Women transforming business: a force for positive change

Women transforming business: a force for positive change

Introduction by Prof. Steef van de Velde

“RSM is a business school that believes that business is really key to making transformations happen to address today’s global challenges. That’s why we recently changed our mission to ‘RSM is a force for positive change in the world’ and that also explains half of the title of today’s event. Our goal is to enhance the practice and management of business through education, research and engagement.

I’m extremely proud of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) because it really puts words into action – it is a force for positive change. If you are familiar with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), then you will know that Number 5 is achieving gender equality - exactly what ECWO tries to do. But it also wants to go beyond that, to empower all of you to fight the challenges. We can only make the transformations happen with an inclusive approach from everyone.

Prof. Dianne Bevelander

Professor Bevelander introduced three speakers; a business speaker, an academic speaker and an entrepreneurial speaker. “It’s wonderful to have all these women ‒ and a few men ‒ to this conference today,” she said.

Krista Baetens Chief Risk Officer and an Executive Board Member of ING Belgium SA said the theme of the ECWO event, Women transforming business: a force for positive change is really important for ING’s business. “When I look at the programme and see the topics I’m excited to learn new things and meet new people. Female leaderships and diversity is high on everyone’s agenda – government, government organisations, universities, large corporations, banks and many other stakeholders in society.” Diversity is important, and universities have contributed to research, bringing better decision-making and better results.

She described being the youngest of a large family and thinking as a child that ‘behaving like yourself and doing your best’ was enough. “My brother liked to do the dishes so I did other things, and I worked out that diversity has benefits.”

She attended a girls’ schools until the age of 18 ‒ the opposite of a diverse environment. Later, while working for ING, she was invited by an ING board member to attend a meeting about female leadership, along with other female ING business leaders. “I said no, and so did the other five women in my department. But we were forced to go.” Before the meeting, the wholesale banking team were shown 15 presentation slides. “On every slide were 8 to 12 men. We were giggling. We were asked ‘what did you just see?’ and we had no clue. The answer was that these were the boards of the top 15 companies in the Netherlands.

“It was a very confrontational eye-opener, because I had thought that working hard and doing more – three jobs – was going to get me somewhere, and would be enough.”

ING has diversity on its global agenda; the matter is now discussed at board level, but it was initially thought of as ‘a problem’ because women didn’t have enough training or didn’t network enough. “The shift came when it became a business problem. When you have a business problem, you need a strategy and an action plan – not just additional training and projects. And the results are measured. This was the real shift; going from trying to solve ‘a problem with the women’ to solving the business problem.”

She was one of several women to be consulted about the company’s internal and external advertisements. “Some of the ads were considered too aggressive by my team,” she said. As a result, women now review the language in ING’s adverts. “We learned from feedback that language eliminates a lot of candidates from the start – and that was never our intention.”

Since ING began to address gender diversity in its business, succession lists must now contain women. Mentoring, networking sessions, business breakfasts, lunches and dinners with senior managers are among the initiatives that have been introduced to improve the visibility of women in the organisation.

Today, many people are trying to do something and the results are a mixed picture. As the only woman in the executive team of 15, ‘I’m also trying to do something’, she said.

Numbers of female business leaders vary around the world; in Asia the figure is between 33-50 per cent but less in the Americas and Europe, although there are differences between Eastern Europe and Western Europe. The number of women business leaders is even lower in Belgium and the Netherlands. However, ING is tracking the diversity data and is trying to understand it. “Different results in different regions doesn’t discourage us. We are definitely very positive about where we are going,” she said, and gave a few tips to close her presentation:

  1. Share experiences
  2. Everyone here is unique and amazing – please stay close to who you are. No one can be better at being you.
  3. Leverage your strengths; training can never replicate them, and they are a key component. You can train for technical skills, but you cannot receive training for your personality.
  4. When someone offers you an opportunity and it feels right, please just do it.
  5. Keep on learning, keep your mind sharp, interact and network, keep connected.
  6. Be generous to yourself and to other women. Generosity is a quality which can help you along.
  7. Find a sponsor, not a mentor.
  8. Leadership that embraces diversity leads to excellence.

