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Judi Mesman awarded Stevin Prize for research on upbringing and diversity

What influence do children’s upbringing and education have on their world view? This is the question Professor Judi Mesman is trying to answer. For her research and public outreach activities, she has just been awarded the prestigious Stevin Prize, the highest award in the Netherlands for a researcher who contributes to knowledge utilisation for society.

Congratulations on winning this prestigious prize! Where were you when you heard the news? 

‘I was sitting in my youngest daughter’s bedroom. I have a desk here under her loft bed where I have often worked since the start of the pandemic. It’s a very small room, the kind you have when you’re the youngest child [laughing]. Marcel Levi [chairman of the science funding agency NWO, Ed.] rang me to give me the good news. After we had hung up, I shouted really loudly. That’s something I never normally do, so my children came running.’

Had you expected it?

‘No, it was a huge surprise. Like other researchers, I look at who’s been awarded the Spinoza and Stevin Prizes every year, and I have enormous respect for the very smart researchers who win them. This year the award is much later in the year because of coronavirus, which meant it had gone out of my mind completely.’ 

To what research do you owe this prize?

‘I research a lot of different things, so it’s difficult to say, but I’ll give it a try! Broadly speaking, I examine how social and cultural norms in young children’s upbringing and education influence their self-image and worldview. I’m curious how they see themselves and others in terms of such things as sexuality, ethnicity and gender, and how that is shaped by the way significant adults around them treat these issues. I and my team show that “normal” is different everywhere and that parents often unintentionally transfer prejudices to their children.’ 

It struck me that you often study the role of parents or teachers. Why are these adults in particular so interesting if you are doing research on children?

‘They play a huge role. They literally determine the norm for children. Are you only allowed a dessert if you clear your plate? How long can you use the iPad? And what are the rules for playing with other children? Parents’ rules on these kinds of issues make it very clear which norms and values they believe are important. But social-cultural norms are often transferred much more implicitly, so they are less noticeable and harder to study. Many parents, for example, have very modern assumptions about gender roles in theory, but they subtly try to influence their children in everyday life. “Look, they’ve got cool cars here too,” they might say if their son chooses to play with a doll in the toyshop. These subtle messages influence what children consider “normal” for themselves and other people.’  

The Stevin Prize is specifically intended for scientists who are good at knowledge utilisation, whose research can be applied in society. What put you at the top of the list? 

‘It’s hard to say, but I think there are two possibilities. On the one hand, I actively try to use my research for society. I’ve worked with educational publishers, for example, on a study on implicit stereotyping in schoolbooks, and I advise them how things can be done differently. I also give workshops on cultural upbringing norms for professionals who work with young people, and in November my book for general readers on antiracism in education will be published. I also think I’ve been awarded this prize because in the Netherlands we’re lagging so far behind with this research subject, although it is now high on the societal agenda. It really is pioneering work, and it’s wonderful that it’s now getting the appreciation it deserves.’  

Everything to do with gender, sexuality and ethnicity is currently under the microscope. Is that something you notice in your work? 

‘I do. After the schoolbook study in 2019, we received thousands of reactions, mainly negative. I deliberately don’t get too involved in polemics on Twitter. I don’t mind if other people do, but for me it doesn’t work. I believe this is a subject that benefits from nuance, calm and interpersonal contact. I often read the reactions later, when the storm has died down. That’s when the scientist kicks in again and I write a response to the reactions [laughs].’ Mesman reflects for a moment, then continues: ‘Look, there simply are people who think focusing extra attention on diversity is dumb and unnecessary. I’ll never be able to convince those people. But there are also people who do want change, but don’t yet know how to create that change. I’m happy to think with them about these issues.’

Who is Judi Mesman?

Judi Mesman (1974) is Professor of the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Challenges. She is also Dean of  Leiden University College The Hague (LUC). She obtained her master’s degree in 1996 at Leiden University and, apart from a few years, has spent her whole working life at the University. She has been a professor since 2009. She has been awarded several prizes and grants, and is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Holland Society of Sciences and Humanities. 

You’re going to receive a grant from NWO of 2.5 million euros, to use for whatever research you choose. Do you know what you want to do with it?

‘In the near future I want to study how norms and values about gender, ethnicity and sexuality are transferred among the professionals who work with children. Take postgraduate teacher training for primary education, for example, or pedagogical programmes. How do people in these programmes talk – or fail to talk – about diversity, inclusion and gender? I understand from former students that very little attention is still paid to these kinds of issues, but it’s something I’d like to check out because how you train professionals obviously has a big influence on the children they will be working with.’  

‘I also want to make sure that a number of good researchers who have a temporary contract can stay for longer, because it’s by the grace of my colleagues that I do my research and my public activities; we keep the show running together. There are so many of these colleagues, but I’d like to take this opportunity to mention a few of them.’ Mesman looks questioningly at the interviewer, then continues: ‘I want to thank in any event Marleen Groeneveld, Rosanneke Emmen and Lotte van der Pol. They play an important role in my bigger projects and have for years been crucial to the success of the research programme.’ 

At the same time as you are receiving your Stevin Prize, two other colleagues are being awarded a Spinoza Prize. What makes Leiden University such a fertile environment for research?  

‘I can’t speak for the others, but personally I am surrounded by people who know and can do different things from me, and that has a highly stimulating effect. I see that particularly at Leiden University College The Hague, where I am Dean. All the different disciplines come together there, and over the past five years I’ve learned something new every day. That makes the University College absolutely the best place out of the whole University. And, yes, you can quote me on that!’

Text: Merijn van Nuland
Images: NWO – Studio Oostrum

About the Stevin Prize

The Stevin Prize is awarded annually by the Dutch Research Council to a researcher who has achieved particular success in the area of utilising knowledge for the benefit of society. The prize consists of a sum of 2.5 million euros for research and/or activities related to the utilisation of knowledge. Together with the Spinoza Prize, it is the largest personal science award in the Netherlands. You can find all Leiden winners of the Spinoza and Stevin Prizes here.

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