March 2022 | Omalius interview

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French version available here...

The impact of bias on researchers' careers and solutions for diversity

Omalius (O): We had a look at your slides and listened to your talk when you took part in the WGiS online event on 11 February.  Can you explain in what way decisions are biased when hiring researchers?

Professor Petra Rudolf (PR): Bias is something everybody has.  We cannot prevent ourselves from being biased.  How biased we are depends on our culture, our education and so on.  Take the bias test on the Harvard University website.  You will probably be surprised by your result...


The first important step is to realize that we are biased.  This is why it is a good idea that anybody who has to make decisions about people or money, has some training on the subject of unconscious bias.  Be aware that you are biased and don’t think you are able to make the right decisions just because you are convinced that you are not a racist for instance.  Even if we are rationally in favour of diversity, our unconscious decision-making process still is in the way.  


The second step is to implement procedures that prevent us from falling in the trap.  The time when prejudiced decisions were made consciously is over  but the unconscious bias still influences the decision making.  Then, you have to consider group dynamics.  Every time a committee has to make a choice, group dynamics kick in.  Even if I have an opinion, after I listen to the others, I’m immediately influenced, especially if the opinions are coming from strong personalities. 

Objective criteria are essential but also ask the candidates to state why they think they meet the clear criteria you have defined in your procedure.  Some things do not appear in CVs.  Make sure the ranking on based on these objective criteria.  In Groningen, we have applied this method for defining the shortlist and it works.  We always start with an anonymous ranking.  We don’t loose time discussing candidate who no committee member proposed for the short list. The candidates who are not selected for the short list receive a letter telling them why they were not selected.  During the discussion, you do not say whether the person should be put on the shortlist or not.  You just give your arguments to as whether the person should be on the shortlist or not.  Then we vote a second time, without any further discussion. When interviewing, we don’t talk about the candidate amongst us, until the very end when we have seen all the candidates. Every committee members ranks the candidate on many different aspects after the interview and then we proceed as for the shortlist also for the final ranking.  Each candidate that was ranked 1-3 by any committee members is discussed. There is a student member in the committee, who has different views than the professors but the same voting rights.

Quality of interviews for promotion

As promotion committee, we are trained by a person who is specialized in group dynamics.  The person sits there while we are doing the interview.  Afterwards, she tells us about what we said, our body language, who we looked at while talking, if we laughed, smiled… all these things you do and you are not fully aware you are doing but can become aware of.  It’s more pleasant for the candidates if they have a professional committee.  It enables the person to feel better about the interview because no judgement perspires in your reactions.  It is even more important for promotion committees because you owe a positive experience to this person who is working in your institution.  Because even if in the end the decision is negative, the person should live it as a positive experience, where he or she learns what has to be done to be promoted.  You have to give the person the feeling that their work is highly appreciated and that there is a very good reason why they can’t be promoted this time.  This is also something that not everybody can transmit as a feeling, thus the necessary training. But it is very important because you bind people much more to your institution and give them the feeling of belonging.  It is very important because it will influence how you own staff will work after this interview.  It’s also a financial question because someone who detaches from the institution will not be as productive anymore.

O: How do people react having a woman boss?

PR: Now, it is getting better because there are more women bosses but when I started in Groningen 19 years ago, I was the first woman in physics there and the third in the country.  When you are different from what secretaries and technicians have been used to, they may feel ill at ease.  That translates to them not working in an optimal fashion.  What we have now, also because we are getting a much more international staff, intercultural training for both the academic and the support staff. All of us are insecure when we have to work with a personality who behaves differently to what we are used to.  You have to accept it and it is normal in an international academic environment. It is not only the professors who have to deal with PhD students or post-doctoral researchers from all over the world, it’s also the secretaries who, all of a sudden, have an Asian, Latin American or African supervisor. Once you know more about the culture, the differences, the habits, then it becomes much easier.  We also train PhD supervisors in how to communicate with students with symptoms in the autistic spectrum.  Because we know that in natural sciences, mathematics and computer sciences, there are quite a few PhD students who fall in that category.  Often, people think that when they become a professor, they know everything but this is nonsense of course. You have to be trained.  You have to get used to being extremely explicit in your communication, and not rely on what you think he or she knows already.  They don’t.  It’s a different way of thinking.  Once you understand the frame of mind, you can adapt to it.  We have a fantastic autistic coach: it not only helps in the supervising of PhD students with these symptoms, it also helps with all cultural differences. Because once you are aware that implicitly assuming certain thing is not what you should do, being very explicit in your communication breaks barriers of cultural differences.

