Promoting women in science

An interview with Lynda Hardman of Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI).We visited Lynda Hardman at her office at CWI in the Science Park. As soon as we arrived, she gave us both a copy of the January 2016 issue of the magazine of the European Research Consortium for Informatics. It contains a section about the European working group ‘Women in ICT Research and Education’, which she coordinated.

     Next to being recognised for your own research in computer science, what motivated you to also invest time in promoting the participation of women in informatics research?

“When I was in Edinburgh working in the Artificial Intelligence department in my early twenties, only few girls were choosing to study the subject – which I thought was a shame, since it’s such an interesting topic. So I became involved in extracurricular activities for girls at schools. Later on in the 1990s, when I was at CWI in Amsterdam – first as a researcher, then working towards my PhD and later on as a group leader – I noticed again that there were so few women around, but this was not a subject that you talked about. In 2009, when I became a professor by special appointment at the University of Amsterdam, they recommended I take the introductory course for new professors, which was led by a female instructor, who was clearly very aware of the gender gap in academia in the Netherlands. She didn’t push me to get active in this area, but through her I came to understand that the gender issue is much more of a problem than I had previously realised, and so I went from being an ‘example’ of women in computer science to an activist, wishing to bring about change.”


Girls need female role models comfortable with science in order to encourage them at a young age in schools.


     According to the ‘She figures 2012’, which is the statistical study carried out by the European commission, women are under-represented in both public and private research sectors by a factor of 3, and even by a factor of 5 when the business sectors are considered. What do you think can be the main reasons for this?

“To uncover the real reasons, we need to turn to social science studies. However, in my opinion, there are no physical or hormonal reasons that women like working in research or business less than men do. The reasons are more cultural, causing a mix of internal and external barriers for women. From my understanding, the cultural tradition – mainly in the Netherlands but also in other parts of Europe – contains the stereotype that women are interested in arts and men in sciences. Gender bias starts early: at least in the Netherlands, girls tend to be less interested in technical and mathematical topics already at primary school. This is also not helped by the trend that primary school teachers have been trained for the more social aspects of their job and often have less affinity with technical sciences. Girls need female role models comfortable with science in order to encourage them at a young age in schools.”

“One problem is certainly related to the psychology difference between girls and boys. As an example: when high-school girls get 6 out of 10 for a test, they think they are not good at the topic, whereas boys take a 6 as a sign that they are good at that subject. This leads to a lack of confidence in girls in their own talents for science and technology subjects, and prevents them from continuing in science. Organising special workshops for high-school students at universities may help. Researchers can explain their research activities and encourage boys and girls to work as scientists. We need to bear in mind that even if all the speakers at such an event were women, the boys would still choose to do science if the subject is interesting, the reverse is not true if the list of speakers is a men-only affair.”

“To try and generate and maintain more grass-roots female interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, VHTO – the Dutch national expert organisation on women and science and technology, puts a lot of effort into organizing ‘Girls’ Days’ in different parts of the country. For instance, a friend of mine working at TomTom is involved in this programme, explaining to high-school girls that they can learn how to design and build navigation systems, or to manage a development project. Learning about how women are contributing to a familiar product such as Tom- Tom makes it much easier for them to picture their own possible future in the tech sector.”

“If the teachers are not able to supply this role model, then parents can get involved in sharing their knowledge and interest in science with the girls. At my children’s primary school we used ‘Rekentijger’ (Arithmetic tiger) for the few kids who liked maths. I came along once a week for half an hour to answer their questions and make sure they worked. My daughter did not like it much, since I was her mum, but the other students were happy to sit outside the class and deal with the challenges. I think it worked well, although one student quit since he was the only boy within a group of four girls.”


As long as the managers and senior academics themselves do not realise that they are part of the problem, you are not going to get the change that is so desperately needed.


     When focusing on the Netherlands, most statistics show that there are fewer women in senior science positions than in many other European countries. Which organisations need to take action and get involved?

“At the level of universities, our Minister of Education is stressing that the current situation is unacceptable and is encouraging universities to come up with solutions. LNVH, the Dutch national network for female professors, visits every Dutch university board once a year to discuss the relative numbers of female lecturers and professors and what they intend to do about increasing specific instances of under-representation. I have been involved in some of these meetings at the University of Amsterdam. The Board of the UvA is very keen to increase the proportion of women in senior positions, but explains that specific measures have to be taken at the faculty level. One of the recommendations by LNVH is to have more open and transparent tenure-track systems, so that ‘closed-shop’ internal promotions (more often of men) to permanent positions are avoided. Women-only tenure-track programmes allow the attraction and retention of excellent female faculty, and the tenure decision is based upon a set of pre-determined criteria within a period of 4 or 5 years. We have to help all our colleagues be aware that they need to promote women so that it becomes normal that women can be scientists. To give an example, when organising conferences, at least 30% of keynote speakers being invited should be from the under-represented gender, be that female or male. If this is not the case, then programme committee members should flag this with the main organisers.”

     As the current president of Informatics Europe (IE), and the founding chair of the Women in ICT Research and Education working group (IE-WIRE), how do you see the role that can be played by such international associations in promoting women in the field?

“These organisations are very aware of the shortage of women in informatics and computer science. IE gives guidance for heads of departments, whereas the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) is more oriented to individual members. IEWIRE has produced a booklet to raise awareness of concrete best practices that departments can carry out. IE-WIRE is launching an award this year for departments that can demonstrate that best practices can really make a difference. ACM Women Europe organises events for younger professional women, at BSc, MSc and PhD levels, to help them form a support network and allow them to discuss issues together. Companies such as Google, Bloomberg, Microsoft and Intel sponsor these events not just out of charity but because they see a more balanced workforce as an important factor contributing to their profit margins.”

