Inspiring People @WUR: Ken Giller

Wageningen University & Research believes that an inclusivity contributes to better research and education. Thus, we strive for an organisation in which everyone feels safe and welcome.

We at WUR want every talent to feel at home at WUR and be offered equal career opportunities. To this end, WUR has worked actively on issues such as (gender) diversity and inclusiveness for several years now.

Does this desire match reality? Is there room for improvement? Ken Giller, Professor of Plant Production Systems at PSG, responds to several propositions and questions regarding diversity & inclusion in this interview.

Proposition: WUR aims to be a gender-biasfree organisation with equal career opportunities for both men and women.

“It is well known that the higher you move up in our organisation, the fewer women there are. This is not just the case within WUR. The Netherlands is surprisingly conservative with regards to the role of women. In England, my country of origin, children are taken to day-care earlier and more frequently. Dutch society is critical of women who take their children to day-care for several days a week. This surprised me when I moved to live here. From outside the Netherlands appears to be progressive and open but lags behind other countries in this respect. And, within the Netherlands, WUR lags behind other universities in terms of the number of women in higher positions. There is much work to be done from a positive perspective. WUR still has work to do to reach a balanced male-female ratio. And, why shouldn’t we strive for 60% women?”


“In my group, the ratio is 50/50, higher positions included. I find this really important but it took a lot of investment to achieve. This is why I recently collaborated with HR to formulate clear regulations for promotion and appointment committees, to achieve an open and fair recruitment, employment and promotion process. The prevailing view on leadership appears to be that a good leader is a person who makes him/herself heard and leads from the front. But there are different forms of leadership. A good leader may also be someone who leads from behind and opens up new possibilities by doing so. This form of leadership is not so often acknowledged, yet such traits can be equally important for a leader to be successful.”

Why shouldn’t we strive for 60% women?

Proactive recruitment

“In order to achieve that 40%, or, better still, 60% women in higher positions, much more action needs to be taken. I would favour setting a quota, as this is not going to happen by default. Recruiting women requires a targeted approach, starting with the recruitment criteria: What are we looking for in our leaders, what is important. Then, painting the right backdrop in the recruitment text, free from male-female prejudice. This is something WUR is already very aware of. Next, the recruitment advertisement must be spread as broadly as possible to reach a diverse group of potential candidates. Further, instead of waiting for candidates to respond, we need to reach out proactively to head-hunt experts in the field to identify excellent suitable candidates. An example of such a proactive approach is a method that is increasingly used by appointment committees. Each member of the committee sends the job announcement to ten female colleagues, requesting them to pass it on to ten other women academics. This often results in a diverse group of applicants including many competent candidates. Of course there may still be hiccups, for example, if a suitable candidate has accepted a different position in the meantime, so having many applicants to choose from is not necessarily a recipe for success. A pity of course, as recruiting a suitable candidate for a senior position often takes more than a year. Such a gender-sensitive approach may also help improve the general diversity within WUR. It is difficult and consumes a lot of time and energy, but we must do what it takes!”

Proposition: WUR aims to be a diverse organisation, so we do not mind who you love, what language you speak, where you were born or what your beliefs are.

“I try to keep my team as diverse as possible. And, up until the post-doc level, it includes people from a variety of backgrounds, both from Europe and beyond. From that level up, it becomes more challenging to attract candidates from outside Europe. I have also noticed that we more easily choose team members that have already done a PhD trajectory at our university and thus already know the organisation. Perhaps we should reverse this. Successful scientists who have been educated under more challenging circumstances must have made a huge effort to get where they are, so perhaps we should choose candidates who have not served 100% of their career in Wageningen. We can learn a lot from them.
My experience in science is that a more diverse team is more creative and will get you further. The more people with different approaches, the more different perspectives and directions of thought. Diversity is enriching, not only in how we interact, but the alternative ways to approach a problem has added value for science.”

Proposition: WUR aims to be an inclusive organisation in which everyone feels welcome and safe. Each individual must be able to be who they are within WUR.

