You are one of the most respected experts in cardio-thoracic diseases in the Netherlands. Can you reflect on your journey to this position?
I’m 53 now so it’s been a long journey (smiles). I’ve always been very curious and I’m always looking for the type of activities that give me energy, and make me use the best of my talents. I was lucky enough to grow up in an academic environment with parents who stimulated me. My father was an officer in the air force who later became an economics professor, and my mother was a primary school teacher who got fired when she fell pregnant with me because that was the law back then. I actually still have her letter of resignation and I often use it in the women and leadership courses that I teach. Early on, I had a fascination for medicine, especially the bloody, more invasive parts. But, back then, there was a lottery to get into medical school and, when I didn’t get in on my first and second try I studied psychology until I finally got a place. Once I’d completed my studies I knew that I wanted to do something with the heart. I’d already met my husband who is an economist and, at the time, there was not enough work in the Netherlands for medical graduates so we made the decision to look internationally. In 1994 I was appointed a Research Fellow in the Department of Cardio-Thoracic Surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and we moved to Los Angeles. It was an exciting time and I met a lot of inspiring people.
Were there any challenging decisions you had to make along the way?
I liked the clinical work, going out at night to harvest hearts for transplants but it soon became clear that I liked the research even more. I began doing experimental research on heart transplantation with the help of a technician who had worked with Christiaan Barnard on the first heart transplant in South Africa. Then, one Monday morning, I had a powerful turning point. I was on the way home to get some sleep, having spent the night helping harvest a heart for transplantation. On the steps of Cedars-Sinai, I met another woman doctor who was waiting in her white coat. She’d been on call and I asked if she was also finally heading home. She replied that she wasn’t and was instead waiting for her husband to drive past the hospital with her children on the way to school so that she could give them a hug before going back to work. I knew then that I didn’t want to live like that. Even though I knew that I would have a more financially lucrative career as a cardiac surgeon or a cardiologist I made the decision then and there not to enter that life. It was at that point in time that I knew that, to be happy in the long-term, I had to follow my own heart into research.
“Everything can be going according to plan and then suddenly there’s a full-stop that makes you re-evaluate where you are.”
And have you faced any other significant turning points?
Another very important point in my life came when my then-youngest, now third, daughter became severely ill and required a bone marrow transplant. The doctors said that she would most likely die. But she survived her transplant and, although her health is not optimal, she leads a good life. But it really made me realise what is really important in life. Everything can be going according to plan and then suddenly there’s a full-stop that makes you re-evaluate where you are. I realised that I was fully focused on my career and I regained some balance in terms of my family life. I also started to become active in patient organisations, using my skills to develop an information portal for patients affected by this rare disease. I also got involved in advocacy to improve care and advance knowledge on the disease.
When did your views on women in leadership began to take shape?
As soon as I entered the medical field, I knew there was something wrong with the picture I was seeing. Even though two-thirds of those graduating with me in 1994 were women, there was a noticeable lack of opportunity for women - and female empowerment was visibly absent. But it really came into focus for me, when, after defending my PhD at the end of 2002, I was immediately appointed Assistant Professor, Clinical Epidemiologist at Erasmus MC and I really began observing the environment I was working in. Together with two doctor friends of mine, we did some research into female representation among medical specialists and professors in the Netherlands. At the same time, I had seen, in Erasmus MC’s annual report, how much less women were being paid then men. So I wrote an angry email to the leadership, pointing out all of this and stating how important it was for men and women to have equal opportunities. Soon after that I was invited to initiate a policy that could begin to address this. Back then, before diversity and inclusion entered our language, it was simply called the Women’s Policy. Together with a friend of mine, professor Jolien Roos-Hesselink, I also founded VENA, the Erasmus MC women's network of academics, in 2007. I am proud to say that the network is still there and is very successful and impactful.
Why do you believe it’s valuable to have women in positions of leadership in all areas of society?
