Editor's note: The predicament of female scientists in the Netherlands is so critical that the European Community even gave it a special name: "The Dutch Case." But is affirmative action really working? And what other measures can women scientists take to break through "the glass ceiling"?

A ripple of uneasy laughter passed through the hall. Yvette van Kooyk's last slide showed a newspaper article posted in her department at the Amsterdam Free University. The original Dutch headline,

("The professor becomes a [respectable] woman" [1]), had been transformed with the addition of one furtively scribbled "G." Now it read, "The professor doesn't become a woman"--or possibly, more subversively, "The professor ain't no lady."

Was the graffiti artist a man? Van Kooyk shrugged and said with a smile that it could easily have been a woman, venting her frustration over the impossibility of competing in a man's world.

The Netherlands: The Lowlands of Europe for Scientific Parity

Very few would deny that the situation for Dutch women scientists is grim. Despite the Netherlands' international reputation as a tolerant society, several studies, using a variety of criteria, have ranked it at the bottom of Europe in terms of equality between the sexes. What is not clear is the cause. Some cite Dutch neutrality in World War I, which kept women away from the workplace far longer than in other countries. Some blame the "1.5 working unit": the culturally accepted idea that Dutch men work full-time and that their women (over 70% of them) work part-time and care for the children (2). Even for the women involved, there seems to be uncertainty about which factor is more important: extrinsic discrimination, or some inherent female characteristic--lack of ambition, say, or different life priorities--that hinders progress. But regardless of the source of the inequality, the impetus for change has been steadily growing.

Van Kooyk was one of a number of speakers who addressed an intimate, mostly female group comprised of scientists, representatives of funding bodies, university administrators, and policymakers in Utrecht on 18 September. They had gathered to discuss the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research's (NWO's) groundbreaking affirmative action program Aspasia and to brainstorm about how gender imbalance could continue to be tackled in universities and institutes nationwide.

The Aspasia Program came into being in 2000 after several widely publicized stories highlighted the plight of female scientists in Europe. In 1997, Wennerås and Wold reported that, all other things being equal, Swedish female scientists had to be more than twice as good as their male colleagues to win the same research grant (3). Things got more personal in 1999 when the European Technology Assessment Network published a table placing the Netherlands last in the percentage of women elected to more than 30 national academies of science worldwide: A dismal 0.4 % of the Dutch Royal Academy's fellows, one out of 237, was a woman (4). The Netherlands was at the bottom again in a survey performed by the Helsinki group (5) of the percentage of female researchers making up higher education faculties in Europe, which was highlighted by Science in 2002 (6).

And then there were the infamous "scissors diagrams" (e.g., 7) showing that, from roughly gender-balanced undergraduate numbers, attrition began straightaway: 40% of Ph.D. students, 32% of postdocs, 21% of assistant professors, 8% of associate professors, and 5% of full professors were female amongst scientific personnel in the Netherlands (1998 figures). As the European Commission talked worriedly about "The Dutch Case," it was clear that something had to be done.

Successes and Side Effects

The Aspasia Program, named after a female philosopher of ancient Greece who had a thing or two to teach Socrates, was a competitive research grant offered by NWO to women wanting to advance from the level of assistant professor [ universitair docenten (UD)] to associate professor [ hoofddocenten (UHD)]. There were two rounds, one in 2000 and a second in 2002, and many are calling it a tremendous success. In an evaluative report (8) just published by the Dutch Society of Women's Studies (NGV), the numbers speak for themselves. The hundreds of applications far exceeded NWO's expectations and, as a result, the percentage of women associate professors rose from 8.6% in 1998 to 11.8% in 2001 (with a projected, preliminary figure of 14.4% for 2002). Of women receiving an Aspasia grant in the first round, five have already been promoted further to full professorships.

It wasn't just the numbers talking in Utrecht that day: The recipients themselves spoke volumes. One by one, during the discussion period, dozens of Aspasia laureates--chemists, biologist, geologists, mathematicians, social scientists--rose to their feet and praised the program for the chance it had given them. Several opined that they would not have been promoted without it.

But like all good things, Aspasia had its downside too. Due to budget limitations, there were far more applicants achieving fundable scores than the NWO could take on. Even though the universities generously financed some of this overflow themselves, it still left many fully qualified women--women who were as good on paper as men who'd been promoted in the past--languishing at the assistant professor level.