“We must strive towards a horizontal organisation with as little hierarchy as possible, in which each individual takes responsibility. This is also what I aim for within my group. Everyone is free to join our meetings without fear of saying something stupid. A so-called naive question may well stimulate new ideas. It is better to have free thinkers than people locked within a fixed thinking pattern through which they exclude many possibilities beforehand. I aim to create an open and fair environment. Corona is making this more challenging, as there are no longer informal meetings at the coffee corner. These informal contacts are now something you must organise, which makes them less spontaneous. Regrettably so. But one advantage of the pandemic is that students from abroad can now also join our seminars and colloquia.”

Consider differences a source of inspiration

Celebrate diversity

“I believe you should use diversity in a positive way, rather than focus on the friction and problems diversity may cause. Ten years ago, I was invited to join a group aiming to stimulate intercultural dialogue. This initiative was triggered by the large influx of Chinese students at that time. At the table were lecturers and colleagues from the HR and communication departments, who wanted to begin by making an inventory of all the problems. I objected and suggested we should start instead by considering how we might appreciate and foster diversity. We then organised a week with events such as where everyone brought a dish from their native country to “Celebrate diversity”. This went on to form the basis for our current ‘One World Week’, during which we celebrate our various languages, cultures and differences. There are now many organisations that host similar events. My advice is: consider differences a source of inspiration.”

We are taking steps towards an inclusive organisation, but whether we are 100% inclusive remains to be seen

Solve misunderstandings quickly

“Just like a few years ago, Chinese students currently feel threatened by the behaviour of others. If you witness such an incident, or you see a conflict arise, you must intervene immediately and not let the situation fester. I always ask people to report such situations to me directly. You must consider the causes carefully and solve the misunderstanding without delay. It is important to always remain vigilant. Similar dilemmas may particularly affect female students or PhD candidates. They, too, may feel intimidated. Doing a PhD can be very competitive and may lead to conflicts on results and authorship. These may occur between PhD students and their supervisors or amongst PhD students themselves. We have appointed staff members who are the first point of contact for such issues. They can coach and help PhD students and refer them to confidential advisors if necessary. The new version of the Tenure Track provides for a buddy for newcomers who knows all the ins and outs and is able to provide advice in case of problems. So, we are certainly taking steps towards an inclusive organisation, but whether we are 100% inclusive remains to be seen.”

Proposition: WUR wants each talent to feel at home at WUR and have equal career opportunities.

“To provide those wanting to move ahead with equal opportunities, the Tenure Track was introduced to foster scientific ambitions. Personally, I was not in favour of this system. I certainly agree that the TT system offers many opportunities, but candidates must also meet high demands. This causes a lot of pressure. The renewed version (Tenure Track 2.0) has been improved in certain areas but still places too much emphasis on their publications. Acknowledge that people are different and assess them based on their broader competencies. Fortunately, TT 2.0 pays more attention to teaching skills. You should be able to take career steps not just in research but also through teaching. WUR is, after all, an educational institute.”

How do you stay inspired and motivated?

“I feel strongly committed to the issues I work on: food production and food security in Africa. I worked in Africa for 35 years, and up until the pandemic, I would spend a week per month there. The pandemic certainly caused my carbon footprint to shrink! A positive development, to be sure, but I do miss my field visits. I particularly miss the contacts with the local farmers and research colleagues. Moreover, I miss doing research and arriving at solutions to help the continent together. So, I hope I will soon be able to travel to Africa once again. In that respect, we live in strange times. Instead of going to Africa, I now go on cycling holidays in the Netherlands, which, of course, is also very beautiful.”

How do you see WUR in the future?

“It is great to see how WUR has developed over the past decades. The number of students has increased by almost 300%. I can see that the diversity issue is gaining importance. WUR has a great responsibility to play a part. Embrace diversity, not just for us, but also to strengthen our global position.
Diversity is something you must gradually increase and requires the attention of management. Fostering diversity must be supported through governance, but certainly also through actions.”