Prestigious scientist says "Dutch women don't want to work hard"

Yesterday was International Day of Women and Girls in Science and it was great to see all the different faces of women and girls in science on twitter and read their stories. I love the atmosphere of people lifting each other up and cheering each other on. Sadly, my day ended with reading this news article where prominent Dutch cancer researcher Hans Clevers responds to criticism on the newly opened virtual cancer research institute "Oncode". Part of the criticism he received was the gender disbalance in this institute to which he respondes [my translation]:

"The gender balance is indeed a problem. But that problem is caused by women. We see many young women with potential, but when push comes to shove they quit. That's not our (the men's) fault. Dutch women just don't want to work hard."

Later in the article, he nuances this statement a bit by adding that it is not only women who are to blame, but (Dutch) society: that societal pressure to spend time with children on weekdays falls much more on women than on men. And by creating opportunities to work part-time, society has created a pretty narrow mold for women to fit: daycare centers often don't offer 5 days a week of care or advise against taking 5 days and HR people often ask pregnant women how many days they are planning to come back to work to (thereby implying less than 5 days), which is not asked to men. According to Hans Clevers, this causes the leaky pipeline: the fact that men and women perform equally through graduate school and post-doc and then women drop off in dramatic numbers.

Now let's unpack what he is saying here:

  1. Part-time culture. It is true that The Netherlands are the country where most people work part-time and there is a huge gender disparity there (see figure). A likely explanation is that Dutch women were relatively late compared to other countries to join the workforce, and many people of my generation and older have grown up with their mom at home taking care of housework and the kids, which is different than in the US for example where women joined the workforce much earlier. It is important to note that the gender disparity in part-time work is not only due to child care obligations, because also women in their 20s without children work part-time in large numbers. There is no clear data showing why this is: is it the choice for different sectors of employment where part-time work is the norm and it is more difficult to get a permanent contract, are women more inclined to live to work rather than work to live or is it a matter of everyday sexism that favors men for full-time high profile positions? We need to understand this better before we can start pointing fingers. I do agree that the narrow mold for women to fit in terms of how to combine children and a career is problematic, and I hope that when men such as Hans Clevers see this, they do the work to help this, for example by providing high quality childcare at work. The ratio of children to daycare teachers is much higher here than it was for our (expensive!) daycare in the US, which for us was a reason to each work 4 days to only need 3 days of daycare.


  2. Women don't want to work hard? Let's go back to this first statement from Hans Clevers, even though he later goes back to add more nuance. I would love to see actual data showing that this is true, because I am aware of data showing that women actually have to work harder in order to get equal results, and the other way around: that with equal levels of productivity, women are less likely to get promoted/get grants/get papers in high IF journals. And that is on top of the fact that most of these women will be doing this hard work in a climate that is unsafe and unwelcoming. So we should ask ourselves (and this is somewhat of a rhetoric questions): are women not willing to work hard, or do women - after working equally hard with less recognition while taking on more of the childcare responsibilities - at some point think "f*ck this sh*t" and leave academia?
  3. What it means when someone like Hans Clevers says this. This is the part that really makes me sad: that someone in such a position of power as Hans Clevers makes statements like these that seem unsupported by the data that is out there on gender disparity and general inequality in academia. How many young students who are women, people of color and in particular women of color who have few or even no role models to look up to will read something like this and think "f*ck this sh*t" even sooner?  Also, making such a statement suggests a lack of awareness of Hans Clevers' own bias against women and minorities. If he has the choice between hiring a man or a woman for a position, I'm pretty sure his bias against women ("women don't want to work hard") will likely drive him to choose the man, unless the woman is extraordinarily qualified. And for someone who is likely in numerous committees deciding the future of young scientists, this is highly problematic and demoralizing.


26 responses so far

  • Liam says:

    This is such a huge problem in academia. I was at the launch of Oncode, and the lack of women (and minorities) was pretty stark. I know that several institutes in the Netherlands are actively trying to improve their gender balance, but we have to be proactive about it. It was so disheartening to see that only 7 of the 43 groups in Oncode are led by women.

    It's true that there are far fewer female group leaders than male, but in 2018, surely an institute like Oncode could take a more progressive stance in this!

  • xykademiqz says:

    I have found that my male colleagues from Europe are woefully ignorant of the issues women face. Far too many of them have said, "This diversity business is an American problem. We don't have that problem. We only look at merit." One who said this, I vividly remember him, leads a group of 50 with zero women in it. Apparently, there are no women of sufficient merit as far as he's concerned. There is nothing you can say to people like that because they are so far behind the current understanding of the struggle of women in academia and the systemic issues they face. And what's worse, people like this, and there are oh so many of them, really don't give a shit. They don't think there's anything wrong with how science is done today and they don't understand what the merit of diversity would be; they feel it's some bullshit pushed on them to dilute the pool of real, meritorious candidates (read: male, white).

