The power of connection, community and coming together to create positive societal change was at the heart of the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisation’s annual Gender Balanced Leadership Conference attended by close to 150 participants on November 18th.

The theme of this year’s event - (Re)Connecting (Wo)men - was especially resonant in the wake of the enforced break from gathering brought about by the pandemic, and Prof. Hanneke Takkenberg, ECWO’s Executive Director, opened the conference by asking everyone to keep the South African philosophy of ubuntu – “I am because we are” -  close as they moved through the day. She further shared that a commitment to empowering women, engaging men and driving positive change is what is propelling ECWO’s work in 2022 and beyond.

Taking place at De Forumzaal at Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), the conference began with a trio of keynote speeches that provided different perspectives on – and ways of - creating positive change through gender inclusion.

In a contribution titled '’'Where now meets next': DEI and the value of getting women connected to become agents of innovative change'', Denise Abbott spoke about finding authenticity. “Instead of overproving my worth, I have learned that women give women permission to be authentic … this is what we do for ourselves naturally,” said the Senior Vice President of HR for FedEx Europe, urging women to seek out a sistershood or posse wherever they find themselves working.

Wing Tang’s keynote - "Creating space and stage to reconnect” – made a distinction between making and telling stories.  “We are all storymakers,” said the co-founder of Women Connected. “It doesn’t require any training. It comes with the package of being human. But there is a key distinction between making a story and telling a story. Telling a story is a skill it requires practice and training but the power of mastering this skill means you become a better communicator, a better connector, a better friend.”

The morning’s final keynote came from Jens van Tricht, founder and director of Emancipator and author of the book  Waarom feminisme goed is voor mannen. In a compelling keynote on "Engaging boys and men in gender justice", Van Tricht unequivocally told the participants that “Feminism is good for men because it liberates the femininity in men and feminism needs men for a better world and men need feminism for better lives”.

Wing Tang and Jens van Tricht joined a panel discussion about connecting and reconnecting women and men in the workplace with Thais Souza, head of marketing of PWN (Professional Women's Network) before a networking lunch saw participants making the most of the opportunity to finally connect and share stories.

This year’s conference had five breakout sessions that participants found inspiring, meaningful,  empowering and, at times, deeply emotional. They ranged from The role of storytelling in connecting and belonging to No No No! What would happen if YOU were your first priority?, Menstrual health at work: re-imagining organisations to improve wellbeing, prevent burnout and change cultures, Embodied networking: caring for the living dimensions of networks and SHE LEADS Roundtable Discussions about the power of connections and role models in empowering female entrepreneurship and leadership.

An emotional highpoint came back in the plenary when Dr Natalie Cleton, ECWO Founder Dianne Bevelander’s daughter, presented the inaugural Dianne Bevelander Prize following an outline of her mom’s work and life. Winner Geke Rosier, the founder of RightBrains said, “The title of this event today is me. Connect. I love it – I love it because I meet new people every time I network and go to these kinds of events. It is so important for everyone but don’t stop today. We can’t leave it up to leadership of organisations. We need to do it together.”

The need to work together was echoed in the presentation of the results of ECWO’s research into the need for commitment and co-operation among professional and industry-focused women’s organisations and networks in the Netherlands. “I’m not saying that we are not different – we are not the same, we do differ but we can use these differences to strengthen our influence,” said Kirsten Kardijk, assistant researcher at ECWO and EUR Sociology Masters student.

The conference closed with a keynote by Henriëtte Prast, member of the Dutch Senate for the Party for the Animals and Professor Emerita of Economics and Finance at Tilburg University. After an illuminating talk on Against the tide: women in economics, Prast threw out a challenge: “The trend in diversity and inclusion, which is necessary and good, is very often used to not have to talk about more about equal rights and positions for women ... I am afraid that feminism is crowded out this way. It makes ECWO’s work very necessary and important.”

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The Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is committed to creating organisations where all women are fully and equitably engaged at all levels. ECWO provides education, research and advocacy that benefits individual women, organisations and society as a whole and helps create communities of women who support and empower each other in creating change. ECWO’s open programmes, in-company programmes, coaching, events, advisory alliances, research and advocacy drive its vision of a world where all women have an equal share of organisational power and influence.

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