Plea for more inclusive academic evaluations

Wageningen academics have published an article about gender+inclusion in Nature.
Gender, age, ethnicity, social class, religion: none of these should matter. Photo Marte Hofsteenge

New criteria intended to recognize and reward academics more inclusively can instead be detrimental to diversity if they are not well-designed and -implemented. This warning comes from four Wageningen academics in a paper published last week in Nature.

The four authors are assistant professor Sylvia Brugman (Host Microbe Interactomics), associate professors Meghann Ormond (Cultural Geography) and Janneke Pieters (Development Economics) and Professor Mangala Srinivas (Cell Biology and Immunology), all of whom are also members of the Wageningen Young Academy. Their comments are in line with the criticism voiced earlier this year by the Wageningen Recognition and Rewards committee, which provided input for designing a better system for WUR.

‘There is a growing realization that the current standards for good academic performance are wholly inadequate or even unsuitable for assessing a diverse population of academics and academic positions.’ This is how the authors of the Nature article summarize the status quo. They would welcome a diversification of standards, but they warn that apparently gender-diverse standards do not always genuinely promote what they call “gender+ inclusion”.

Culturally biased assumptions

‘Gender+inclusion requires new policies that recognize diverse competences, without falling prey to conscious or unconscious biases,’ the four argue. They warn that the new career criteria are not automatically bias-free. ‘If we want to give extra weight to team performance, for instance, it is important to realize that women’s team contributions are often undervalued in comparison to men’s: gender stereotypes influence the way their contributions are perceived.’

And this is not only true for women, nor is it equally true for all women, they stress. ‘People who share a gender are not necessarily all the same. There are major differences in social dimensions or characteristics, such as age, race, ethnicity, social class, relationship status, disability, religion and sexual orientation – hence the term “gender+ inclusion”.’

Eight recommendations

In the Nature article, which follows on from their earlier position paper for the Wageningen Young Academy, the authors provide eight recommendations for an approach to academic career criteria that maximizes diversity and inclusion. An example: require management and evaluation committees to be trained in recognizing unconscious bias, something LNVH’s Lidwien Poorthuis has previously advocated in Resource.

And: document and analyse important career decisions, including the considerations that play a role in them, and have those facts regularly evaluated by an independent committee. This is a precaution against the formation of blind spots.

Fundamental changes

‘It is essential to keep in mind that a system of recognition and rewards is not enough to achieve gender+diversity and integration on its own,’ the authors emphasize. Fundamental changes are needed in the academic workplace culture and working environment.’

The four authors conclude their article with an appeal to institutions to take the requisite follow-up steps, both nationally and internationally, to improve diversity and inclusion in the academic world. ‘Because we cannot afford to lose talent.’

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