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Prof. Barbara Banda
Prof. Barbara Banda

More than one hundred people filled De Forumzaal at Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) on Friday 23 November for the 2023 edition of Erasmus Organisation for Women and Organisations’ (ECWO) annual conference which delved into what is required to create truly inclusive organisations.

Opening the conference, acting dean of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), Prof. Dr Werner Brouwer stated that “ECWO’s ambition of driving systemic change to create inclusive organisations remains highly important and related to our fundamental values and goals”.

”RSM is incredibly proud to have ECWO as one of its flagship centres,” said Prof. Brouwer. “ECWO embodies the mission of RSM – to be a force for positive change, in organisations and society. And the positive change that ECWO strives for unfortunately remains very much needed. The work therefore is not done. It will take all of us to improve things further.”

In her powerful keynote, Prof. Barbara Banda shared a personal perspective on how she came to write her book, The Model Black: How Black British Leaders Succeed in Organisations and Why It Matters. “One of the things that kept me going in writing the book was the fact that I have three daughters who were about to enter the workplace and I wanted them to have something that they could offer their leaders to help them understand the black British experience in particular, and also give them the language to talk about race”.

Difficulties talking about race

Starkly - and, at times, movingly - touching on themes of “whiteness” being the office standard and how diversity is only accepted “if you behave in the way in which the majority of people want you to behave”, Prof Banda said one of the challenges in making organisations more inclusive is that people find it difficult to talk about race.

“One of the reasons is because often those people who are racialised as white often don’t feel that they have a race; they have the luxury of going through life never having to think about the fact that they have a race in the same way that men often go through life never having to think about the fact that they have a gender.”

The second keynote came from Prof. Frank Baaijens, former Rector Magnificus at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) who provided an inspiring example of how to change paradigms and systems, with reference to his experience at TU/e where interventions like the Irene Curie Fellowship were implemented to advance talented female researchers to thrive and be successful in top positions in science. Prof. Baaijens referenced the bold step, taken in 2019, to make all job vacancies exclusively open to female candidates for the first six months after they are advertised. Key to this was he said was commitment from the Deans as well as having an Executive Board and a Supervisory Board who were really committed to the programme. “This was really a strong intervention but perhaps the best thing that happened as a result of this was that it was being discussed everywhere – including at the coffee table – which is maybe the most effective way to make change.”

Prof. Banda and Prof. Baaijens were joined by Ahmed Shafik (Manager of group services IT at NN-Group) in a panel discussion moderated by ECWO’s Associate Director of Programming, Dorothy Grandia, that examined the imperative for creating inclusive organisations and how to effect that. Among the latter was a suggestion from Prof. Banda to start simply, working at the level of a conversation. Prof Baaijens said having discussions that make people aware of the reality and how an organisation is positioned in that reality are crucial while Shafik spoke about the importance of creating an environment in which women thrive and not one in which women adapt.

After the morning’s plenary session, the afternoon programme got underway with a series of workshops, covering how social safety plays a role in inclusive teams, the possibilities of VR to amplify empathy and activate inclusion, how saying no to non-promotable work helps inclusion and a look at whether Gen Z really is disloyal and lazy.

Inclusion is a group effort

The conference also saw ECWO’s researcher, Kirsten Kardijk, present insight into an inclusion gap tool that the centre is developing, specifically for use in organisations. “We understand inclusion as a group effort, a collective definition in which we all should have a say, in which we all have pieces that bring the puzzle together.”

A highlight of the conference was the presentation of the Dianne Bevelander Prize to 2023’s winner, Karen de Sousa Pesse by Dr Natalie Cleton, Prof. Dianne Bevelander’s daughter. “I am receiving this award because I speak up,” she said before sharing why, as a woman with a migration background, she speaks up and encourages others to do the same, when and where possible.

Writer, consultant and coach, Maartje Laterveer, closed the conference by threading together the insights of the day and issued a potent call to action. “If inclusion means building working environments where everyone can be their true selves, I think we need to build environments where men can be their true selves too. And that seems to be very hard for companies because they are built on business models that require just the opposite – that is, business models based on output and efficiency. The type of leaders that emerge in these kind of cultures are leaders that are most efficient, and emotions are not always efficient, just as diversity is not efficient as inviting different perspectives takes time and having more tailored talent processes takes time.”

Revisit the day's programme here. 

More information

Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) is committed to fostering inclusion. Our founding purpose in 2014 was to empower women and to create a level playing field by building communities for organisational change. Today, ECWO has expanded its perspective to embrace a wider vision of a world of inclusive prosperity. Our new mission is to create a sense of belonging for everyone within organisations through diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), anchored in social safety. We strive for settings where everyone feels valued, respected and supported. We conduct research and produce evidence-led educational programmes, events, coaching, advocacy, and advisory services. We stay true to our roots, and we have evolved to recognise that achieving true inclusion and equity requires encompassing all, regardless of gender or identity.

EC for women and organisations