On mentoring, Baetens said she had had mentors at Harvard, so it seemed natural to look for another. “They 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.”

‘Visions’ of diversity are not the same as action, she said. ING is active in its use of language, in measurements, succession lists and in smart Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for each team within the company. Its progress depends on the KPIs decided by ING’s Leadership Council (its top 30 or 40 personnel. Actions need to be ‘top down and bottom up and in between’.

Krista Baetens took questions from the audience:

Q – Is it just an ING problem or a wider problem that there are differing numbers of women in leadership teams in Asia, the Americas and Europe?
KB – In Asia and Eastern Europe, finance is a question of trust. Here, men have family-owned companies and at home finance is taken care of by women. So in these places, money equates to trust, and women score high on the trust factor. On top of that we have another benefit as a foreign company in Asia; women join ING because they have more opportunities, so it’s a combination of finance and trust that results in positive selection towards foreign companies.

Professor Robin J. Ely is faculty chair of the Harvard Business School Gender Initiative and a professor of organisational behaviour. Starting her presentation, Accelerating the Advancement of Women into Leadership, she said her remarks followed what Krista Baetens had said.

“In my view, it’s not about holding a formal position of authority, but [women in leadership] often do. My definition is about enabling other people to bring their best selves forward in service of a meaningful goal. Effective leaders have purposes that are aligned to personal values and oriented towards advancing the collective good, not just operating alone.

“A lot of us teach this at Harvard Business School,” she said.

But she explained that ‘culture’ has another idea. It tells us that leaders/leadership is a collection of attributes like competitive, assertive, decisive or aggressive, which sounds like an idealised definition of a man. Women are thought to be the opposite; warm and nurturing. “What culture expects of leaders is incompatible with what culture expects of women,” she said.

Experiments have been replicated in many cultures, and Prof. Ely described a favourite piece of research from Professor Frank Flynn at Columbia Business School, which presented two different versions of a successful woman entrepreneur, called either ‘Heidi’ or ‘Howard’ to a class of business students. There was no difference between the competences of the two profiles, but the students rated them differently. “They [the students] didn’t want to hire her; the more aggressive they saw her, the less they liked her, but it was not the same for ‘Howard’.

“The protagonist in most cases is nearly always white and male, but Heidi is a great networker; this was her source of power. We notice that it’s all well and good to have a women case protagonist ‒ but nobody liked her.”

There’s a trade-off between competence and likeability, said the professor. “If women emulate a masculine style, they will be respected but not liked. But if they enact the role of women they are liked but not respected.”

While most research focused on white women, the professor explained, African American women’s competence is presented as ‘ambition’. “What do you do about this?” she asked. And described reading in the popular press that ‘nice girls don’t get the corner office’, and advice that tells women to navigate the gender stereotypes very carefully and don’t emulate men too much. “All of this advice is problematic,” she said, and went on to give her advice, based on leadership research.

Advice to women based on leadership research

  • Don’t let worries about image derail you
  • Self-focus is about how we come across to other people, but leadership is about other people (referring to her earlier definition)
  • It’s very easy to get caught up in being tough in order to get respect
  • We feel like need to be nice on order to be liked. The problem is that it distracts us from the central task of leadership.
  • Leaders hyper-focused on self-image have a hard time; they are disconnected, excessively concerned with meeting others’ expectations, untrustworthy and inauthentic.
  • What do others need to advance those goals? They might need you to be courageous, vulnerable, compassionate, and decisive and connected.
  • Anchor your leadership purpose. What is it? Why is it that you have a career? What really motivates you? What do the people around you need to advance your collective purpose?
  • And then, what do you need? It’s important to keep yourself in the equation this is servant leadership). If you’re not supported yourself then it is difficult to support others.
  • Equip yourself, and hold people to high standards with compassion.

Professor Ely said she is in the process of collecting data to test her hypothesis that if you lead with purpose front and centre, rather than image, people can tell where you’re coming from.

She described research that taped women leaders giving a leadership speech. Half of the women were asked to act ‘in a masculine way’ with no smiling, and keeping an external standard – their audience’s opinion ‒ in mind as if they were worried about the audience thought of them: ‘I need to make sure they see me as X’. The other half of the women leaders in the study were told to maintain an ‘internal standard of leadership orientation’, to assume that the priority was to get the audience to understand and support the ideas presented, or ‘what can I create around you’.

