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Dr. Miriam Blaauboer is an associate professor at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) and coordinator of Action Line 3: Talent at Quantum Delta NL. She studied Physics and Mathematics at Leiden University and did a PhD in Physics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Miriam held postdoctoral positions at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and Harvard University in the United States before continuing her academic career at Delft University of Technology. She has four children.
One of the main priorities of Quantum Delta NL is promoting diversity in the Dutch quantum ecosystem. There’s a worldwide lack of women in STEM. What was it like for you when you were studying physics at university?
There was only one other female student in my class. She quit a few months into the first year. There were a few women in other programmes, but we were a very small group. I feel like it never really caused me any trouble or difficulty, though. It was just the way things were. There hadn’t been all that many girls in my STEM classes in secondary school, either. I must admit I never really stopped to think about it.
I graduated in 1994. The percentage of female physics students has definitely increased since then, but not dramatically. I can only speak for physics, but I assume the situation is similar in other STEM programmes. About 20% of our students at TU Delft are female. The percentage drops when you look at PhD students, and it drops even further when you look at the academic staff.
There are always girls who are determined to go into STEM. I was one of them. I was very sure that I wanted to get a PhD and pursue an academic career. If you know it’s what you want, you’ll get there. But what about the girls who are not 100% sure? The ones who could go into STEM with just a little extra support and encouragement? That’s a huge group we should be trying to reach.
Are there role models who give women in STEM that extra support and encouragement?
I was a PhD mentor for a while. I’ve also had female master’s students walk into my office to ask me about my experiences as a woman in STEM. I think it’s great that they do that. And we have a mentoring system, with older female students mentoring younger ones. So we do have those kinds of mechanisms in place.
Does it help? I can’t say for sure. I feel like it does, but data are difficult to get. It’s also something that needs time to grow, I think. Either way, we must continue our efforts.
I also see a role for myself in this. I’m very aware of my obligations as a role model. I try to set an example in a very personal way – in the corridors, in the lecture halls. Just by being there, giving lectures and tutorials, being as approachable as possible.
Student interaction is important in tutorial groups. Have you noticed any differences between your male and female students? Do men feel more comfortable asking questions, for example?
Not really, no. Our programme has a relatively small student body, so the students know each other. I feel like they mix quite well. Male and female students often work together on projects. I have noticed that people of different nationalities don’t mix as easily. That’s another thing we really need to work on in terms of diversity, I think. When students have to form teams, it’s often the international students sitting together and the Dutch students sitting together.
But no, I haven’t noticed any striking differences between male and female students. Even the first-years mix quite well and feel equally comfortable expressing themselves and participating in class. Then again, those students have already made the decision to go into STEM. You don’t see who you don’t see. That’s the thing, isn’t it? You don’t see the young women who could’ve been there but aren’t.
I think that a lot of people – women in particular – see the academic work-life balance as an obstacle. I went abroad for a few years around the time when a lot of people start settling down and thinking about having children. That’s when you have to decide what is more important to you. Weighing up your career against the sacrifices you have to make on a personal level… You must feel strongly attracted to academia to pursue a career in it.
How old were you when you had your first child?
I was 31. I know women in academia who put it off for much longer than that. I’m 50 years old now. I’ve noticed that both my children’s generation and my students’ generation have a very different mindset. They don’t need to work as hard as my husband and I have done – and still enjoy doing. They often also seem to have a strong interest in globally important themes, such as sustainability, the environment etc. and more focused on family life.
I have plenty of male colleagues who work four days or take more paternity leave when they have children. That was definitely not the case when I was that age. It was extremely unusual back then. It’s become much more mainstream in quite a short period of time. I think that’s a very positive thing.
We do still have a long way to go. People know what they are legally entitled to, but it’s not just about your legal rights; it’s also about the unwritten rules in your field of work. And we can’t put everything down in writing, either. Successfully making room for diversity requires a cultural change and a shift in awareness.
It also requires continuous effort, especially in international working environments like ours. And like I said: it’s not just about gender, but also about culture. We must accommodate people who grew up in a different culture and have a job here now. That’s also what diversity means, and it’s also relevant to Quantum Delta NL with its international employees. That’s one of the things I like about Quantum Delta NL: we talk about this a lot. We really want to create an open ecosystem with room for diversity and for people who think differently.
Did you ever feel like you had to work harder or like you were excluded from certain things because you’re a woman?
Not necessarily. Having children did slow down my career. I saw male colleagues progress faster than I did. I don’t really mind it, looking back, but I do think that the situation has improved a lot for young women in terms of things like career prospects and pregnancy leave. And rightly so. There’s more consideration for people who also want to start a family; for example, they get to cut back on research time. I did that too, and I discussed it, but there was no mechanism for it within the university back then. I was a bit of an exception, after all.
It was scary at times. I knew with absolute certainty that I wanted to start a family and get ahead in my career. But I didn’t have a lot of people around me to confide in about this or ask for advice. I had very few female colleagues, and we were all in slightly different situations. One of them had a househusband – I didn’t! So I couldn’t always look to them for an example. I just made my own way, really.
I also looked up to women in physics internationally who were a few steps ahead of me. There were very few of them, and I had to look very hard to find them, but they were there and they inspired me. That’s why I like being that person to others now. I know how important it is.
I find it very important to be open and honest with young women about my experiences. I tell them what things were like for me. And I advise them to make use of the options they have and to speak up if they are treated unfairly. But I personally never was. I’ve always had it good. I also received positive recognition for what I did. People supported me, within the culture and mindset of the time.