‘We need more women who aren’t presented as princesses’

| Michaela Nesvarova

Would you boldly go where nobody like you has gone before? ‘That is the power of role models: they inspire you and show you what is possible. Without their example, you’ll stay in your own bubble.’ Today, on the International Women’s Day, seven women from the UT share stories about their personal role models and what (female) representation means to them.

‘Because she made it, I didn’t have to limit myself’

Chakshu Gupta, PhD candidate at Services, Cybersecurity & Safety group (Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science)

‘There have always been women I’d looked up to. My first role model was Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian woman to go space with NASA. At the time, education for women in India was a luxury; it was not common for women to get higher education. Despite that, she pursued Aeronautical Engineering and was the only woman in her class at university. She was the only woman in the room most of the time, actually, but she did not let that deter her from her dream and managed to get masters and PhD degrees in the U.S. and became an astronaut. I find her perseverance really inspiring. As a young girl, seeing that she could achieve that, I knew that I could aim higher. Because she made it, I didn’t have to limit myself.’ 

'They are what I’d call ‘badass women’’

‘Of course, as you grow older, your role models change. Lately my big role models have been Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They both managed to accomplish a lot in their lives, even though they both came from humble backgrounds. They are what I’d call ‘badass women’. Especially Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She made her career in a time when the possibilities for women were extremely limited. She was one of the very few female students studying law. Even though she graduated at the top of her class, nobody wanted to hire her because she was a woman. What really speaks to me about these women is that they didn’t stop pursuing their careers just because they had children. As women, we are taught that our career has to be put on hold as soon as we have children. But both of these women kept going. Ruth got her law degree with a child in her hand. That is very impressive to me. This shows that you are only limiting yourself with your thoughts. If you are mentally strong enough, if you persevere, you can achieve anything no matter how many hurdles you face.’

‘It’s good to see that your career doesn’t need to have a ticking timebomb on it’

‘It’s very important for everyone to feel represented. Role models are always people who you relate to in some way, they are people who have faced similar obstacles as you, showing that it’s all possible. And as women, we face different challenges than men. Having kids and being a mother is a challenge specific to women. Yes, men are fathers, but the expectations on what it means to be a mother and what it is to be a father are very different. That is why it’s good to see that your career doesn’t need to have a ticking timebomb on it. You can be a mother and still pursue your career. It’s really important to see someone from your own culture who overcame the cultural restrictions and conditioning to go after their dreams. That is really inspiring. You never know how big of an impact your journey might have on someone who is observing you from the outside. It might end up inspiring others to follow their dreams.’

role model

A 'role model' can be defined as a person who someone admires and whose behaviour they try to copy. The term role model is credited to 20th century American sociologist Robert K. Merton, who hypothesized that individuals compare themselves with reference groups of people who occupy the social role to which the individual aspires.


‘She showed me that a woman can be a leader’

Maaike Platvoet, Editor-in-chief U-Today

‘My first role model was UT professor Petra de Weerd-Nederhof. When I started my career here at the UT, I was eager to learn. I had talks with Petra and we had a good connection. She gave me good advice on how to manage my career in combination with family life. At the time, I was the first at UT Nieuws (ed.: now U-Today) to have a child. My boss back then was great, but he was an older man and he didn’t fully understand the phase I was in. Petra was the one who gave me a lot of tips on how to combine motherhood with work. She told me ‘you don’t have to be constantly around your child to be a good mother’. That really helped me. It helped me to stay focused on my work. I was ambitious and I wanted to grow. I learnt a lot from my boss, especially about journalism, but not about work-life balance. Later on, when my old boss left, we got a new editor-in-chief, Ditta op den Dries. She was definitely my second biggest role model. She showed me that a woman can be a leader. Until that moment, I could not really picture myself as the boss, but Ditta showed me that it was a possibility. It was inspiring.’

 ‘It’s vital that women support each other’

‘That is the power of role models: they inspire you and show you what is possible. Without their example, you’ll stay in your own bubble. You need to be able to identify with those at the top. That is why proper female representation is so important. We still don’t have enough women in higher positions at universities and in companies. Having more women in these positions leads to better diversity, it leads to more creativity and contributes to a culture in which we have a better understanding for one another. It’s vital that women support each other in this effort. I feel that in Dutch culture, women are still expected to take care of children and the household more than men. They are expected to take a step back once they become mothers. When I had my first child, I wanted to go back to work full-time, but some of my family members didn’t understand that. I was asked: ‘then why did you have a baby if you want to work?’ But I think this attitude is changing now. For my children it is absolutely normal that both their parents work full-time. In that sense, I hope I’m also a role model for my daughter and son.’


‘I can’t think of any female role models, which is very sad’

Vanessa Magnanimo, Adjunct Professor of Soil MicroMechanics (the Faculty of Engineering Technology) & chairwoman of Female Faculty Network Twente

‘I actually can’t think of having had any female role model, which is very sad. We need more of them. In my academic life, I have had professors who helped me. My PhD supervisor was an old gentleman, from another generation. He showed how to be always welcoming with everybody, independently of gender or age. That is the most important thing – being able to make everyone feel safe and included. I’d consider this professor my role model on scientific integrity. During my PhD we also had a very compact group of female colleagues. We were all very different and took different approaches and paths, which I found very inspiring.’

  ‘We need to create a more diverse landscape’

‘Representation is very important for two reasons. Firstly, if you see someone who you identify with at the top, it means that you can also make it. Secondly, we need to clearly see that there are many diverse types of people that can make to the top and a variety of approaches to get there. At this point, it might seem that if you want to succeed, you must transform yourself – you have to be as male as possible, you have to be as white as possible, you have to fit the stereotype of the ideal scientist. If there are more ideas on what a winner looks like, you can make it to the top on your own terms. We need to create a more diverse landscape.’


