Do we need quota for men in science?

Last week, I spoke at the L’Oreal Foundation’s breakfast debate curated by the New York Times. This was an Oxford Style debate, with two teams of three – one of the teams argued against, and one of the teams argued for the motion “This house believes that there should be quota for men in science”. I was on Team For, together with Stephen Frost and Marina Kvaskoff; Kaisa Snellman, Emma Liu and Rose Mutiso were Team Against.

It was a fantastic and empowering event (and I got to go to Paris, wear nice clothes, and eat nice food). The purpose of the debate was not so much the debate itself, but rather keeping this conversation going and coming up with creative solutions of how to increase the representation of women in science – something we all agreed on is necessary.

Below you can read my speech (this had to fit within three minutes!) arguing for the motion that we need quota for men in science. But interestingly, the week before this debate, I spoke at an international symposium on plant-soil feedbacks and root traits, and here, seven out of eight speakers were female. When I asked the organisers whether they intentionally chose women, they told me that they didn’t and that “the best people in this field just happen to be women”.

The organisers and all female line-up of the PE&RC symposium on Plant-Soil Feedback and Root Traits. Photo credit: Vicky Temperton

So maybe we don’t need quota after all, and it’s just a matter of time?

Well, anyway – here is the speech in which I argued for quota:

“While many people think that the emancipation of women is complete, and women have equal opportunities in academia, women still face many obstacles and stigmas, and are significantly less represented than men.

In academia, the issue is not that it is difficult to enthuse girls and women to embark on a career in science. The issue lies with retaining them. While 47.9% of PhD graduates in Europe are female, only 33.4% of the total research workforce is female.

In the Netherlands, the proportion of female professors has just reached 20% for the first time ever. While this might sound like progress, at the current rate, we might have gender parity by the year of 2035. This is not soon enough.

An extrapolation of the increase in time of the percentage women professors in The Netherlands. Data from

It is increasingly acknowledged that global challenges like mitigating climate change need women leaders, and women agents of change.

We as an academic community need to make sure that we train and retain these leaders. But especially in fields like soil science, earth sciences, and engineering, which are crucial for addressing and understanding climate change, the representation of women is notoriously low – much lower than the average numbers I just mentioned.

This skewed gender balance is not the result of explicit bias. It is the result of systemic, persistent implicit bias, and an academic system that does not foster women and the life choices they make. And that is why time alone will not sort these issues.

Women are:

Cited less, and given less credit for their papers, than men

Less represented on editorial boards, as reviewers, in panels, committees, and as conference speakers

(see also my earlier post here)

They get lower student ratings than men, and they have higher admin and teaching loads

While this is all really depressing, last week I read the most depressing news so far in how women are judged differently then men: it is not appreciated if women are funny in the workplace, and it might actually hamper their perspective for promotion. So I was planning to crack some jokes here, but I won’t…. I’ll just leave that to Steven!” (and he did not disappoint!)

“While many people think that simply including more women in recruitment panels might solve things, women have the same biases against women as men do. Also, unconscious bias training might actually have the opposite effect and reinforce biases in selection committees.

Why then, when a full professor leaves, are we happy to search for a junior tenure track position? Why is it OK to recruit for someone filling a specific gap in expertise in our group? But, when a man leaves, we think it outrageous if we explicitly search for a woman to replace him?

So therefore, this is what we need. The only way we can increase the representation of women in senior positions is by imposing quota. We need to change the perception of what a leader looks like.”

Me arguing for quota for men in science. Photo credit: For Women In Science

1 thought on “Do we need quota for men in science?

  1. It sounds like it was a really worthwhile event. It was good to read your argument for a quota, and also that there are many competent and knowledgeable women working in the field of plant-soil feedback and root traits! Sorry to read that it’s not appreciated in the workplace if women are funny! I think this has taken a while to change on the comedy circuit as well. There seem to be many more women who are doing stand-up these days than there were only a few years ago.

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