Hidden hierarchy, toxic individuals and role models

| Michaela Nesvarova

Eight UT students and employees with different backgrounds came together to discuss their personal experiences with diversity and inclusion on campus. In this two-part story they talk about hidden hierarchy, toxic individual and dark sides of diversity. In today’s part one: ‘I don’t want to be seen as a representative of a group. I just want to be included as an individual.’

round-table discussion

U-Today organised a round-table discussion about diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Twente. Participants of the event, held last week in U-Parkhotel, were: Canan Acar (Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Engineering Technology), Franziska Baack (PhD at the Faculty of Engineering Technology), Udipta Boro (PhD at ITC faculty), Saskia Lindhoud (Associate Professor at Molecular Nanofabrication, Faculty of Science and Technology), Lais Denz (Master student of Industrial Design Engineering), Jutta Arens (Professor and Chair of Engineering Organ Support Technologies, Faculty of Engineering Technology), Petra Weber (Management Assistant, ITC faculty) and Bene Aschenneller  (PhD at ITC Faculty). 

How diverse and inclusive is the University of Twente? Although all the participants see the value of diversity and are deeply interested in the topic, their personal experiences also reveal certain challenges that come with diverse backgrounds.

Udipta Boro: ‘Our faculty, ITC, is very diverse, but there are also issues that come with that. I’m gay and I came to ITC as a student before my PhD. The student population was extremely international, there were people from so many different countries and backgrounds. Which was very nice, but it also meant there were a lot of people with their own, conservative beliefs. Because of this, I felt like I couldn’t fully open up. This changed when I became a PhD. My colleagues are very open and supportive and I feel like I can be myself more.’

Bene Aschenneller: ‘I can relate to that. I came out a year ago as a transgender and nonbinary person. There are people from other countries who don’t know anything about the LGBTQI+ community and culture. Some of them never heard about being transgender before, which makes it difficult for me. When I explain and ask them to use the right pronouns with me, most of them just ignore it.’

‘I often feel that diversity means you are used as a trophy’

Due to the focus on diversity, individuals who stand out – because of their gender or nationality, for example – sometimes feel like a ‘trophy hire’.

Canan Acar: ‘My gender is not my accomplishment. I’m an expert. I often feel that diversity means you are used as a trophy. When I’m invited to speak at events, I always wonder: is it only because I’m a woman? And when it comes to inclusion, it’s connected. As long as I feel that I’m different, am I really being included? I don’t want to be seen as a representative of an entire group. I just want to be included as an individual.’

You might not want to represent a whole group, but you might want an official group to represent you.  

Lais Denz: ‘In the student world, most student associations have elitist and old-fashioned structures. This excludes many students, especially internationals. If you don’t want to wear uniforms that make you look like flight attendants and sing strange hymns – then you don’t have access to these student functions. I think that students who are marginalised because of their origin, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, racialisation, income and so on need to be represented autonomously. It seems that study associations cannot defend discriminated students and rather have the goal of entertaining each other.’

Hidden hierarchy

How hierarchical is the UT? Even though Dutch people often consider themselves very open, their ‘doors’ might be more closed than it seems.

Jutta Arens: ‘There is a lot of hidden hierarchy. I’m originally from Germany, and I worked at an institute where it was completely normal for staff from all levels – academics, secretaries and so on – to have coffee or lunch together. Dutch professors often think that there is a very low hierarchy, because everyone addresses each other by their first name, but at the same time they have never taken the time to join their secretary for lunch. This hidden hierarchy is very dangerous because people are not aware of it. This can be challenging especially for PhDs because they are dependent on their supervisor and they can’t change their situation, even if they are treated the wrong way.’

'Dutch people think that they are open, but they are open only if you fit in'

Franziska Baack: ‘There are indeed many things that are hidden and implicit. Dutch people think that they are open, but they are open only if you fit in. I’ve also experienced that many full professors can’t relate to many people and situations. They have no experiences and no awareness of what it’s like to not belong to the mainstream population. They are often white, cis-male professors who have been in exactly the same position for many years. They are simply not aware.’  

