Anneloes Krul and Prerna Chaudhary: 'Irrelevant factors play a part far too often'

Photos: Ivar Pel
Why we're promoting this dialogue
More and more students are joining the debate on diversity at the university, and the discussions can be fierce sometimes. On the one hand, there are students who perceive the university as being way too white – not just in terms of how diverse the faculty and student community are, but also when it comes to which authors are chosen for the curriculum. On the other hand, there are students who resist that idea, arguing that it's preferable not to look at ethnicity or background at all, only at capabilities. In this dialogue, students Anneloes and Prerna voice their opinions on this dispute and how they experience it themselves.

In the past few years, much has been discussed about UU’s plans to increase diversity and inclusion within its community. "The university is too white" is an oft-heard opinion. Anneloes Krul is a sociology student who is active in her study programme's committee and vocal about the subject. Although she thinks it’s not possible for the UU community to be a perfect representation of society at large, she does believe that is no reason for the university not to work actively to encourage inclusion and integration. Prerna Chaudhary grew up in the Netherlands, but her parents have an Indian background. She gave up a Medicine programme in Belgium to study Liberal Arts & Sciences in Utrecht. Now, she’s pursuing a Master’s degree in Artificial Intelligence. Prerna feels that the university should focus on people’s knowledge and talents, giving students the freedom to make choices that suit them.

Prerna: “Universities don’t have to strive to reach a perfect representation of society. Each university has its own priorities and specialisations. A student should be free to choose the characteristics they find important.”

Anneloes: “A university aims to attract people who can – and want to - do research. It's therefore impossible to recreate society at large, since there are already more highly-educated people than average.

"However, UU can influence the establishment of an environment where everyone feel at home. Sociological models show that segregation occurs quite easily, even when people don’t necessarily feel anything negative towards others. The university can tackle that issue by actively advocating for diversity and inclusion”.

Prerna: “The university could indeed adopt a more inclusive approach for some things. For instance, I don't think they should refuse someone access to a Master’s programme if they didn’t graduate from the Bachelor’s in the ideal amount of time. That would mean refusing people with dyslexia, dyscalculia, or other circumstances that might have caused the delay. Another example is making all locations accessible to people in a wheelchair. These are very tangible things.

“At the same time, I feel that the university should give people the freedom to maintain the traditions that are all right, such as Black Pete (Zwarte Piet). For me, this is actually a very inclusive tradition, rather than an insulting one. I experienced it as an example that people of colour can be welcomed with friendliness, and they can be friendly themselves. If someone indicates things aren’t inclusive enough, it’s the university's job to check whether it could be more inclusive, or if it's just an opinion”.

Anneloes: “I disagree. Of course, some types of discrimination are more tangible than others. But data shows that people are structurally disadvantaged based on their ethnicity or gender – and to me, that’s tangible enough. If you have a Moroccan last name, for example, you have to submit around 40 percent more applications than people with Dutch last names before you’re invited for a job interview. These are things the university's policies should be paying attention to. Perhaps not for students, but definitely for staff.

“Moreover, it’s important for students to have role models. As a lesbian, it's important for me to see LGBTI representation in all aspects of society. In TV series, when two women are together, things often end badly. It meant a lot to me when I finally saw an example of two women being happy as a couple. Female professors inspire me the same way. They show me what’s possible”.

Prerna: “I agree that having role models is important, even before you go to university. In children’s books, for example. At school, that was less important to me. At secondary school, I enjoyed it that the focus was on the teacher’s qualities, not their background. I had a teacher, for instance, whose Dutch wasn’t great, but who was good at making the lessons fun. So we saw him as a person, not as his context. He was hired because he was good at his job.”

Anneloes: “I agree that representation in children’s books matters. The younger the better! But at a later age, role models can still affect you. At any time in your life, you can be inspired to change your path.”

Who is Prerna Chaudhary
Prerna's extensive extracurricular activities showcase her social and political commitment. She used to hold a board position at student party De Vrije Student and is currently active at the Humanist Federation (Het Humanistische Verbond).

She’s no stranger to prejudice. “I grew up in Rijswijk, between Delft and The Hague. I didn’t see myself as different until I ended up in a class in primary school where I was the only girl whose skin colour was different. There were prejudices about Indian girls: that they work hard, but can’t learn well, for example. Because my grades were high, people assumed I studied a lot, but wasn’t smart. Actually, the opposite was the case”.

Being judged on her ethnicity instead of her qualities stayed with her, which is one of her reasons for thinking that implementing ethnicity or gender quotas at the university would mean taking a step back. 

Her parents both went to university in India. “My father didn’t care much for his father’s wishes when choosing his major. That's why my parents always encouraged me to study whatever I wanted. They would prefer me to choose something that would lead to a successful career, of course, but I think that’s a realistic preference”.

Prerna studied Medicine at VUB Brussels, but missed conducting research on natural sciences, which led her to move to Utrecht for a programme in Liberal Arts & Sciences, later continuing on to a Master’s in Artificial Intelligence.

Prerna: “I think we both can agree that sometimes there are factors playing a huge part, when they shouldn’t be relevant. People should be selected based on their qualifications. That’s why I think anonymous recruitment could work well. At the same time, I think implementing quotas is a step too far as it would mean focusing on things that don’t matter. That’s how you create a culture in which it’s okay to judge someone on their gender or skin colour. And the applicant won’t know whether they’ve been selected because of their skills or because of something else".