Businessmen reviewed the tapes. Women who were leadership-oriented are seen as warmer and more genuine. “Warmth is not really about ‘nice’. What people really want from you is not that you be nice, but that you be connected to them.”

Prof. Ely said she hoped these examples helped the conference audience to think differently about the confidence-likeability trade-off. “Don’t confuse purpose with selflessness,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that you should sacrifice yourself. Leave your ego behind, not your sense of self. Connect what is important to you to what is important to other people.”

She quoted research from a colleague of hers that described stepping into new roles as never comfortable. “Transitions requires changes in identity, asking who am I in this new role? and thinking about yourself in a new way. Part of leadership is identifying yourself as a leader and people use one of two strategies.

Provisional-self strategy

The ‘provisional-self’ strategy is to watch others in that role and ask ‘what do I like about what they do?’ Allow yourself to try on the role for a while and get feedback before deciding what aspects to keep and what to jettison. Men use this strategy, said the professor.

The ‘true-to-self’ strategy is to assume ‘what has served me well in previous roles I will use in this one’. Women use this, said the professor. It assumes the appointees were not looking for personal values, but for attributes. And women perhaps use this strategy because they feel uncomfortable trying on other leadership styles – using the provisional-self strategy.

“Mostly what they saw around them was men; one can learn from what men are doing but it’s but easier for women to use the idea of being connected to your purpose, and to feel like you’re at your best. And then other people feel like they’re at their best too.”

When taking up new roles, adopt a mind-set that enables you to ask yourself how you need to learn and grow into the role. Create the conditions around you that enable you to grow, she advised.

She asked the audience if they were side-tracked by perfectionism, and if ‘the bad sticks in the mind more than the good?’ with a series of questions about attitudes to the work-life balance and achieving ‘perfection’. The questions were designed to identify if members of the audience were losing sight of ‘what’s important to you – your purpose’.

“Remind yourself that if you agree to do something when asked, very often we agree so that we will be liked or accepted as a team player. I want to suggest you stop and think. Ask yourself will this advance my purpose, but not necessarily my career? Ask for opportunities and point out accomplishments because it helps to advance the thing you stand for, she recommended, and said that people don’t follow you because of what you do, they follow you because of why you do it.

Making men into allies

Prof. Robin Ely took questions from the audience.

Asked about engaging man as allies at work, Prof. Ely said in her experience, “many men are afraid of this issue, afraid they’ll say the wrong thing, so they don’t say anything. And they don’t ask questions because they are afraid they’ll ask the wrong one.

“So identify the men in your context who are interested in learning how to be an ally. Their heart is in the right place and they want to see women succeed but don’t know what to do. Don’t waste your time on the other ones.”

She advised women leaders to leverage men that are strategically placed, which would give legitimacy in the eyes of colleagues. Apparently fathers of daughters about to enter the workforce have more liberal attitudes to women as leaders, she said.

Lara van Druten is CEO and founder of The Waste Transformers, an award-winning company. She is an entrepreneur who found a gap in the market in order to make her mark.

Lara van Druten said she is the woman who wants the garbage bags from the street “because I believe that your garbage plus a different approach to waste management can nudge us towards a greener, fairer world,” she said. She told the audience that waste in the Netherlands travels for 86 km before it is incinerated. “We move waste around the Netherlands, then we burn it. We would need 2.7 million new trees every year to compensate for the transportation of waste,” she said, and explained that The approach of The Waste Transformers is different. “We process [waste] on site in installations that are the size of sea containers,” she said. She gave the example of the Westergasfabriek site in Amsterdam.

No wasted waste

The Waste Transformers processes the waste from restaurants, theatres and a hotel at the former Westergasfabriek industrial site in the centre of Amsterdam. The site is now regarded as a model for sustainable redevelopment. Twice a day, electric vehicles collect garbage to transform on site into energy as biogas. Residual heat goes back into the park as hot water, and the remaining waste is biologically digested, separating the water from the dry matter. The water is reused in the waste treatment processor used for cleaning in Westergasfabriek park; even the dry matter is used in the park as compost. A small fraction of remaining waste goes to make paper. “There is no wasted waste,” said Lara van Druten.

