Inspiring people @WUR: Joukje Siebenga

"Working abroad changes your view on issues such as inclusion and equal opportunities. If you compare countries like New Zealand and Australia with the Netherlands, the situation is different, but not really. Based on my experiences there, I am definitely in favour of the proactive approach, such as positive discrimination and quotas, otherwise you will not change the status quo! A few years ago, I definitely would have given different answers."

Wageningen University & Research is committed to inclusion, diversity, and equal opportunities, because we are convinced that this contributes to better research and education. Is this wish already becoming reality? And is there room for improvement? Joukje Siebenga, programme manager of ERRAZE@WUR, a WUR-wide research and investment programme, responds to questions about diversity and inclusion in this interview.

Inclusion

Can you 100% be yourself at work?

At work, I am not completely different from what I am at home. However, there is a subtle difference: at work I am more professional and a little more reserved, especially when I meet people I do not know very well. The better I know people, the smaller the difference. Do you mean that I have to hide parts of my personality? I don’t think I do. But I can’t say for sure whether that is true for everyone. It could be that some people do keep elements of their lives hidden, such as their relationship or religion. But ideally, they should not have to hide that.

Did you feel welcome on campus?

I joined Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (WBVR) in Lelystad from Australia in 2019. I felt very welcome there: a nice job, nice workplace, and friendly people. I was once again working in my field in the infectious disease world, and One Health (the interdisciplinary approach to improving the health of people, animals, and their environment). Halfway through the pandemic, I switched to my current role as programme manager and primarily work in Wageningen. A familiar environment, because I am an alumna and at the time, I studied Bioprocess Technology with a specialisation in infectious diseases. I am actually still president of Oud Argo (the alumni of the Wageningen student rowing club).

One point of criticism could be that WUR prefers its own alumni. What do you think about that?

You can also turn it around: people who have a connection with Wageningen are so positive about their past experience that they want to come back. Wageningen is a welcoming environment.

Can you compare the situation at WUR with previous employers or abroad?

I have worked in both New Zealand and Australia. Countries where a white culture has been forced onto an existing culture and not always successfully to say the least. Both countries are in different stages as they attempt to change that. New Zealand does this through strong positive discrimination. In each research proposal, you must emphasise how you will actively engage Maori people and what positive impact your work will have on the Maori community.

In Australia, discrimination against the Aborigines, the traditional owners of the land, is still very real. At the university in Melbourne, I had the opportunity to participate in a national programme, where I got to go on a secondment to an Aboriginal organisation for a few weeks. The programme enables knowledge transfer to the host organisations, but a key outcome is that Australians learn about their own country and history. I also learned a lot about diversity there and got a better understanding of issues such as generational trauma.

In the beginning, I found New Zealand's proactive approach a little exaggerated at times. I changed my mind about that after my stay in Australia.

So, you are in favour of positive discrimination and quotas?

If you compare those countries with the Netherlands, the situation is different at some levels, but also the same in some areas. Now that I have put more thought into the issue, I am definitely in favour of the proactive approach, otherwise you will not change the status quo! A few years ago, I would definitely have given a different answer.

I have a few more examples from Australia. At the University of Melbourne, important group meetings had to be held between 09:30 and 16:30 to give everyone a chance to take care of their own care responsibilities. But there was also a recent issue at the presentation of important education awards. When it turned out that the nominees were six middle-aged men, an important research funding donor pulled the plug on its collaboration with the university.

So, while the academic world is already quite well organised, certainly on paper, there are many of the same trends and room for improvement, not only at WUR but also abroad.

In Melbourne, as in many places, there are more men than women working in the sciences. Women stand out as a result, and because they are at least as good as their colleagues, they are often pushed forward for media and other appearances. They get a bigger stage, because of the attention to diversity and because it fits into the external communication well. The same thing happens with Aboriginal Australians; the few with a high-level research role are always pushed into the limelight. The same goes for women in the Netherlands: if you are young, female, and good at your job, and you can present it well, you are frequently asked for media appearances. This is positive, but we need to be mindful that it can also be inhibiting.

