Universiteit Leiden

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New women’s network: ‘Sophia’

Leiden University has a new network for female academics: Sophia. Sophia strives for equal opportunities and a better working environment for female academic staff.

Chair of Sophia is Marlou Schrover, Professor of Social and Economic History at the Institute for History. She says: ‘Too few women climb the ranks to higher academic posts. Many disappear in the postdoc period.’ The figures say it all: over 50% of students are female and over 50% of PhD students are female, but higher up on the academic career ladder their numbers rapidly drop: fewer than 25% of professors in Leiden are women. And that is something to be proud of even, because the percentage is lower at other Dutch universities.

Marlou Schrover
Marlou Schrover: ‘Do women become discouraged and do they have to do more to prove themselves?’

Vice Rector must listen to us

‘So much still goes wrong, and women do complain,’ says Schrover. ‘But this is mainly to each other and the photocopier, which doesn’t have much point. This is why we, a core group of female professors, have set up Sophia. Vice Rector Hester Bijl is our formal discussion partner. She has to listen to us. And she wants to as well. She said as much at the launch of Sophia at the diversity conference on 22 November. We talk to her twice per year and publish the minutes.’
Suggestions and recommendations can also relate to very practical matters, such as a better room for women to express milk. Some of these at the University are downright depressing. ‘These kinds of things must also be improved,’ says Schrover. ‘It would also seem that many women are unfamiliar with all the regulations that apply for them, for instance the one on parental leave. Something should be done about that too.’


Female academics can use a contact form on the website to send ideas and experiences that they think need to be addressed. The idea is that each faculty will have a contact person whom female academics can contact if they have any suggestions or wish to report inequality that they witness or experience. If a faculty already has a women’s network, such as the Faculty of Science and RISE, this can serve as the point of contact.

Vrouwen 2009-2015
The number of women in academic roles decreases the higher the roles become: 50% of students are female, whereas not even a quarter of professors are. But something surprising has been happening: the number of female university lecturers increased by 10% between 2009 and 2015, and this in turn meant more female associate professors and professors. It is the result of years of effort on different fronts, which means that it is worth making an effort.

Too little progress

‘We have made some progress in the career perspectives of female academics, but not enough,’ says Schrover. ‘And the question is why. Leiden University has the best intentions. It isn’t due to policy. Is it related to having children? To the fact that you need a permanent employment contract for a mortgage, and won’t get one with temporary postdoc positions? Does the eternal battle for posts – a rat race according to some – play a role? Is it because women become discouraged and need to do more to prove themselves? Or is it a combination of factors? We don’t know for sure.’ The fact is that after completing their PhD, many women leave academia whereas men stay, which means that men end up dominating the academic top. This is another reason for a women’s network.

Women’s movement

Schrover is familiar with the history of the women’s movement. She describes the feminist wave of the 1960s and 1970s as withdrawn: ‘Women withdrew to talk among themselves about their position and to find their own strengths, with no men present.’ In the aftermath of this feminist wave, Leiden University had a women’s network from 1982 to 2000. It focused on improving the position of women at the University, encouraging women’s career progress and removing the barriers that stood in their way. ‘In 2000, they considered the job to be done,’ says Schrover, ‘but that most certainly isn’t true.’

logo Sophia

Own network is important

When asked to describe herself, Schrover says she was an ambitious student and PhD student. But when she fell pregnant during her PhD, her professor pulled a face. ‘An older man, on the conservative side. He was a really nice man. When my baby was born he came and brought a present.’ But when she fell pregnant for the second time, he said: ‘This is the end of your academic career.’ Schrover didn’t answer but thought to herself: ‘I don’t think so...’ And she was right. ‘It’s important to have a good network. My mother-in-law could come straight away if one of the children was ill and couldn’t go to day-care. You need a partner who supports you. And you can also arrange a lot with other parents. You can look after each other’s children on an in-service day, for instance.’

Sophia Antoniadis
Sophia Antoniadis

Publications in proportion to research time

It was 25 years ago that a part-time female academic had to fight not to be held accountable for having fewer publications than her full-time colleagues. Schrover has ensured that this principle has been applied to the assessment of research proposals at NWO. ‘You have to look at how much a person has published in the research time available. Then your verdict looks very different.’

Leiden University women’s network Sophia
Sophia Antoniadis was the first female professor at Leiden University. She was Professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek from 1929 to 1955. Antoniadis was Greek herself.


Sophia meeting on 12 October

The professors from Sophia held a meeting on 12 October, having invited about six women per faculty (and one man) to attend. The questions tabled were:

•    What should happen?
•    Which obstacles do you come up against?
•    How can we remove these obstacles?
•    What should the network do?

The meeting resulted in a list of action points for the network. Sophia will decide in January which to tackle first. Here are some of the action points from the list:

•    More openness and transparency about pay differences between men and women. Women find out all too often that a male colleague earns more in the same role or for the same work.
•    Raise consciousness at all levels about the gender bias. Students evaluate female lecturers differently from male lecturers, for instance.
•    Women should support each other and share experiences more with each other. Role models are also important.