Department Heads talk about gender diversity: an interview with Michiel Kreutzer
What can we learn from our colleagues regarding the role of women in science? In a series of interviews our Department Heads share their views on gender diversity, equality and inclusion. What are their thoughts, ideas and actions on creating diverse and inclusive working environments? Today we are talking to Professor Michiel Kreutzer, head of the Department of Architectural Engineering & Technology at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment.
“When people choose to have a family and therefore take on caring responsibilities, the university should take that into account in the career structure. … Female and male role models are also very important in this respect, i.e. women who balance having children with their careers, as well as men who also take on parenting roles at home. But again, it is not only the institution which has a responsibility here, but also society as a whole.”Michiel Kreutzer
How would you describe the gender balance in your department?
At the Faculty of Architecture, diversity is not exclusively a gender issue. Within the Department of Architectural Engineering and Technology, about half of the professors are women. Fortunately, I am rarely on teams where women are underrepresented, but the academic sector is still predominantly white. That worries me. For example, I don't see many students from Rotterdam South on campus.
What does gender equality mean to you?
Our approach is double: from equity and from diversity comes better science.
Conventional thinking about science has changed quite a lot. Thanks to Thomas Kuhn, we understand that debate and discussion are indispensable for good science. People like Bruno Latour have made us realise that who does the research is a partial determinant of the scientific outcome. Surely this understanding is different from the pre-war idea of falsification, that science asymptotically unlocks an objective truth, regardless of who does it. For a long time now, biologists have departed from merely being detached scientists who observe an organism – rather, we create the organism. What those organisms do comes from the mind of the scientist, who forms ideas in discussion and debate. This is a somewhat long philosophical introduction, the point being that a diversity of ideas and perspectives is important for science. Research has shown that diverse teams are more creative, as well as more innovative. It is important that the people with whom we build on ideas through discussion and discourse have different backgrounds and perspectives.
In addition, the argument for equality is just as important. It is simply not fair if people are given fewer opportunities because of appearance, orientation etc. Such discrimination goes against our sense of justice and should be addressed head-on. Unconscious bias is human, but it can be unlearned to some extent, and we are taking steps to do so.
The tricky thing about the fairness argument is that it can be flipped so easily: 'I don't get a chance because you discriminate.' The discussion always has winners and losers. Our approach – that diversity within a department makes for better scientists – suffers less from this accusatory atmosphere. As department chair, I try to play as few 'zero-sum’, ‘winners-and-losers' games as possible on this topic. By all of us being and behaving differently, we all become better scientists, and we all win.
Are you aware of the manifestations of the gender biases we all have? How do you recognise bias? What are the consequences of gender bias?
I am a white male from a family of academics. That is my background. I feel at home with people from the same background. I am aware of that. Paying attention and occasionally giving myself a little push helps me make sure that I don't surround
myself with my reflection.
We must overcome the unconscious biases we all have. Of course we pay extra attention to those biases during the big moments, for instance job applications. But we must also consider the thousands of unconscious pressures which people from different backgrounds receive and accumulate over the years, thereby depriving people in minority groups of equal opportunities. It’s certainly not fair, and it’s important to acknowledge that this daily reality for many also makes for a less enjoyable workplace, as well as a lesser university.
Let's help each other and discuss without accusation: seek dialogue, let people have their dignity. A classic method of communication is to give precise, respectful feedback: 'You show this behaviour and that evokes this response from me.' I regularly have to engage with people from different backgrounds and I try to look at them with an open mind. When I’m able to do this, my work becomes a lot more enjoyable.
For me, a university is a place where people develop and grow. I like it when people evolve. And that is only possible in a safe environment where you are challenged and can be yourself – in other words, an inclusive environment.
How would you describe a healthy work-life balance? Is this something personal, or does the institution have a responsibility?
Academic careers are very competitive, especially when scarce resources are distributed competitively. Recognition and success are quite dependent on access to those scarce resources. Our whole society has moved in towards individual accountability for success and failure. We see with increasing clarity that this shift creates more pressure than we actually think is healthy, and with the nationwide ‘Recognition and Rewards’ initiative, there is now a concrete action plan to address this. That is one positive step. The university is a place where hard work pays off. We have to accept that almost everyone has a period in life when all that hard work is a little less successful. We shouldn't be too rigid about that. I think it is important that people do not fall out of the loop of their academic careers for lengthy periods. When people choose to have a family and therefore take on caring responsibilities, the university should take that into account in the career structure. Some years will be less productive than others – we must make room for that. Female and male role models are also very important in this respect, i.e. women who balance having children with their careers, as well as men who also take on parenting roles at home. But again, it is not only the institution which has a responsibility here, but also society as a whole. Sadly, female labour participation is low in the Netherlands, and there are norms and values that the institution cannot reverse on its own. We can however set a good example, especially for our students in their formative years.
How do you incorporate inclusion and diversity in teaching and research?
Inclusion and diversity in teaching is important at the Faculty of Architecture. Bias is not directly relevant in solving a mathematical sum, but your background plays a role in your perception of the built environment. STYLOS, T/U Delft’s student association of the Faculty of Architecture, has drawn attention to this in a nice way. Members of the association pasted posters – I’ll call them ‘provocative’ posters – of white men on the wall with questions such as, 'What’s wrong with this row of famous architects?' Students rightly call attention to this issue.
What does your ideal department look like?
I am wary of entrenched one-to-one relationships. Many problems are solved when these power relationships – where one person depends on one other person – are avoided. Power relationships should become more diffuse by allowing more people to be more involved in the process of granting promotions and other advancements. The more these kinds of discussions can be held openly in a team, or in a department section if necessary, the safer it becomes. I think that is paramount.