A conversation with Tanja van de Lippe

Nobody is a master of everything

Tangible products with impact are not just produced by engineers, but by sociologists as well. Tanja van der Lippe, Professor of Sociology at Utrecht University, is living proof of that. She likes to be at the forefront with her media appearances, books, tools and teaching. However, says Van der Lippe ultimately it is not the individual, but the team that creates impact.

There are invisible boundaries between groups of people in the Netherlands, for example between higher and lower educated people, between people with or without a migration background, between low-and high-income groups and, even today, between men and women too. Seventy percent of women who work do so part-time and 34% of all women aged 15 to 65 years are not economically independent; for their income, they are dependent on their partner, if any. Consequently, they have a big problem should they want to divorce. Even so, it is often thought that women do not want to work more hours. There existed a ‘fix the women approach’, says Van der Lippe. But, she notes, that is now changing into a ‘fix the system approach’. ‘

Society knows many barriers which ensure that women work less. And now, it is also recognised that the role of the partner, the employer and government policy influence this. Examples are paternal leave for fathers, childcare, or work schedules that take responsibilities at home into account. Until all of these barriers have been removed, it is no possible to establish whether women actually want to work more hours or not. So many women are not able to use their talents, which is a shame.’

Justice and (in)equality in household tasks and paid work have always fascinated Van der Lippe and these therefore inform the central themes of her work. People have different roles in life, for instance, as an employee or as a family member. And all those roles influence your performance and your well-being and, she believes, should therefore be examined in relation to each other. Families and labour organisations are more connected with each other than we think.

Tanja van der Lippe studied Home Economics at Wageningen University & Research and did her PhD on the division of tasks between men and women at Utrecht University. Ten years later, she became Professor of Sociology of Households and Labour Relations.

She received an ERC Advanced Grant and an ERC Proof of Concept for the method Work-STeP, which resulted in a tool for sustainable deployability that was sold under licence to the company 2DAYSMOOD. She also received funding for the Gravitation programme Sustainable Collaboration.

'Society knows many barriers which ensure that women work less.' 

Van der Lippe comes from a family with two sisters and two brothers. Her mother studied English and was a member of the resistance movement during the war, but when she married her father, she stopped working because that was mandatory at the time. ‘My mother was a highly emancipated, resolute woman, but she did not at all mind the fact that she had to stop working. One of my memories is that, as girls, we had to do the washing up, whereas the boys did not have to do that. We did, however, receive pocket money for our efforts.’

Van der Lippe studied Home Economics at Wageningen University & Research and earned her doctorate on the division of labour between partners from Utrecht University. Ten years later, she became a professor there. She has received several prestigious research grants, such as an ERC Advanced Grant and an NWO Gravitation grant. Last year, she also received the Stevin Prize, the highest scientific award in the Netherlands, for which she was granted a sum of 2.5 million euros that she can freely devote to her research.



Other activities & awards:
At Utrecht University, she is a member of the coordination team of the Future of Work hub, a platform where researchers, organisations and policymakers jointly address societal issues about the causes and consequences of innovation and globalisation. She is also a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities (KHMW) and chair of the Social Sciences Council. In 2021, her book Waar blijft mijn tijd [Where has my time gone] was published and she received the Stevin Prize from NWO in 2022.

'I am a person who wants to share knowledge and I consider that to be a privilege.'

Sharing knowledge is a privilege

Van der Lippe is not only making headway in academia; she has also made a point of entering the public arena. For example, she advised the Dutch Parliament about paternity leave for fathers and COVID-19 scenarios, wrote a popular science book about the use of time and contributes to podcasts and films produced by the Future of Work Hub of Utrecht University. Van der Lippe is often interviewed by the media too.

This all comes quite naturally to her. ‘I am a person who wants to share knowledge and I consider that to be a privilege. I examine subjects not just from the scientific perspective, but also from the perspective of societal issues. Indeed, that’s what I’ve been doing my entire life.’ Not every sociologist thinks like that. There are enough sociologists who dedicate their entire career to a specific subject without the wish to actively engage with society. And Van der Lippe is of the opinion that there’s nothing wrong with that because pure fundamental research is just as important. That kind of knowledge often finds its way to society too, via other researchers, who build further on that research and through teaching. ‘Conducting research into society does not automatically mean that you also want to participate in the public debate.’ 

