Inspiring people @WUR: Lingtong Gai

Wageningen University & Research believes that an inclusive atmosphere contributes to better research and education. Thus, we strive for an organisation in which everyone feels safe and welcome. If each individual can be who they are, science and education can truly flourish.

We want every talent to feel at home at WUR and have 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 to be found? Lingtong Gai, project leader Internationalisation at Corporate Human Resources, responds to several propositions and questions regarding diversity and inclusion in this interview.

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Can you tell me about the HR project that you’re working on?

I first studied (MSc) and later on worked (PhD and staff) at WUR; for ten years now. Originally I’m a PhD candidate in the Soil Physics and Land Management (SLM) Group in ESG and am still working in this field for three days a week. For the other two days I made a career switch into the being project leader of Internationalisation in Corporate HR. How that happened? During my PhD, I was involved in many international student organisations and related affairs, and thus acquired lots of international friends and contacts. For six years, I was a member of the One World Week Committee. I became increasingly interested in cultural differences and how people with different backgrounds communicate with each other, which led to a new-found enthusiasm to contribute to the internationalisation of WUR.

The theme of internationalisation has a role in many different WUR departments, each with their own focus, such as Strategy and Accounts or Student Affairs and Human Resources. Within HR, we focus on our employees. We want to bring more international talents to Wageningen, help them settle in the Netherlands, and make them stay and flourish at WUR. This is where my international background comes into play. I think WUR is already doing great in this field, though with room for improvement, of course.

In terms of gender, WUR lacks diversity. In terms of race, we are still far from it

The theme of internationalisation has a role in many different WUR departments, each with their own focus, such as Strategy and Accounts or Student Affairs and Human Resources. Within HR, we focus on our employees. We want to bring more international talents to Wageningen, help them settle in the Netherlands, and make them stay and flourish at WUR. This is where my international background comes into play. I think WUR is already doing great in this field, though with room for improvement, of course.

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

Personally I did not experience gender bias in my working environment. Within the SLM group, gender is balanced and in my opinion I was given the room and opportunities to achieve the same goals as men can. However, men and women are not equally represented in all departments at WUR.

The secretaries team consists of more, if not only, women; HR-advisors are often females. I think the social aspects of this work form an obstacle for men. I see enough caring men with a hospitable attitude who would be well-suited to the job, but they are not willing to apply for a secretary or HR role. Maybe they’re afraid of how other people look at them, or maybe there’s a voice unconsciously telling them that it’s a job for women? Personally I think it is important that we look at people’s experience and quality rather than gender. That’s the only way to maximise everyone’s performance.

Bringing in talents from other continents to WUR would really contribute to our international ambition

I’m glad to see a lot of change in academia, especially in the last two to three years. We’re taking in many female researchers and giving them advantages like special fundings and programmes to help them realise their goals.

When we talk about gender nowadays, we often focus on the higher positions, but it is only a matter of time until all these beginning reseachers will reach the top. Overall, I think WUR is on the right track with good intentions and a lot of momentum. It may not be within the next two years, but we will get there eventually.

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.

In terms of gender, WUR lacks diversity. In terms of race, we are still far from it. We have almost no persons of colour in higher positions. The higher the position, the more European, if not Dutch, it gets. WUR has an international ambition and bringing in talents from other continents would really contribute to that. But I’m optimistic. The recruitment team is applying all kinds of strategies, even headhunting across the world, to bring some ‘big brains’ to Wageningen. Our current international employees are also spreading the reputation of WUR to bring in other international colleagues.

However, we do face practical issues as we try to realise this. New colleagues have problems like their partner having to start a new career in the Netherlands, finding housing, and relocating the whole family. We call this the hardware. They also face soft problems like the language and working in another culture, and how to adapt to Dutch society and systems (such as medical care, taxes, and integration). We are working hard to improve our services for potential new employees. Part of my job is to collaborate with more partners like the Expat Centre here in Wageningen and other organisations in the Netherlands, so we can exchange good practices and learn from each other.

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I’m proud of our Dual Career Centre, which helps the partners of potential new employees developing or continuing a career by providing them with a training programme to enter the Dutch labour market. We introduced this programme to the Expat Centre and hope that the the whole Food Valley region can benefit from it. Rather than offering support on individual level only, we now have a complete programme and a coordination team for the relocation process, onboarding and training.

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.

I could always be myself; I feel that WUR is encouraging everyone of us to be ourselves.ne of us to be ourselves.

Of course, there are still conflicts and misunderstandings within Wageningen. For example, as mentioned in the previous interview by Prof. Ken Giller, I also acknowledge the criticism on the Chinese community – that we stick together too much and may influence the cultural and even scientific atmostphere. But simple critisism is not going to help the situation. On the one hand, we encourage the Chinese students to step out of their community, express themselves and show their culture. On the other hand, we try to create a safe environment at WUR that invites dialogue to foster mutual understanding. We shoud not let any community feel targeted or excluded in WUR. Therefore, inclusive communication is important.

I have experienced – also in my marriage to a Dutch man – that communication is key. Everyone has their own understanding of everything from their background and surroundings; talk about it and clarify it to avoid misunderstandings.

The Dutch are known for their directness; consider the benefit of that and try to put it to good use. It will increase the efficiency of communication a lot. Don’t excluse yourself or others by not saying and not expressing yourself. My hope is that everyone in the WUR environment realises that dialogue is a powerful and essential tool.

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

Yes, but the reality is not favourable just yet. Despite WUR’s efforts to provide sufficient equal career opportunities and support for international talents’ relocation process, onboarding and family, the legal framework of national policy and the Dutch collective labour agreement (CAO) make coming to Wageningen unattractive. We cannot offer certain services because of the policy or economic concerns, so for example, we cannot support the partners with free Dutch lessons or free sports rights, and we cannot offer new international employees housing because of the growing shortage of houses in the Netherlands. So while I do think that WUR is doing well on giving equal opportunities, the bigger environment also plays a role.

Question: Will you remain in the field of HR or do you have other plans for the future?
Both projects I was working on are finished now. The subject of internationalisation is now intergrated into Diversity and Inclusion. The research project in SLM is also a short-term project, meaning it comes with a short contract too. The short duration of projects and contracts is also a problem for attracting international employees: no one is going to relocate the whole family for a short period like two or three years.

Communicatie is van essentieel belang; praat met elkaar en wees duidelijk

I think that after my maternity leave I will continue working in research whilst following my passion to contribute to inclusitivity and diversity on the side. I may be helping out with programmes, communication and raising awareness. It’s very inspiring to see that designing a training for a group of students or PhDs can make a difference, that they can be encouraged to step out and can make their voice heard. 

Question: How do you see WUR in the future?
I think it will continue to change. Of course, it always can be more and change takes time, but I see the collective efforts of all colleagues involved, like HR departments, the recruitment team and even researchers from Young WUR and Young Academy are doing great things and have great initiatives.

What I really hope to see is that WUR increases its impact on society for these aspects. Therefore, we should try to reach a bigger audience by communicating what we are already doing, and we should be more proud of it too. Contributing to the global diversity and inclusion is also part of our social responsibility. This makes WUR more attractive for international talents and raises our global impact.