Universiteit Leiden

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Room for women in Senate Chamber

For the duration of a month, the portraits of female professors only will hang in the Senate Chamber of Leiden University. This is the initiative of Athena’s Angels, who want more room for women, literally and figuratively. Vice-Rector Simone Buitendijk unveiled the portrait photos on 8 March.

Present-day female professors

In the portrait gallery of famous professors, 117 men and a single woman usually cast a dignified glance down at visitors. For a month from 8 March, visitors will only see photos of present-day female professors. The Senate Chamber is where PhDs are defended and new professors are appointed, but for this period only it is open to visitors.

The portraits of the female professors. A portrait of Princess Beatrix now hangs in the spot where William of Orange usually hangs. Photo: Marc de Haan

Athena’s Angels

The special photo project ‘Room for women!’ is the initiative of Athena’s Angels: Leiden professors Eveline Crone, Naomi Ellemers, Judi Mesman and Ineke Sluiter. Although they appreciate that the University likes to showcase its famous and celebrated figureheads, nearly all of these are men say they four, because women were not granted access to universities in the past. Athena’s Angels fight for equality for women in academia and want to show how times have changed. They believe that it is high time to make more room for women, literally and figuratively, and what is more this should begin at their own university.

Appointments and grants

'The automatic association that an academic is a man stands in the way of a more equal gender balance in academia,' says Mesman. 'With appointments and grant awards, unconscious decisions are made that fit this picture.' She believes that these associations are maintained by the image of male academics only in prominent places. 'We want to show that times have changed and that it is high time, literally and figuratively, to make more room for women. To begin with at our own university here in Leiden.' 


The traditional portrait gallery. Photo: Marc de Haan

New location for the portraits

The new portraits by photographer Angela Verdam show successful women who are or were professors at the seven faculties of Leiden University. They managed to reach the academic top and serve as an example to others. The old portraits will return to the Senate Chamber after the month has ended. Mesman says, ‘We are discussing a fitting and more permanent location for the photos, at different spots in the University. In addition, the University commissioned painted portraits of female emeritus professors some time ago. In future, these could be given a place in the Senate Chamber or elsewhere in the University.’

The Senate Chamber is transformed. Photo: Marc de Haan


Vice-Rector Simone Buitendijk was most enthusiastic about the metamorphosis at the unveiling of the photos on 8 March. ‘I am incredibly proud of Athena’s Angels. They work tirelessly and with humour to bring this problem to the attention of the man – and woman – on the street. It is important to realise that we all have our prejudices, so that we can do something about them.’ She hopes that the photos will be given a permanent place at the University. Although our perception is an important aspect of the problem, it is not the only one, Buitendijk emphasises. This is why the University now has a diversity officer, Isabelle Hoving. Because, says Buitendijk, diversity International Women’s Day is not the only day we should be addressing diversity.


From the first female professors to today

In 1929, Sophia Antoniades became the first female professor (of mediaeval and modern Greek) at Leiden University. Her painting hangs in the portrait gallery in the Senate Chamber and has a prominent place in the exhibition. Since the foundation of Leiden University, 179 female professors have been appointed, 100 whom were photographed for the exhibition. Nowadays 23 percent of the professors at Leiden University are female. This places Leiden University near the top of Dutch universities when ranked on numbers of female professors.

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