Could hiring only women address academic imbalances?

Education | Brighten Youth Edu Centre 4 Aug 2020

Data from around the world remains disconcertingly consistent: female and ethnic minority academics earn less than their male counterparts and are more likely to work part-time or be employed under precarious contracts.

Figures from human resources for 2017-18 suggest UK professors remain overwhelmingly white (91 percent), male (74.5 percent) and able-bodied (96.9 percent). A 2018 EU publication found that women are underrepresented in all academic field (, with the biggest discrepancies in STEM subjects.

A South China Morning Post article from 2018 claimed that Hong Kong is doing no better, as 80 percent of senior academics at all eight of the city's universities are men. None of these figures reflect the needs of an increasingly diverse student body.

One Dutch university - Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE) - is currently attempting to tackle the lack of women in STEM by hiring only women.

Last year, a mere 15 percent of professors at TUE were women, a poor ratio in a country that already suffers from gender imbalance in academia.

The university hopes to address this problem, and reach a target of at least 30 percent, by hiring only women in all departments. Under this plan, new vacancies must be available only to women for the first six months, after which the department may widen their search, but only if they can demonstrate that no suitable female candidates were available. The university has also introduced the new Irene Curie fellowship which, although available across all departments, is specifically targeted at filling senior STEM roles. The fellowship comes with a 100,000-euro (HK$912,000) research fund and associated social support network.

TUE's approach also implemented services such as flexible work schedules, a career opportunity program to support accompanying partners, on-campus daycare for children and access to campus sports facilities.

Significant debate surrounded the project before its implementation, with approximately a third of existing staff objecting. However, the board of governors cited urgency as a justification, arguing that at current rates, gender parity would be achieved only in 2046. In the past year, the number of female academics has risen to 25 percent and is forecast to rise to 30 percent over the next five years.

Even with this radical commitment, these trends are far from radical. The controversy surrounding this change continues. Earlier in the year, TUE was taken to the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights over claims their women-first initiative was discriminatory. A decision is expected soon.

While TUE's approach may seem extreme, it might at least function as a catalyst for positive change. In a sane world, gender imbalances in employment and education would be addressed before the involvement of human rights organizations.

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