Inclusion or gender discrimination?

| Ignaas Jimidar

In his opinion piece, visiting postdoc Ignaas Jimidar questions positive discrimination in UT vacancies. 'Are these statements essential to encourage women to apply? How do they reflect on the women who are appointed for these positions? Do they always feel at home and included after the appointment?'

Photo: NanoLab at the UT, for illustration purposes

Our University thrives on creating a diverse and inclusive community. Many activities are organized to foster diversity and create awareness among its employees and students on this topic. For example, the letters of the University of Twente are transformed to Diversity of Twente, rainbow flags during Diversity week, or even a performance by Jennifer Herek (dean of the S&T faculty) as a drag star during a drag queen show last year. Of course, the list can go on with gender-neutral toilets, establishing a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) team, etc.

However, recently a vacancy on appointing an assistant professor within the Membrane cluster at the S&T Faculty struck my attention. The following paragraph was included in that call: ‘To promote gender diversity we strongly encourage female scientists to apply. This is part of the University of Twente's strategy and our faculty board's commitment to increase the proportion of women among its faculty and to create a working environment that is diverse and inclusive and supportive of excellence in research and teaching.’ After reading this passage, many questions popped into my mind.

The university conveys a contradicting message as, on the one hand, the mission is to become inclusive and diverse. At the same time, men and genderqueer/non-binary are discriminated against in this passage. So, how genuine are the intentions of the university on diversity and inclusion? Is there gender discrimination in faculty positions? What does this imply for future appointments?

I was lucky that a colleague with expertise in this field could explain: ‘Although we usually talk about diversity, equity and inclusion in one go, there is not a unique strategy for the three aspects. Positive discrimination is a strategy for diversity and for equity; it is a tool to address barriers in the organization that prevent women from working there. But positive discrimination will not work without a good strategy for inclusion: if we do not understand why this is done and we resent the women that get the jobs, and they do not feel included, then it will not work. And in my opinion, what we should do is explain why we do this and why this is a contradiction with being inclusive.’ Although I can agree to a certain extent with her perspective,  it did not take my concerns entirely away. I tried to contact the DE&I office, but without a response, leaving the question open, where should people go to clarify these legitimate concerns?

Diversity goes beyond any gender. I agree that there is a low number of female scientists in some STEM fields. Still, even more so, there is an underrepresentation of other minority groups across all science disciplines. Of course, our university is not unique in this sense. Across the Netherlands or even the globe, programs, like our Hypatia program, are implemented to hire female scientists for professorships. Are these statements essential to encourage women to apply? How do they reflect on the women who are appointed for these positions? Do they always feel at home and included after the appointment?

I believe anyone with the proper academic track record and leadership skills should feel confident applying for such vacancies. But first, vacancies should be written so that diverse talent is reached and triggered to send an application (see, for example, the Erasmus University's recruitment text). Simultaneously, we should clear any biases or favouritism among committee members in selecting suitable candidates for these positions. This way, we ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to be hired.

I am sure that the university is aware that society is changing. By adding these passages, we are bound to exclude someone. So how do we make our community more inclusive and diverse? And should positive discrimination be part of the recruitment process? Elaborating on these questions continuously with our society is crucial as they determine what kind of example we want to set for future generations of students and employees.

Ignaas Jimidar is a postdoc at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and a visiting researcher at the UT.

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