Dr Joana Vassilopoulou never set out to be an academic when she registered for a Sociology diploma at the University Duisburg-Essen, Germany. But, as she neared the end of her undergraduate studies, her professor enquired if she’d ever considered a career in academia and soon she was on a journey that now sees her regarded as a leading global researcher in the fields of diversity and inclusion. Currently Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Human Resource Management at Brunel Business School in London, Vassilopoulou is also a Senior Lecturer at the Rotterdam School of Management and a faculty member at ECWO where she teaches gender dynamics in negotiations. Her Negotiating for Success programmes are widely recognised for providing research-grounded and empowering insight into the “double bind” influencing women’s negotiating success, as well as practical tools for dealing with it. With a number of programmes coming up in 2019, we asked her what participants should expect, the importance of sisterhood, what currently inspires her and more.
Why is it important for ECWO to put the spotlight on gender roles in negotiations?
It is really essential for women to reach the understanding that they are in no way worse negotiators than men. In fact, research shows that there is no biological difference in the capability of women and men to negotiate. But it also shows that there is a marked difference in how often women and men initiate a negotiation. Our programme provides women with the understanding that gender roles lead to men and women being socialised in certain ways and that this leads to the biggest challenge facing women in negotiations – the double bind.
What exactly is the double bind when it comes to women and negotiation?
By this I mean how gender stereotypes create a no-win situation for women. Men are supposed to be strong and assertive and decisive. Women are supposed to be caring, and nurturing and emotional. When women want to be leaders, when they take charge and do that assertively, they are viewed as a competent leader but, at the same time, they are disliked. If they are in the role of carer that society prescribes for them, they are viewed as less competent, and not seen as leadership material. The same applies to negotiation. If you start to negotiate assertively, you are seen as not behaving as you should and as violating the gender rules. The result of this is that you will experience a social backlash and get penalised. This is one reason why women are hesitant to initiate negotiations. We are not masochists and if you get penalised for something once or twice, you’re unlikely to go back for a third time. So this double bind stops women from actually even initiating a negotiation. One of the key aspects of the negotiation workshops I teach at ECWO is to get across to women that the challenges they face in negotiations are not about their capabilities as an individual but are instead about the expectations of society and the social backlash they face if they step out of these. A key part of the programme is giving tools and tips to deal with these situations and get around them.
Did you face these sorts of challenges when you were navigating as a researcher through academia?
I grew up in Germany, the child of Greek migrants who came to the country as “guest workers”. My parents didn’t know how to manoeuvre through the academic system, which meant I had to find my own way from the very start of my studies. In addition, my mom was a single mother and so I didn’t experience this division of gender roles within my upbringing. My mom was always determined to manage everything herself – I remember once she got an electric shock from trying to repair the washing machine! She was also a feminist who implanted the idea in my head that I could do whatever I wanted – that I could take my own decisions and, if they turned out to be wrong, I would have to live with that. All of this meant that I learnt to speak up and negotiate for myself from early on.
Can you remember specific incidences when you did this?
When Professor Simone Odierna, who had employed me as a university student assistant during my sociology studies, asked if I’d be interested in entering academia after I finished my degree and then organised an internship at a leading research institute for me, my first reaction was to ask if it was a paid position. I had been working alongside studying and needed to be able to continue earning an income. The position wasn’t in fact paid but because I spoke up, I was able to negotiate a salary and take on my first ever research post. At that moment, I definitely broke gender rules by not simply being happy to get the position but by negotiating for myself.
When did you realise that you wanted to be a researcher?
It was actually during that first internship. I had arrived there thinking I would be expected to make a lot of coffee but on the first day, the person who was supposed to be conducting interviews for a new research project was sick and I was asked to step in. The project turned out to be about the participation of ethnic minority women in their neighbourhoods in Germany and it took me to completely secluded communities and places that I never knew existed. I was inspired and at that moment I knew it was what I wanted to do.
Your research now focuses on race and gender equality at work, and diversity management, among other aspects. Why is your work with ECWO important to this?
ECWO is about creating a space, a more free environment, for women to gain insight and the tools to deal with the fact that there is something greater going on – that it is not them as an individual failing to get that promotion or reach that position. We are a research led faculty. We draw on our own and the research of others to show that there is a system that is operating against gender equality; a system that was never built for women and has never been adjusted to suit them. The space we provide in our programmes, conferences and classes is where women can be empowered on an individual level but it’s also about encouraging sisterhood through networking and the exchange of experiences. It is a privilege to be able to stand in front of a group of talented, diverse women and give them the instruments to mitigate the challenges that women still face at the workplace. I am also appreciative of the fact that the ECWO team is made up of mostly women who come from different backgrounds, experiences, and countries. We transport our work ethos into our team and that also makes it a really great organisation to be part of.
You have a highly regarded academic and professional record in the field of diversity and inclusion, and are frequently invited to deliver talks and organise conferences. What inspires you right now?
I had a revelation some years ago and that was that I had to admit that I was naïve in believing that humans were only on a trajectory of improvement. I had been working on issues of race and gender equality at work and diversity management for over 15 years and truly believed that everything was getting better – which was the case for a long time. But now we are facing a huge social backlash against achievements made in terms of gender equality and diversity overall, and the resistance to these has been growing over the last few years. This shows me that what we’ve achieved is fragile, and that we can never lean back and relax. Even if we achieve something, it can be taken away so it’s an ongoing struggle and will remain one. The backlash we are facing right now has inspired me to think further and work harder and to fight on stronger.
To find out more about Dr Joana Vassilopoulou’s upcoming programmes click here.