Inspiring people @WUR: Ingrid Luijkx

‘There are still ample opportunities for WUR to move ahead on diversity and inclusion’, says Ingrid Luijkx, assistant professor of Meteorology and Air Quality. She was the only female staff member in her group for many years. She calls for diversity goals and broad unconscious bias training to make Wageningen University & Research (WUR) more inclusive in terms of gender, nationality, LHBTIQ+ and people with a migration background. Moreover, teachers could play an exemplary role in diversity and inclusion.

Wageningen University & Research works on diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities because we believe this contributes to better research and education. In this interview, Ingrid Luijkx, assistant professor of Meteorology and Air Quality at Environmental Sciences Group (ESG), answers questions about diversity and inclusion.

Are you able to be 100% yourself at WUR, and do you feel welcome on the campus?

I have worked for WUR for ten years now and felt very welcome when I started. Before I came to Wageningen, I obtained my master’s and PhD in Groningen. I then went on to do a postdoc in Switzerland. I applied for a two-year postdoc position in Wageningen when I was pregnant, and I am happy to have been interviewed by someone who looked past my temporary absence. There is always the option of not revealing a pregnancy. Still, I consciously chose to be open about it, as I would not have wanted to work in a group that sees that as a hindrance. I believe who your supervisor is, is very determining in this regard. It went well in my case, but there are differences, also within a single university.

It pleases me that the people in the group where I work are so helpful and open. In our group, we helped a Ukrainian refugee with two children obtain a job and housing. While her husband remained behind, she can now build a life here in safety. In the Netherlands, we don’t give it much thought, but sometimes it is good to realise all this should not be taken for granted.

What diversity and inclusion issues stood out for you when you started at WUR?

The groups I worked in were quite international at PhD and postdoc levels. There are many different nationalities among PhD students, but the staff consists mainly of Dutch nationals. There is room for more diversity there. There are also relatively few Dutch people with a migration background or from the LHBTIQ+ community. In this regard, there are opportunities for WUR to become more diverse.

In my domain of atmospheric sciences, there are relatively few women in senior positions. Ten years ago, I was the first woman in my group to operate above PhD level, and in 2020 I was the first female co-promotor for a PhD in our group. Thankfully, our group has recently grown, and we now have several female lecturers; and we will have three female tenure trackers soon. Atmospheric research is a beta-domain that still does not attract many women in the Netherlands. When I started studying physics in Groningen twenty years ago, there were only 9 female first-year students, a record at the time.

People thrive when they can be 100 per cent themselves

I believe children in primary school and secondary school could be stimulated more to take an interest in beta subjects. That is why I facilitated an afternoon on CO2 at WUR’s children’s university. I also contribute as a “scientist in the classroom”. Children are keenly interested in this topic, and I believe it is good for children to see that women can pursue a career in research. There is a higher number of female students in the domain I teach in.

This is also a reason to ensure there is more diversity among teaching staff. The fact that we have had more female lecturers in our group since a few years is a good thing as it sets a positive example for the students. Willemijn Hoebert, a weather forecaster for the NOS, teaches a guest lecture for the first-year students in my course. She is an excellent example of a role model in our domain.

What can we do to reduce exclusion?

First of all, listening to one another is essential. Having a different opinion or perspective can sometimes be difficult. When you notice this, you may wonder, “should I adjust?” or you may doubt yourself and wonder, “does this suit me?”. I have noticed that people around me appreciate and seek my opinion. I really feel that I can be myself, but that may not apply to everyone.

To me, it is essential that people are considerate. That enables everyone to be themselves. People thrive when they can be who they are. Moreover, it may help to actively include someone quieter in, for example, a meeting by asking their opinion. That way, different perspectives can be discussed.

What is your opinion about positive action or even quotas for underrepresented minorities?

I do not feel that quotas should become a goal in themselves in every job opening, but I am in favour of long-term goals. I would not want to be selected simply because I am a woman but because of the quality I have to offer. However, when there are similarly suitable candidates, I would favour selecting a candidate that increases our diversity. Awareness is essential in achieving goals

Implicit-bias training is an excellent way to increase your awareness of unconscious prejudice. WUR should implement such training across the organisation rather than having these courses followed by those who are already interested in diversity. These courses help you see that almost everyone has a blind spot for diversity and inclusion. Good examples are important. The film ‘Picture a scientist’ is highly recommended in this regard.