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Every time I see reference to this I read it as "Clever Hans".

    • babyattachmode says:

      I don't like to modify comments but I've hesitated to block this one, because joking about someone's name does not add to the discussion. I don't intend to pile on to someone for saying something, I wish for something to change for young scientists and to see a more diverse scientific dialogue.

  • Your Dutch is better than mine, but I read that paragraph subtly differently (and a bit worse) than you did.

    Maybe this is something idiomatic that I'm missing but you translated "Daar kunnen wij (de mannen) niets aan doen" as "That's not our (the men's) fault." But isn't it really "That is something about which we (the men) can do nothing." In that way it's less about exculpation than it is offering up an excuse for inaction.

  • Liz says:

    Interesting to see that women scientists in the Netherlands also have this opinion about lazy Dutch women . . . so strange!

  • Passerby says:

    The sentence "Women don't want to work hard" can be interpreted in two different ways. It could mean that women are lazier than men or it can mean women want to make different life choices and want to focus more on family compared to men, partly because of lack of maternity and other leave; I believe there's quite a bit of evidence for this. Based on his statement alone, it's not clear to me whether Clever meant the former or the latter. I do hope he means the latter.

    • babyattachmode says:

      Sure, you're probably right that different people make different choices in life with regards to how they spend their time. And that perhaps these choices differ by gender for whatever reason. But even if 80% (or 99%) of women choose to spend less time at work and more time at home, then that leaves 20% (or 1%) of women motivated and hard-working to accomplish something at work. And then to make such sweeping statements lumping everyone together by gender is doing a big disservice to those 20% (or 1%), and by extend to science in general by not doing the work to make it an inclusive environment.

  • Hans Clevers says:

    Maybe it is time for me to reply. The text that presumably quoted me: "The gender balance is indeed a problem. etc." was written up by Channel 1 as part of a teaser for a talk show. The subject of that talk show was a debate between a young scientist/columnist Rosanne Hertzberger and me. Hertzberger had written a critical column on the way a newly launched cancer research network was established in a non-transparant way and was dominated by old, male scientists, that cancer research is often irreproducible, and other issues. In preparation for that talk show, I had spoken extensively to one of the editors of the show. One of the issues was the -indeed- very problematic gender situation in Dutch science. I have been president of the Royal Netherlands Academy and have often discussed this. The numbers are not good: PhD students and postdocs show an even gender distribution, but at the next step the males dominate. This ends up with more than 80% male professors and 85% male academy members.

    In my discussion with the editor, I gave my analysis: i.e. this is a very Dutch socio-cultural problem. I gave multiple examples from my personal (my wife has always worked as a full-time academic MD when our family was young) and professional life. I thus mentioned that Dutch day-cares for instance strongly advice against a 5-day week at the daycare. Dutch HR managers routinely ask pregnant employees how many days they want to work after their pregnancy leave. I also argued that to be successful in international science, it requires hard work. I ended this by stating that every individual has to make his or her own choice about a healthy life balance. But in my country the playing field in which this decision is being made is very different for men and women. The statistics in the above blog illustrate the outcome very well.
    The editor chose to summarise our discussion in his teaser (that announced the television debate with Hertzberger on the Channel 1 website) by the quote : "Dutch women don't want to work". Interestingly, gender balance was indeed a major part of the broadcasted debate, but my 'quotes' were not. I only found out about these after a returned home and started receiving emails from surprised female colleagues.

    I have meanwhile done some evaluation of my own gender-statistics (I am a scientist after all). At last count, 31 former PhD students and postdocs from my lab lead their own research groups. Of these, 17 are male and 14 are female. When I became academy president in 2012, all top-position of this large organisation were male. When I stepped down in 2015, the four top positions (general director and the chairpersons of the academy, the young academy and the academy of arts) were all held by women. I feel personally responsible for the first two: Jose van Dijk is as my successor the first female academy president in over two centuries. The same holds for general director Mieke Zaanen.

    Of course, I have seen examples of male-dominant behaviour. I started as a young scientist in the early 80s, when natural sciences were an all-male activity. But in my perception (and one can argue about this vehemently), this has been rapidly disappearing in the past two decades.

