Ellemers led the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) committee that was charged with advising the Dutch cabinet on social safety in the academic world. The committee members did not want to write the umpteenth report that would receive a favourable reception and then end up languishing at the bottom of a drawer. They did their best to write a practical guide (see frame).

Their conclusion: just like scientific integrity, social safety should be a standard subject in the academic world. “They are also bound up with each other. There is a higher likelihood of fraud if people do not feel safe.”

Even if everything is running smoothly in a department, you still need to pay attention to it. Above all, the advice is not to wait until something goes wrong, because then you will not be prepared. ” You also do fire drills before a fire breaks out.”

The report in brief

The report has been set out like a travel guide. The basic premise is that good science necessitates social safety. This safety is not simply something that you can lay down in protocols and regulations.
A lack of resources and power imbalances contribute to social insecurity. Complex structures do not improve matters. Therefore, it takes good organisation to avert problems.
Workplace culture is important. People can learn to talk to each other about appropriate behaviour and to question unwritten rules. Prevention seems to cost time and money, but in the long run, it will prevent a lot of misery.
The authors of the report hope that it can help to set changes in motion. They offer a helping hand with sensible questions, such as: What is our code of conduct, and does everyone understand it? Do managers get enough support with difficult issues? What can we learn from past problems?
But the report also includes first aid in the event of accidents. For a manager, solving an acute problem starts with listening attentively and taking responsibility, it states. Allow for different perspectives and communicate properly about plans for improvement straight away. And don’t forget about aftercare.
The report is not aimed at the social safety of students. They can also experience (or cause) unsafe situations, but the advice is primarily directed at administrators, managers and employees.

What do you hope to change with the report?

“We are, if anything, proposing innovative insights. A lot has been written about victims in the hope that people will change once they realise that there is a problem. But it is not enough. Even if people in influential positions think it is important to invest in this, they don’t always know how to go about it. By doing this, we hope to help them on their way.”

You’ve been around the world of science for a while now. Have you experienced socially unsafe situations yourself?

“Yes, of course.”

 As a victim, bystander or perhaps even perpetrator?

“All three.”

 Would you prefer not to talk about it?

“It should not be about that. In our advice, we do use personal experiences as a starting point, but we mainly want to show the structures of such problems and how these can be addressed. A lot is already known about this from the field of behavioural sciences. Yet people often don’t come up with the idea of looking for this information. They tend to think fairly quickly: ’We are all human beings; I know how things works.’”

Is working on social safety so difficult then?

“Apparently it is, otherwise it would be done more often. It’s a subject that tends to scare people off. That’s why we’ve avoided the word ‘must’ as much as possible, because that doesn’t cheer you up when you read it. You’re not going to rub your hands with glee and think: ‘I’ll get cracking on this tomorrow.’

A personal example can serve to illustrate why the issue is so important.

” Okay then. At the first international congress where I presented my thesis, there was a professor who said he found my research really interesting. He invited me to his hotel room to talk about it. It was only at the last minute that I realised this was not such a good idea after all.”

 That’s awful.

She is silent for a moment. “And then I felt incredibly stupid. -How could I have imagined for one second that this professor was actually interested in my work? That is one of the consequences: this kind of thing undermines your self-confidence. There are even men who deliberately use that to put you in your place, as in: ‘You don’t think we are going to take you seriously, girlie?’ At the beginning of your professional career, you simply feel insecure and vulnerable.”

I hadn’t given any thought to the effects on self-confidence.

“There has been extensive research into this. An experience like this can even cause women to score lower on an IQ test. It was a long time ago, but now that you ask me about it, I immediately become emotional all over again. Almost all female scientists of my generation have experienced something like this. They had a choice: leave science or bury those incidents very deep. Everyone who has remained in science has done the latter.”

You have also been a bystander, you say. So how did that go?

“Everyone is familiar with those situations where afterwards you think: ‘What the heck happened here?’ And that in the evening you suddenly know what you could have said. That’s how I usually do things too, but I do remember that one time I did say something straight away and I was really proud of myself. Someone made a stupid joke at someone else’s expense. I spoke up about it and the answer was simply: ‘Well, we shouldn’t do that again.’
No harm done. But it is still difficult. You’re still afraid that you’ll be the sour-faced bitch who just has to ruin the atmosphere. That’s why it is important to think beforehand about how you can raise an issue if something happens that is off. It’s one of the reasons why you have to talk about these kinds of situations regularly on the work floor. Then you are better prepared.”