I call for a better long-term policy and more patience in seeking the right candidate

With a diversity goal in mind, getting a job opening filled may take longer. That is why I call for a long-term policy and more patience in searching for the right candidate. I know of situations where women needed more time to reach a decision because they wanted to consider how a new position would fit in with the rest of their lives. Something similar may also apply to international candidates who must move to the Netherlands. Having to uproot a family for a job also requires more extensive consideration. I know of a candidate who brought her family to visit Wageningen before taking a decision on a new position.

Both parties thus benefit from a longer consideration time before a decision is made. Or perhaps there are creative options: I know of two women, neither of which wanted to work full-time. They have a shared research job. They also applied for a follow-up position together. The fact that such options are available pleases me. However, I feel that it is highly dependent on individuals whether such options are explored.

WUR believes that it is not important who you love, what language you speak, where you were born or what you believe in. What is your experience in this regard?

In my current position, I can be who I am. And I really appreciate that, as not everyone is so lucky. Feeling accepted is essential because if you have to keep up appearances, this is very tiring and can cause mental issues. To me, it is important that people respect those that do not fit in with the standard and that we ultimately expand our “standard” to include more people.

What opportunities are there for WUR in this area?

I believe that teachers can set an example in several areas. One example is the fact that you can indicate your preferred pronouns (she/he/they/them) in Brightspace and in your email signature. Thus, you not only indicate your own preferences but also show that you respect others and create a safe environment for students. Using the correct pronouns and neutral language in conversations and in lectures is also important. It may feel a little unusual at first, and you may make mistakes. Still, it does help increase awareness and will gradually become normal.

Long-term contracts and more flexible working hours may prevent women from leaving the scientific domain

WUR could focus more on this topic and explain why it is important so that everyone understands that we do this to ensure that every student can be who they are. But more importantly, WUR should apply this approach in its official communications. As I stated before, it seems as if the current selection and hiring policy are too dependent on individuals making decisions about which candidates to hire. Give everyone easy access to implicit-bias training to prevent the unconscious selection of someone similar to yourself.

Does WUR offer everyone equal (career) opportunities? How could we reduce inequalities?

Theoretically, everyone has equal opportunities. In practice, however, there are differences. Some studies show that women’s scientific output was reduced more in terms of publications than men’s during the covid lockdowns. And temporary postdoc positions are more difficult to combine with pregnancy, for example. After four years, the contract must become permanent, or you must leave the organisation for six months. I worked in Utrecht for half a year because I did not yet have a permanent contract in Wageningen. I understand it is a legal obligation, but all these job changes are not helping if you seek certainty. And this often leads to women leaving the scientific domain.

Another difficulty is the course schedule in Wageningen. I am a single mother, and during teaching periods, I require a lot of help from my family to care for my children. I am grateful for their help, but it would be much nicer if it weren’t necessary. This problem is specific to Wageningen. A few years ago, a teaching schedule from 08.20 till 19.00 hrs was introduced due to a shortage of space. These times are very challenging for people with children. We have fixed blocks in our timetable, and it is a pity that we lack the flexibility to find creative solutions for people whose personal situation makes it difficult for them to start at 08.20 am.

How does WUR approach talent?

WUR frequently lets talented postdocs go because we are unable to offer them a permanent contract, tenure track or alternative position. We cannot offer research staff a permanent position, and the maximum duration of temporary contracts thus prevents us from retaining talented employees. Not every good researcher fits the profile for a Tenure Track position, for example, someone wanting to work part-time. WUR offers ample opportunities for personal development and talent if you are in a Tenure Track position.

How do you remain motivated and inspired in your work? What gives you energy?

My domain is great and very interesting, and CO2 research is also highly relevant. If our research enables us to measure and simulate CO2 emissions, this could spark societal change. This is something I also focus on in my personal life. I try to consider how I can contribute. This summer, I travelled to Austria with my children by train and explained to them that this is better for the climate. My children are very enthusiastic about railroad travel and no longer want to go by car. Seeing them forming these thoughts is great. They also chose to become vegetarians so that we could all contribute a little. I love that I can serve as an example for others.

What are your plans for ten years from now? Do you see yourself still working at WUR?

Considering a future ten years from now is difficult, as so much can still change. But I certainly feel my work is interesting for me to continue it for at least the coming decade. I also enjoy teaching a lot. Students keep you interested and challenge you with their questions. Especially the introductory course I teach allows me to add something new each year. I think that I will probably be teaching a different course ten years from now, but my children always say they want to join my class to learn about the atmosphere!