    Anyway, my main message was (and has always been): Each talented, ambitious young scientist will sooner or later have to make a decision about a healthy life balance. But unfortunately, in my home country, the playing field in which this decision is taken by men and women is not equal

    Hans Clevers

    • babyattachmode says:

      Thank you for coming here to comment and sharing your accomplishments when it comes to increasing diversity in your organization. I still think that there are way more things that someone in your position can accomplish when it comes to leveling that unequal playing field and taking away some of the stereotypes about female academics (and women in general) instead of adding to those stereotypes.

    • Zach says:

      Are you talking about the 1880s?

  • Dr. Clevers
    It would have been appropriate for the editor to have asked you to check and approve "quotes" that were not actual statements that you made. It is unfortunate that a poor editorial process caused such a backlash for you. The teaser "quote" was clearly intended to raise ire or as click bait and not to present the situation as you had explained it. Kudos to you for your efforts to increase the representation of women in high positions and for the gender balance in your trainees. - Nancy

    • Yukiko Yamashita says:

      Dear Hans,

      Thanks for coming here to leave the reply. I see that your words might have been twisted and you didn't say anything that is said you did.

      But I would like to suggest that this might be a great opportunity for you to show your support for women scientists, not because they need special care to be able to work, but because they need to be lifted to the 'fair ground' to be able to demonstrate their ability (who can work on the 'equal ground' as men in a society where they are expected to do so much extra work at home?).

      I think you are in such a blessed position as a leader of the field: instead of just staying 'not guilty', you have a power to be able to make a difference to your society. There are many simple and small steps you can take to change the life of Dutch female scientists and beyond. It is wonderful to hear that your (former/past) female students/postdocs have done so well: if you ask them, probably they can give you their thoughts about what kind of even small things can make their life as scientists even better.

  • Michael says:

    Quick remark: In the blog you imply a contast between part time jobs and permanent jobs ("where part-time work is the norm and it is more difficult to get a permanent contract"). Many if not most part time jobs in the Netherlands are permanent.

    • babyattachmode says:

      You're absolutely right and this was poor editing on my side. What I (tried to) refer to are colleagues I know who choose to work 80% in order to have a fellowship last longer when they were unsure about when they would next receive funding for example (this was in NL to be clear).

      • Hans Clevers says:

        I have been asked a number of times how this all unfolded last week. I’ll try to be factual.
        On Monday last week, our queen opened a new and well-funded multi-institute cancer research network. This was accompanied by lots of festive media coverage. On Thursday last week, Rosanne Hertzberger wrote a column in one of our high-quality newspapers, criticizing a series of elements of the network. This was picked up by one of the news channels and I was asked to debate the various point of criticism with Rosanne in a life talk show the same evening. I agreed and then had a 30-40 minute preparatory phone call with one of the editors of the talk show. We went through all points of criticism of Rosanne, including gender balance, the age of the scientists who had put the network together, the age distribution of the involved principle investigators, distribution of funds within the consortium, the reproducibility (or lack thereof) of cancer research breakthroughs etc. In this discussion, I gave my analysis of the skewed gender balance as a typically Dutch socio-cultural phenomenon, as I have done many times before (see my earlier post).

        In the evening, the 10-minute debate was broadcast life. Unknown to me, the editor had published a teaser-text on the Channel’s website, with the infamous ‘quotes’. For those of you who are interested (and have a Dutch or Flemish friend), the talkshow can be viewed at (25:10 to 35:04) .

        Gender balance was brought up by the talk show host, but only briefly (28:30 to 28:50). In these 20 seconds, I mentioned that we had about 20% female PIs in the consortium and said that this was not good. Rosanne then confirmed this to be a general issue in our science. Of note, my ‘bombshell quotes’ were not mentioned. If indeed the talk show host had seen these quotes and believed that I had spoken those words, the talk show missed out on the news opportunity of the day.

        Anyway, the next day I started receiving emails from Dutch female colleagues. I read the quotes and contacted the editor, making very clear that I had never used those words. He disagreed, said that he had written down notes after our phone call, and that –based on these notes- he would not remove the text. He did offer to me to write up my story and add this as a ‘naschrift’ (post-script) to the teaser text.

