ECWO: Gender equality is Kristel Baele’s personal purpose

Kristel Baele is an idealist. “I want to make the world a better place,” she says simply. The foundation for this was laid when she worked at the UN’s International Labour Organization in the late 1980s where, as a programme officer, she worked in the field of poverty alleviation. Twenty-five years later, Baele brought that drive to Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), when she was appointed President of the Executive Board in December 2015. During her four years in the position, she played an important role in the university’s Strategy 2024 which rests on “creating positive societal impact”. Baele spoke to us about gender equality, role-models, career acceleration and the power of women supporting women.



You are in a period of reflection after four years at EUR. As you contemplate your next move, is there a red thread that you can identify within your career journey so far?

I am an idealist and having the opportunity to contribute to solutions for poverty, by developing projects for occasional training and setting up good professional education while working at the ILO, has made me forever passionate about education. If I really think about it, this sense of social justice came from my parents. Both my parents were emancipated – my father helped with housework and us children, and both were very community minded, with a visible sense of justice and respect for other people. I am positive that this gave me a strong sense of my own identity, without the gender framing that was prevalent at the time – and remains prevalent in society today.

You are passionate about gender equality. How has that played out during your career?

In every position I have been in, inherent in my agenda has been my commitment and drive to provide women with opportunities and to increase the number of women in leadership positions. This was always in me, but it is still possible to look away – even when in leadership positions. Indeed, it is often much easier not to focus on gender equality because you do attract criticism when you start tackling this. But this is my personal purpose. How have I made this part of my career? By being sensitive to gender fairness in whatever I was responsible for – be it policy design, financing, rules and regulations, policy evaluations or recruitment - and in how I spoke and acted. When I held my first management position at the TUDelft, a predominantly male environment, I noticed the use of “he” as a standard in policy proposals and advice. When I pointed this out, the team – all nice guys – came back with the same document, just with a footnote saying that wherever it stated ‘he’ it was meant as a neutral term and also referred to women. When I asked why we could not do the opposite – that is put “she” as the standard with a footnote saying it also meant “he” - the team replied that it did not matter. So I decided the “he” and “she” would be used randomly in the document, making that very point: that it did not matter.

What was your experience as a gender equality advocate during your time at Erasmus?

I was shocked to find out, at the start of my term, how few women we had in leadership positions. There was no time to waste so I set my ambitions high: 50% of all leadership should be women within eight years. I am proud that in the professional services we have already realised this target, as well as on the level of teams. Appointing women Deans proved to be more complicated. The university had not invested in building a proper pipeline of women academic leaders and that is one of the reasons why all the new Dean appointments during my term as President were men. Fortunately, we have appointed emancipated Deans who are committed to redressing the imbalance, and they are now appointing more and more female professors.

Are there specific actions that you took, that have played an important role in helping realise this fifty percent ambition?

We appointed Professor Hanneke Takkenberg (now ECWO co-Executive Director) as Chief Diversity Officer in 2016 and provided her with the necessary means: staff and a budget. We had the power to do that, and I used it. A Diversity and Inclusion policy was developed and endorsed by the Executive Board and the Deans. Diversity Officers were appointed in the faculties. We changed the recruitment policy for leadership positions and demanded that headhunters present at least 50% women candidates on the longlist and 30% on the shortlist. Of course they will tell you in the beginning these numbers can’t be found. We just asked them to look further. We introduced a university-wide gender bias training. To set the example, we asked the trainer to first train the Executive Board and then the Executive Board and the Deans. It’s about role-modelling. The gender bias training is also evidence-based, backed by a lot of research, and this scientific underpinning is important. It has been very successful: trainings are being organised for all staff now, in faculties and professional services. Going through that training makes you humble. You learn that we all have biases, so blaming others for having them is shortsighted and counter-productive. And, although there are times when it is most certainly warranted, blaming also does not help when it comes to resilience, power, self-empowerment, self-trust and confidence. I consider my journey to be one of consciousness around gender bias. I also consider myself to be quite liberal and emancipated. But I too have biases, as I found out. For example, I tend to favour candidates who love sports as I am an outdoor person myself!

Diversity and inclusion is an increasingly important part of the policy of organisations. What have you learnt having been so deeply involved in implementing this at EUR?

One thing we have to realise is that diversity and inclusion requires sustained investment which is not always pleasant, nor is it easy. It hurts. It is uncomfortable. It is much easier to stick with people who are just like you. There is then no need to change, and no need to learn new things. It can be stressful and tiresome to have to speak another language all the time, to explore very different opinions. So it is not plain sailing from the start. It takes time, empathy and patience and a great level of mutual respect.

