Gender Inequality in Academia

Judi Mesman is the dean of Leiden University College and a professor of interdisciplinary study of societal challenges. She joined WIL members in a conversation on gender inequality in the field of academia this Wednesday.


Opening the discussion, Judi started by presenting her research to date on how gender predicts future perceptions and stereotypes by investigating children textbooks. She emphasized that gender roles were expressed in subtle ways but that the findings were telling. Notably, she found that female characters in children’s books were significantly underrepresented with as little as 32% of characters being female. She explains, “this fosters the idea that girls can read books with main characters of both genders but boys will not read a book with a female protagonist”. Males also tend to be represented in professional or athletic contexts. Her approach is prescriptive as she expressed her findings with the publishers in personalised reports. Her commitment towards gender equality is consistent and she is always open to sharing her knowledge whether it be with the publishers, children libraries or the members of WIL.


Judi Mesman is also involved in the Athena’s Angels, a cooperation of four females in academia sharing facts, advice and a platform for women to share their experience in the field. She explains their fight to display the faces of women which have had an impact in Leiden University by changing the portraits of males to the ones of females in the Rapenburg for International Women’s Day. While not enough pictures existed to fill up the room, a testimony of the work still to be done, she added empty chairs a symbol of spaces left to be filled. This resulted in more paintings of female professors being showcased on the long term. This is just a small part of her battle. Her biggest accomplishment to date she explains is helping 100 women gain employement for the 100 year anniversary of women in Leiden University.


The gap in gender representation in Academia is signigicant she explains but what is most striking is that it starts off being quite equal. More than half of PHD holders are female and the same goes for Assistant Professors but as time goes on, the gap widens. The Netherlands is at the bottom in terms of female presence in the field with only 23% of women professors. Some possible explanations for the phenomenon include the motherhood penalty and the lack of confidence in women to seek for opportunities.


Don’t get fooled, women have stereotypes too. “We tend to appoint on the basis of what we are used to” claims Judi. Leiden University College also suffers from gender inequality with an under-representation of males. She’s working on grants to promote diversity which transcends gender and is running a long term investigation into why less males apply to the program.


As the evening progresses, she shares more anecdotes of conversations she has had with humor and recalls being told some of her projects were too ambitious. Her advice? Going through with the project anyways. “You can always apologise later,” she jokes.


Blog post by: Ana Nico Clement



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