An interview with Aukje Hassoldt, Dean of the faculty of TPM

DEWIS is interviewing academics at TU Delft to talk about diversity at work, women and academic leadership and inclusive, safe working environments. Today’s interview is with Aukje Hassoldt, Dean of the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management.

Aukje Hassoldt

… we have to keep our eye on the ball. We can’t just sit back. We have to stay sharp in the final round of application procedures: when you’re down to the top three, what makes you choose a particular candidate?

How is the Faculty of TPM doing in terms of gender diversity?
We're doing okay, but there's definitely room for improvement. One third of all professors are women. At the other job levels, too, roughly one third are women – except associate professors. This group needs more attention. I’m not unhappy, but we could certainly step things up a notch. We are also currently working on a faculty diversity policy, which has unfortunately been delayed due to Covid-19. And we are thinking about appointing a faculty diversity officer. I also believe that the university-wide rule of always having several female candidates for vacancies is really important.

Have you ever felt that you were treated differently, either positively or negatively, because you are a woman? If so, how did you deal with that?
When I studied Physics I was in a group of 30 students with very few girls. And then later, when I worked at Rijkswaterstaat and TNO, the situation was quite similar. So I’m used to working in an  environment with mainly males. It doesn’t bother me and, fortunately, I haven’t had any negative experiences. In previous positions I was often the only woman, the youngest ánd the manager or the chair. I occasionally noticed that people had to get used to that, and they would say things like: ‘Well, I’ve never worked under a female project manager before.’ But I don’t mind that. I prefer it when people say what they think. It’s usually not a judgement, just more a case of having to get used to a new situation.

What do you think needs to be done to create more awareness of the existence of implicit bias, and what role should leaders play in this?
I think it’s hugely important that we get used to female leadership. Or perhaps I mean a feminine approach to leadership as opposed to a masculine approach. In the past we wanted to have women in leadership positions, but they had to be ‘our kind of people’. By that, I mean that those women were expected to have more masculine qualities. I think it’s crucial that role models show that it’s also possible to adopt a feminine style of leadership. We have to change our perception of what a good leader is or what an appropriate type of leadership is. I would also like to see opportunities for leaders with, for example, a more inquisitive style.

You intuitively seek out people who are similar to you. It's harder for us to assess people who are different from us, and that sometimes makes us feel insecure. We'd rather feel safe. It helps if we’re aware of that. Make sure that you have someone in your group to point this out to you. That might be uncomfortable sometimes, but that’s fine. I’m a firm believer in venturing outside your comfort zone often, it’s good for your personal development.

I think diversity really adds quality to a team. Sometimes it might seem as though that diversity makes things more difficult, but if you cultivate a team spirit that is based on mutual trust and respect, it definitely broadens your perspective. You prevent ‘groupthink’. It’s important to accept and discuss different interests and visions.

Did you have role models who inspired you to rise to a leadership position?
I don’t have one role model in particular; I look for different role models depending on the situation. But I do have them. For example, Angela Merkel and Madeleine Albright are interesting role models; I’m fascinated to see how much influence one individual can have.

What could TU Delft do to ensure there are more women in influential positions?
I feel that we’ve turned a corner. We’re aware of the need for diversity – and that goes beyond just being a woman. We make sure that the list of candidates always includes women. But we have to keep our eye on the ball. We can’t just sit back. We have to stay sharp in the final round of application procedures: when you’re down to the top three, what makes you choose a particular candidate?

What advice would you give to junior female scientists?
Everyone should learn to take a critical look at themselves, but also learn to voice what you think is going well. In a way that you’re comfortable with. That applies to everyone, men and women, regardless of background. I have also noticed that, on average, women tend to stay in the same job longer than men. Make sure that you have enough variety in your job and/or responsibilities. It takes time to rise to a senior position, so be mindful of that time. Keep developing yourself.

The results of the Employee Survey revealed that employees experience discrimination. How can you help the academic community to acknowledge the existence of discrimination within the institution?
I was unpleasantly surprised by the results on undesirable behaviour that came out of the Employee Survey. And although our faculty is not doing any worse than other faculties, and our university is not doing any worse than other universities, this is something that we really need to act on. In the commercial sector, the percentage of employees who experience discrimination is considerably lower. I would like to see this question addressed in more detail in the next Employee Survey. The fact that this is an issue at all universities in the Netherlands suggests that we need to fully understand what’s going on. Our faculty's action plan in response to the Employee Survey focuses on two main topics: workload and undesirable behaviour. We want to raise awareness of the support opportunities that are available, such as the confidential advisers and the independent ombudsman. It must become commonplace to discuss undesirable behaviour, and it must be taken seriously. Also it’s important that you don’t wait too long to talk about things that are bothering you. Instead, give each other feedback – sooner rather than later, when things are still ‘light’ and you can still talk about the issue light-heartedly.

Many researchers experience a high workload and for some this one of the reasons why they leave the university. Concerns raised, for example, about the potential negative impact of Covid-19 on women in academia who are having to reconcile work and family responsibilities (see here, for example). What can the university do to prevent this?
We have to get used to talking about this issue. Today, I heard that a manager praised someone for attending a meeting while he was on holiday. We don’t want to go down that road. Holidays are important for getting people to take a break and they shouldn’t be put under pressure not to do that. You come back from holiday with new ideas and full of energy. It’s important that we ‘sharpen the saw’. Usually, it’s small things that matter, like not sending emails at the weekend or in the evening. If employees want to work at the weekend or in the evening then they can, of course, but as managers we need to give the signal that this isn’t the standard.

The LNVH (Dutch Network of Women Professors) has asked the VSNU (Association of Universities in the Netherlands) to set new targets for 2025. What do you think TU Delft’s target should be?
We reached the target that was set for 2020; we’re currently at 17%. I think the new target of 25% by 2025 is realistic. It doesn’t sound like much, but in reality it takes much effort to move up a few per cent, and 2025 isn’t all that far away. This new target means that one third of all future appointments need to be women. It is a great achievement if we manage that.

Are more stringent measures needed, such as a quota or opening vacancies to only women for a limited period of time, as they did at TU/e?
I think introducing a quota is an extreme measure. So I’d prefer not to see that, but I can imagine that there are situations in which you might use one. For now, I’m encouraged by TU Delft’s approach – to ensure that there always are female candidates included and to try to ensure that at least one third of appointments, and preferably more, are women. Next to that I’m a fan of the Delft Technology Fellowship. That’s extremely effective. It’s helped us to attract some exceptional female researchers.

What does your ideal university look like? What will TU Delft be like in 20 years’ time? My ideal university is a university that is warm, welcoming, challenging and inspiring. That fits in very well with our TU Delft core values: Diversity, Integrity, Respect, Engagement, Courage and Trust.