Stacy Pyett wrote an open letter, sharing personal stories about bias and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. It was meant as a contribution towards a dialogue on gender prejudices at WUR. In this interview, she talks about the responses to that open letter and philosophises about how WUR could become even more inclusive. Stacy: 'In my opinion, WUR needs to shift from “wanting to be perfect” to being willing to find out what isn't going well, so that we can work on that.'
Wageningen University & Research is committed to inclusiveness, diversity and equal opportunities because we firmly believe that this contributes to better research and better teaching. In this interview, Stacy Pyett, programme manager of Proteins for Life at AFSG, answers questions about diversity and inclusiveness.
Can you be 100% yourself at WUR?
Yes, I think so. That's my character. Do I get the space for that? I would say I claim the space for it. Even if not everyone appreciates that, I don't feel the need to please everyone all of the time. That's not how I am and that's okay.
In May 2022, you posted an open letter on Intranet. It received 180 likes and more than 30 comments. That's a lot more than usual. What was the reason for writing the letter?
That open letter is an example of how I am myself at WUR. For each experience I talked about in the letter, I described how I reacted in the situation and how I would have liked to react. The realisation of how I wanted to react usually didn't occur to me until later. It felt natural to me to write that down and share it.
I must say I was surprised that the letter prompted so many responses, on the first day even. And people raised the subject with me in person too, people (mostly women) with similar experiences. People recognised what I had written about, which felt significant to me.
Sjoukje Heimovaara, at the time the new chair of the RvB, organised a discussion on this subject in Impulse. What was that like?
We talked about it with a small group of people. It was a good discussion. Various examples were mentioned of situations that had been improved in recent years. We discussed how the transition to an even more inclusive work environment could be realized.
What I did notice was that many of the participants are responsible for inclusiveness based on their jobs or roles, but there were fewer of the people involved in the primary research process. My wish would be to increase awareness of the subject among staff in research, so that inclusiveness becomes more embedded in daily practice.
How long have you been working at WUR? Can you make comparisons with other jobs?
I've been working here for five years now. I completed my doctoratein the US, did a post doc in Germany and worked in the Netherlands at Campina and NIZO. I can't say there are any noticeable differences. But I have to confess that I wasn't as involved with topics like this until a few years ago. I still have a lot of contact with family and friends in the US and heard early on about the #MeToo discussion. I'm much more alert now than I was during my post-doc time. At my former employers, I accepted things as they were. The incidents were similar, but I personally have changed and become more committed.
I don't think WUR does worse than other organisations when it comes to inclusiveness and diversity, but WUR has a strong desire to do well in that area. That does make it more difficult to articulate what isn't going well or could go better. People quickly become defensive if you raise the subject and they go on to give examples of what is going well. In my opinion, WUR needs to shift from “wanting to be perfect” to being willing to find out what isn't going well, so that we can work on that.
What are your tips for making WUR more inclusive?
My experience is that at WUR, we are not always willing to have the discussion about the things that are not going well at WUR. My open letter gave some groups a reason to discuss inclusiveness in the group and I'm happy with that result. So my tip would be to have open discussion about this. Also, and especially, in the primary process. I continuously want to acknowledge that I, too, suffer from implicit bias. I would really like people to tell me if they notice that. It’s my responsibility to accept that. If everyone had that attitude, we would be making progress. I notice that most people want an unconscious bias to be acknowledged by both sides. Then by raising an issue, you make it a bilateral problem. But that's not how it works. People often go on the defensive and in the end, you are the problem if you started the discussion. You are the troublemaker. We need to lose that attitude.
he WUR vision is that it doesn't matter who you love, which language you speak, where you were born or what you believe in. What is your experience?
That statement is true, by and large. However, we don't acknowledge the importance of the subtle differences in approach. You can defend that by saying that that's a part of Dutch culture: a direct and sometimes blunt approach. But it's more than that.
One example: you're in a meeting and there are a couple of native English speakers. Do you start speaking English straight away or do you discuss it first? If you discuss it, you often hear: 'Oh, do we have to speak English?'. That makes the non-Dutch speaking colleague feel guilty. They're now thinking ’my colleagues have to speak English on my account; they'd rather I wasn't here.’ And that's hurtful. If you're not Dutch, and you hear that dozens of times in the first few weeks, that’s a really unpleasant start. A Dutch person who has never worked in a foreign-language group can't imagine how that feels. Personally, I have strong verbal skills and can come across as dominant. I've had feedback on that too, and it's not easy feedback to get. But you have to acknowledge that and want to do better. So I have to be careful to invite more reticent people and let them speak. You have to want to take a good look at yourself.
In your letter, you mention age discrimination (ageism): ‘Being young and female is a double burden - women with great potential just starting their careers are hardest hit’. Do many colleagues realise that?
I think the notion of “the older, the wiser” is widespread in universities. But in fact, we need to make use of the creativity and new ideas of the many young people at WUR. We want to change the world, don't we? So we have to let the young people be heard. And the fact that that happens at, for example, the Dies, is something I really appreciate.
Do you have tips for improving diversity at WUR?
We have to support people with other cultural backgrounds more. We have a large and diverse inflow, but do they stay affiliated, and do they become successful? Or do they leave after a couple of years? If you ask me, that differs greatly from one part of the organisation to another. At WUR, the responsibility lies at a lower level of the organisation. There is a lot of freedom, but there are also huge differences per research group, certainly in terms of people management. I personally value that scientific freedom enormously, but there are also young people who feel a sense of competitiveness with their supervisor.
Does everyone at WUR have the same chances and career opportunities?
I did have every opportunity when I came here. I had support from Raoul Bino en Louise Fresco; I was allowed to give the Mansholt lecture and write an investment theme, so my experience is positive.
But in reactions to my open letter, I heard about less positive experiences. One male colleague (BSc) feels that his colleagues with a higher degree don't believe he's up to certain questions and think that what he says has less impact. He feels he's missing opportunities because of that. I advocate looking more at capabilities and less at diplomas.
Personally, I learned a lot about opportunities and diversity from Emely de Vet. She and I coordinated the investment theme of Protein Transition. She was keen to attract young people, specifically, to our theme and to support them. Her view was that the big names get money to do their research anyway. We organised a competition, open to everyone; you could submit your ideas ANONYMOUSLY. We looked to see if the idea was scientifically interesting and impactful, without knowing whom or which group it came from. After that, everyone could vote on the ideas selected. That was unique. Everyone had an opinion about this system, and many disagreed with it. For us, it was about the idea itself. Some of the submissions really surprised us, such as the one for a mushroom project. This approach was hugely inspiring and got great results. You're often stuck in your own patterns of thinking and in that case, you miss new input from areas outside your scope.
How do you make sure you stay motivated and inspired in your work?
Team effort is very important. For me, it's indispensable. We recently published a book about proteins - Our Future Proteins - with an editorial team of five people. After that really intense process, we talked about how unique it was that we get along with each other even better after that task.
I still take my inspiration from my impactful work. Even if I can only make a small contribution to resolving a big problem like climate change. That matters to me.
What are your plans for the next 10 years?
I hope that I will be able to keep finding something new in this job. I read somewhere that if you come up against something you don't like, there are three things you can do: (1) ignore it, (2) make your voice heard or (3), leave. I am a believer in Option 2. I see it as loyalty to the employer to explain my point of view. It's not always experienced as loyalty, but that is how it's intended. Long ago, I might have ignored things I thought were not okay, but now I am committed to improving things rather than ignoring them or leaving.