ECWO and friends: 10 questions with Izabela Csontos, ING Bank

Izabela Csontos, senior management accountant at ING, has been working closely with Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) since 2014 when ING and RSM worked together on a training and development programme for professional women. A finance professional, she is a true ambassador for women in leadership and is closely linked with wider diversity programmes at ING.

1. Tell us about your background
I was born in Poland. After high school I moved to Sweden where I graduated with a Master of Science in Business and Economics from Lund University. After living and working for over a decade in Sweden, I then moved to the Netherlands. 

I started my career at ING Real Estate in 2009 as a management accountant responsible for cost control. Shortly after, there was an opportunity for me to expand my experience beyond finance into HR activities.

2. When did you discover a passion for gender diversity issues?
That was a gradual process. The financial sector in both Eastern Europe and the Nordics is characterised by a strong presence of women in senior roles – but this is not the case in the Netherlands. That’s why shortly after joining ING Bank in 2013, I started to conduct some research into this topic. It became more apparent to me that in financial sector as a whole, women in many countries struggle to get to senior management level. What struck me was the fact that in the Netherlands women actually hit the glass ceiling even before reaching middle management.

Taking into consideration that in my work, men and women are well educated and ambitious, and the business is driven by a diverse base of customers. This lack of senior female managers simply did not make sense to me.

3. When did you realise that something had to change?
In 2014, I attended a Women in Leadership programme organised by the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) at RSM. The programme had a major impact on me and I started to consider what I could do in my own role to promote diversity.

To move forward, I created my own action plan. First, I focused on the business case; what the customer, society and company would win by building a more gender-balanced organisation. 

Second, I started to use my analytical skills from finance to thoroughly analyse HR data and define gaps. Then working with RSM, we developed and introduced ING’s Women in Business programme run by ECWO for mid-career women in finance. In the spring of 2015, the first session took place and since then, five more sessions have attracted participants from all over the world.

4. In addition to the courses offered by ECWO in conjunction with ING, what other ways does ING contribute to gender diversity?
HR has a function within ING to drive diversity and inclusion in the organisation. There is also a global network in place – of which I am a part – to identify and promote diversity and make a difference in every single country in which ING operates. 

Earlier this year, we launched a diversity manifesto setting out our commitment to diversity and inclusion. There are local plans in place for all countries, with actions to address their respective diversity issues.

There are also several international networks in place for employees, including ‘Lioness’, which supports the visibility of female employees, ‘Gala’ for our LGBT community, and ‘Experience’ for our older employees.

And we’re all really proud that Isabel Fernandez joined ING as our first female Management Board Member on 1 September

5. What is your drive, or what motivates you to make an impact on the current status quo with regards to gender equality, at ING (or in the Netherlands) ?
My drive is a desire to make the best possible contribution for present and future generations. The main enabler is the environment I am currently in. At ING, I feel supported and encouraged to question the status quo. I am privileged to know phenomenal and talented colleagues and they are my source of motivation.

6. Which opportunities did you encounter that lead you to establish the relationship between ING and ECWO? How was it received within ING? What kept you going?
I had a very positive experience with ECWO, which delivers education on a truly executive level. ECWO is driven by exceptional people; professionals that share a passion for gender equality in both pay and opportunities. Therefore, I worked with ECWO to design and deliver the programme for ING’s mid-career professionals. The aim was to empower women to take an active role in their own career development by creating awareness of and openness to new opportunities.

The first session was very successful. The Women in Business Programme motivated women to understand change and become change agents themselves. This is when the decision was made to continue the programme outside of finance – which currently has 130 graduates.

What has been the key to its success?
Support and commitment to change doesn’t come just from women. Mid-career men and top managers are involved too. At their request, ECWO designed a Gender Balanced Leadership programme. The first session took place in early summer and was attended by many senior male managers.

The programmes were very well received. Seeing change really motivates me to keep on going.

7. What kind of positive change do you notice among participants?
The diversity programmes run by ECWO are unique because participants leave charged with positive energy, empowerment and a determination to make a difference. Change is already visible; many participants are taking a more active approach to their career development and consciously helping others to be successful. 

The number of ambassadors who promote and mentor women has grown significantly. Also, many have started expressing their ambitions openly, and I see women aiming for higher positions within the organisation.

8. Do participants experience common achievements as a result of the programme?
For most participants it is surprising – and refreshing – to discuss gender diversity in terms of facts and figures rather than using opinions. The curriculum is focused on competency development, so everyone leaves with valuable new knowledge. The most common examples are: gaining visibility by developing and expressing vision, building and contributing to the network, learning to put energy into doing the right things, not doing everything perfectly, and finally, kindness is a choice. The one that’s most noticeable is: “I have never thought of gender equality from a customer perspective. It’s time to change that.”

9. In an ideal world, which policies or changes could be implemented to advance women to more senior positions in a company?
In an ideal world, men and women would be equal, therefore no policies would be needed because we could all advance our careers based on our competences, experiences and ambitions. However, we are not living in an ideal world. Gender balance in organisations doesn’t occur naturally. Policies and changes are needed on corporate and national levels. According to The Dutch female board index (Tias 2016) the 17.9 percent of directors are women, 7.1 percent of the executive board members are women, and 23.1 per cent of supervisory board members are women. At the current growth rate it will take decades to achieve gender balance in organisations, so intervention is needed in the form of tangible, measurable goals for which company managers and governmental officials are accountable. 

10. How will you continue to contribute to the achievement of gender equality?
My contribution is to continue empowering women to reach their full potential, and to be an ambassador for the cause and encourage others to do the same. I especially encourage and support women to move up the corporate ladder because exceptional results are achieved only with diverse teams. As women, we differ from men, but as a team we complement each other. 

Image caption: Izabela on the front row on the far left

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