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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.