And you have even been a perpetrator yourself?

“The problem with being in a position of power is that you literally have a very different picture of reality than those who depend on you. Literally. This can even be seen happening in the brain. Consequently, you often give a completely different impression than you think. For example, I sometimes hear that people find me intimidating, even though I am not aware of this myself.”

 Can you give an example?

“A PhD student of mine had been working on a particular analysis for several weeks and I thought that was quite a long time. I asked them, ‘Is that what you’ve been working on all this time?’ I didn’t realise that it was a new type of analysis that called for a lot of research. And I can also be stressed out, or I’ve had a bad night’s sleep, or I receive some bad news in my private life.”

Are you, all in all, a good manager?

“That’s the problem: I have no way of knowing. I am not going to say that I do everything right, because everyone makes mistakes, but I do encourage people to point out any shortcomings to me. And they do; the second supervisor of the PhD student told me that my remark had come across rather harsh, so I was able to apologise. You have to actively resist your impulses, instead of trusting your own feelings. I often ask my staff: ‘What do you need from me in order to do your work properly?’”

Who is Naomi Ellemers?

Naomi Ellemers is a behavioural scientist and a university professor at Utrecht University. She is among the world’s best in her field and in 2010 she won the Spinoza Prize, the most prestigious award in Dutch science. She is one of the founders of Athena’s Angels, an advocacy group that targets sexism in Dutch science.

Naomi Ellemers led the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) committee that was charged with advising the Dutch cabinet on social safety in the academic world. Image credit: Jack Tillmanns

This KNAW advisory report does not seem to be aimed at ill-intentioned people, but doubtless there are some around.

“Yes, but perhaps fewer than you might think. We spoke to several people who have been accused of misconduct and all of them were quite emotional. They were shocked, they thought they had been doing fine, they had never heard there was a problem and suddenly they had to take early retirement.”

Nevertheless, they had acted inappropriately.

“Sometimes they are unable to judge situations themselves, and sometimes they just don’t know any better. Managers sometimes say to each other: ‘You have to get really angry at times, you have to keep them feeling insecure, then they will work a lot harder.’ But that also makes people feel stressed and neurotic. These are outdated ideas about leadership, which I also often come across whenever I conduct research into large organisations.”

What can you do to change this?

“By preparing managers more thoroughly for their task. In a knowledge institution, we have a tendency to think: ‘This just concerns the content, people are smart enough, we don’t need to talk about social aspects.’ In any event, we do not pay enough attention to social skills when selecting and promoting staff. Just the other day, someone said to me: ‘I’m not a social worker, am I?’ Yet the social side of matters is also important – certainly if you want to lead a team. Therefore, people must have the opportunity to develop in those areas as well.

On the other hand, some people are rather sensitive.

“As a manager, that’s difficult to gauge. Something you find insignificant can hit someone hard and minor incidents can pile up and escalate. That’s why you have to make sure that social safety is properly organised and that people can talk to each other about these kinds of situations. And suppose you have a brilliant jerk, a fantastic scientist who is extremely bad at communicating, then you can help them by surrounding them with people as a support system. That may seem costly and inefficient, but look at the hidden costs of young, budding scientists or the cost of litigation once a complaint is filed.”

Power imbalances will always prevail. Isn’t it then also inevitable that problems will continue to crop up?

 “That is true on the one hand. There are plenty of young, talented people and there are only a few gatekeepers who decide who gets a chance or not. Those who make it through often say: ‘They were really nice to me.’ But how do they treat everyone else? If something is amiss, it usually doesn’t help to go and work somewhere else, because you can’t escape those gatekeepers so easily. Almost everyone is hyper-specialised. You’re about 30 years old before you’re fully qualified and in the end only a few people in the whole world are truly qualified enough to value your work. And lo and behold, you run into the same editor again. Whether or not you are given a letter of recommendation by a colleague at the top of your professional field can also make a huge difference. If you want to avoid that kind of influence, you have to leave science.”

But then again, there are certain pitfalls you can avoid?

“This calls for a structural approach within the organisation. Once I explain to you how power imbalances work, are you then able to avoid all of the problems? No, it doesn’t work like that. For example, if you follow a training course about bias once, that does not mean that you will be able to assess everyone objectively after that either.”

 So, everything you want to be good at are things you need to practise?