Petra Weber: ‘That is again very different in our department. Maybe this is because we are a very diverse and international group. The number of Dutch people is smaller, and so the group is less homogenous. It’s completely normal for me, a support staff member, to join the professors for lunch - or the other way around. Nobody will blink an eye. But I agree that Dutch people often pride themselves on being straightforward and open, but instead they can come across as quite impolite. They are open but don’t necessarily take the other person into consideration.’

Male-dominated environment

Are all genders well represented at the university? While the situation differs per department, the issue of gender balance is an evergreen when it comes to diversity discussions at the UT.

Saskia Lindhoud: ‘There isn’t even one full female professor in my discipline. Yes, there is one, but on a 0.2 fte contract. Which means there are no role models.’ 

‘Having women attracts women’

Jutta Arens: ‘When I started here, the situation in our department was also not good with regard to the number of female professors of any level, but it is slowly changing and you can see that the atmosphere is also changing. At the moment we have quite a good mix of nationalities and also colleagues who are openly gay. When I started my position, I was the only female scientist and it was not always easy for my male colleagues. Suddenly there was a woman with opinions in the meetings, not just one that was there to take notes. However, what we see is that having women attracts more women.’ 

Saskia Lindhoud: ‘The issue also is that women are often there, but don’t get through. The problem of the leaking pipeline. You usually don’t see them in the higher-up positions – also because of the problem Jutta just described.’

Do all genders receive the same treatment? Women on the work floor continue to be treated differently.

Canan Acar: ‘Not so long ago, my sister was pregnant and in labour. I was very excited about becoming an aunt. I was in a meeting but I told them I’d leave my phone on the table because I was expecting a call from my sister who was having a baby. What do you think was the response from these men? They asked: ‘Is your sister older or younger than you’? Once such a question is asked, you know immediately what the next sentence will be. But you answer anyway. I said that my sister is younger. ‘Oh, so you are late then.’ That was the reply. Could you please leave that up to me? It is my body, my bed, my life. It should only matter that I’m a reliable co-worker. I’m a reliable colleague whether I have kids or not. Why should I justify this while we are working on a Horizon project?’  

‘There are different criteria for women and for men’

Saskia Lindhoud: ‘That is indeed a problem. Men are never asked these questions. Men are asked different questions than women. When I was having an internal interview, I was asked how my research was independent from my husband’s. I’m an expert in my field, but this was the question I received. When my husband was having a similar interview and even mentioned that he often discussed work with me, nobody questioned him. Even though it came up. Nobody asked him how independent his research is from his wife’s. There are different criteria for women and for men.’

Toxic individuals

Do members of the UT community feel welcome on campus? Many of the participants have received insensitive comments, which partly ruined their general experience at the UT.

Lais Denz: ‘My study programme at the UT is quite diverse. Results of internationalisation are showing up and I also enjoy joining open discussions on the topic. In my student group, people are very supportive and highly sensitive to the topic of diversity and inclusion. I feel like there is a good level of general acceptance, but sometimes there are individuals, like specific teachers, who are very insensitive. Like this one teacher who would make comments towards me and say that I’m too special. That I had too much testosterone. I raised the issue and found out that it wasn’t the first time he was abusing his power. He was known for making insensitive comments. This type of abuse and discrimination from someone in a higher position is extraordinarily toxic.’

'One horrible experience or comment can wipe out a hundred good ones'

Jutta Arens: ‘It’s indeed up to individuals. The general atmosphere might be okay, but a single person can spoil everything by making stupid remarks. I came to the UT on a Hypatia position, which is only for women. Most of my colleagues were perfectly happy that I was there and made me feel welcome, but then there was one who approached me and said: “No offense, but it’s clear that you only got this job because you are a woman.” This ruined so much for me. Suddenly it feels like you are not wanted here. One horrible experience or comment can wipe out a hundred good ones.’

Stay tuned

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.