Anneloes: “That effect you’re talking about – normalising the judgment of people based on their gender or skin colour... It turns out that's not the case at all. Research has been done on this subject in multiple countries, and they all show that people from marginalised groups are motivated in their work once they realise promotions are attainable. This type of representation doesn’t just grow naturally, which is attested by the fact that so-called ‘objective quotas’ often don’t have much of an effect. That’s why we do need gender and ethnicity quotas. I agree with you that it’s a heavy tool to use, but I do believe it’s necessary to ensure that, in the long term, a more diverse group of people will be at the table in recruitment procedures. Then, discrimination will fade.”

Prerna: “You can also achieve that diversity by adjusting the criteria you select on. That’s better than selecting on characteristics that aren’t relevant for a job. The criteria that are used now are generally more applicable to men”.

Anneloes: “The problem is that people have a double standard when evaluating men and women. Characteristics that are seen as virtues in men are often seen as negative in women. For example, when a woman is decisive or resolute, she’s perceived as bossy or aggressive, when, in men, these traits are often desired. There is a study in which people had to assess the effectiveness and correctness of a decision. Some knew whether the decision had been made by a man or a woman, while others didn't. Those who didn’t know who made the decision often preferred the one made by the woman. But the group who knew who made the decisions assessed her judgment more negatively”.

Prerna: “That’s why this has to be done in combination with anonymous recruitment! If you’re going to work with quotas, you run the risk of affecting diversity negatively as you won't be looking at capabilities, only at someone’s gender and then you don’t know whether you’re hiring the right person. Moreover, by prioritising a certain group, you’ll inevitably disadvantage another group. If you’re selecting on gender, and then you choose a white woman over a black man, is that the diversity you want? There are so many different factors, you can never take them all into account. And then you can wonder whether you’re reaching your goals at all".

Anneloes: “It’s not a one-size-fits all sticker that you slap on something. It’s a difficult puzzle, but the fact that there are numerous marginalised groups isn’t an argument to do nothing. It should always be a custom approach, where you look at someone’s capabilities too. When it comes to teachers, the recruitment committees or the managers can ask themselves whether they're missing any voice. In my programme, for example, I sometimes miss being exposed to a non-western perspective. If you come across a candidate who’s both suitable and offers a new perspective, then that’s a valuable addition to your team”.

Prerna: : “Freedom of speech is very important to me. I think that freedom of speech used to be valued much more in the past. It used to be an almost sacred thing in the Netherlands – being allowed to say what you want, regardless of whether it was nonsense. Nowadays, people are always calling out on each other over things that shouldn’t be said anymore. In my view, that only generates more intolerance. People should be able to express themselves, and we should hear opinions that don’t necessarily match the dominant one. That’s how you gain new ideas, new insights”.

Anneloes: “Freedom of speech means that you can stand on any street corner and say what you think without risking getting arrested for it. It doesn’t mean that other people are not allowed to criticise what you’re saying. I feel like those two things get mixed up often. 

“There are people I know who are used to making homophobic jokes, for example. These past few years, awareness has grown about why this is problematic, so this kind of comments are being met with retorts more and more. Perhaps a lot of people are shocked that marginalised groups have been raising their voices more often. That doesn’t take away the right of saying certain things, it just means they can be met with responses. All opinions can be questioned – that too is freedom of speech".

Prerna: “It depends on how you interpret freedom of speech. I’m not talking about freedom of speech as a legal right, but about accepting each other’s opinions – assuming it’s based on facts. I sometimes feel that it’s not okay to say that too much attention is paid to a certain marginalised group, for instance, which is taking things too far, in my opinion. Another example is the disproportional attention and donations for research on the disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). More money was raised than needed, while other organisations also needed money. Saying that this is poignant doesn’t mean you’re against donating to the ALS foundation, but that’s often how it gets interpreted. Such black and white thinking – you’re either ‘for’ or ‘against’ something –doesn’t help the debate. Try to understand each other, you’ll get much further.”

Who is Anneloes Krul
Anneloes doesn’t shy away from anything when she argues with others in comment sections all around the Internet. She calls herself a "social justice warrior", fighting for equality in all aspects of society and trying to inform people by using with the knowledge she gained in her studies of Sociology. She’s also been voicing her opinions at UU for a few years as a board member of student party Lijst Vuur and a member of the Sociology committee.

Anneloes grew up in Den Helder, in the north of the Netherlands. At secondary school, she learned what inequality meant in practice: “My school didn’t have as much money as schools in other parts of the country. We often didn’t have enough teachers and the supervision and guidance was minimal. I didn’t have the freedom to discover what I liked”. Partially as a result of this negligence, it took a while for her to find the right study programme and her place at the university.

Anneloes didn’t go to university straight from secondary school. Instead, she volunteered organising exchange programmes between countries for young people. After that, she worked as a Dutch teacher for integration courses aimed at immigrants, but she had higher ambitions. “I wanted to be able to do something with policy. That’s how I ended up in Sociology”.

Anneloes is a first-generation student, meaning she is the first person in her family to attend university. “It wasn’t self-evident that I’d go to university, but my mother always encouraged it. She expected me to stand on my own two feet, without depending on others”.

“After my studies, I want to contribute to new policies. Politicians are often the ones advertising decisions, but the civil servants are the ones who study everything and write it down. Policies affect everyone in the country and I’d like to contribute to it”.

Photos: Ivar Pel