“And keep up with it too. New insights always emerge. This is how we can become more professional.”

But if you still have a stack of exams to grade and barely get around to doing your research, do you really fancy spending a day talking to your colleagues about social safety?

” You would prefer to spend every penny on research and devote every hour to it too. I get that. But look at how much those problems cost when things do go wrong. So much time and money is involved, we have no other choice but to do something in the way of prevention. Maybe things are going well at the moment but next year you end up with a postdoc who has other points of view in your team, so that tensions do come up. Should you think about this only once that happens?”

Do managers really feel like doing these things?

“It is soon seen as an obligation. We also hear this in our discussions. Of course, you can toss it out and buy a training course somewhere and not ask yourself what is actually needed, as in: ‘So, we can cross that off out list and get on with the real work now. ‘But then it’s not worthwhile, so that’s something we really want to avoid.”

Science has also become internationalised. How can you overcome problems related to cultural differences?

“Ultimately, you can’t resolve differences, but you can learn to share perspectives and insights in a more productive way. If you are on the same wavelength, sometimes half a word is enough to understand each other, but in an international team, you can’t take that for granted.”

You might almost wonder: do you still get around to doing your regular work?

 “It takes time to get to grips with it, but it also pays off. After all, it is costing us now as well. For example, the foreign researcher who doesn’t feel at ease and eventually goes to work somewhere else. Are these people not ambitious enough, are they unable to settle here? Or are we losing talent because we are not offering what they are entitled to expect?”

What could be done to improve the handling of complaints?

“You want to do everything you can to prevent them from happening, but if problems do crop up, you should at least communicate effectively and make it clear what you are doing about them. In the discussions we have held, we often heard that if someone had said sorry, it would have been a huge help. Bad communication makes things worse. That’s easy enough to avoid, you would think, but the significance of it is still vastly underestimated.”

Why do insights from behavioural sciences have such a hard time getting through to universities?

“That research takes place at the universities; our own research groups provide it. But most of the time it is not made use of in their own organisations. That is a wasted opportunity.”

You were one of the four founders of Athena’s Angels, who highlighted the issue of sexism in science. Then came the MeToo movement.

“We were really excited to set up Athena’s Angels. This is something that the four of us did for good reason. And at the time, two of us had already won the Spinoza Prize (the highest award in Dutch science; ed.). You can imagine how difficult it would be for a doctoral student to raise these kinds of issues. We used the money from the Spinoza Prize to build the Athena’s Angels website, among other things. At the time, we were asked why we wanted to do that. That was in fact well before the MeToo movement.”

Has anything changed in science since then?

“Sometimes I think a lot has changed, sometimes nothing at all. I used to think: ‘OK, I’m a pioneer, I’m the first professor here who is pregnant, of course no consideration had been given to the maternity leave of professors, but the generation after me will be better off.’ Then it is very sad that exactly the same things are still going on ten or twenty years later. On the other hand, it is reassuring that there is so much discussion about it now, including among people in powerful positions.”

Social insecurity can cost 300 thousand euros

Social insecurity is expensive: an incident can easily cost tens of thousands of euros or even a couple of hundred thousand. That is one of the conclusions drawn by the KNAW advisory report that is being presented to Minister Dijkgraaf today. The committee looked at the calculation of expenses for three separate cases, ranging from a smaller one to a larger one.

The first case concerns a PhD student who calls in sick due to sexual advances made by their supervisor. The supervisor is given other tasks and coaching, the PhD student returns to work after three months. The costs of lost working time, replacements, advisers, etc., amount to more than 29,000 euros.
In the second case, it all takes six months and the PhD student ends up leaving. Then the amounts are much higher, with close to 100 thousand euros in severance pay and a supplement to the unemployment benefit. The total figure comes to around EUR 167,000.
The third case involves serious MeToo complaints made by a university lecturer about a professor. The lecturer reports in sick and the professor is suspended. Colleagues have to take over all sorts of work and teaching tasks. An investigation ensues and the university bids farewell to the professor after a year. The university lecturer leaves after 14 months. Media attention also takes up time and money.
This third case is the costliest: 292 thousand euros, mainly due to costs for replacements, severance pay and an unemployment supplement. These sums do not include the medical costs or the costs of sick leave, by the way.
The rationale behind these sums is that it is wiser to spend money on prevention beforehand rather than having to deal with problems afterwards.