Denktaş (professor of Psychology) has been the university’s Chief Diversity Officer for over a year now. A quieter year than during the regime of her predecessor, who bore the brunt of a lot of criticism. But it was certainly not a year in which she sat idle; she took time to talk to people, create a support base and develop policy to make the university more diverse and particularly more inclusive. “I don’t negotiate about my objectives, but more about how we can achieve these.”

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Outgoing Diversity Officer: ‘The university often isn’t a safe place to work at’

Hanneke Takkenberg was Chief Diversity Officer at this university since 2015 and said…

What was the situation when you became Chief Diversity Officer last year?

“Hanneke (Takkenberg, the former Chief Diversity Officer, ed.) had really prepared everything to her best ability, putting such things as gender diversity on the agenda; so I didn’t need to address this. The issue as to whether more female scientists should become associate professors and professors is no longer a discussion point. I don’t need to have the ‘do or don’t do’ discussion.”

What did you do in the first year?

“In the first few months, I held lots of discussions about diversity and inclusion. Many people see that the university is located in a city in which diversity is a fact, but inclusivity is not. I started focusing more on this inclusivity, for instance by having male colleagues think with me about this. Diversity is not a goal in itself: you try to use your diverse population to gather different perspectives. That’s something you learn from. And there’s also space to discuss the position of, for instance, first generation students and colleagues from migrant backgrounds.”

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As well as being Chief Diversity Officer at Erasmus University, Semiha Denktaş (Istanbul, 1973) is professor of Psychology, Vice-Dean and Research Director at Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. When she was seven, she moved with her parents from Istanbul to Gorinchem. She studied in Utrecht (Clinical and Healthcare Psychology) and in Rotterdam (Integration and Migration Studies). Denktaş specialises in behavioural intervention studies, such as nudging, leads the Behavioural Change strategic pillar within her faculty and has been scientific Chair of the Behavioural Insights Group Rotterdam and Healthy’R for several years.

Semiha Denktas 2 – Wilma van de Hel
Image credit: Wilma van de Hel

Your predecessor was critical of and shocked about the resistance she experienced. She called the university ‘not a safe workplace’. What resistance do you experience?

“Look, there’s always resistance to any change. I’m not under the illusion that everyone on campus fully supports our goals; I’m not naive. This topic is also not something that will be finished in half a year, if ever. But I do see a shift taking place. We need to continue to talk about diversity and inclusivity. Preferably based on knowledge and data, as this enables you to create openings for those who are resistant.”

Are discussions with opponents to diversity policy more often based on emotions than on facts and arguments?

“On the one hand, as scientists we are proud of being data and knowledge-driven in our work, but with these kinds of topics, you do see a lot of emotion. You need to have your data well-prepared for this, which is why we’re investing in this as Diversity & Inclusion office. For instance, we’re facilitating a PhD research project that aims to find out which type of female and male scientists reach the top, what kind of behaviour and qualities are rewarded and where the bottlenecks are. And we aim to make clear where the problems are in other areas too, to prevent you getting bogged down in exchanging anecdotes.”

Which concrete policy will you be presenting at the ‘Advancing Social Equity in Academia’ conference on Thursday?

“This meeting is a follow-up to the meeting we held last year with Curt Rice as guest 1. We wanted to hear from him what concrete advice he could give us about this university’s problem: there are enough female scientists in the so-called pipeline, but they don’t advance to positions such as associate professor and professor often enough. He developed a successful policy for this in Norway, which we’ve modified to the situation in Rotterdam.

“The goal of this policy is to prepare female talent for a position as associate professor or professor. We do this through mentoring, workshops and providing independent advice about CVs. We want to see who is eligible for the next step at an earlier stage in the pipeline, select these people and quickly give them clarity about what they need to do to advance. Are there things you still need to work on? Are there gaps in your CV that you need to fill before making the next step? Perhaps you need an extra two or three publications or you may need to add something to your education portfolio.”

How does this policy differ from previous incentives to guide women to the top of the scientific field?