O: You are a woman professor, scientist, in physics.  This is not a very “girlie” career.  How have you been considered in this man’s world?

PR: The situation has really improved over the years.   We are at least 35% percent women in this situation now.  Things are changing, but not fast enough (laughs).  What is good in Belgium is that the student population is more diverse.  When I was teaching in Belgium, I had more girls with covered hair than I have here in the Netherlands.  In the Netherlands, the primary school teachers have a very strong role in directing the student towards the next level of school.  But they are not really conscious of the fact that somebody who does not speak Dutch at a very high level can be a fantastic mathematician for example.  If somebody is not at of a very high level on a linguistic point of view, they never advise for high school.  Whereas in Belgium, there are a lot more kids from very diverse backgrounds who make it to university.  This is really a plus and it’s something we should have everywhere. I’m totally enthusiastic about the Belgian system.

Do you still have the kindergarten open to staff and PhD students?  Yes, that’s fantastic!  I always tell people about that because I haven’t seen another place where it exists.  At the time I was there, there were also two ladies who could come to your house to take care of your child when he or she was ill so you could give your lectures. It gives so much peace of mind to the parents.  This was also a fantastic help and I would advise every institution to implement this kind of system.

O: Did you experience any difficulties in managing your carrier and your private life?

PR: Well, I have a fantastic husband.  This is also something I recommend to all young scientists.  If you are to choose this career, really think about it thoroughly.  When you are with somebody, it’s a road you travel together.  You know how careers in academia can be like.  You can be in the same place for nearly all your life.  But more frequently, you move around. You have to think how and when.  In my mentoring groups of PhD students, I tell them that the 4th year of your PhD, when you have results, is a perfect time to have a baby. The baby is small when you have to go for a post-doc, special fellowships can help you pay for childcare and there is some time for you to do your postdoc before they start school.  You normally don’t think about all these things.

Also, often, women in academia have partners who are also in academia.  You have to think about it at an early stage.  Universities that can hire 2 people with more or less the same specialization (that’s very often what they are) are very few. If you meet somebody at an early stage of your carrier and you are in the same field, try to diversify as quickly as possible.  Because only then you have a chance you can apply and there is also a position for the partner. Otherwise, one of the two has to make sacrifices, or you have to live apart, which is maybe even worse.  There are some parts of the world where you find several universities in reasonably short distances but this is an exception.  It’s something you have to plan.  It’s doable but it’s not a conventional way of doing things.  

The best of course is to do as I did: have a transportable husband (laughing).  My husband is a painter.  He has moved with me to many places.  Of course, he also decided whether yes or no we were moving.  For instance, Sweden was a big no for him because as a painter he felt that he could not survive the dark winters.

But this is something I really talk about with my PhD students.  There is not only one person with whom you can be happy, there are many. Look for the occasion to meet the right person.  

O: An important message?

Trust in yourself

PR: Different places where you work in academia are ideal for different people.  If your way of working is not fully appreciated where you are, you should look for another place.  Life in academia is tough.  If you are not happy, you can’t do it.  You have to find an environment where you are appreciated and where you can be happy.  For example, when I was looking for a professorship, I applied in 2 different places in Sweden. In Scandinavia at the end you get a list of how every candidate was ranked and why.   Very interesting because you know exactly who applied for the position and how they were considered by the committee.  It is extremely useful for yourself to know how people look at you.  From one institution they said: Mrs Rudolf is very active, she works in many different fields, we are a bit afraid she is not going deep enough on every subject. For the other institution (applications were only 2 months apart, so nothing had changed), I got a letter that said: Mrs Rudolf is very active, she works on many things, and that will really dynamize our department (laughs).  It just shows you the same work can be appreciated differently in different environments. If you don’t feel happy in one place, it doesn’t mean that you are not good or that the whole science community doesn’t appreciate what you do.  You are just in the wrong institution for what you want to do.  

Interview by Léa Vergoni and Karin Derochette (March 2022)