Before coming to Zurich as ETH’s first woman mathematics professor in 2005, van de Geer was a full professor at Leiden University. She ended up in Switzerland primarily because her application for research funding in the Netherlands was rejected, as she recounts in her farewell lecture. With some amusement, she reveals the reason the National Research Council of the Netherlands gave for turning her down: “We have doubts as to whether Ms. van de Geer will be able to inspire doctoral students and postdocs,” their letter reads.
It seemed a ropey justification, particularly as the same research council considered her work scientifically sound. But at that moment, ETH professor Peter Bühlmann got in touch to suggest she apply for a post in Zurich. “Applying to ETH that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” says van de Geer.
A woman in a man’s domain
Being one of only a few women in her discipline at first did not bother her. “As a student, I was happy to have so many men of the same age around me,” says the scientist with a twinkle in her eye. But in the course of her career, either her presence or her research work seemed to bother a couple of them: "When I was studying, for example, certain professors tried to intimidate me or imply that my place was elsewhere.”
Even after graduating, she was occasionally treated differently from her male colleagues. In Leiden, before she was appointed professor, certain members of staff asked her to make coffee, type texts or do their office tasks. “Then once I was made professor, some of the men found me a threat, and put me to the test. I felt I had to prove I was some kind of genius!”
She remembers how, as she embarked on her professorship in Leiden, her boss urged her to write a proposal for research funds – together with a colleague from a completely different field. "We saw little point in it, but nevertheless tried to link our two research areas. Of course, the proposal was rejected because there was no way of making a viable connection.” This, she believes, would probably not have happened to a man.