Westerdijk award for Gunther Cornelissen: “People tend to think: Ah, there is a policy in place. Check, finished.”

prof Cornelissen

During the opening of the academic year, the Faculty of Science of Utrecht University presented the first Westerdijk Award, an award for employees who are committed to creating a more diverse organization. Prof. dr. Gunther Cornelissen, head of the Mathematics Department, received by far the most nominations. The motivation letters submitted clearly show that he continually highlights the theme of diversity both within his department and beyond and that this is greatly appreciated by all colleagues. But how does Gunther feel about winning the award? An interview.


"The award is good and necessary," says Gunther, "but there is also a danger, the same as when you announce diversity policy and the accompanying actions. Then, people are more likely to think: Ah, there is policy and someone who is working on it; check, finished. Then they just go on with their daily work, without changing their own behavior. "

Step-by-step plan

When Gunther became head of the Mathematics Department in 2015, it was immediately clear to him that stimulating diversity was going to an important part of his duties. Not because it was in his job description, but because he thought it important. For example, he noticed that, compared to his earlier workplaces and partnerships, fewer women worked at the Faculty of Science.

"I knew from previous experiences that things can be done differently and that is why it has become an important theme for me," Gunther explains. "This is why, in the past two years as head of department, I followed a simple step-by-step plan I created myself, which has proved successful." According to Gunther, a plan like this only works if at least half of all managers participate. In other words, diversity should not just be the focus of a small group of people, while the rest of the staff continue to do what they have always done.

Making lists, avoiding implicit bias  and deliberate discrimination

“My plan consists of 10 steps," Gunther says.  "I formulated the steps with gender diversity in mind, but they can also be used for other diversity issues."

Gunther's plan

  1. Convince yourself. Create a file on your computer with good women in your field, both young and old, even women you do not know. Make sure you are informed of what they do. Ask around. Update this list periodically (2 hours per month). When you look at that list, you will be convinced that there is enough quality. If you cannot do this, you need to take a sabbatical and start thinking about yourself or your work field.
  2. When you organize something (a seminar, colloquium or conference), make sure that half (or more) of the speakers is female. Do you think that is impossible? Then you really need to do some work on the list on your computer. If you see that someone has only put men on the program? Award him the ‘Congrats, you have an all-male panel!’-stamp.
  3. Check your updated list: who on the list can apply for a Marie-Curie, VENI, VIDI, etc.? Support them. Can you find a good female grad student instead of a male one? Actively look for female temporary staff. Check your updated list: who on the list can apply for a Marie-Curie, VENI, VIDI, etc.? Support them. Can you find a good female grad student instead of a male one? Actively look for female temporary staff.
  4. Set the following rule: if recruitment for a position does not produce a list on which half of the serious nominees are women, the whole job application party will be called off. This forces job scouts to look for women.
  5. In the recruitment process, pay explicit attention to implicit bias (unconscious, automatic prejudices and resulting behavior, red.). Explain the selection criteria in advance and discuss them with every candidate. This can be very uncomfortable for some committees.
  6. Discriminate deliberately and ultra-positively: have job openings specifically for women. We did this in the Mathematics Department, with 75 serious candidates and a wonderful result. (And yes, to get to where we want to be eventually, it seems necessary to provide 'unequal' opportunities for some time).
  7. Look for good stories and make sure that they are told. Good examples are: the exhibition about women in (European) mathematics, shown during open days and at the national mathematics conference, the accompanying book of interviews, public lectures about female mathematicians at the National Mathematics Days, etc.
  8. Stabilize your organization: it is better to aim for 30% female professors than 20%. A minority that is too small has a higher risk of disappearing completely.
  9. Learn from women. They often have a different approach to problems, and see things in a different way. This could be exciting for some men!
  10. Is your workplace diverse? Be alert to undesirable behavior. Make sure that people feel free to talk about it and offer coaching.

According to Gunther, implicit bias is by far the hardest to overcome. “A transition in diversity can only be achieved when there is enough awareness of this." In terms of gender diversity, Gunther has contributed to a significant increase in the number of female staff employees within the Mathematics Department, from 5% to 15% over the past two years.

However, soon he will be handing over his position of head of the Mathematics Department. Isn't he afraid that there will be less attention for diversity in the department? "Of course not," Gunther says with a smile, "because I have already discussed this at length with my successor."