From the back benches

In the Netherlands, the PhD defense is more of a ceremony than an examination. A few times now I have sat on a PhD committee (‘promotiecommissie’) to evaluate a PhD thesis and ask questions during the PhD defense. PhD defense committees need to comprise several, if not a majority of professors. Since about 18% of all professors in the Netherlands are female, the result is that PhD defense committees are highly male biased. However, thanks to a very gender-conscious (male) promotor (hats off!), the last PhD defense committee I sat on contained three women, one of which was a professor. This was great!

 
Prior to a PhD defense, the committee meets to discuss who will ask which question and in which order. At the University of Amsterdam (UvA), it is customary to have the external examiners ask questions first, so that the order more or less is inversely related to distance-to-UvA. In this particular case, this order resulted in the three women asking the questions last. But what is more, during the PhD defense ceremony, the committee is divided over two benches: a front one and a back one. Again, who sits where depends on when you are scheduled to ask questions. So, with us three women asking questions last, this came down to us three sitting on the back bench. Does this matter? Does this give off a wrong signal to the audience? I certainly thought it would, and, thankfully, I was not the only one. One of the men (a professor) from the front bench insisted on swapping so that at least one woman (the professor) would sit on the front bench. This did mean that we ended up deviating slightly from the usual procedure during a PhD defense, (which was picked up by some in the audience, who correctly inferred this was to not have all women sit on the back benches), but afterwards I certainly felt that progress in gender awareness with regard to inequality between men and women within the university is being made!

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