Young Women of Geoscience (YWOG)


“You shouldn’t have to play the game, you should just do science” – Meet Jana Cox, PhD candidate – Department of Physical Geography

What is your role at Utrecht University?

I’m a PhD candidate working with Maarten Kleinhans in the department of Physical Geography, and I started almost one year ago. I’m also Chairperson of the Young Women of Geosciences.

Why did you decide to go into science and specifically do this PhD?

My dad is a geography teacher and always took us to very interesting things when I was a kid. We always used to go on holidays and point out things like: “that was made by a glacier”, “there’s a valley”, “what do you think this is”, or “how do you think this was formed”, so that probably had an influence. My grandfather is also a civil engineer so he worked in universities and I saw him solving problems and really liked the way his mind worked, and I think that’s the way my mind works as well. My specific PhD now is actually a half and half mix between geography, so all the things my dad taught, and engineering, so all the things I learned from my grandfather, so it’s very 50/50, learning from both. I really enjoyed doing my masters thesis here in this department with Maarten Kleinhans, and when he asked me to interview for a PhD I was very excited and I said yes.

What is your favourite part of your PhD currently?

I really like working with other people, one of my favourite things about university life here is that I get to work with companies, so for example I have a guest contract at Deltares and I get to work with some really great scientists there, and then I also get to work with a lot of really great scientists here at the university. My project involves working with other universities as well, there’s also a PhD at Delft and a PhD and Wageningen, and I just really like collaboration. My study area is very practical and interesting because it affects people who live on the estuary in Rotterdam which means it has good societal relevance, so it’s very easy to convince people that what I’m doing is important which is a very big struggle that most people have in science. I always feel when I get up every day what I’m doing is important and I’m helping people, and that’s the main thing for me.

What are your ambitions for the future?

In an ideal situation I’d like to stay in academia. I really want to do a post doc, I want to look for grants, become a professor. I really like working at universities, I think universities and research are so important to the functioning of the planet and our society. I like teaching, I like helping with courses, I like doing my own research, and I think being a professor, in the future someday, is a very nice combination of those things. So that’s the goal, that’s the dream.

Are there any female role models in your field?

As soon as you start to do something like what I’m doing which is very engineering focused, you certainly see the number of women in the room drop, they’re few and far between. I did an internship during my masters and there was only a handful of women at the entire company that I ever met which is always intimidating. Here at the university we don’t really have any females in higher positions than me in this department in my field, but I’m lucky because my supervisor, despite the fact that he’s not a woman, is a big feminist. I think the way that he sees the world and the way that he fights for diversity and inclusion at the university means that I have a role model even if they’re not a female role model, which is really nice. I’m also lucky that I have an external supervisor at my guest contract at Deltares who’s also a woman, who’s a strong and talented female scientist that gives me hope that one day I’ll get there.

Do you think the decision to do a PhD and future career plans are different depending on your gender?

I think no matter what it is you want to do, whether it’s a PhD, or becoming a plumber, or becoming a model, if you don’t see people like you in the role that you want you just find it more difficult. So if you are female, or if you’re for example me, I’m a female and I’m a non-native, I don’t see a whole lot of those here which makes me think it’s going to be tough because it’s not the normal or straightforward route to get there, but I do think it’s not always only to do with gender. I think it can be to do with race or sexual orientation or religion or anything, if you don’t see people like you in the role that you want and you think “I’m going to have to be the first”, it’s a lot of pressure.

Is there similar awareness of these issues and groups like this is Ireland?

My initial gut reaction would be no. When I was in Ireland I was only doing my bachelor and I think the younger you are the less aware of these things you are, because when you’re doing your bachelor we were 50/50 male/female in the bachelor. I only had 2 or 3 female teachers, which is very few, but there was enough, there was always a few in physics, a few in chemistry, so it never felt like it’s 100% men, there was always a couple that you felt like were really breaking the tradition. I know in Ireland now they’re really focussing on hiring women in universities, there’s a new policy about it, so they know that they need more women, but I think in terms of awareness it’s quite low. People’s awareness of academia tends to be quite vague when you’re not in it, I think now that I’m in a situation where I’m seeing the full staff, looking around the building every day, that’s when you start to notice that they’re not there, but I think people also just don’t think of it, because why would you.

I know you’ve done teaching at the university. How do you think education is affected by the gender of the teacher?

I personally have only had a couple of issues with teaching which are normally actually to do with the fact that I don’t speak Dutch, or at least that the students think that I don’t understand them, as opposed to my gender. I do know of other female PhDs who maybe had less confidence or aren’t as physically tall as I am. I’m quite a tall person and it sound weird but I think that gives you quite a lot of power, and I think I’m not particularly feminine, I’m not petite, I’m very difficult to dismiss basically, so I think that helps. I’m also quite bold and I will be aggressive with students if I think that they are judging me based on my gender. I know that other people have faced problems because sometimes students can sense a weakness or they think that you don’t know what you’re talking about, that comes up quite a lot that students think “well you’re just a PhD and you don’t really know that much, why are you teaching me”, but gender related I would say quite low, I would like to think, but I think that’s to do with my personality more than anything else.

Related to that, considering traditionally masculine and feminine traits, what changes do you think need to be made for academia to be made more inclusive and equally value typically feminine traits?

I think there’s some very common feminine characteristics when it comes to academia, and writing papers, publishing, and the whole structure of how that’s done. I think a more feminine characteristic is to really, maybe over-analyse is a negative term, but really analyse everything you’re doing, giving a very complete overview, being very critical of your own work because we’re critical of our own abilities. It doesn’t mean that that’s not important, I think it’s always important to be critical of your science and that’s something that can be lacking if you have too much confidence in yourself. I also think that the sense of collaboration and working together on bigger goals and bigger issues is typically a more feminine characteristic but those things are important too. It doesn’t matter if there’s one co-author or 10, if the work is better with 10 then work with 10. That’s something that science really needs, if we have the brains then the brains should be working together, it shouldn’t be all to do with individual glory which is a typically male ego driven thing, or that’s the stereotype, and I think if you care about science and you really want to make the world a better place with your science you shouldn’t be worried about “which journal do I publish in”, “what’s the best way to do this”, and “how do I advance my career”, because that’s all playing the game and you shouldn’t have to play the game. You should just do science to help the planet and to help other people and to learn.

Finally, what advice would you give to young female scientists?

Don’t give up, because it can be tough, and you’ll run into situations always where somebody will tear you down and say you’re not good enough, that happens all the time, whether it’s a classmate, a professor, a supervisor, or just somebody you meet when you’re having coffee or at a borrel that says “but you don’t have the skills to do that”. I think it’s important to know your own worth and there’s nothing that you can’t achieve if you really work for it, and I think with science you really do have to work for it and you have to be ready to put in the work but you really will reap the rewards because it’s a great job.

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