It’s a healthy business case, she said, because the organisation processes waste slightly more cheaply than other processors. Waste in the Netherlands is pretty well organised, she said, but it’s a different story in countries with emerging economies that have no infrastructure. The Waste Transformers are active in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Kenya and Hong Kong. They operate a network of small-scale waste-processing installations ‘on every corner’, so it is no longer necessary to transport or dump waste.

To make The Waste Transformers’ product successful on the market, operators need access to finance, as well as contractual support and business training. “We tackled finance by joining with a business school in Spain; we created an entrepreneurship fund, collatorised the debt and paid it off so it can be run as a business, she said.

As a result, the Waste Transformers were presented with an impact investment proposition award from Morgan Stanley.

The organisation offers further help in the form of a ‘business in a box’, which provides access to contracts the franchisees need, technical training, and funding. “Eventually they are able to own and run an installation a business,” said Van Druten.

“I was asked to tell you about my personal story, about becoming a self-proclaimed diva of waste,” she said, and described her upbringing in South Africa as a ‘particular world’. 

“I think I have pretty much worked in cycles of seven years. After that I try to redefine myself some way or another. After high school I hitchhiked around the world ‒ and I met my husband on the first day. I did odd jobs and was able to measure my competences. Then I began studying and it was difficult to stop,” she said. Van Druten has bachelor degrees in politics, international political economics, theatre science and philosophy.

Having spent so much time at university, Van Druten thought she could make a smarter and better university, so she ‘grew an online university’, which she ran for a few years before starting a family. She was then asked to join a multinational company, from which she learned about the corporate world. “It was interesting but I found that I was spending so much time involved in upward communication, when what I really wanted to do was to build the business. After seven years I thought it was time for a change, so I started The Waste Transformers.”

She gave the audience three pieces of advice.

1. ‘Don’t go below’; network upwards.

2. Don’t be afraid to say no

3. Be like Frankie and do it your way. Be authentic.

Van Druten said that not having an engineering degree was a help because she was forced to examine the bigger picture ‘rather than falling in love with a tiny part of the process and seeing only that’. She also enjoyed dealing with companies that don’t have structures in place, and found that the Waste Transformers was in demand by such companies wanting to work with them.

RSM’s Dory Grandia introduced the final speaker, saying she was chosen to end the conference ‘with a bang’, inspire the audience to step out of its comfort zone and challenging it to ‘thrive no matter the environment you are in’.

Gina Jardine is Senior Vice-President of Human Resources at global mining company Kinross. Her presentation, How to Thrive in a Male Dominated Environment started with an admission: “I’m always surprised when someone asks me to speak – I’m actually terrified of public speaking and the negative voice in my head wants to know what I can say that would interest anyone.” But a few years ago, she heard Shari Graydon say women don’t get the recognition they deserve because they don’t take the microphone. “So I encourage women to take the mike and give ourselves a voice. If you can make a difference to one person by taking the mike then that’s good, a huge difference,” she said, and recounted a childhood story about a small boy walking on the beach on which there were thousands of stranded starfish. He began to pick them up and throw them back into the water. Another small boy asked why the first boy was bothering: ‘there are too many to save,’ said the second boy. ‘But it matters to this one. And to this one...’ said the first boy.”

Jardine said she was often asked if she deliberately worked in male-dominated industries – first logistics, then mining. “It was never structured,” she said. “I never had a career paradigm or career reference. Mum was a homeworker, our social circle was working class and I was the first person in the family to go to university. I think this helped; I was never burdened by career expectations from my family, I was never aware of the risks of taking on new jobs or assignments. I aimed to just do a little better tomorrow than I did today.”

Gina Jardine’s mental model was to ‘just get on with it and grab opportunities as they came’. But in fact, being unburdened by expectations and following her gut instincts helped her to thrive.

“Could it work for you?” she asked the audience. “Could you be agile enough to navigate when life throws you a curveball? Are you thinking about managing your career?”

