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Women Mean Business Panel Discussion

The 99th Dies Natalis of Erasmus University was organised by Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) around the theme “Women Mean Business”. Before the Dies celebrations, at which an honorary doctorate was awarded to professor Alice Eagly for her work on gender and leadership, an expert panel discussion took place on what is holding women back and how these problems should be approached. Dr Dianne Bevelander, Associate Dean of MBA programmes at RSM, hosted a discussion that showed more consensus on the former question than the latter.

Professor Eagly - who has made her name in behavioural science as well as gender studies – was joined by co-panellists Pauline van der Meer Mohr, the President of Erasmus University; Meiny Prins, CEO of sustainable technology company Priva; and Sven Smit, director in the Amsterdam office of McKinsey and Company.

With each panellist presenting before the discussion took place, professor Eagly presented findings of her career. The metaphor of the ‘glass ceiling’ was misleading she said: the barriers are not at simply at the top but went all the way through careers, beginning at the very first job. These barriers present themselves as chiefly psychological – perpetuated by the unconscious biases of male leaders and colleagues. For this reason, professor Eagly proposed the labyrinth as a more effective metaphor, something that could be negotiated with “forethought, persistence and effort”.

Pauline van de Meer Mohr spoke of her commitment to redressing the “silent inequalities” that women face. Women were often counselled early on in their careers into staff roles, she said, such as communication and human resources, a phenomenon which equated to a “career off-ramp”, whereby men then took more central management roles. Ms van de Meer Mohr, in tune with professor Eagly, encouraged women to think strategically rather than trust their career was heading in the right direction.

Meiny Prins, CEO of Priva and Businesswoman of the Year 2009, described how others found it surprising that she wanted to work so hard. This included her father, Priva’s co-founder Jan Prins, until the success of her career led to him offer her a role on the Priva board in 2003, which led to her becoming head of the company. Her comments were less to do with being a woman in business than the perspective of Priva itself, a market leader in supplying and developing for sustainable solutions in buildings and horticulture. Stating that “Sustainability is not just a label but the reason for our existence”, it was easy to understand Shell Executive Vice President Ruth Cairnie’s point later made at the Dies ceremony that women are more likely to exhibit so-called transformational qualities of leadership that served to inspire and develop others.

Sven Smit, director at McKinsey & Company, joked that it was refreshing for him to be the panel’s “token man”. According to him ‘Women’s issues’ is a misnomer, “because it’s men that are the problem”. Mr Smit, a growth strategist, was the first part-time partner and then first part-time director at McKinsey; steps he took to achieve better “work/love balance”. The part time option is less charitably viewed for men, but is essential to achieve gender parity. Mr Smit’s view, pretty much a consensus across the panel, is that maternity leave and part time work are unnecessarily stigmatised. Full time work was not essential to be successful, Mr Smit said, because it was results, not hours, that count.

The floor discussion changed the mood from consensus to impatient activism. Dr Bevelander stoked the discussion by asking whether quotas were a good idea, sparking controversy in a room which mostly disagreed with them. Those against saw them as patronising rather than helpful, agreeing that the focus of change should be on reforming behaviour.

The heat and power generated by the discussion, it seemed, was less a sign that things are changing for the better but that they should change more quickly. The arguments for women’s empowerment were extremely well drawn and a good case – by the panellists and later by professor Eagly and Ruth Cairnie in their Dies speeches - made that in some respects they are more qualified than men to lead. That the main corridors of power, as well as the routes to the top, still lack access for many women is clearly unacceptable and, as the emotion in the debate showed, less and less accepted.

Dies Natalis ceremony

Professor Alice Eagly honoured at 99th Dies Natalis

Professor Alice Eagly was honoured at the 99th Dies Natalis of Erasmus University with an honorary doctorate that recognised her contribution to the field of gender and leadership. Professor Eagly is the Professor of Psychology, Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research and Professor of Management & Organizations, at Northwestern University, Illinois. She has led a distinguished career in social psychology and behavioural science but it was for her contribution to gender and leadership that Erasmus University chose to honour her, marking the occasion with a series of speakers and events focused on the theme “Women Mean Business”. “Professor Eagly’s contributions to the study of gender and leadership stand out as the embodiment of what behavioural science should strive for.” said Prof Daan van Knippenberg, honorary promoter for professor Eagly, in his Laudatio.

The Dies Natalis is a festive day in the Erasmus University calendar when all its faculty, students, alumni and distinguished guests come together to celebrate the contribution that academia makes to society. Each year a different faculty of Erasmus University organises the event, and this year it was the turn of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). Speeches came from the Dean of RSM, Steef Van de Velde, Rector Magnificus of Erasmus University, Henk Schmidt, Professor Eagly herself and Ruth Cairnie, Executive Vice President of Global Strategy at Shell, alongside the Laudatio.

Both the Dean and the Rector Magnificus, mentioned the importance of rankings, with both Erasmus and RSM showing favourable gains in recognised surveys. Both sought to show that rankings create a virtuous cycle, with institutions better able to attract research and student talent, as well as funding. Professor Van de Velde also spoke about his confidence in RSM being “creative and resourceful enough” to manage expected cuts to government funding. However, he expressed concern that the government was also seeking to exert greater control about how universities should deliver education, with targets set for salary levels, student/staff ratios and proportion of elite students. “There is big pressure to gravitate to the average,” he warned “Well, average does not go hand in hand with excellence.”

However, it was for the guest speakers that the theme “Women Mean Business” had been chosen and along these lines the audience was treated to an overview of professor Eagly’s findings on gender and leadership. Women, she finds, are less affected by a glass ceiling than by a labyrinth, and the use of the former metaphor could even be detrimental to the advancement of women’s careers. At the core of the issue is that women do not just face challenges at the top, but all the way through. Women could overcome these difficulties, professor Eagly said, just as any labyrinth is negotiated with “effort, intelligence, and persistence.”

Professor Eagly also spoke about the leadership qualities women possess, as attested by numerous researchers. Women, it has been found, are more likely to display the qualities of benevolence - caring for those around you – and universalism - concern for all people, including those outside of your immediate group, and extending to nature. On this evidence, getting more women into leadership roles is not just a question of justice but of the kind of society we want to promote: more caring, balanced and compassionate.

Ruth Cairnie gave an invigorating speech that shared the experience of her career in male-dominated environments that began with a university education in Maths and Physics. As a researcher for Shell, she discovered she needed to learn the rules of the game quickly, and apply them in order to progress.

For her, diversity and inclusion mean both the visible and non-visible aspects of people and extend to nationality, culture and thinking styles with these non-visible aspects being the greater determinant of character.

Specifically on women, she said that “there is no difference in the core skills women and men bring to the table,” but she maintained that woman tend to have qualities in several areas, as verified by research. “These include the ability to be more persuasive than male counterparts, and to learn better from adversity; to see opportunity in situations and organisations, and to cultivate genuine relationships in a purposeful way.”

In his speech, professor Van de Velde highlighted RSM’s Women Empowerment @ RSM, which encourages women leadership networks, and the RSM MBA Kilimanjaro project, which has now taken two all-women teams to the summit of the Kenyan peak for the purpose of behavioural change, both how women view themselves, and are viewed from the outside.

The Dies Natalis ceremony was marked with the sonorous accompaniment of Noblesse Oblige, who sang academic hymns as faculty and students processed fully robed into Erasmus University’s Aula. Together with outstanding speeches, the music and robed assembly added to an august, inspiring and heart-warming occasion. Together with the panel discussion earlier in the day (link to article) the challenges of women in business were clearly acknowledged, but with evidence that the first steps in the long road to their resolution are now being taken.