One way to fix the gender gap in academia – only hire women

You can’t calculate for a confidence gap. AlenKadr/Shutterstock

If you want more women in your organisation, advertise jobs that are designated for women only. That’s what Delft University of Technology did.

Delft had a problem. It had too few women faculty members and its efforts to recruit more were floundering. It was below average in the Netherlands – already one of Europe’s worst countries for gender equality in academia. Only 13% of full professors at Dutch universities are women. And it’s not only universities that under-utilise the country’s human resources: the Netherlands has by far the lowest rate in Europe of full-time employment for women.

The leadership at Delft wanted to work for long-term changes in recruiting patterns, in part by making sure young women would see role models in technical fields in academia. But attempts at mild intervention – such as a requirement to hire a woman whenever there was a qualified female applicant – didn’t get the job done.

To increase the number of women on their faculty, Delft decided in 2011 to hire the ten best women researchers they could find. Applicants could be at any stage of their careers and in any field of research covered by the university. These new employees received favourable conditions to push their research projects forward.

Crucially, the program was open only to women. Needless to say, there were legal challenges on the grounds of gender discrimination. But, as the rector of the university, Karel Luyben, described in a recent speech, he was able to convince the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights that it was essential to have more women faculty members and that more gentle measures had not succeeded.

The university won the case in December 2012. Ultimately, the university was able to move ahead with its plans and is currently conducting hirings for a second cohort for the fellowship.

Too few women professors

The experience in Delft can inspire us to more aggressively pursue the benefits of making our institutions diverse. Fewer women than men make it to the top. Within academia in Europe, about 20% of full professors are women, while they constitute almost 40% of the next level down.

A recent spate of media coverage has focused on one possible explanation among many – namely that women are too cautious, too reserved, or too self-demeaning to advance at the same rate as men. In short, there is a confidence gap.

For example, men and women engage in self-promotion differently. Among research professors, women cite their own work less often than men do. When career advancement at universities depends in part on how many times your research gets cited, this slows women down.

A recent investigation also suggests that men are more assertive than women about something even more basic, namely the requirement to be listed as an author on research articles.

Countering the confidence gap

This confidence gap is not benign. While we all have obstacles to negotiate as we move along our career paths, some advancement is based on behaviour that men and women have learned differently, such as self-promotion. In this sense, we have constructed workplaces with structural barriers holding women back, and we should therefore not be surprised when the sexes progress at different rates.

So what should we do? One response is to train women to navigate the system as it is. Teach women to negotiate, to talk about themselves, and to “lean in”. This is important to improve the situation for women currently in academia.

Another strategy is to work for systemic change. To do this, we must identify the structures that differentiate women from men and counter or remove them. For example, perhaps the way we recruit touches on cultural differences between men and women in such a way that the process itself inevitably gives a gender-imbalanced result.

There are many anecdotes about men applying for jobs when they only meet a few of the requirements. There’s actually an urban legend promoted by Sheryl Sandberg and countless others, saying that women apply for jobs only if they think they meet 100% of the criteria listed, whereas men apply if they feel they meet 60% of the requirements.

Even if that particular claim is not reliable, there is research suggesting that men are more likely than women to apply for a job when they only partially meet its requirements.

And this is the funny thing about the Delft experience. The university leadership identified a need – more women in faculty. They developed a plan – only hire women. And it worked: they succeeded at hiring ten excellent new colleagues. But along the way, 30 men applied, too.

In addition to presenting a real-world example of quotas, the Delft fellowship offers an amusing example of gender-based differences in self-promotion – sometimes men lean in so far they fall on their faces.

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