After three years in office, Hanneke Takkenberg is resigning from the position of Erasmus University’s Chief Diversity Officer. Looking back on those three years, she is satisfied with her achievements, but is also quitting because she feels she was ‘too far ahead of the rest of the university’. A retrospect on the basis of six conclusions.

Quite hopeful, but not yet satisfied

“The great importance of diversity and inclusiveness has inspired to keep at it. I think we have achieved quite a bit and that I have been able to promote the subject in the right way, but it was time someone else took over from me.

“In my capacity as Chief Diversity Officer, I always focused a great deal on raising awareness of the subjects of diversity and inclusion, but I was becoming increasingly aware in the last half year that I was trying to get too far ahead of the rest of the university and that the organisation wasn’t moving in tandem with me. And I’m too much of an activist to accept that. I thought long and hard about it and came to the conclusion that I wanted to promote the subject in a different way. And then I was offered the chairmanship of the Dutch Network of Women Professors, where I will be able to continue my mission.

“This university needs to perform more measurements. Measurements of the value of diversity to the organisation and to science. The funny thing is that scientists always go for evidence-based arguments, except when it comes to this. We’ll never get the non-believers on board, but they will disappear eventually, because they tend to be the old guard. I feel hopeful when I look at the academic leaders of the future – for instance, at the Young Erasmus Academy, where people are highly motivated to embrace diversity.”

The letter that really changed things

“Something changed last October following the open letter in which a part of the academic community called on the university not just to pay lip service to diversity, but to actually do something to bring about greater diversity. I signed that letter in my capacity as a professor rather than in my capacity as the Chief Diversity Officer, but unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way. There was some confusion in the higher ranks. People with whom I often engaged in a friendly manner turned remarkably silent. I had done something weird.

“Many people were angered by the open letter. I was surprised that people felt threatened by it. And people hadn’t expected me, the Chief Diversity Officer, to write something like that. I was given a mandate to draw up policy and make arrangements in the organisation, but I wanted more. It has something to do with the culture we have at this university – if you stand out from the crowd, you make yourself vulnerable, and the organisation doesn’t want that. I was thinking: if I can’t even think outside the box like that, I’m going to have to be a very obedient policy officer indeed, and that is not who I am. I don’t mind a bit of friction, a bit of pain. You can only have that when your organisation has your back. If your organisation thinks, ‘Oh no, we can’t have that’, it is time to find yourself another job.”

I had to make myself vulnerable first

“I was always only able to do my job because I wasn’t afraid to make myself vulnerable. I have always been curious, and I have always sought to connect to others. For instance, by entering into a debate with the President of JOVD (Young VVD) , who felt that the university should not bother with a diversity policy.

“Maybe I should simply be satisfied with what I have achieved here in the last few years. What I would like to see is an inclusive academic community where everyone can be himself or herself, feel at home and feel that he or she is given the same opportunities as everyone else. That is what we, the Diversity & Inclusion Office, are seeking to achieve with our nine projects, some of which have been quite successful. We came up with a brilliant plan for inclusive teaching with resources that will improve our teaching. We linked the expertise of the Centre for Women and Organizations to a programme for women in academia, and the deans have agreed to a new appointments policy that will hopefully result in our getting more women to the higher echelons of academia. The university wants to change things, but we will have to await the results. But things that make me really happy include the initiative taken by two medical students who seek to make Erasmus MC a more inclusive place.”

Old notions are proving to be quite persistent

“Some of the people in charge of this university have very old-fashioned ideas, such as the notion that Dutch women are lazy and only wish to do part-time work and have children. I’m not quick to anger, but these sorts of things make me furious. It is simply not true that Dutch women are less ambitious. It’s a pervasive belief, though.

‘Women don’t need protection’

“I sometimes receive e-mails from male colleagues who will tell me it’s not fair that women receive preferential treatment when appointments are to be made. But that is not what it’s like. Men and women are supposed to have equal opportunities. The only difference is that men used to have more opportunities to succeed, and now that they have equal opportunities, they feel they are being placed at a disadvantage. But that’s purely because men used to be privileged. They feel like something is being taken from them, and I understand that.

“Another pervasive idea is that women do not wish to receive preferential treatment – for instance, by being appointed to a chair under the Westerdijk scheme. Men will tell you: ‘They don’t want that.’ I will ask them: ‘Have you actually asked them?’ And they won’t say a word. I know that women do want these appointments, and that they don’t need protection.”

Security can be hard to come by at universities

“Of course there are women who will tell you they don’t want preferential treatment. I think that’s part of the culture in which they were raised. They fear what those around them will do if they speak up. Like many universities, EUR is not always a safe place to work at. So you swallow your tongue, because you are afraid that people will laugh at you if you do speak up.

“Let me give you an example. A female colleague of mine achieved something major at work. Not long afterwards, she entered a common room where her male colleagues were playing darts. There was a picture of her on the dartboard. It’s a matter of envy and aggression. I understand why some women think: ‘I’ll just let it go. I won’t speak up, because it is far too dicey.’

“This university has its work cut out for it when it comes to cultural issues like that. We need a zero tolerance policy for intimidation on the work floor. I spoke to a lot of people last year who were afraid to talk to their own confidential counsellor, although they weren’t afraid to talk to me.

“I was once involved in negotiations concerning an employee’s salary, at the employee’s request. It was brutal, but we ended up with something mutually satisfactory. But I wasn’t able to do that for everyone. The organisation must improve from the inside.”

A lot of patience and a gift for optimism are indispensable

“I’ve always had a good working relationship with managers such as the deans and the Executive Board, even if we didn’t always agree. I get along just fine with people who don’t share my ideas. I regard this as a way to maintain good relations with precisely those people who have different ideas on things. I try to understand what makes them tick and to come up with a way to get them to think my way. Themes such as diversity and inclusiveness require a lot of patience.

“I have always been myself. That is a huge first step. For instance, I laughed really hard when I heard a male professor state that women were physically incapable of teaching a big lecture. All the people in charge of the faculty were there, and I was the only one laughing because I thought it was a joke. It wasn’t.
“Yet I have never grown cynical. It’s vital that you accept everyone for what they are. When it comes to inclusiveness, in particular, you must listen to the person who is most different from yourself and try to understand him or her, while letting go of your own ideas. We are all human.”