"My last interview": Prof Dianne Bevelander

On April 1st 2021 Professor Dianne Bevelander handed over the role of Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) Executive Director to Professor Hanneke Takkenberg, after 18 months of working together as co-Executive Directors.

Originally posted on 21 May 2021

It marked the formal end of her leadership of the organisation she founded in 2014 - and that is now an acknowledged pioneer in the empowerment of women and gender equality and balance in organisations.

Leaving ECWO in Takkenberg’s excellent hands, nearly seven years after it opened its doors, is not what Bevelander had envisaged for the centre – or herself. But, progression of the cancer that returned at the same time as ECWO was established means that she is forced to step back. Dianne has written and spoken about her ‘Battle Royale’ with all the searing honesty, insight and strength that has marked her entire academic and professional career. “I’m dying,” she says simply, with barely a trace of the sadness that shadows her extraordinarily philosophical approach to this turn in her life.

In her final interview, a conversation with ECWO’s Diane Coetzer, this living legend as she’s been called by Forbes, reflects back on her journey and shares the lessons she has learnt along the way – lessons that helped ECWO’s founder truly make a noise and move mountains.

You were Executive Director and Associate Dean of MBA Programmes for RSM when the idea for establishing a centre like ECWO first began geminating. What do you remember most when you reflect back on that time?

I’m always slightly embarrassed thinking back to how I just didn’t see things that are often blindingly obvious to me today. For instance, the way business education often perpetuates gender bias, through texts, cases, business speakers, and even faculty. The turning point came when I undertook research into social networks amongst our MBA students. I wanting to see if there was real collaboration amongst the extremely diverse student population in the RSM classroom. Were the Japanese working with the Spanish? Were the Nigerians socialising with the Dutch? Were the Mexicans exploring innovative ideas with the Chinese? I was fully aware that part of the appeal of the RSM programme for prospective students was their desire to study in a truly cosmopolitan environment where no single nationality dominated. Was the programme meeting this need? As associate dean, I wanted to use a network analysis to establish if I needed to take action to encourage more integration. One day Mike (ECWO Senior Researcher, Professor Michael Page) suggested that I look beyond nationality and consider gender as well. I did, and what a transforming experience it turned out to be!

What was the most striking aspect of what you discovered in the research?

The results of the research showed that women skewed towards men in trust situations at work. The question I had asked was, if you had a risky project, who would you ask to be on your team, and many women chose men. At first, I blamed the women. This is ridiculous; I wanted to say to them! Open your eyes! Thankfully, we had some very good reviewers who thought that the results of the research were good but suggested that a more critical appraisal was necessary. The literature and debate that this led to was another defining moment for me. Not only did I start to see what was happening in business schools, but I also became very aware of my own bias. It was unbelievable! Once those moments of serendipity had fallen into place I just knew that I had to pay it forward. As associate dean, I was able to take action quickly and so I began to ensure that women were not isolated in male dominated study groups—never less than two and, on occasion, the women were in the majority. I also initiated diversity classes because I reasoned that there would be people who thought the way I did and would value these classes. They didn’t come!

That didn’t stop you ….

No, it didn’t – and neither did the RSM leadership which was questioning why I was moving in this direction. At the time, their attitude was “everything works – what’s your problem?” They didn’t see the gender imbalance, the gender biases, and the gender inequality that had become so glaringly obvious to me. I began thinking very deeply about the loss of talent to society as a whole if women are not empowered in organisations. I also started to examine closely all the challenges that I had faced in a leadership position – with both men and women. People had told me that I was too aggressive, that I should smile more. At that time, I was very determined and sure of myself, and it took some more reading to realise that reaching the goal of gender equality was not just going to happen because it was fair. I needed to adjust my leadership style slightly to get people to hear me. Although absolutely no fault of mine, I recognised the need to manage that perception of aggression and unfriendliness. It wasn’t true. It was offensive. But I was going to control the environment rather than have it dictate to me. I also knew that I wanted to share this with other women. I had the powerful realisation that together we can change things because of the way we connect, communicate, collaborate and lead. I firmly believe that groups of people coalescing around an injustice drive the big changes in society. As the suffragists opened the ballot box, women together will open the boardroom.

The diversity classes hadn’t had the impact that you had hoped they would have so how did you get the ball rolling at RSM?

I wanted to make a positive noise at RSM so in 2012 I designed and launched the first women-only elective at a business school: the MBA Kilimanjaro Leadership Project.  The next step was creating ECWO. In this, I had the support of Dean Steef van de Velde. Even though he and I have differences in how we view the world, he always supported me. The centre would not be where it is today without that support. ECWO opened its doors in a tiny office at RSM in September 2014 and, just as that happened, the cancer that had initially prevented me from summiting Mount Kilimanjaro with my students returned. I thought to myself, “what am I going to do now?” I had cancer once again, but I also had a centre to establish”.

You could have said “ok this is where I stop”. People would have understood.