There is no more doubting that gender diversity and the empowerment of women into positions of leadership are tools of improvement. I look at what we have achieved with VENA, which was the first of its kind within a university medical centre. Not only did we provide inspiration for other university medical centres in the Netherlands to implement similar programmes but, together with Human Resources, we initiated a career development programme which sees the selection of 10 to 12 highly talented women every year. These women acquire skills during the programme that have been shown to contribute significantly to their advancement towards a higher position and into leadership.
Having a diversity of perspectives in teams is a key to success in any business
You are active in the area of female professorship and are on the board of LNVH. Why is equal representation of women within the academic community important?
When I wrote that angry letter that led to the initiation of the Women’s Policy I started by saying that it was not fair that women did not have the same career progression opportunities as men did. But, of course, it’s much more than that. Having a diversity of perspectives in teams is a key to success in any business, and underrepresentation of women in higher positions is simply not good for the organisation, and especially in academia where innovation and the advancement of knowledge are key products.
It’s inspirational to see how you always turn your beliefs into action!
I can’t help it! I think that’s how I’ve always been. So when I see something that I know can further impact the empowerment of women in science and medicine and shift us even further towards gender equality, I have to do it. I am a person who likes to network, to connect people and to collaborate with others. Right from when I joined the Department of Cardio-Thoracic Surgery at Erasmus MC in 1996, and especially when I was appointed Assistant Professor, I worked to build a substantial network within my field. From this, I could see the impact of inclusive and supportive networks on the opportunities for women to advance their careers and move into leadership positions. I wanted to take this further and get even more active so I joined the Erasmus University Network for Female Professors (ENVH) board and, before I knew it, I was the chair (since 2014). Within ENVH, I very quickly saw that only focusing on female professors was not enough and so we began looking at how to bring scientists in the early stages of their career into the network. That has led to replacement of the LNVH by FAME, the Female Academics Moving toward Equity network that connects all people working in academia and support the advancement of women working in the Erasmus University.
ECWO is a community that women – and men - want to be a part of
You are a supporter of ECWO’s mission. What role do you believe the organisation plays?
When I connected with Dianne (Bevelander, ECWO’s Executive Director) I found a kindred spirit. We both like to build a big bonfire on campus that moves people towards positive change. ECWO’s mission is not about complaining that things are not right but pushing to make a difference – getting into advocacy, creating circles of sisterhood, empowering each other and supporting each other. ECWO is only five years old and look at what Dianne has achieved with her team. She’s created a community that you want to be a part of – that even men want to be a part of. Look at what she did with the Kilimanjaro Women in Leadership MBA elective. At the time, she said “It’s not about reaching the summit; it’s about working as a team and exceeding your own limits, even by just the slightest of margins” - and that vision drives ECWO in so many different ways. ECWO is not only about providing executive education to talented women in business and science. It’s about creating networks of women who connect to each other. That’s what really makes ECWO stand out right now in comparison to other consultancy companies selling this kind of education. That is the added value.
What do you see as the future of ECWO?
We want to add even more value as we move forward. Our aim is to undertake research connected to the education that we give – in particular, focusing on the effectiveness of the networks being created through our educational programmes. Do women get bigger, more effective networks after participating in our courses? Do they advance in their careers? Do they feel happier in their work?. We have a Dream Team @ ECWO, we have a great formula and we have added value already. Building on that is what the future holds.
The power and fun of diversity
You are a mother of four daughters. If you had to choose one thing to be different in the world they will inhabit as adults, what would it be?
If I can make a wish, it would be a really big wish. Currently the world is masculine and individualistic. My oldest daughter is 23 and my youngest has just turned 10 and I hope that when they get into the workforce, there is more acknowledgement of the power - and the fun - of diversity. I hope they get to work in diverse and inclusive teams and that they can be themselves and not have to turn into a man in order to be successful and reach their goals. I also hope that society will also become more inclusive. I do not mean that everybody must be the same. I want people to celebrate their differences. But I hope that people are respectful to one another and are always trying to understand each other.