I am now working with a group of project leaders who are all middle-aged men. Next time, I should approach women more actively

What are some of the things you noticed in terms of diversity and inclusion when you came to work at WUR?

Something went wrong in my current working environment at the start of my programme. I assumed (perhaps naively) that there were equal opportunities within the Netherlands. Each Science Group nominated experts for the core team, and there was a more organic system in which project leaders could nominate themselves. I work with a very capable, very experienced and fine group of project leaders, but almost all of them are male and mostly middle-aged. This has to change in the future. Perhaps women are less inclined to raise their hands, or they are better at managing their time. Perhaps there are also fewer women, or perhaps we think there are fewer of them? We may also choose them less quickly because it has been shown that we often choose people who are already in the majority in a team. In any case, I think it is important that women are approached more actively next time and that, for example, they can influence the time they spend on such a programme.

What can we do to reduce the exclusion of people?

When I came back to the Netherlands, as a Dutch woman, I did not feel excluded here: I had all my contacts in the Netherlands. For non-Dutch people, this is perhaps being underestimated. The Netherlands has a reputation for being hospitable. Yes, at work we speak English easily, but we do not take into account that foreigners may come here without a social network. We are particularly hospitable at work. In Australia and New Zealand, I was often invited to colleagues' houses outside of our work hours.

Choose less stereotyped leadership

Diversity

At WUR, it does not matter who you love, what language you speak, where you were born, or what you believe in. What is your experience with this?

I am going to say very hopefully that this statement is true, although it is not always easy.

Where are the opportunities in this area for WUR?

For example, I have noticed that there are now many women in the MT at WBVR, and the newly appointed business unit manager is a woman. I think that is very commendable, but I can also imagine that there is still room for improvement. WUR is already increasingly providing employees with the freedom to organise their own time and work. Working from home has accelerated that process. Being able to manage your time more flexibly has had a greater positive effect on women than on men, because in practice they still have more care responsibilities.

WUR could also have more appreciation for the more introverted employees. They are also extremely valuable in an organisation. Just like in society in general, extraverted qualities are highly valued, while a good researcher can be very different as well. I see it all around me: a researcher has to be able to do everything and enjoy everything, not only research but also account management, leadership, communication (preferably on TV), and carrying out complex project management. There is no such thing as a 20-legged sheep, and surely you cannot expect all this from one person? A good researcher must be able to function and grow even without all kinds of complicated management tasks.

My motto: in case of equal suitability, we choose people who are now under-represented

Do you feel that diversity is already a reality?

Do you have any suggestions? A very simple one. There are tools to screen texts for gender. HR provided me with this support tool. With some minor improvements, you get a text that appeals to not only men or women. The sentence "your time investment in this project/programme can be determined by mutual agreement" also attracts a wider group of people. I myself have added the following sentence to a financing text: “My motto: to achieve equal opportunity, we must choose people who are currently under-represented.” If you offer everyone within WUR this kind of knowledge (training, tools), it should work. When it comes to beliefs or lifestyles, we should not set our own standards. Once when I requested a savoury snack for after a meeting, and expected WUR to provide sensible snacks, including cheese, nuts, and vegetarian alternatives, yet I was mostly given sausages! Next time, I will clearly request vegetarian snacks and consider whether or not to offer alcohol.

What are your plans for 10 years from now? Do you still see yourself working at WUR?

The ERRAZE@WUR programme will run until at least 2023. But I see opportunities for extending the financing, which could also be interesting for WUR. I am working hard on this. If the programme continues for longer, I would like to stay. WUR is a beautiful organisation where anything is possible. For example, working from home. On request, it is possible for me to live with my partner in Germany in the Ahr valley, and to work partly on campus and partly at home. (Yes, Ahrtal is the area that was badly affected by the floods this summer. The aftermath and its complexity is enormous!) However, I can also see plenty of opportunities and places for myself within WUR should my programme come to an end.