No, I could not have stopped. Certainly, people would have understood, but I wasn’t ready to stop. I remember coming to work, even while having the chemotherapy. I knew ECWO could make a difference and a metastasised cancer wasn’t going to stop that. I loved the team that was coming together and the work we were doing. I loved the women that we were starting to interact with, and I loved their stories that brought to life the statistics about gender imbalance, bias and inequality. Companies like TNO and ING began coming to us for advice and training programmes, and it just got so exciting and dynamic.

Were you able to draw from that energy in your “Battle Royale” against cancer?

I wanted to show people that although I had cancer, was not ill. I was still able to add value and do things in spite of the chemo and the damned tumours it was desperately fighting. This was important to me because a cancer diagnosis often gets one marginalised. It was wonderful when the University began recognising the importance of what ECWO was doing. We won an award and moved into a bigger office. My next big area of focus was accessing grant money for research and getting more people on our team. That’s when I met Hanneke. She was the Chief Diversity Officer at Erasmus and we connected very quickly. She could see the impact that ECWO was having and, along with Mike, she played a key role in our application for a European Commission Horizon 2020 grant. We didn’t get it the first time around – we came second – but applied again the following year and I was delighted when we were informed that we had been given a €500 000 grant. Along with the ECB funding we have for a four-year project, and the client base that we have built up – and keep growing – over the years I am confident that I am leaving Hanneke a very sustainable centre. She, of course, will take ECWO forward in her own way but I do know that she is going to build significantly on the research side and really measure the impact that we are having. That makes me happy. We know that we are having impact – women who journey with us are being promoted and companies keep coming back to us. It will be wonderful to have the research to back it up and expand the journey to gender equality in other areas of society. These last six years with all the women I have worked with and encountered on our programmes and events has made it so worthwhile. It’s been a privilege and an absolute blast.

Earlier this year, you gave two Women in Leadership online Masterclasses for ECWO and also one for the Dutch Ministry of Finance on International Women’s Day. How have you been able to still contribute?

Although my health is obviously deteriorating, I still hope to inspire other people. During the first three months of this year, I still had enough energy to contribute and it was wonderful. But, I did appreciate through those events, and through other activities, that my stamina has gone. My energies are now limited so I am spending as much time as COVID allows with my friends, colleagues, and family.

Is it possible for your to share some of what you have learned since starting ECWO?

  • Do not sell out for safety. Many women stay in job or remain in a toxic environment because they are scared. My message to them is do not sell out who they are in exchange for safety. It takes courage to move because it takes you outside your comfort zone, especially the first time you do it. However, you will soon realise that your world does not collapse when you find the courage to change and get off the hamster wheel. When I started ECWO, I had to leave a comfort zone and start something new, with very few resources. It blossomed in spite of the scary risk because I believed in it and I hired people who believed in it as well.

  • Create a posse. Creating a posse is vital for every part of your professional journey. Find people who believe in you. Throughout my life, I have had great mentors and sponsors who believed in me, probably more than I believed in myself. They gave me the courage to do what I wanted to do. Building your posse amplifies your courage and makes the previously unthinkable just a step forward! Remember that you also build your posse by asking, by having the courage to ask for help. If I have to give to key insights to building your posse, they would be:

    • First, if you cannot find something positive to say about another woman, say nothing at all. We all have faults but success comes from leveraging our collective strengths rather than pointing out our weaknesses.

    • Second, amplification is key. Go out of your way to find reasons to amplify the good work women in your organisation and network are doing. I cannot say this enough. Your credibility is built when others speak positively about you. Do the same for them whenever, and wherever, you can.

  • You can lead from wherever you are. Even if you are in a junior position, you can mentor and speak positively about other women. It is wrong to think that you can only lead when you are in a leadership role.

  • Leadership is about helping reveal the talents that everyone is born with. As women, our talents are frequently ignored or overlooked. As a leader, and as colleagues and friends, you can help reveal these talents and give people the space, encouragement and courage to explore them. This is what I have built ECWO on: giving women the research-backed understanding that it is not their fault if they are in a toxic environment or if their boss does not want to promote them. Often this is more about the way society is structured and the circumstances in which they find themselves. We teach women to believe in themselves.

Thank you Dianne. As always your words are inspirational. You have built an amazing circle of friends and colleagues whose lives have been, and continue to be, enriched by you. I am sure that they join me in saying that words cannot articulate fully how we feel and how much we want to thank you. Perhaps, as two South Africans, you will permit me to “gender adjust” a Nelson Mandela quote: “If you talk to a woman in a language she understands, that goes to her head. If you talk to her in her language, that goes to her heart.” Dianne, you have got to all our hearts! 

Thank you. I am obviously sad to take my leave of ECWO but I know that the community it has become will continue to thrive and that I will always be part of it. Please, please remain engaged. Do so for yourself, for so many other women, and for a better world.

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.

ECWO Storytelling