Carla Blekkink

How summiting Kilimanjaro helped one woman deal with sexual harassment and the isolation that followed at work.

Originally posted on 26 Januari 2021

In 2014, after summiting Kilimanjaro as part of the RSM MBA Kilimanjaro Project, Carla Blekkink bought a necklace featuring a map of Africa in Tanzania. Years later she wears it as much as possible as a reminder of one of the highlights of her life. “Of course the intention of the Kilimanjaro project was not about reaching the summit but about creating bonds between ambitious women and fostering a network of support,” she says. “But, at that time, I really needed a success and so Kilimanjaro became everything to me.”

The reason why the success of summiting was so important to Blekkink was that she was still reeling from the sexual harassment she had encountered in her workplace several years previously - harassment that eventually led to her leaving her job and giving up the leadership career path that she had been on. Being on the mountain with other women enabled this trained aeronautical engineer and highly experienced manager to share the impact of the harassment with the (mostly younger) women in the hope that it could help them should they ever face a similar experience. Telling her story was a release for Blekkink – and the more she spoke about it, the more she realised she was not alone. “Once I began talking about what happened, and how it was compounded by the total lack of support for me from my company, women began sharing their own experiences and it was clear that this was a widespread problem,” recalls Blekkink.

Indeed, research shows that up to 70% of women have experienced harassment, across different sectors of the economy. And the #metoo movement has also spotlighted the extent of sexual harassment faced by women everywhere. It is because of this research - and experiences like Blekkink’s - that ECWO has developed a new workshop, Stand Up. Reach Out, that is aimed at identifying, intervening and preventing harassment in the workplace. The urgency of this intervention was confirmed with the recent release of a report by the Dutch Network of Women Professors (LNVH) - Harassment in Dutch academia, exploring manifestations, facilitating factors, effects and solutions – that revealed the shocking harassment figure of 42% in Dutch academia.

Blekkink stands firm in her belief in sharing her experience as a portal to conversation, support and change and here she bravely shares it with us.

 

Thank you for sharing your story with us Carla. Before we talk about your experience of sexual harassment, would you give us some insight into your career journey.

 In 1993, I got my degree in aeronautical engineering but I graduated around the time that Fokker - the only Dutch aircraft manufacturer - went bankrupt, and, as a result, I never worked in the field of aircraft manufacturing or aircraft engineering. However I always worked in technical related jobs including for FMCGs like Unilever and Leerdammer as project manager of production automation projects and as maintenance manager. I am an extrovert and I thrive on working with a variety of people in different places and, over the last two decades, I have worked for machine manufacturers (OEMs) in the area of international account management and sales. My most recent move came when, at the end of 2018, I unfortunately found myself unemployed due to a reorganisation at CSi where I had been Global Account Manager for nearly three years. Early in 2019, I was appointed International Account Manager at Orangeworks.

You were recently promoted. Congratulations!

Yes! Orangeworks recently acquired Tanis Food Tech (TFT). It is strategically a very good decision of the owners. There is a lot of work to be done on the integration of the companies. The acquisition of TFT made it clear that a manager for the sales department had to be hired. Despite the fact that the MD and I very often had different insights and opinions on many things, he recognised my value and promoted me to Manager Sales. It takes courage to promote someone with a different attitude and opinion to a leading role and I really appreciate his approach. Currently, aside from me, the team of managers is comprised of men, and all except one of my colleagues is younger than me. This means that I don’t have the critical mass of 30% that is necessary to reap the advantages of diversity. However, I have learned to speak up and I must say I do get respected by my fellow team managers.

What has been the highlight of your professional journey?

After my Global Executive MBA at RSM I started as international key account manager at CSi. The years that I worked for that company were very positive. The company was very internationally oriented: not only CSi’s clients but also the company itself. At the time, CSi had manufacturing facilities in Mexico and China and two facilities in Romania and there were many different nationalities working at the Dutch headquarters – and a lot of women were part of the management team. I loved the diversity in the company which contributed to the positive atmosphere. On top of that I worked with interesting customers, including Mars and Reckitt Benckiser. I relished the interesting business travel and working with many customers worldwide.

And what has been the biggest challenge you have faced?