And toward those who had succeeded, the reaction of male colleagues wasn't always supportive. There was anger that the preference shown was unfair, even unlawful. One laureate was told it was good she'd succeeded with Aspasia because she would never have won a "real" NWO grant--the sort of prejudice, perhaps, that led some women to confess to deleting the grant from their CVs. A few had even internalized this prejudice as truth, doubting that their genuine success was as prestigious as if they'd received other subsidies because they hadn't been competing with worthy opponents, i.e., men. Others, although grateful, were clearly concerned that the funding was insufficient to develop the research lines needed to compete with men for coveted full-professor positions.

The conversation during the breaks was as informative as the formal talks and discussions. The laureates swapped experiences with remarkably good humor as they drank coffee, ate lunch, or waited in line for the toilets. ("In some things, we will always have an advantage!" one of the few male participants quipped as he dashed past the lengthy female queue.) They talked about poor child-care facilities and the difficulty of getting their men to help around the house or their male colleagues to treat them with respect at work. Almost tentatively, as if such feelings were inappropriate, some women confessed to a reluctance to live a life devoted almost solely to work, a life where ambition overrode all other concerns, as it seemed to for so many men.

The Dutch Case--Case Closed?

Although Aspasia has done marvelous things for the statistics, the Netherlands is still a long way from achieving parity. At the moment, NWO has not yet decided whether it will offer any more Aspasia funding, and the discussion around this prospect was lively. Many enthusiastically endorsed the chance to advance more of their sisters into their ranks, whereas others advocated caution, wanting to leave enough time to see whether the first two rounds had elicited any long-term side effects. Objections were more pronounced at the suggestion of having an Aspasia-like round for the full-professor level; participants predicted a virulent reaction from men that would do more harm than good.

And if affirmative action is over in the Dutch sciences, what other measures could be taken to help women break through "the glass ceiling"? Some suggestions were practical. Increasing the age limit for grants in general, for example, would help women who want to take time out to have children. Els Goulmy of Leiden University Medical Center called for flexibility, such as allowing grant money to be distributed to multiple part-timers on the same project. Akke Visser of NGV said that, more than affirmative action, the entire promotion system needs structural changes. One such badly needed change, advocated by José van Eijndhoven of Erasmus University and echoed by many others, is the participation of more women on the panels responsible for promotions in the first place. Mineke Bosch of the University of Maastricht said that gathering statistics and creating more networks and departments specifically for women in science on a European level would be crucial.

Other suggestions were not for practical changes but for shifts in attitude. According to Van Kooyk, a full professor and mother of two, being a top scientist and mother was "certainly possible but not easy"; one had to have both "ambition and passion." Margo Brouns of the University of Groningen said that women need role models to mentor and coach them throughout their careers, not just as young girls. Above all, said Goulmy, there has to be a change in mentality at all levels of science, amongst men as well as women. She quoted Nancy Edwards, a professor at Harvard Medical School (8): "If we have the audacity to believe that we can find cures for cancer and understand the human genome, why should it be hard to believe that we can fix the culture of our profession?"


  • Van Calmthout, De professor wordt een mevrouw, De Volkskrant, 22 June 2002.

  • Mottier, Women and science: Review of the situation in the Netherlands, Dutch national report for the Helsinki Group on Women in Science, May 2002.

  • Wennerås and Wold, Nepotism and sexism in peer-review. Nature 387, 341-343 (1997).

  • Osborne et al., Science policies in the European Union: Promoting excellence through mainstreaming gender equality. A report from the ETAN expert working group on women and science, the European Commission, 2000.

  • Rees, National policies on women and science in Europe. Helsinki Group, report of May 2002.

  • Euro-women in science. Science 295, 41-42 (2002).

  • Van Dijk and Webbink, Shortages of scientists. CPB Report 00/4, 14-17 (2000).

  • Visser, Dierdorp, van Emmerik, Succes en dilemma's van een stimuleringsmaatregel: evaluatie van het ASPASIA-programma. Nederlands Genootschap Vrouwenstudies, op verzoek van het LEUKWO, September 2003

  • Andrews, The other physician-scientist problem: Where have all the young girls gone? Nature Med. 8, 439-441 (2002).