “But take Nijmegen, for example. They want to achieve 25 percent, but they’re already at 23 percent. As far as that’s concerned, we’re considerably more ambitious. Realistic, though.”

Lots of things happening

It’s not as if nothing is being done. Much is being done to promote diversity at EUR, ranging from establishing a working group to help bi-cultural students move up the ranks to establishing contact with the business community, government agencies and other universities in order to collect knowledge on the subject of diversity. “Erasmus MC and the Faculty of Social Sciences are conducting great research into cultural diversity within the education system, and the Erasmus School of Law (ESL) has already attained the target of 20 percent female professors.” Even RSM is heading in the right direction: the school recently appointed an Associate Dean of Diversity. Things are also being done at the university-wide level: “For instance, we will develop interventions designed to show EUR people how important diversity is.”

She seeks to apply this idea to her work as a professor. “My study team is made up of men and women from the Netherlands, the Netherlands Antilles, refugees from Afghanistan and Iran, and students of Turkish or Moroccan descent. That way, we’re getting an innovative approach, as everyone has radically different points of view.”

Culture clash

At the same time, she can tell that students from a bi-cultural background are running into problems. “They often feel they don’t really belong, more often than you might think. We may sometimes be unaware of how they feel. And sometimes, various cultures will clash.” Students from non-Western backgrounds continue to obtain fewer credits than students from Western backgrounds, Risbo’s N=N study recently showed. “We do a lot to increase awareness, but we also undertake very specific projects, such as the Pre-Academic Programme. Students from non-Western backgrounds who take part in this programme tend to get much higher marks during the course of their studies. Then again, the same is true for students from Western backgrounds. So the gap still persists.”

Start with yourself

The solution to the problem of women being underrepresented, or of students of bi-cultural extraction being less successful, is not to be solved by white males alone, Takkenberg is keen to emphasise. “The problem lies with all of us. Research has shown that women rate other women less highly, as well. I noticed this in my own letters of recommendation, where I found myself emphasising women’s social skills, while emphasising men’s scientific skills.”

So it is up to Takkenberg to go and change an entire society, a task even Don Quixote probably would have baulked at. “That’s why it’s important to start at a lower level, with yourself. That’s the main problem – many scientists, educators and policy makers tend to externalise the problem. But it pervades everything,” she says.

Emphasis on masculine qualities

But if this is a problem in society at large, then why does the problem appear to be more pervasive at EUR than at other Dutch universities? Takkenberg thinks she knows the answer to this question. “I suspect it’s due to Rotterdam’s enormous emphasis on excellence. We expect people to meet strenuous requirements, but mainly with regard to qualities we tend to associate with men: producing a lot of output, obtaining lots of funding. For instance, establishing long-lasting networks is a skill which is relatively underappreciated here. In the past, when pre-eminent professors retired, they would leave behind a big black hole. But the science of lone pioneers isn’t the science of the future. The future belongs to networked science.”

It is ironic that one of these masculine traits, namely the ability to attract funds, will result in greater diversity, after all, through an EU funding programme called Horizon2020. “Grant applications under Horizon2020 are subject to many requirements. Studies must take into account diversity, but your own study team must be diverse, as well. Consulting firm McKinsey wrote ten years ago that Fortune-500 companies with more women in high-ranking positions performed better. So RSM should have known better even then,” Takkenberg says with a slightly cynical smile.

Bold confrontations

Takkenberg herself refuses to give up the fight, and is calling on all her female colleagues to do the same. “We must be more visible, at the Dies Natalis celebrations, at the official opening of the new academic year. And if a woman is appointed professor, we must attend the ceremony to show her that she’s not alone. And every once in a while we must be bold enough to confront others.”

She expects the bold confrontations to come from the university’s Executive Board. “Pauline van der Meer Mohr was very disappointed with the extent of the progress made, but if you’re very ambitious about this matter, you must be bold enough to undertake far-reaching steps at times. As far as I’m concerned, she could have been a bit tougher on others sometimes.” The new Chairwoman of the Board, Kristel Baele, has inspired some hope in Takkenberg. “I think she and the Rector are progressive leaders who highly value diversity.”