It’s the same in any industry, she said. It’s important to not over-think, and to be flexible. Male-dominated industries are not too risky. “Some have been a lot of fun, especially mining,” she said, and described some amazing experiences all over the world over the years ‒ including climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, visiting Mongolia and being held hostage.

Talking about taking risks, Jardine asked the audience to think about opportunities they had turned down. “Why? Were you afraid of the consequences? What’s the worst that could happen? That you fail? So what?” she asked, and gave a list of prominent people who had first failed before becoming successful, such as Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey and J.K. Rowling. “But they kept going, they got up and gave it a go and took another risk,” she said. She also pointed out that of all the famous people that had failed at first, then succeeded, the majority were men.

“I think that’s because men are willing to step up to the mike and talk about it. They are better at risk taking – it’s their domain. But let’s change that. Let’s step in. Consider your attitude to risk. What can you do tomorrow to take you into an unknown area?”


It could be a small action, such as being first in the meeting room and taking the chair on the boss’s right-hand side, she suggested, or it could be offering to make a presentation. Seizing opportunities as they arise is one of the reasons why Gina Jardine thrived in a male dominated industry.

Women can shine in male-dominated arenas but they don’t have to act like men, said Jardine. Men and women think and operate differently in the workplace, and it can be used to women’s advantage. “Diversity drives better business outcomes; better employees and better leaders, and is also to the organisation’s advantage. Women can bring a unique perspective to business, so it’s important that women are heard. You can be the change agent that you want to see in your organisation,” she said. She gave an example from one of her previous jobs: every email to the management team was addressed to ‘Gentlemen’. “It took six months to change that to ‘Team’,” she said.

But nine times out of ten, it’s because men haven’t thought about it. “They don’t set out to upset your day, so stop worrying about it. Take the mike, start the conversations and when you see an opportunity, use it,” Jardine advised and told the audience “Never ever waste a good crisis. Don’t create them, but don’t waste them either. They are a huge opportunity to make an impression. The rules go out the window and women are great in a crisis; they are calm and think clearly.”

Jardine quoted Nora Denzel, a board member at Ericsson and mentor for many, who said ‘those who do not take risks will always work for someone who does’.

“Who was your superhero when you grew up? Which of their powers did you wish for?” asked Jardine, and told the audience to apply that superpower to their careers. Would it be reading minds, reading your boss’s next move, or knowing the right thing to say in a difficult situation? You already have one superpower – that’s your gender,” she said. “Women can build a set of distinct abilities that men can’t easily replicate. They need to be aware of these superpowers – and use them.” She gave intuition and the wise use of humour as other examples and asked the audience which of their superpowers was really strong. “Which of your superpowers needs work so it’s ready when you need it? What doesn’t work well, and why? Practice, practice, practice,” she advised.

Gina Jardine’s three ‘superpowers’ are:

  1. Perseverance – if you want equality then you have to act, and be accountable equally. If I didn’t hold my own, I would have no credibility. It can be a tough one to learn. Men can be tough, assertive and direct. In the thick of that situation it can be hard. But in the majority of cases it’s not personal.
  2. Proactiveness
  3. Positivity. Try not to feel guilty; use a baseline for comparison. Putting my son into childcare made me feel guilty, but he was fed and cared for, unlike children of mothers without jobs or orphans in Mauritania.

Jardine described the importance of knowing when to let go – when failure happens despite every effort. She encouraged the audience to learn to recognise when ‘enough is enough and it’s time move on’. “Sometimes you just have to learn to let it go, especially in male-dominated sectors. It may be unfair, but life can be like that.” She advised cutting losses and put an alternative perspective: sometimes male dominated industries fail to make the most of the assets of women in their workforces. “There will be other opportunities for you,” she said, and described a personal experience that she fitted this scenario. “Save your mental health, leave them to it and wish them luck. The first step in getting the life you want, is getting rid of the things you don’t.”

Answering questions from the audience, Jardine was asked how to take the experiences of the things that had helped her and apply them to making HR policies for hiring firing and training that promote women. Jardine said policies and practices in place in companies vary around the world. For example, in Russia, women are not allowed to go underground; policies follow appropriate processes. But for me, it’s about a comment they might make in jest, about taking a stand and getting the conversation onto the table.

