Even though the percentage of women at all levels of the academic career ladder is rising, the opposite is true for PhD students, the Women Professors’ Monitor recently showed. Between 2011 and 2017, the percentage of female PhD students dropped by nearly two percent points, from 44.2% to 42.7%. It should be noted that this trend cannot be observed at all Dutch universities. For instance, at Erasmus University, the share of female PhD candidates actually rose from 46.9% to 53.7%.


The Dutch Labour Party, PvdA, raised some questions in the Dutch Lower House in which it expressed its belief that this is an alarming trend that calls for further analysis. The Minister, Ingrid van Engelshoven, emphasised in her reply to the questions that the number of women writing PhD dissertations is still rising in absolute numbers.

However, she did concede in her reply that if the percentage of female PhD students continues to drop, this will indeed constitute a worrisome trend. “The road to the pinnacle of academia must be paved evenly at all levels. If not, we will not achieve a proportionate distribution of male and female academics.” She wishes to use the 2018 figures to determine whether the situation merits a further investigation.

Bad sign

“She is wasting valuable time,” says Anne de Vries, the President of PNN. She believes there is ample reason to start looking into the causes of the declining number of female PhD candidates at once. “The percentage of women has been dropping for six consecutive years now. If you seek to achieve equal gender representation, that is not a good sign.”

De Vries admits there are many possible reasons for the decrease, and not all of them are necessarily worrisome. “Perhaps we now have more foreign PhD students, and perhaps there are more men among these foreign students than women. If that is the case, it says more about the academic culture of certain other countries than about the Netherlands. Or perhaps more money was allocated to the recruitment of PhD students in STEM subjects, which tend to attract more men.”

However, if the decrease in the percentage of female PhD students was caused by other factors, that would constitute an alarming trend. For instance, it would be worrisome if being a scientist has become less attractive to women. “Or worse, if women are less likely than men to be accepted as a PhD student. That is a cause that must be ruled out, and right now, we can’t do that.”