‘She believed in her vision’

Machteld Roos, Vice-President of the UT Executive Board

‘When I was a child, I didn’t really think about role models, but later on I realized that I, in fact, had a role model directly in my family – my grandmother. I got prouder and prouder of her over the years. She was a full-time working mom in a time when mothers simply didn’t work. She was a primary school teacher and she stopped working when she got married and had her first child – like all women did at the time. In 1948, however, she got asked to come back to work. Luckily, my grandfather was also very modern and supportive and didn’t see any problem in this, and so she worked at the school until she was 65. What she did was very special, because she must have encountered remarks from people, especially in those days, but she believed in her vision, she believed it was right to teach children and kept on doing it. With that she also gave a great example to all the young children in her class for their future. She was a wise woman. She taught me many important lessons. The main one being ‘you are never too old to learn’, which is something I’ve always carried with me.’

  ‘We have come a long way since my grandparents’ generation’

‘My grandmother was lucky to be given the opportunity. It’s really important that people give each other opportunities, and this counts for all realms of diversity. We have come a long way since my grandparents’ generation, but we are not there yet. I believe female representation is very important and I’m happy it’s on the agenda, but I’m also glad that we are looking broader than just gender. We should follow up with broader aspects of diversity and make sure everyone is represented. It’s important to be encouraged to follow your dreams and make choices to do what you believe in.’


‘I’m inspired by women who come together’

Imke Verschuren, Bachelor Student Creative Technology

‘I was thinking about my role models, but no strong female role model came to mind, which shows that there need to be more. I don’t have a single name, but I’m inspired by women who come together – to protest, to organize resistance, to support each other and fight. For example, I think of women who lured in soldiers during the WWII in order to capture them or kill them. These silent females empowering each other are my role models. In my current environment, I luckily don’t need to fight for my place, for my right to speak and be heard, but that is actually a privileged position to be in.’

  ‘We need more women who are not just presented as princesses’

‘Female representation is really important. We need more women who are not just presented as princesses. That is the image that comes to mind – when I was a child, all I saw on TV was women who were princesses or wanted to be princesses. I also dreamed of being a princess. If science and technology were romanticized instead, if media portrayed women differently, more girls would dream of becoming a scientist, for example. That is why women should be represented differently in pop culture and media. However, I see that the UT is really trying to include women in everything. As generations change, it becomes easier to do that – and that is a good development.’


‘She was the definition of reliability’

Leoni Winschermann, PhD candidate at the Mathematics of Operations Research group (Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science)

‘I’m a mathematician by background, but the first female role model I can think of is an athlete: a basketball player Sharon Beld. We played in the same club – she was at a much higher level – and she was the player I related to the most. She was the definition of reliability on the field. Since I played the same position as Sharon, that was what I wanted to do for my team as well. I wanted to be someone my team could count on to have their back. Steady and reliable. I haven’t really had any female role models in science, because when I started studying mathematics in Nijmegen, there was no female staff. For students in particular, looking past their own department or even looking further than their lecturers is not common. There were more senior students, who I looked up to, though. It was good to see that they made it so far, because studying mathematics isn’t easy in the beginning.’

‘Representation is broader than just gender’

‘Representation starts small: I am currently reading lecture notes on game theory, where in one chapter the agent was suddenly a ‘she’. That really made me stop for a second and go like: right, it doesn't have to be him. It’s really important to feel represented because it helps you consider the path, but for me representation is broader than just gender. I identify with more than that one characteristic. Towards the end of my studies, the first female teacher started working at the department. It was a huge deal, but she didn’t necessarily become my role model. Having a token representative does not necessarily cover the role model demand. Representation depends on the context – if you are the only woman, you’ll notice; if you are the only international, you’ll notice; if you are the only mathematician, you’ll notice. I am more at ease when I don’t feel like I am the odd one out, but this doesn’t only apply to gender. For example, at work I appreciate having other mathematicians around. It’s good to have someone to turn to.’  


‘She really took me under her wing’

Kim Schildkamp, Professor of Data-informed decision making for learning and development

‘I first met Lorna Earl when I was doing my master’s at the University of Toronto in Canada. We talked a bit, but I didn’t realize she’d be my one of my main role models later on. We met up again at a conference during my PhD research and, from then on, she really took me under her wing. This was huge for me, because she was one of the key experts in my field. I admired her work. Moreover, Lorna is a lovely woman. She created a network of young scholars and she took us all under her wing. She mentored me and gave me a lot of good advice on my career. She introduced me to many people, which really helped me expand my own network and acquire funding later on. By spending a lot of time together, Lorna and I also became close friends. She was at my wedding, I spent time with her and her family in Canada and we hope to visit her again this summer. Her approach to work and life also helped me to connect with academics around the world, several of whom also became my friends. That makes life so much nicer. Now I try to pass on the lessons I learnt from Lorna to other young academics. For example, I mentor my PhDs, try to take them along to conferences and introduce them to the experts in the field that I know. I found out that you can of course mentor a person who isn’t from your own field, you can give them general advice, but it is much easier and more helpful if they are in the same field of expertise, because then you can introduce them to your network and really help them along.’

'It is not only about gender’

‘If it comes to representation, I believe that diversity is important. It is not only about gender, but about age, cultural background, sexuality, you name it. Our society is diverse, and so it makes a difference if our science and education are also diverse. Everyone can benefit from a role model, someone they can relate to and look up to.’ 


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