If we measure things, we’re not doing great; 11 per cent of the workforce is women, but we shouldn’t let exceptional circumstances be an excuse. We need to be think differently and work differently, with, for example different lengths of shifts to suit women who have to organise childcare. We need to have one conversation at a time

Taking questions from the audience, and asked for advice for getting from mid-level management to senior level with ‘a wall of men in front of you’, Gina Jardine advised finding a sponsor from the rank you aim to join; someone who knows your skills and potential and who can use their power to help you. “Or If that doesn’t work for you, then leave and go to another organisation – sometimes that’s easier,” she said.

Asked about balancing a job and family life, Jardine said she had, at some point, used every form of childcare ‒ including granny care, stay-at-home dad, and having a nanny. “There is no right or wrong way, it’s what works for your family.”

Michael Page is professor of finance and management at Bentley University in Massachusetts, USA, specialising in optimising organisational performance based on social and human capital development. He began his summing-up of the conference by admitting that he had never felt marginalised before.

He described ECWO as having ‘three legs’:

  1. Education programmes to develop careers
  2. Research
  3. Advocacy, addressing a sense of disquiet, but quietly objective and scientifically based.

“We should be involved in advocacy, we cannot keep looking look at the past, we must dive forward,” he said, and celebrated the ‘220 new advocates’ attending the conference.

“As males, we talk a lot about unconscious bias. It’s a reality of life, but it’s how you respond and behave that determines whether you discriminate or not. I hear things that my unconscious bias disbelieves but all of those start to change when I open myself up to the kind of dialogues happening here.

“What changes is making ourselves uncomfortable and forced to confront the flaws in our instincts.”

Prompted by Page, the audience gave their takeaways from the conference:

  • “I realised that I’m not necessarily performing badly but I can still capture potential. I felt very inspired.”
  • “I like identifying with three superpowers.”
  • “For me, it’s taking the risk and asking ‘what is the worst that can happen?’ ”
  • “Be yourself part, we are all unique.”
  • “I came for gender equality, and have seen race equality”
  • “Tips for engaging more men? I have men in my MBA programme who are not interested in talking about the topic!”

In response to this last comment, Michael Page asked the commenter how she would engage him in the subject: “Would she make me an ally? Or would she make me defensive? When I’m defensive my irrational traits become stronger.

“When gender has been raised in boardrooms, I see the hackles go up from fear rather than from resistance. The reaction is amplified,” he said. “For men using inappropriate language, it’s not used as a learning opportunity but only used to send a slap.”

Prof. Page’s view would be to engage with men. “Our egos are more fragile than we are prepared to admit,” he said.

A big lesson is realising that unconscious instincts are informed by life experiences, he said. “After years in South Africa, I had no idea of the extent of my advantage as a white male in society. Everything I thought came easy only came easy to me because of the structure of society. That realisation came hard,” he admitted. “When my presumptions have reared their heads, people have been kind enough to point out the error in my thinking rather than accusing me of being racist or sexist.

“The source of my fear [of being found sexist at women-only events] is a sensitive ego – I don’t like to be seen as wrong,” he said, and quoted the response of RSM’s Professor Dianne Bevelander, executive director of ECWO. “Dianne was accused of discrimination for her Kilimanjaro female-only elective, she said ‘Yes it is, and now it’s your turn!’ Finding your voice is important, so don’t apologise.”

Audience comments:

“What I found inspiring was the amount of role models in one room – it’s very helpful to hear the different stories and I can relate to almost everybody and every experience. And the networking, sharing the path you took as a role model. Thank you for this. The workshop was highly inspiration.”

“Looking back at the day, I thought first that it would be about what can I do – but I learned about fear that men have too. At the request of my manager I have to take this back to my company; how I can increase girl power. I have a lot to report back!”

[Directed at Prof. Dianne Bevelander in particular] “I learned so much. It was wonderful and inspiring. All of us are born with the amazing gifts, and we should open them in ourselves and in other women. It would be a shame to die without opening those gifts. We should support other women and speak positively for them.”

Attendees were reminded of RSM’s series of masterclasses and coaching sessions, and to keep in touch.