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Ethnicity and gender still play role in likelihood of academic career

Recent research sheds new light on persistent gender and ethnic inequality in the Dutch academic world. Based on an analysis of nearly three decades of PhD data from Dutch universities, the results show that women and ethnic minorities are still less likely to pursue academic careers. Ethnicity in particular is an underexposed factor, the researchers argue.

Despite efforts to create more gender equality in the academic world, women are still underrepresented in permanent research positions at Dutch universities. Ethnic minorities are also underrepresented: children of guest workers from Morocco and Turkey and children of migrants from Suriname or the Caribbean Netherlands are among the largest second-generation migrant groups in the Netherlands. Although reasonably well represented at master's level, there are very few in Dutch PhD positions. ‘As a result of this underrepresentation, academic talent and diversity of perspectives are lost,’ says Anne Maaike Mulders, researcher in social inequality in science. 'We wanted to map where underrepresentation starts and how it develops.'

Reconstructing careers

Via NARCIS, an online database used to archive Dutch scientific publications and data until 2023, Mulders and her colleagues collected the data of everyone who received their PhDs in the Netherlands between 1990 and 2019. ‘There were over 95,000 people in total,’ says Mulders. ‘We then searched NARCIS for publications by those individuals. That enabled us to reconstruct careers on a very large scale, from the first publication after an academic obtained their PhD to their last published work.’

Of over 95,000 people, 15,000 remained active in the academic world after obtaining their PhDs. To establish the gender identity of those people, Mulders compared the first names with data from the Dutch First Names Database. ‘This database shows which gender is registered in the passport for all first names in the Dutch municipal records,’ Mulders explains. For ethnicity, the researchers did something similar: they checked surnames with data from the surname database, in which the origin of the name can be found. Mulders: ‘We specifically focused on Dutch people with Moroccan, Turkish, Surinamese or Antillean surnames.’

No or shorter careers

Analysis of the data shows that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are underrepresented in the group of PhD candidates. Moreover, they are less likely to remain active as researchers after obtaining their PhDs, and if they do continue to do research, they are more likely to end their research careers earlier. Gender did not appear to play a role in the first step after obtaining a PhD: as many men as women published their first article after completing their PhDs. However, women academics do stop publishing earlier. ‘We also studied whether gender and ethnic inequality changed over the period 1990-2019,’ says Mulders. ‘The numbers are fairly stable. This suggests that efforts to increase diversity in the Dutch academic world have not yet borne fruit.’

Cause for concern

According to Mulders, the results underline the need to not only look at gender but also at ethnicity as a basis for inequality in academic careers. It indicates a lack of support at the beginning of a research career, Mulders believes. ‘We know that minorities are more exposed to negative experiences in the workplace, such as discrimination and harassment. As a result of this underrepresentation, academic talent and diversity of perspectives are lost. Academics from different backgrounds ask different questions, contribute a diversity of methods and have different theoretical perspectives.’

Contact information

Meer weten? Neem contact op met de onderzoeker of met Persvoorlichting & Wetenschapscommunicatie via 024 361 6000 of media [at] (media[at]ru[dot]nl). 

Diversity, Career, Science