The biggest challenge has indeed been the sexual harassment (it might even qualify as being called assault) that I faced - and the general harassment that followed. The absolute lowest point that I have encountered in my career was when, on a business trip, my boss - out of nowhere - kissed me on my mouth and touched me very inappropriately. I did not see it coming at all and I froze. At a certain point I defended myself and he stopped. From that point on, I did not feel comfortable working alongside him. An upcoming travel had already been scheduled but there was no possible way that I was going to be alone with him again so I reported the case to HR.

How did the company respond to your report?

HR was completely ignorant as to how to deal with the situation. I was sent home on sick-leave as, according to HR, I was the one with the problem because my boss denied anything had happened. In total I was at home for six weeks and, during that time, he continued to work as normal and used the time to create his own narrative which is that I was home due to disagreement we had about my appraisal. The incident had occurred in October with appraisals taking place in December so that made no sense. After six weeks HR came back to me, suggesting my boss and I talk in the presence of a confidant for each of us. Mine was a woman from HR, who was an employee of the company, while his was the occupational physician who was not an employee of the company. Of course this didn’t work as it was my word against his. I was asked to temporarily take a position in another department located in another building as a permanent solution seemed to be taking time. I accepted hoping to be able to look forward again.

Where you able to do that?

Not at all because that is when a broader harassment started, and it became clear I was being made to pay for someone else’s appalling behaviour. Colleagues who I had worked with harmoniously for a long time wouldn’t greet me anymore. There was gossip and I was even asked if I had been wearing a skirt when it happened. People felt they had to choose sides and the side of my former boss seemed the safe choice. The isolation became so bad that a colleague who was working out his resignation period was told it was forbidden for him to talk to me and that, if he did, there would be consequences. He was decent enough to tell me so at least I would understand the change in his behaviour. After a while some of my employment benefits attached to my job were taken away as they were not part of the package of the temporary job I had accepted but which I definitely did not want to keep long-term. In the meantime, my boss confessed he had lied. At that stage the company washed its hands of the case, stating it was between him and me. In effect they swept it under the carpet to save the excellent reputation of the company. Altogether it was devastating and I decided to leave. It was a downward spiral. I was very depressed and frustrated. It all felt so unfair that I saw no other option than leave because of the actions of someone else.

That sounds incredibly hard and isolating. How were you able to eventually move on?

Out of frustration I took the first job I was offered. It was not a match but I couldn’t bear staying home with nothing to do. A that time my partner was doing the OneMBA at RSM. He was growing as a person while I was definitely heading the opposite direction. Through him I joined some sessions at RSM, one of which was a masterclass by (ECWO’s founder and Executive Director) Dianne Bevelander who now is my biggest role model. I also met the RSM staff, including Elizabeth van Geerestein. Elizabeth did an amazing job coaching me and the downward spiral turned in the opposite direction and, in the end, I decided to pursue the OneMBA myself. I enrolled in 2013, the year my partner graduated and it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. Elizabeth worked with me as a coach from 2012, throughout the OneMBA and right up to graduation in June 2015. She witnessed the change and growth in me - and stated that I had managed to turn pain into purpose. That is how I look back on this challenging period of time in my career.

What made you take a stand against the harassment – both in terms of your personality and in terms of your career?

That is difficult to answer. I was lucky to encounter a group of women at RSM who listened and supported me, and lifted me up. I gained confidence again and could move forward but I realise that not everybody will be this fortunate. I also found that by talking about what had happened to me I can spread the word about the impact of harassment and the consequences for those who are subjected to it.

Looking back and knowing what you know now, would you have handled anything about it differently?

With the knowledge I have in the present, yes, I would have done a lot differently. My case happened a long time before the #metoo era which brought about more awareness of sexual harassment – and, in general, the importance of diversity and inclusion is at last gaining awareness. Looking back, it is obvious that HR had an unequal approach to me and my boss. After I reported the incident, everything changed for me. I was sent home while he remained in his position - and therefore in control. Instead of dealing with the situation, I was offered an alternative job and had benefits taken away because of it. There was also gossip and harassment when I did return to work. The unequal situation was compounded during the process: the confidant I was given was an employee of the company, and so was dependant on it for an income, while the one given to my boss was not. If I ever face, or witness, such a situation of harassment again, regardless of whether it concerns myself or another person, I will always demand equal treatment for both parties. In hindsight, I sometimes regret not pursuing a civil case. Of course, I could never have won because there were no witnesses but taking it into that realm would have meant that the company would not have been able to deny the issue to the outside world, just for the sake of its reputation. But by the time I considered this, I was done with the negativity and wanted to move forward.

