Dutch university loses case over sex discrimination after posting female-only job ads

Dutch university loses case over sex discrimination after posting female-only job ads
Source: John Lord

In June 2019, Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands announced it would restrict new job vacancies to women in an attempt to balance out the staff’s gender disparities over an 18-month period.

At the time, it said that up to 150 vacancies could be filled under the policy and that the policy would be reviewed after the 18-month window had expired. If no suitable female candidate could be found after six months for any given job posting, it would then open up for male candidates.

At the time, reports indicated that only 16% of full time professors, 15% of associate professors and 29% of assistant professors were women.

“We attach great importance to equal respect and opportunities for women and men and it has long been known that a diverse workforce performs better. It leads to better strategies, more creative ideas and faster innovation,” said the university’s rector Frank Baaijens at the policy’s announcement.

After implementation, however, the decision was met with legal scrutiny.

In September of last year, an anti-discrimination organization called Radar submitted a formal case against the university over the policy, citing more than 50 separate complaints they had received on the matter.

On July 2, a Dutch board of human rights affiliated with the College voor de Rechten van de Mens (College for Human Rights), an independent body with accreditation from the United Nations, ruled that while universities are allowed to pursue a hiring preference policy, Eindhoven’s went too far.

According to the board, the essential ban on hiring male candidates in the prescribed period is in conflict with Dutch equal treatment legislation, especially given the “drastic measures” by which that university had excluded male applicants.

“An important principle of preference policy is that the position is open to men and women and that preference can only be given to a woman if there is equal suitability,” the ruling noted.

Instead of barring men access to the jobs, the board recommended other ways to push for diversity among staff and teachers, including reviewing its hiring assessment criteria to create more objective hiring practices and putting more resources into training and development for female candidates.

During the proceedings, Eindhoven’s legal team argued that the university had tried less extreme methods of attracting female hires for years, with little success.

In 2011, for instance, the university made it an internal policy to make sure at least two female members were on the committee to nominate a professor or associate professor for a job.

With continued disparities after various other practices were put in place, in 2017 the appointment committee was required to nominate at least one suitable male and female candidate for every post. They also set up an inter-faculty committee to train staff to recognize implicit biases.

According to the university, the newest policy was the culmination of the failures of past attempts to promote gender diversity on campus.

Eindhoven’s response

In response to the ruling, the university noted that they remained dedicated to gender diversity and that they had already hired 48 women from around the world under the policy.

“Our commitment to this very important cause is unchanged,” said university President Robert-Jan Smits.

“Our overall aim is unaltered: we want to reach thirty percent female faculty within five years. Because at that percentage a minority stops being a minority and has the position and influence it deserves,” he added.

For rector Frank Baaijens, the board’s ruling was helpful for the university insofar as it supports a review of the most fair ways to reach gender balance among its staff.

“It is appreciated that the Institute gives clear clues on what type of measures we can consider to reach a better gender balance. We will study the findings of the Institute, as well as their recommendations, to determine our next steps,” he said.

Diversity at the workplace

While some studies indicate that gender diversity is good for workplaces, especially to increase innovation and management performance, others say that in certain situations gender diversity could hurt performance.

According to a study by Letian Zhang, a professor at Harvard who studies social inequalities, the specific cultural situation is what matters most.

Zhang’s study, which compiled data from 1,069 firms across 35 countries, found that gender balance did make companies more productive as measured by market value and revenue, but only in contexts where gender balance was seen as normatively accepted in society.

In other words, in situations and cultural contexts where gender balance at the workplace was not viewed as desirable or ideal, a balance did not help performance. For those that found gender balance an ideal, they did derive benefits from it.

In related arguments, although some say forced quotas for minorities, both ethnic and gender-based, are helpful in reducing long standing inequalities at the workplace, others argue that they only lead to problems.

For Nilofer Merchant, an author and business leader, quotas lead to “tokenism” and a de-emphasis on qualifications, which in the long run hurt women in the workplace.

“Quotas won’t encourage meritocratic selection, or even increase the pipeline of qualified candidates, but merely propagate [a] gender-oriented approach that is guaranteed to provoke a backlash. All of this is doing a disservice to the higher-level goal: better performance,” she argued.

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