However, Van der Lippe is somebody who does want to participate, and she thinks that sociologists have a much more difficult task in this respect than their colleagues in the natural sciences. ‘Everybody has an opinion about the subjects we investigate, such as the use of time and inequality. And everybody feels that they know best. An engineer who builds a bridge will rarely hear a person say: ‘I can do that too’. Yet we do get to hear that often, which means that we need to put in more effort to make our message is heard. In such cases, we should resist the temptation to talk about subjects in a popular and unnuanced manner.’

'I am a real scientist and do not really enjoy continuously contacting companies.'

The impact manager as a vital link

Media appearances, popular science publications or lectures are the most obvious ways for sociologists to create impact, but Van der Lippe takes it a step further still. For, just like an engineer, she has made a product that benefits society. She was involved in the implementation of two practical tools. In 2013, she was awarded an ERC Advanced Grant and became the project leader of a large European research programme to examine investments in a sustainable workforce. After that, she received an ERC Proof of Concept Grant which resulted in a tool; an online questionnaire that employees can complete and that provides managers with insights into the sustainable deployment of their personnel.

After completing the questionnaire, managers can compare the outcomes with similar organisations to discover what their opportunities and points of improvement are so that they can deploy their personnel more sustainably and employees experience greater work satisfaction, and absenteeism can be mitigated.

However, Van der Lippe is modest about her own role in this success. Thomas Martens, impact manager at the Department of Sociology, was just as important. Van der Lippe: ‘I am a real scientist and do not really enjoy continuously contacting companies. Thomas, however, does enjoy that. He is the consortium builder, and that requires a lot of time. There are still very few people who fulfil this kind of role in my discipline and related disciplines at the university. Such a person is important, and there should be more people like Thomas. Scientists can’t do everything themselves.’

Besides negotiating with organisations about the application of knowledge, he also helps researchers with writing the ‘impact section’ of the research proposal. This is because research funding bodies increasingly ask about the possible significance of the research for society.

In a previous large-scale European project, she experienced the importance of having such an impact manager as a linchpin. That research into the quality of work and life led to a tool, but the English party that wanted to develop it further could not get it off the ground. ‘They did not have a Thomas.’

No room for egos

Despite her success, Van der Lippe has not gained any financial benefit from the tools she helped develop. She does not have her own limited company where the income from lectures or books goes, and she does not know any other sociologists who have one either. ‘I work with a team and what we achieve benefits all of us.’ Consequently, she sees the Stevin Prize as an award for the entire group, even though it was a personal award for her.

In consultation with her colleagues, she will use a part of the Stevin Prize for education about climate sociology. The plan is to develop several modules within the bachelor’s degree in sociology, not just in Utrecht, but also for other sociology programmes in the Netherlands. ‘Climate issues are the most urgent issues of our age. I hope we can impart this knowledge to a new generation of sociology students.’ Despite all those books, media appearances and tools, education continues to be the primary driver for Van der Lippe. ‘We should not forget that education is the very best way of achieving impact – because you educate people who will subsequently be able to realise changes in society and organisations.’

‘We should not forget that education is the very best way of achieving impact.'

A limited hierarchy and an open and diverse culture fit seamlessly in the research themes of sociologists, for it practices what they preach. That means that there is no room for egos, that everybody receives equal opportunities and that failures, such as proposals that are not awarded funding, are shared during meetings. ‘Of course, I experience such failures too. Then it is important to support each other and subsequently pull yourself together and just move on.’ And as far as she is concerned, there is no cause for jealousy either. ‘Rather, we celebrate each other’s success. I feel really lucky to be working here.’ Van der Lippe does not consider herself to be a master of everything, the person who does the research and also creates impact. Instead, she views a project as a genuine team effort.

Three points for further reflection and discussion:

  • How can we ensure that sociologists feel more comfortable with speaking out more in public debates, and that their knowledge is rated more highly?
  • Why are there so few impact managers at Dutch universities?
  • How can we value teaching more as a form of impact?