        I wrote my text, and started with an opening paragraph in which I stated: “I have never spoken these words. They do not reflect my thoughts or deeds”. Channel 1 refused to publish this first paragraph. We discussed this and it was then replaced by “Los van het feit of ik me zo heb uitgedrukt in het gesprek, mist nu de maatschappelijke context. ” which translates as “Independent of the fact whether I have said these words, a societal context is lacking”.
        The teaser and my postscript can be read in Dutch at

        • babyattachmode says:

          Thank you for further clarifying. Please note that I had linked to that same article (through a different link) in my post as well. I am sorry if you have been misquoted, but that is impossible to judge for anyone who wasn't there.
          Irregardless of whether that quote is correct, in your post-script to the editor you mention Dutch society as the main driver between gender imbalance in higher positions in Dutch academic science and that is what concerns me. Because - as I quote in my post - there is actual data showing that women are disadvantaged in peer review and grant evaluations: equal applications in terms of quality from women get lower scores on average than applications from men. While it may be difficult for a small group of people to change societal and cultural norms, it is possible to think about how academia can change its own culture and reward women equally. Instead of saying "we can't do anything about this" and point the finger at women, I would highly encourage you to think of structural ways to change this culture, as the letter by LNVH in NRC suggests as well.

          • Jelle Zuidema says:

            Now that you have heard from Clevers himself, wouldn't it be appropriate to change the title and text of your blog post to mark clearly that the 'quotes' are disputed?

          • babyattachmode says:

            I find it hard to judge who is right here: Hans Clevers or the journalist. Or perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle. And either way, even Clevers’ post script states that gender inequality is because of choices that women make, with no mention of how a change in the culture of science can alter this. So once the NOS redacts their article, I will change my title and post accordingly. For now, I think Hans Clevers’ comments can speak for themselves.

          • Michael says:

            If you think that the "truth lies somewhere in the middle" why do you have the quote that is clearly showing one side (the journalist) as title of your blog post?

          • babyattachmode says:

            As I said, once the NOS edits their article, I’ll consider doing the same. But I believe Hans Clevers’ comments can speak for themselves.

          • Michael says:

            But if you say "I find it hard to judge who is right here: Hans Clevers or the journalist" you should not go for the side of the journalist in my opinion

        • Zach says:

          20% women PIs in an institute starting in 2018 isn’t just “not good”. It’s not acceptable. In any field. It sets you up for decades of gender inequality even if tomorrow you start an aggressive affirmative action campaign for new PIs and rapidly replace PIs. If you think it’s hard to recruit good women PIs now, imagine how much harder it will be to recruit good women PIs to an institute with a history of gender discrimination.

          I’m skeptical that there are only 7 women PIs in the Netherlands that meet your standards. But even IF this is true, why not use the institute’s funds to recruit excellent women PIs to your partner institutions from abroad and subsidize weeklong daycare if that’s really the dealbreaker? This is one of many, many possible solutions. How much of Oncode’s budget was spent trying to fix this obvious, embarrassing deficit before giving up?

  • Maria says:

    Dear Hans,

    This is great to hear you've helped women become lab heads, if true then you have done an awful lot more than the vast majority of men I know in science. Thank you for that.

    "Of course, I have seen examples of male-dominant behaviour. I started as a young scientist in the early 80s, when natural sciences were an all-male activity. But in my perception (and one can argue about this vehemently), this has been rapidly disappearing in the past two decades."

    But this statement of yours is certainly far from true in Australia. It is not rapidly disappearing. Here I see things getting even worse for women as the grants funding pressure has increased. I was part of an Equity group that collected metrics from 5 of our local research institutes in Melbourne that showed that things are not rapidly disappearing. Our metrics showed that in all 5 institutes, while >60% of the workforce is women, >60% of the lab heads are still men (in some it's closer to 80%).

    To me that's extremely depressing in this day and age. I also now believe the lack of senior women creates a serious risk for the younger women. It leaves them exposed and vulnerable to abuses (and in the worse cases can lead to traumatic situations for many people like here

    Things are not improving and certainly not rapidly. Why do you think they are improving rapidly Hans?

    We also just put out a call for new members for our institute's Gender Equity Committee and not one male student or postdoc put their hand up to be on the committee. Not a single one. They are unfortunately not enlightened like Liam and Zach here. They are also of the "Hans Clevers mentality" assuming this problem is going to fix itself. But I don't understand - who do they think is going to fix this problem then?

    The >60% female workforce in our 5 local institutes is interesting for another reason. As, if the women were to think they've finally had enough (yes - F*ck this Sh*t!), and were to go on strike, I think it would be very difficult for these institutes to continue with <40% staff to run it. After spending the last 3 years working on equity committees in Melbourne, I can see no real change happening here and things seem just as bad in Netherlands, so maybe it is time we women tried a Strike next. I'm starting to believe now that that might be the only thing that finally gets some change happening and some fairness and equality for women at last.


  • […] week I wrote that a news outlet reported that Hans Clevers had said that Dutch women don't want to work h…. According to Hans Clevers, who came to my blog to reply, he hadn't actually said […]

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