The more diverse the composition of a promotion or hiring committee, the more diversity they will produce

"The way women are perceived in a professional environment is different than the way men are perceived. This is crucial for women to realise. Once you are aware of this, you will be able to influence how business partners respond to you. That doesn’t, however, mean that women have to deny who they truly are. This was one of the takeaways I got from Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisation’s (ECWO) programmes," said Gabriele Helfert, policy advisor at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). 

“When my wife and I were thinking of a country to settle in, the USA was not an option, even though my wife is American and we were married in Iowa, one of the first states in the USA that recognised same-sex marriage. Marriage between two women simply didn't exist on a federal level at that time, which meant that family-based immigration in America was not an option for us.”

The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage. Helfert and her wife live in the Netherlands, where Helfert started her career as a project manager at RSM in 2008. After several career moves within the organisation, Helfert moved into the role as policy advisor in 2015, and is in charge of managing the school's accreditations and rankings. RSM offers 27 degree programmes, from undergraduate to MBA and PhD programmes, and several dozens of executive education programmes. Apart from the national accreditation through NVAO, the business school is also accredited by three international organisations: AACSBEQUIS, and AMBA.

Quality and process management

Helfert’s task is to stimulate the continuous improvement process in the school and to provide the accreditation bodies with periodic reviews and data in order to remain accredited. The latter also applies to the rankings, for which she is in close contact with institutions such as the Financial TimesThe Economist, and Bloomberg Business Week. Other areas of policy she contributes to are, for example, employee diversity or a career path policy for faculty members, including a new incentive model. Helfert was the chair of RSM’s Faculty Council for a year, which fuelled her interest in policy work. To acquire this role, Helfert had to go through an intense process that consisted of three challenging interviews. “After they picked me I learned that there was a male competitor too,” said Helfert. “I believe I got selected because of my experience and my creativity. Before I joined RSM I was heading a business excellence department in a multinational corporation, so I was very familiar with quality and process management. This experience as well as my familiarity with RSM gave me a lot of ideas on how to improve the school – and I’m not shy to bring them forward. The people who interviewed me knew me in my role as chair of the Faculty Council, and they knew that I can deliver. On top of it, the chemistry was a fit. I don't believe that my being a woman played a role in their decision.”

Diversity measures

Helfert sees positive changes in the opportunities for women to enter senior positions at RSM. Last year the dean of faculty, Abe de Jong, installed a Diversity Committee, with the aim to come up with suggestions on how to increase diversity among senior faculty members. “There is a lot of diversity among PhD students and assistant professors, half of whom are internationals and half are women. Within the administrative staff even three quarters are women. But the higher you get in the hierarchy, the more Dutch-male it gets. The dean has just appointed two more women professors, so that there are now three female full professors at RSM. Also, in March of this year RSM’s Executive Board appointed an associate dean for diversity, Dr Saskia Bayerl. She will monitor the success of diversity measures implemented at RSM.

“The more diverse the composition of a promotion or hiring committee, the more diversity they will produce,” said Helfert, adding that people tend to relate to who is close to them. “They hire people who are similar to themselves. It's human nature, and the only way to change it is to increase the diversity in the committees. Professor Dianne Bevelander always talks about the 30 per cent threshold; once we have a 30 per cent representation of women and internationals in these committees, things will start getting into motion. A nation-wide quota could certainly help speed this up.”

Support groups

Working in the Netherlands as a queer woman has not had any impact on Helfert. “People do not even blink when I talk about my wife, it is the most normal thing in the world.” At the University there is a group called Erasmus Pride for students and employees. Helfert acknowledges the importance of these groups, particularly for people from different cultural backgrounds, as non-straight people are still harassed or even criminalised in many countries, or for young people who need support because their families oppose their sexual orientation. Helfert herself hasn't joined such a group in the Netherlands. If she was living in a country where lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and queer people (LGBTQ) face more evident discrimination, this would be different.

Before same sex marriage was recognised in the USA, Helfert supported Immigration Equality, the largest LGBTQ immigrant rights organisation in the USA. This organisation played a major lobbying role on federal policy level. Under the Obama administration, the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited same-sex marriage, was ruled unconstitutional. Even though it would now be possible for Helfert and her wife to settle in the USA as a married couple under federal law, they have both found a home in the Netherlands and are not planning to leave any time soon.

Gabriele Helfert

Gabriele Helfert was born in Darmstadt, Germany and was raised in Heppenheim, Germany where she spent the first 19 years of her life. She has a background as an English-German translator and a master in psychology from the University of Mannheim. She holds a PhD in management from Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. She is fluent in three languages, German, English and Dutch, and can get by in French and Spanish. Photography, traveling and food are her passion. She is well-rooted in the Dutch vegan community. Helfert has been living in the Netherlands for eight years.

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