Positive change: gender as a superpower

Women can make a positive, lasting impact in business; this was evident from the sell-out Women in Leadership conference by the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) recently. Speakers from the business world and academia shared research and personal experiences, showing woman are a transformative force during a conference at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). A full report of what participants described as a highly inspiring conference is now online.

High-profile speakers included researchers, managers and entrepreneurs from around the world. They demonstrated how they had challenged ‒ and changed – gender imbalance within their companies. The conference, Women transforming business: a force for positive change, explored strategic approaches to influence the status quo towards a more gender-balanced working environment – an aspiration of ECWO and the fifth of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, to achieve gender equality.

As Krista Baetens, Chief Risk Officer and Executive Board Member of ING Belgium phrased it: “Leadership that embraces diversity leads to excellence.” In an inspiring opening speech, she shared her own experiences in battling the lack of gender diversity in top management at ING, and encouraged participants to grab opportunities. She also advised participants to look for a sponsor rather than a mentor. “They [mentors] are great, but I didn’t understand that when you ask a man to be your mentor, something happens psychologically so he wants to protect you. Instead you need someone to throw you in at the deep end when you enter business – and that’s what a sponsor does,” she said.


Professor Robin J. Ely, faculty chair of the Harvard Business School Gender Initiative and a professor of organisational behaviour, shared her research. “What culture expects of leaders is incompatible with what culture expects of women,” she said. How to be seen as authentic, effective leaders without adopting the masculine attributes that are traditionally connected to leadership comes from authenticity. Ely defined leadership as a role that challenges the status quo, enabling others to bring their best selves forward towards a meaningful goal.

Authenticity is a quality allowing for constructive leadership, and was an attribute mentioned by several speakers. In a highly energetic presentation, self-proclaimed ‘diva of waste’ Lara van Druten shared her experience as CEO and founder of the award-winning Waste Transformers, a sustainable recycling company that operates internationally. As well as the advice to ‘be authentic’, she also advised women to network upwards, and not be afraid to say ‘no’.

Take risks!

All speakers observed that assuming new roles in a career involves taking risks and feeling uncomfortable at times. In a motivating speech, Gina Jardine, senior vice-president of HR at global mining company Kinross, asked the audience to think about the opportunities they had turned down, and why. Her experiences of thriving in a male-dominated environment included taking risks; she encouraged participants to step into unknown areas.

Jardine identified that all women have superpowers; one of them is their gender. “Women can build a set of distinct abilities that men can’t easily replicate. Which of your superpowers needs work so it’s ready when you need it? What doesn’t work? Practice!” she advised.


In between the plenary sessions, participants were given the opportunity to attend workshops that inspired them to make a lasting change in their work environment. Dr Karen Stephenson, a corporate anthropologist at ECWO, explained the interdisciplinary field of network science, asking them to rethink what it means to be connected in the age of social media. Wiley Davi, ECWO’s Women in Leadership programme facilitator and Associate Professor in English and Media Studies at Bentley University in the USA encouraged audience members to reflect on blind spots in their careers.

Steffen Giessner, RSM Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Change spoke of the importance of body language in leadership, and how to effectively navigate the political landscape of organisations. Izabela Csontos, senior management accountant at ING, asked her workshop participants to brainstorm gathering support and resources to boost the scope of gender-balanced leadership in their organisations. Combining risk-taking with prudent decision-making within gender-diverse management teams was led by Hadewych Cels, Founder of Karmijn Kapitaal in the ‘Entrepreneurship & Risk Aversion’ workshop.

A roomful of role models

Audience members said they wanted to practice some of the advice from the speakers, such as taking risks and attempting to realising their potential.

“What I found highly inspiring was the number of role models in one room – it’s very helpful to hear the different stories and I can relate to almost every experience,” said one. Another said she was inspired to report back to her manager about increasing ‘girl power’ at her company, as she had been asked. And one woman learned “All of us are born with amazing gifts, and we should open them in ourselves and in other women. It would be a shame to die without opening those gifts.”

A full report of the ECWO conference is now online.


The Erasmus Centre for Women in Organisations (ECWO) is part of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) and offers master classes and coaching sessions, some particularly suited to women in business: Two-day Women in Leadership programme in September, Women in Leadership Master Class in September, Communication with Power and Impact in October and Negotiating for Women in December 2017. Learn more about ECWO’s programmes here:

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, communications manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at

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Anita Otchere, ECWO's Project Manager
Dianne Bevelander