Angels in Action

NRC artikel

 Athena’s Angels argue in an NRC article that comparing science to elite sports is perverse. The article was prompted by the metaphor “Sometimes, research is like elite sport” that was chosen by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) as the starting point for its latest issue of the magazine Onderzoek.

We argue that a competitive work environment nourished by the elite sports metaphor has adverse effects on individual researchers and research as a whole. Scientific progress actually benefits from open knowledge sharing, integrity, diversity, and social safety.

Read the full article (in Dutch) in the NRC here. Comments on the debate on comparing science to top sport can be read here.


Resistance to policies aiming to increase diversity and inclusion are often motivated by the desire to evaluate ‘quality’, not diversity. This ignores decades of research showing that the perceived quality of identical CVs, achievements, and products is different, depending on who shows this performance, revealing a range of unconscious biases. Below some cartoons, drawn by Athena’s Angels’ house artist, Steen Bentall. We offer these for your personal use and further distribution to illustrate how difficult it is to consider quality alone.


qualityonly pic 01qualityonly pic 02qualityonly pic 03qualityonly pic 04

On November 17, 2020, Nature Communications published a paper (AlShebli, Makovi, & Rahwan, 2020) analyzing many decades of publication records, to examine 3 million senior-junior author pairs of US scientists working in ten different disciplines (Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, Engineering, Geology, Materials Science, Medicine, Physics, and Psychology). Based on these analyses the authors concluded that: “female protégés who remain in academia reap more benefits when mentored by males rather than equally-impactful females”. Further they note: “our findings also suggest that mentors benefit more when working with male protégés rather than working with comparable female protégés, especially if the mentor is female.” Based on these findings they recommend against diversity policies that promote female–female mentorships, as these might hinder the careers of women.

you are a bad mentor by nature


Within hours after publication the internet exploded with responses (Wessel, 2020) expressing concern about the validity of these conclusions and calling into question the empirical basis for making such recommendations. Among the responses were requests to the journal to retract the publication (Twitter attempts, 2020). Two days after publishing the article, the journal announced that it had initiated an investigation to determine which response would be appropriate (Nature Communications looking into paper, 2020).

The comments revolve around two clusters of concerns, namely: 1) that the analyses of publication records alone do not warrant conclusions about the added value of same-gender vs cross-gender mentorship, and 2) that the reviewers had explicitly highlighted this as a point of critique, but this apparently did not result in a revision of these conclusions.


This chain of events highlights that having access to ‘big data’ or being able to perform sophisticated statistical analyses in itself does not lead to higher quality research. As is the case here, the data that are available may not fully record the variables of interest – as many have noted that publication impact captures a very specific aspect of career success, just as co-authorship only captures a small part of all relevant mentoring activities. The reviewers and online responses directing the authors to prior studies examining different causes and consequences of successful academic mentorship also remind us that making recommendations about organizational policy changes requires a broader consideration of different findings and disciplinary viewpoints, instead of relying on the findings of a single study.

one mentorship please

In this context, we point to a broad range of studies – several of which are also made available through our website – to clarify different mechanisms that are relevant in addressing this complex issue. These include studies showing that senior female academics might be more critical of junior women (Faniko, Ellemers, & Derks, 2020). However, this work emphasizes that such patterns result from the persistence of gender bias in academia.

Scholars as well as policy makers should therefore consider multiple aspects of mentorship that might be relevant to the ability and motivation of young researchers to continue their career in science, such as the way they are treated and the encouragement and support their receive. In fact, considering publication records as the primary indicator of academic success does not do justice to the considerable efforts of many successful academics in educating and mentoring the next generation of researchers.

Further, studies consistently reveal important differences in the publication experiences of male and female researchers that are not captured by these data. Even after controlling for actual performance differences, research shows that female researchers are less likely to have their input acknowledged as (co-)author, to get their work published, to have their publications acknowledged by others, or to receive career opportunities and honors as a result of their published work. Eliminating these differences in how male and female researchers are treated and how their contributions are valued should be the core focus of any diversity policy.

Oproep NWO

In response to the adaptation of the NWO procedures with regard to the VI (VENI-VIDI-VICI) scheme, we, as Athena's Angels, have received various signals from female applicants. We are concerned that the adjustments will act against them, and that there seems to be insufficient flexibility at NWO to accommodate them.

In an open letter to NWO, we have explained our concerns in more detail, and made a number of suggestions for possible solutions. We hope that NWO will take these considerations into account in further decision-making, and we are happy to think along with practical solutions if necessary.

Read our full call here.

Successful men in academia, Robbert Dijkgraaf, Ben Feringa, Alexander Rinnooy Kan, Wim van Saarloos and Carel Stolker, play the main roles in the movie ‘Through the eyes of my daughter’. These five men are all fathers of one or more daughters. How do they perceive the scientific association if they ‘take their daughter’s perspective’?

The position of women in science is still a cause for concern. The many fathers who work at universities can do something about this, for their daughters or for their female PhD students and postdocs. Research shows that fathers have a big influence on the occupation and career choices of their daughters. Whereas stereotypes about men are often negative, fathers are usually perceived positively.

The movie, made by Erik Heuvelink, is an initiative of Athena’s Angels.


nrc oncode

In NRC today, Athena's Angels react to the stir that has been caused around the opening of the Dutch cancer institute Oncode. When the question whether it is justified that no female researchers are part of this partnership was raised, initiator Hans Clevers told a Nieuwsuur-reporter: "The gender balance is a problem for us." But, he continued: "It's up to the women. Dutch women do not want to slave. "

Screen Shot 2017 02 06 at 10.47.54Good to see that NRC writes about the presentation of the de Ammodo KNAW Awards. However, Roshan Cools is a woman.

 AA senaatskamer met vrouwelijke hooglerarenFourteen women professors are to be given a place in the classic portrait gallery in Leiden University’s Senate Chamber. The portraits will be unveiled on March 8– International Women’s Day – by former Minister of Education, Culture and Science Jet Bussemaker and Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker.

Congres Flyer A5 vrije wil 1On March 11, there is a conference about the question 'Does free will exist?' The program of the conference has been published: only men will present their vision in an interdisciplinary discussion.

Where are the female experts?


The Young Academy has announced its 10 new members.

But where are the female members?

Spinoza NU.nlHet nieuws van 12 juni 2014. Vier Spinozawinnaars worden bekend gemaakt: Twee mannen en twee vrouwen.

Well chosen, NWO!

But what do we see?

nwo strategieWith an interactive image and sound show, sparing no effort or expense, Dutch research funder NWO launched its strategy for the coming years in the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague on 13 April (Click here for an impression). At the end of the meeting, all guests were presented with an ingeniously designed booklet, in which words and images were combined to portray science.


On the first page after the table of contents of the 'Vision for Science 2025 - choices for the future' there is a collage of portraits from a long time ago - and all of them are of men. They are the Dutch Nobel Prize Winners. On the opposite page it says in big letters: the Dutch can be proud of their science and their scientists.