You are a passionate believer in women supporting women. Can you elaborate on this?

One of the things I also discovered during my time at EUR is that women academics and leaders at the institution really have to learn to support one another instead of competing. As Madeleine Albright stated in 2006: “There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women.” You have to compete and support at the same time. As a principle, I was happy with every new woman leader appointed as a President at a university. It furthers the cause, and it furthers the world. During my years at EUR, I was encouraged by the work that ECWO is doing in drawing attention to how women can support other women in the workplace and in organisations. It’s an important aspect of ECWO’s gender equality research, advocacy and education which I actively supported while President and which I continue to believe in.

What role has mentoring played in your own career?

For as long as I can remember, I have always taken on a mentoring role and I have often acted as a coach to many women. I have been very fortunate to have had some very fine mentors, both men and women, throughout the years. They have empowered me, have acted as a ‘sparring partner’ for me when making career choices, and have been there to guide me through difficult situations. It is very important to have trusted advisors - people who know you well, who know your strengths and weaknesses, and who can help you make the best of who you are.

And role-models?

My mother has been a powerful role-model, particularly in the way she included contributing to society in her life. No matter how busy she was, she always took time to be part of community organisations. My aunt is another role-model – as are all the strong women in my family. They taught me to go for my ideals and ambitions and to stay true to myself; to follow my heart and intuition and not be afraid of choosing the road unknown. But, as much as I believe in the importance of role-models, there is caution to be exercised here. Sometimes your chosen role-model can be in a seemingly unattainable position and this might prevent you from following your career ambition. At others, a role-model may be very far from your own reality and so present an unrealistic goal.

What advice would you give women who want to accelerate their career?

  • If you are ambitious, if you want to make a difference in the world, invest heavily in building a good network early on. Women tend to prioritise the “work in hand” (and this work is never done) and consider networking as a “nice to have”. In fact, it is the single most important thing to do, apart from growing in your professional performance and knowledge. Free the time to meet with interesting people you encounter, even if they are seemingly beyond your league right now. Networking is not the same as attending conferences (that helps) or meetings. It is about one-to-one contact, getting to know people (better), exploring common ground, values and ambitions and dilemmas, and getting tips. It is important not to choose people to network with on functional grounds only, but also on how you click. Your network will grow with you over time. Many of the people I developed relationships with 10, 15 or 20 years ago are now in leading positions in higher education. Having this extended and diverse circle of trusted contacts made my life as President a lot easier.
  • Enjoy the pleasure and luxury of a formal or informal coach or mentor. And give them some space. Do not be too headstrong or stubborn. They do not always have easy messages, but they will make you grow fast(er).
  • Don’t be afraid of new challenges and do not over-analyse job opportunities that are offered to you. No job is perfect and leadership positions invariably come with both blessings and inspiration, and bloopers and pitfalls. Let’s try not to seek perfection. That simply does not exist.
  • Do not be afraid about not always being liked. Remember the book - Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office.
  • Invest in mastering the force of PR and communication. We tend not to share our achievements, for fear of being seen as vain and conceited.
  • Invest in support networks of career women. Build them yourself. Friends you can share stories with, that you cannot share in the office. I have built a few of these and they are fun! Start a WhatsApp group. It’s easy!

Can you share your plans for 2020 and beyond?

For 2020, I will stay true to myself, by choosing a new position that will allow me to contribute to society and apply my talent and experience. To be able to do that, I first needed to have some distance and rest from four intensive years, and enjoy time with my family and friends. Being an executive is not a job: it is a way of living in which your “nearest and dearest” often need to make space. I am busy making it up to them. Nobody lies on their deathbed regretting that they did not work hard enough. What I I could not foresee in December 2019 was what the world would be like with coronavirus in it, and that is a real game-changer.

Any last words for our ECWO community?

Believe in yourself and seek strength and confidence through various forms of networking, mentors and more. Do not compete with each other but support each other. We really need one another – especially in these challenging times.

More information

The Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) is committed to women’s continued advancement into leadership positions across multiple sectors – from multinationals and start-ups to not-for-profit organisations. ECWO supports gender-balanced leadership through its management education, research and events about gender equality, and by coaching female business leaders. Its strong network leads to women empowerment and gender equality to the benefit of business and society.

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ECWO Storytelling