Are Dutch universities a bastion of white men who help each other get jobs? Only 18 percent of all Dutch professors are women – and this is only 11 percent at Erasmus University. And there doesn’t seem to be any sign of cultural diversity in the academic world either. Almost 300 EUR staff members have got together to compile an open letter campaigning for more action in respect of diversity and inclusiveness. Harvard sociologist Michèle Lamont talks about the diversity debate at Dutch universities.

Michèle Lamont is Professor of Sociology at Harvard University and does research on diversity in all kinds of fields, including the academic world. King Willem-Alexander will be presenting her with the Erasmus Prize this Tuesday for her contributions to research into the relationship between knowledge, power and diversity.

Fewer than one out of every five Dutch professors are women, despite the fact that the number of female students has considerably increased during the past decades. But with each step up on the academic career ladder, the percentage of women shows a drastic decrease. Is the academic world itself responsible for this bastion of white men?

“During the past years, university boards have begun to realise that universities have an inclusive duty. Obviously the quality of research is the most important thing in the academic world, but the fact remains that academics have a strong preference for people who are like themselves. This is often subconscious, but it still conflicts with our ambition to be a reflection of society. And it means that universities are wary of adopting diversity as a criterion when selecting students and staff. They feel it would undermine quality.”

Are they right?

“Well, it’s a fact that universities will always see the same quality criteria popping up again and again unless they include diversity in their recruitment and promotion activities. If universities do bear diversity in mind, this won’t actually result in better research but it’ll create new perceptions and research areas. This doesn’t only go for academics with a different cultural background; it goes for their political preference or gender too.”

Willem Schinkel, professor of Sociological Theory at Erasmus University, already talked about male professors who exclusively put forward their own ‘crown princes’. Does this sound familiar to you?

“Most professors who explicitly give priority to their own ‘crown princes’ are the ones at second-rate universities. But this old boys’ network collapses at the top, like when you’re applying for European research grants for instance. In such cases, quality really is the most important thing. And people in the international research community really despise this kind of practice. After all, it undermines good-quality research and creates social barriers for others who aren’t part of the old boys’ network.”

A number of Dutch universities recently set up a ‘diversity office’ and they’re now talking about introducing a quota for women. Will this work?

“I have my doubts on both counts. This is because research shows us that giving staff diversity training has little or no result. People often feel they’re being forced into it, which defeats the object. And quotas have exactly the same emotional impact on staff. In fact, they have a negative influence on self-esteem among the very people who are supposed to benefit from these quotas.”

So how should this problem be tackled?

“Young academics are still supervised far too often on an informal basis, which gives rise to the ‘crown prince’ model. We’ve been hammering on the ‘leaky pipeline’ problem for 30 years (i.e. the number of women decreases with each step up on the academic career ladder – Ed.), but not much attention has been paid to the right kind of supervision for academic talent in the meantime.”

What should we change in this supervision?

“Lack of awareness isn’t the main problem anymore, as a lot of white men actively encourage structural changes as well. But we have to actually implement these changes. The old model where men used to spend 80 hours a week on research while their wives stayed at home and did absolutely everything for them, is totally out of date. Only men manage to do this, which is why a lot of women opt for a non-academic career. The time has come for more flexibility in pursuing a doctorate and a career and taking people with children or plans for a family into consideration.

What’s more, universities should have the guts to make a statement. At my own faculty, we can select twelve master students out of 400 applicants every year. Last year, Harvard selected five black women. They’re all extremely intelligent and we know that if we select five of them, they can all encourage and support each other, and set an example to each other and to other students too.”