© L. Dingemans

© L. Dingemans

     Turning back to the Netherlands, the proportion of women in Dutch academic positions drops significantly at each consecutive career stage from PhD through to professorial appointments (see Figure). What needs to be changed? Should the same criteria be applied for evaluating women with young children as for other applicants?

“We must find solutions to deal with the critical periods in both women’s and men’s lives. The best approach is to ask mothers and fathers themselves what they need, which may be arrangements facilitating their time away from work or a gradual instead of sudden return to full-time work. Of course there are simple and logical measures organisations can take to make themselves mother-friendlier, for example providing breast-feeding facilities on site, and planning meetings between 9:30 and 16:30. Also supporting the extra costs that scientists would make – for instance for travelling to conferences – when they have an infant during the breast-feeding period. Furthermore, granting organisations such as NWO and ERC must be prepared to spend extra money to extend PhD and postdoc contracts for those who have just become parents. We need to be aware of how parenthood plays a role in researchers’ lives, where this is often more of a burden for mothers than for fathers. For instance, NWO and ERC add 18 months onto the mother’s PhD date when assessing her CV. This is an effective way of compensating time for motherhood. We just need to make sure that selection committees really take this into account when they assess candidates. This is very important when you compare candidates for a given position, for example when counting their publications and citations. A more controversial idea is to reward a group when they hire a female scientist, for example, by providing some financial bonus for travel, equipment or extra support staff. This creates an incentive to search outside the (probably) male network in order to hire a competitive female staff member.”

“At the same time, female candidates do have to be excellent: quality should play a more important role than quantity. It is also important to provide coaching and mentoring for women, to encourage them to apply for higher positions, to challenge them to prepare for promotions, and broadcast their achievements rather than shying away from the competition.”

     Do you think that applying quota in academia would be appropriate or the introduction of affirmative action, in order to help resolve career constraints faced by women?

“A quotum should be used only as a last resort. It can perhaps help in a start-up phase but it is important to distinguish between defining a goal and imposing quota. If you impose quota, you may attract candidates who are not necessarily qualified. Moreover, the women who are hired as part of a quota system do not feel comfortable about it. Affirmative action is, however, very different. In the context of the Science Faculty here at the UvA, the MacGillavry fellowships are an example of an action that works very well as the positions have to be won under strong, international competition and are not based on quota. As a result, the MacGillavry fellows being hired are recognised as being excellent and internationally competitive, meaning no-one doubts that they deserved the positions they got.” “So, for sure, affirmative actions should be put in place and enforced, but only in conjunction with ‘unconscious bias’ training at the senior scientific and management levels. To put it bluntly, as long as the managers and senior academics themselves do not realise that they are part of the problem, you are not going to get the change that is so desperately needed.”


Quota should be used as a last resort.

Gender distribution in Dutch academia, from student to professor. Taken from the Monitor Women Professors 2015 by LNVH.

Gender distribution in Dutch academia, from student to professor. Taken from the Monitor Women Professors 2015 by LNVH.


     Zooming back out beyond the specifics of the Dutch gender gap, do you think the new policies introduced by the European Commission for industry and research organisations, such as the ‘Code of best practices for women and ICT’ should be enforced and will be effective?

“In my opinion, having a code of best practice is a requirement but does not act as a guarantee of results. For instance, the Faculty of Science at the University of Amsterdam already has a code of best practices, which formally apply to hiring teaching and research staff. Apparently, however, the existence of this code has not helped increase the number of female faculty members. In all such cases, it is imperative that the local management level really wants to change the situation. They can do so by applying the existing code of best practices. Until there are 30% of women at all levels, the culture will remain one that pushes out women – even though this may be wholly unintentional. The goal is in any case to ensure that women do not drop out at a higher rate than men. In the United Kingdom, the Athena SWAN Charter was established in 2005 to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the higher education and research careers of women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Awards are given to departments or institutes for activities related to gender balance. Initiatives such as this can play an important role at the national level, where higher levels of the award (e.g. bronze, silver, gold) may be considered as prestigious providers of a competitive edge for institutes applying for national grants. This is an example of an initiative we may want to copy in the Netherlands.”  Ω


LYNDA HARDMAN is a member of the management team at CWI (Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica) and Professor of Multimedia Discourse Interaction at Utrecht University. She graduated in Mathematics and Physics from Glasgow University in 1982. During several years in the software industry she was the development manager for Guide – the first hypertext authoring system for personal computers (1986). Her PhD thesis (UvA, 1998), on combining time-dependent documents (such as video sequences) along with interaction through links into a single model, contributed significantly to the first World Wide Web Consortium Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL) recommendation. Since the development of the semantic web, Lynda has investigated improving human information access in applications using the rapidly expanding ‘linked open data cloud’ for creating linked-data driven, user-centric applications for exploring media content. Specifically, she is interested in using existing domain models in media annotations to enhance information exploration and in developing computational models of human communication to assist in this. Additionally, she is interested in developing design methods for human-based interfaces for emerging technologies, where technological innovation goes hand in hand with understanding underlying user requirements. In 2014, Lynda was named a Distinguished Scientist by the Association for Computing Machinery. She is president of Informatics Europe, whose mission is to foster the development of quality research and teaching in informatics.


Interview by HAMIDEH AFSARMANESH, Professor of Computer Science, UvA, and NOUSHINE SHAHIDZADEH, Associate Professor of Physics, UvA.

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