WUR’s inspirational women: Eveline van Leeuwen

“Successful economists are highly masculine.” That’s the headline of a publication pinned to the notice board in the corridor outside Eveline van Leeuwen’s office in the Leeuwenborch building. “That’s right,” says Van Leeuwen, Professor of Urban Economics, confirming the study by a male colleague. ‘Economics attracts a certain type of person: decisive and with a focus on detail and quantitative data (in colour terms, described as red and blue). These traits are often attributed to men, who tend to prefer men who look like themselves when it comes to job interviews. So in terms of a fair male/female ratio, there’s still a lot of work to be done,’ she says with a laugh.

How did you end up at WUR? Where does your interest in cities come from?

“I initially wanted to study plant breeding and crop protection at Wageningen because I was interested in crop protection, especially in organic pest control. When talking to student recruiters to keep my enrolment open, I found out that there was a lot of chemistry involved. Physics and mathematics were my favourite subjects and so it became spatial sciences. I'd always been interested in spatial differences. Here I could do quantitative research and combine it with qualitative research, such as conducting interviews. ‘Quantifying spaces’ is how I describe my work. Via an international conference in Leeuwarden, where I gave a presentation as a Master’s student, I ended up at VU Amsterdam. I did my PhD there on the functions of cities in the rural economy. I did part of my research at the LEI/Agricultural Economics Institute (now WEcR), which means that here at the Leeuwenborch I’ve met up again with some people I knew. “Comparatively little research has been done on the relationship between city and countryside. Things tend to be viewed from the point of view of either the country or the city. Many researchers, policy advisors and politicians live in cities, which colours their perception. I try to look at issues from both sides.”

Do you live in the country or the city and how does that affect your happiness?

“I come from Wijk bij Duurstede, I’ve lived in Wageningen and Utrecht and I’m now a resident of Maarn, a village with only 4000 inhabitants, but with lots of commuters. It has the conviviality of a village with its numerous strong social networks, but many inhabitants have the mindset of city dwellers. Lots of greenery and space, and therefore a healthy environment, but also with many contacts with and access to urban facilities. For me, Maarn offers the best of both worlds.”

Your first degree in Wageningen, a PhD at the VU and now back in Wageningen? Have you noticed a difference in culture between the two universities in terms of diversity and inclusiveness?

“In Amsterdam, the Spatial Economics department was about 80 FTE in size. For a long time I was the only woman on the academic staff. When I left they said “We often talked about you,” to which my response was “If only you’d spent more time talking to me.” Dutch universities score very low in terms of the number of female professors, with WUR hovering pretty much at the bottom. Women are also severely underrepresented in our economics section. We do of course have a tenure track system to promote career growth. The advantage is that it’s a clear and transparent procedure. The big disadvantage I believe is the time pressure you’re under, which can jeopardise quality.”

Were you appointed straight to professor here? What preceded that?

“I entered here as a professor. At the VU there was no clarity about how I could go from assistant professor to associate professor. I organised it myself by creating a development plan for what was required for the next step, such as the number of high-quality publications. Together, we came up with a flexible timeframe, which took into account the fact that a good publication may take longer. So there was no pressure, but we did set expectations. I like having goals.”

Do you have any tips for WUR staff who have a professorship in their sights? Does the tenure track system provide sufficient help?

“My tips? Don't let yourself be rushed. And focus on the quality of your work (research/publications). I think it’s good that agreements are being made for career growth with the tenure track system – it makes the procedure transparent. But the previous version of tenure track was too tight. In the new version (Tenure Track 2.0), you can take longer but the time pressure is still high. You don’t improve research by doing it quickly. If something doesn't work, you should be given the time and opportunity to go down a different path. This can take more time. On top of that, the requirements for publishing in certain journals are specific to WUR. They’re no use to you if you go elsewhere. Quality is appreciated everywhere. That's what I try to pass on to my PhD students and researchers and to help them.”

As a successful professor, how do you maintain your work-life balance?

Eveline van Leeuwen

“Being a professor is hectic, but it’s also a flexible job. I gave birth to twins during my time at the VU, but I routinely take them to school before starting work at 9 am. I can do that if I don’t have to give an early lecture. That’s because I have a partner who also has a flexible job. It means we can share the caring role. It’s important to be able to divvy up the tasks fairly at home. Especially when the kids were younger, my rule was not to work when they were around. I think that’s an advantage of having children – it forces you to think differently. Having kids really puts things into perspective. As a researcher, you’re always in your head. And you have to be careful that you’re not always thinking about your work and deriving your identity from your job. When I went on maternity leave, my then professor made the comment ‘not that much happens in a year in research’. That puts things in a time perspective.”

Do you notice a difference in how men and how women are approached in the environment in which you work (working groups, meetings, projects)?

“As a woman in a high-level job, you find that people are quick to think: Is she up to this? You have to constantly prove yourself. In job applications, we really should be focusing on CVs because women present themselves differently and can come across as uncertain. It’s been proven that, given equal suitability among candidates, both men and women are more likely to choose a man. Fortunately, this is slowly changing and we are increasingly aware that this is how things work. I don’t think that working towards having more women in a team is an end in itself. You really want to have the best team for the work in question. We’re striving for a team with more diversity, a better reflection of society. It’s going pretty well. Our academic staff now comprises three women and three men, two of whom are more analytical (blue) and two more creative (yellow). We keep each other on our toes, for example, by assessing candidates as objectively as possible.”

What do you think are the conditions for an inclusive work environment?

“It’s easier for a diverse team to be inclusive. Managers in particular have to be aware of this: you need to give everyone a say, which also means letting a quieter person speak. Or you get both a Dutch person and a foreigner to organise an outing so that everyone is considered. I fed back knowledge from Esther Mollema’s Gender & Diversity course to my team. We’d really like to appoint an ‘inclusivity officer’, but the group is still a bit too small for that at present.”

What are your plans for 10 years’ time? Do you still see yourself working at WUR?

“My current thinking is that I hope to stay here for a long time. I really like it here. But you never know what will turn up. Ten years is a long time.”

And what will the culture at WUR be like then? What's your ideal picture?

“I’m vice president of the European Regional Science Association (ERSA), which has a membership of 3500 researchers. There you notice that although everyone would like to see talented women, they’re not much in evidence. More women study at university than men, but at every step (to PhD student, to assistant professor, to associate professor) more women fall away than men.” (According to research by the Dutch Network of Female Professors (LNVH), 23% of professors in 2019 were women. The Netherlands ranks 24 out of 28 countries in the EU. Women made up 54% of graduates in 2019, 43% of PhD students, 42% of assistant professors and 28% of associate professors).

“I firmly believe that managers can break this trend by recognising potential female talent early and promoting it. Women are sometimes too modest and not always sure enough of themselves. We need to bear that in mind and give them additional encouragement. If more women are nominated for presentations and prizes, this will bring us closer to a 50/50 ratio. Whether that’s ideal? I don’t necessarily think that there has to be a 50/50 ratio of men to women, as long as we have the right person in the right place. But as far as I’m concerned, we do have to aim for a ratio of 40/60 (this could also be 60% female and 40% male). And men and women should receive the same remuneration. Not because they can negotiate equally well, but because they are doing equally good work. Fortunately, we are seeing more and more female experts on radio and TV. In academia, we’re still lagging behind. There shouldn’t be any more barriers to promotion. If you look at primary education and health care, the ratio of women to men is perhaps 70/30 – a little too skewed. Fortunately, we’re now seeing more and more men in these professions. Ultimately, you can bring everything back to diversity – equal opportunities for all.”

Want to know more about Eveline's work?

> Go to the profile of Eveline van Leeuwen