What are the main elements of that experience that you have taken forward with you in your new role as Manager Sales at Orangeworks?

The experience changed me. I am very aware about the importance of inclusion. If people withdraw, become outsiders or behave as outsiders I will always try to find the cause and include them back in the team or in the group, regardless whether it concerns my private life or my professional life. Harassment luckily is no issue at Orangeworks – at least not that I have noticed, and believe me, I am very focused on it.

You climbed Kilimanjaro as part of the Women in Leadership project. Tell us about that experience?

During the OneMBA I competed for a place in the Women in Leadership project and I now know I was very privileged to be selected. Participating in the project was a life-changing event for me. From the moment we began preparing, I enjoyed the cooperation of a team of phenomenal, like-minded women. Rebecca Stephens, the first British woman to climb all seven summits and a very inspirational leader, took us through coaching and training sessions and climbed with us. It was wonderful to see how members of the team supported each other – through sharing of clothes and goods but also mentally. During the walks, friendships were made. At high altitude there were also hardships that put loyalty and character to the test. The nights were cold and several climbers suffered from altitude sickness and sleep deprivation. Not all of us made it to the top, but those of us who did arrived together as a group. The teamwork was amazing with individuals pulling each other towards the summit and encouraging those who were struggling to carry on. Don’t ever tell me women cannot work together! If we lift each other up, amazing things will happen.

It sounds like the experience created a sisterhood that still endures?

The project never ended for me and, to this day, I enjoy the strong network of ambitious women from the trip. On that mountain, bonds were created that are stronger than distance and I am still in touch with many of the climbers, no matter where in the world they might now be living. At the time, I knew that the journey itself was more important than reaching the summit. But, for me personally, reaching the summit was very important. After the difficult years I had faced, I needed confirmation that I was able to achieve something through sheer hard work (I had trained a lot for the project). Summiting gave me the self-esteem and self-confidence that I needed at that moment in time. I liked the physical challenge of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and I am proud to have Rebecca in my network. Last year I climbed the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia with her and a friend from the Kilimanjaro Women in Leadership Project joined as well. It was an amazing experience. And the running that I started as part of training for Kilimanjaro has resulted in me running two half marathons - one in Riga and one in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen.

How did you build resilience through your experience of harassment?

One thing I specifically learned from this experience is that I am not my job. At the time, I was so passionate about my work and I completely identified myself with the job and the company. That was shattered in seconds - and when I lost my job I felt like I lost my identity and personality. Of course this is nonsense, but I had to reinvent myself. I am now looking to the future where I plan to have more leading roles that will also enable me to apply my passion for diversity and gender parity in a bigger circle of influence. I believe strongly that we should strive for diversity and inclusion of not only women, but also minorities.

What words of inspiration can you share with other women to help them take a stand if they are being bullied or harassed?

The most important piece of advice I can give is don’t question yourself. I was constantly asking myself questions. What did I do to make this happen? Did I give the wrong signals? Did I dress inappropriately? Is my knowledge of human nature that bad that I misjudged my former boss? And always speak up. I would suggest first speaking to people who will try to understand you before sharing opinions or judgement. Unfortunately we know that speaking up only solves the issue in a few cases. But by accepting harassment and allowing it to continue, you allow others to tear you down, take away your fulfilment from work and limit the added value you can contribute to the organisation. In order to work with passion you have to be able to be an advocate for the organisation you work for. This will never be possible if harassment or bullying is accepted behaviour. Leaving with dignity before the situation gets you down, spreading the word and finding a workplace that respects you is the best you can do. And never forget you are not alone.

Alongside training and policies to properly deal with harassment in organisations, how can society play a role in eliminating harassment?

Society should provide young girls with strong female role models who truly contribute, or have contributed, to the world and society. We have to change the perception that sex and good looks are the only added value of young women to society.

Thank you for sharing your story with us. Do you have any last reflections?

I was on a leadership career path in a leading company when I was harassed. It was a traumatic experience that showed me the need for harassment to be taken seriously by organisations which must have procedures and policies in place and training for staff members at all levels. But, if it hadn’t happened, I might not have done my OneMBA or climbed Kilimanjaro or met the amazing women that are now part of my network. As Elizabeth said, I turned pain into purpose.

 

 

 

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 educationresearch 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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