The right woman for the job?

Institutions offering women-only posts have drawn criticism…and a fair number of male applicants

September 18, 2014

When Times Higher Education reported earlier this month that the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne had taken a bold step in advertising an academic post reserved for women, it was destined to attract comment. The move was welcomed by many but others questioned its legality. Marilyne Andersen, dean of the School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering at EPFL, said she was able to make the “aggressive” move because the post was sponsored by industry, but Andrea Binder, head of the legal division of the Swiss Federal Office for Gender Equality, questioned whether this made a difference to its legal status.

However, the move was not the first time such an approach has been taken to improve gender balance in academia. Earlier this year, Curt Rice, a professor of linguistics at the University of Tromsø, wrote on his Science in balance blog about the case of Delft University of Technology.

“When they saw their efforts to recruit more women faculty members flounder,” he writes. “Delft decided to hire the 10 best women researchers they could find in a wide-open search.

“Applicants could be at any stage of their careers and in any field of research covered by the institution. In addition to an academic position, these new employees would get favourable conditions to push their research projects forward after the move. Crucially, the program was open only to women. Men were not eligible.”

As Professor Rice points out, the plan was challenged legally, but “ultimately, the university was able to move ahead with [its] plans”.

He looks at the Delft approach in the context of “leaning in”, the concept espoused by Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, in which women are encouraged to be more assertive in pursuing their career ambitions.

“Self-promotion is one component of career advancement that men and women approach differently. ‘Leaning in’ is a ‘fix the women’ approach to reducing this behaviour gap between the sexes,” Professor Rice writes, adding that the Delft option is another way.

“The university leadership identified a need — more women faculty. They developed a plan — only hire women. And it worked: they succeeded at hiring 10 excellent new colleagues,” he writes.

But, Professor Rice points out, the Delft experience also shows that through their greater appetite for self-promotion, “men sometimes lean in so far they fall on their faces”.

“There are many anecdotes about men applying for jobs when they only meet a few of the requirements. Some reports actually quantify this,” he writes, and then quotes Ms Sandberg’s book Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, which refers to “internal research” at Hewlett-Packard that “showed that women apply for open jobs only if they think they meet 100 per cent of the criteria listed, whereas men respond to the posting if they feel they meet 60 per cent of the requirements”.

Bizarrely, this tendency seems to have been demonstrated even in the Delft women-only recruitment drive, where “apparently adopting the 60% rule and flagrantly flouting the absolute gender requirement, 30 men applied, too”.

Clearly, the sector has some way to go.

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