“Previous policy, such as the training in Female academic leadership, which I followed myself, focuses on improving or strengthening certain skills: negotiation, presenting, being more assertive, etc. We’ll keep on offering this, but we’ll also be offering help and advice to participants in completing those final missing components on their CVs. This programme actually helps women to take the next steps in their scientific careers.”

Semiha Denktas 1 – Wilma van de Hel

When would you consider this programme a success?

“I’ll be satisfied if a considerable proportion of the women who take part have prepared their CVs well and can be appointed. I don’t want to link this to any percentages. But it can’t be the case that, after a year, just two women have been appointed to higher positions and that these were more by luck than judgement. There needs to be some relationship between this measure and the appointments.

“Some Deans have already made lists of female scientists who are eligible for this programme, but women can also register for the programme themselves.”

Could this programme also be used for other groups within academia who find it difficult to advance to the top?

“Yes, that’s what I think is great about this programme. It’s certainly more widely applicable than only to female scientists.”

Is this a measure that would have helped you?

“I’ve been reflecting on this point a lot over the past year. I would have really liked it if my potential and ambition had been spotted via such a programme. That would have given me a real boost.”

How has your background as first-generation student from a migration background and woman played a role in how you perceive your responsibility as Chief Diversity Officer?

“I’ve been working here for some 22 years. This is my home, and it feels that way too. I feel a certain level of pride that I’m an Erasmian, as we’ve recently started calling it.

“But I didn’t always have that feeling. I used to think: do I really belong here? How did I end up here? Should I actually be here? I had that feeling until I became associate professor, and by that time I’d already been working here for some fifteen years. So it was a long time before I felt confident and felt part of this academic community. Before I could think: these are my people. I’m supposed to be here.

“I wouldn’t call myself an activist. I do communicate clearly so that people know what I want. I don’t negotiate about my objectives, but more about how we can achieve these, so that everyone can get behind them.”

In your first public speech last year, you used a metaphor about the university as a castle, in which it was evident for the people in the castle where the door was to gain entrance, but outsiders couldn’t see the door latch. Can you explain that?

“It’s something I hear a lot: just work hard and make sure you’ve got everything well-prepared, and you’ll get there. But sometimes you need help in opening doors because you can’t see how the door opens. Then it’s up to us as organisation and management in the castle to show people where the latch is and how to open it, and not simply say: ‘Can’t you see it, just open it!”

What was the latch that you couldn’t see?

“Although my CV was well-prepared and I was ready for a leadership position, I noticed that nothing happened. I thought: I need to reshape my strategy, because I’m now just walking around the castle without understanding why I can’t get in. I didn’t really understand the mores of networking. You feel that when you enter a room and you don’t get what’s happening. I had the idea that they didn’t want me. Until someone offered help and said: ‘You need to make it known that you’re ambitious, because they can’t smell that.’ I thought: but they can see that can’t they? Obviously not. I then started to state more clearly what I wanted. People noticed that, managers too, and helped me find the door latch with such things as tips about who I should send my CV to.

“What I mean to say is that the management in the castle should open that door more often and say: ‘Come inside.’”

How do you deal with this as professor with a migration background, now that you’re in the castle?

“Now I’m professor and I arrive somewhere to give a lecture for instance, I notice that I have a different effect on young people and on women. I’m not that special: I’m just someone with an academic career. But for others, I’m a role model, and I realise that that’s something I missed out on as a young researcher.

“I make sure I stay aware of this during job interviews with research assistants. For instance, I may have an interview with someone who has an excellent CV but doesn’t come across well in the interview. Some people are just not used to explaining in a self-assured way how good they are at something, and this can make them come across as unenthusiastic. It’s something that can really make the difference. I keep on asking questions until people feel comfortable. It probably takes half an hour longer, but I’ve never regretted it.”

  1. Curt Rice is a Norwegian linguist and Rector at Oslo Metropolitan University. He is also involved in developing and introducing diversity policy, as Chair of the Norwegian Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research ↩︎