7 September 2017

The first year of the ‘rector of diversity’

It has been a year since Rianne Letschert gave her inaugural speech, in which she presented herself to the Maastricht academic community as ‘the diversity rector’. What has she been able to achieve in the area of diversity this year? And how does the rectorship as a whole suit her? “Colleagues regularly tell me that I should slow down a bit. A male rector recently said, ‘They never do that to me! Is that because you’re a woman?’ Maybe people do think that I’m more vulnerable than a man, but that’s not how I experience it. Maastricht is a warm community.”

The 360-degree feedback

“Promotions in the university community often go well and are transparent, but sometimes not. I think that has to do with leadership qualities and supervision. In order to make the development of leadership qualities more transparent and to serve as a good example, I and my fellow EB members, as well as the deans, are going to be evaluated through feedback sessions. People will be invited to come and discuss what they don’t like about the job performance of, for example, me. I can learn from that. It’s not a punishment, but a way to really be evaluated substantially.”

The bag of money

“The diversity working group’s idea to make 50,000 euros available to facilitate the return of female academics after maternity leave, is something we haven’t adopted. Because I want to first see it better substantiated that this kind of amount could solve all the problems of every female academic. Not every woman has a hole in her academic CV after three months of maternity leave. Then I believe more in adjusting the tenure track rules, which we will also do on 1 September. Young researchers will have a longer time, if necessary, to show that they meet the criteria for a permanent appointment. And that applies not only to women who have had a child, but also to men who don’t make it within five years because of special circumstances.”

The bar

“I think that women, and it also goes for men, who want to work three days a week should also be able to have a career in academia. Isn’t it actually strange that it seems it can only be done in six days a week? I would like to start that discussion again sometime. And why do we think that you should be an excellent lecturer in addition to a great scholar? We have to think about the bar that we set for people today. It’s really much higher than when I became a professor in 2011. It’s no longer realistic, certainly not if you also aspire to something else, like having children. I now speak to young women who fear it’s not possible to combine it.”

The role model

“In the course of last year, I began to be a little bothered by questions about my home situation and the fact that, as a woman, I combine this job with having a husband and two children. Because they never ask that to a man. At the same time, I hear from women at UM who encourage me to talk about it, because it illustrates that it can be done: a busy job and a family. The difficulty is that every situation is different. I can arrange it with my husband, who works a lot at home and my parents who babysit a lot, so it works out nicely for all of us. Even though my son sometimes finds it difficult that I’m away a lot. And I even get fed up with it myself sometimes when I have to work and would rather do something with my family. People only see a part of me and you have to be careful not to romanticise my situation. Everyone has to try to create something that suits him or her.”

The male/female difference

“I haven’t tested it empirically, but I’m strongly under the impression that women often start working less because they want to be home one day a week with their children, while men regularly pick up the children at three o'clock and then work at night or on the weekend and don’t have to give up a full day. I've always said to women who wanted to work fewer hours: ‘Great, but then you'll have to cut back on your work responsibilities. Otherwise, you'll just keep working five days, and you’ll be at home on Wednesday or Friday afternoon with your children.’ I think you have to judge people on output, not the specific times of day that someone is working.”

The perfectionism

“Women more often have problems with their perfectionism than men, in my experience. I’m starting to let it go a little. I always found that I had to score a nine everywhere and at all times. Now that still happens every now and then, but sometimes I’m leaving somewhere and I think: ‘That could have been better, Rianne.’ Five years ago, I would have been in a bad mood all night, but now I think: ‘A seven is also enough’.”

The “Berg”

“The distance between the central administration, at the Minderbroedersberg, and the faculties is becoming for me an important point in my rectorship. A year ago, when I was still part of the law faculty, I said exactly the things that I’m hearing now: ‘Why is central administration bothering with this? We can do that ourselves as a faculty just fine, right?”. So I understand it very well, and at the same time I strongly wonder what this attitude brings to us all. This eternal struggle is, in my view, mainly negative energy. Also for myself, I need to have the feeling in my work that it all leads to something, because we want it together, and that it means something. Not for myself, because then I’d just go and do voluntary work in Africa, but for the organisation as a whole.”

The projects

“I try to close the gap between the ‘Berg’ and the faculties by gathering people around projects. For example, we are engaged in a broad bachelor’s programme in global studies and a European project where we, together with the municipality and the province, want to develop more joint activities with our academics around the theme of Europe. Then, I hold interviews with academics across the university to test my ideas and seek cooperation. Then, I look not only at content but also at personalities; I find it difficult when people only see obstacles along the way.”

The balance

“All in all, I feel very at home here in Maastricht. I want to look for a place to stay so the children can sleep here, too, and we can eat together, for example. The job is intense, with an average of four nights a week spent doing something for UM. In the upcoming academic year, I want to limit it to a maximum of three, but that’s entirely up to me. It’s just a matter of saying ‘no’ more often. One of the deans recently told me: “All the meetings I saw you in the past year, I hope I won’t see you there anymore in the coming year. It’s great that you do it, but it’s impossible to keep that up.” A male colleague rector recently said, ‘They never do that to me! Is that because you’re a woman?’ Perhaps people may think that I’m more vulnerable than a man, but that’s not how I see it. Maastricht is a warm community.”

On 6 September 2017 the first Young Academy of Europe (YAE) Prize was awarded to Rianne Letschert.

By: Femke Kools