WUR’s inspirational women: Sjoukje Heimovaara

At Wageningen University & Research, we believe that an inclusive culture –where everyone feels safe and welcome – enhances research & education. WUR’s Diversity & Gender project team is working on a range of ways for creating an inclusive culture. One of these is the empowerment of women. How can you make a difference? This year we will be conducting a series of interviews with women who we see as role models within WUR.

“Women should focus more on what they can do rather than what they can’t do,” says Sjoukje Heimovaara, who was appointed Managing Director of the WUR Agrotechnology and Food Sciences Group (AFSG) on 1 March. She believes women shouldn’t try to always be empathic and kind; nor should they try to do everything perfectly. In this interview, Sjoukje shares her experiences with phenomena like the glass cliff and the sticky floor and offers tips for women with ambition.

Can you briefly describe your career?

“I studied Plant Breeding in Wageningen, where I was mostly interested in the molecular perspective. After graduating (in 1989) I worked as a researcher at TNO Food & Health in Leiden, originally on a barley study for breweries. The TNO department was located at the University of Leiden, a WU/WR construction avant la lettre. I became head of department at TNO, published some articles, and defended my PhD thesis on cell biology in Leiden. After 13 years of working at TNO, I was asked for the position of R&D Director at Royal van Zanten. From there I was promoted to Director of one of the two companies, and later to CEO of Royal van Zanten, a large international horticultural company with approximately 1200 employees. In late 2018 I sold the company on behalf of the shareholder to a private equity fund. We were able to keep the ‘Royal’ label. I left in September 2019 because of a difference of opinion concerning our approach to work. I had intended to take some time to recover from this intense period, but a number of people pointed me to the vacancy of Director of AFSFG at WUR. I hesitated at first, because I wasn’t familiar with the world of food sciences, but apparently this wasn’t a problem.”

Why return to WUR?

“I’ve always had a soft spot for Wageningen. WUR is an incredible institute. Because of its specialisations, food and agriculture, WUR is at the heart of the transitions the world is facing right now. WUR has a mission I really want to contribute to, and a beautiful campus to boot. There’s a kind of vibe here among students and researchers that makes me really happy. Unfortunately, I only spent a week or two on campus. I started working on 1 March, and almost immediately all contacts moved online because of the coronavirus. My office is in Impulse and I really look forward to the discussions and performances we’ll hopefully soon enjoy again. I feel a strong sense of community here.”

Do you feel that as a woman you faced different challenges in your career than a man?

“I wasn’t really aware of it until recently. I only really became a feminist after turning 50. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve started to personally experience how differently men and women are treated, and I’ve become more of an activist in this respect.
For example: four years ago, I was spending a day with a Royal van Zanten representative at a big market in Columbia. At these markets, Van Zanten organises flower trials to showcase their collections to large South American companies. The interaction with the people there felt somehow different from the Netherlands. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first, until I realised that it didn’t seem to matter whether the person saying something was a man or a woman. People were taken seriously either way. In South America, horticultural companies are often family businesses, and it’s very normal for women to occupy leading positions. It was only then that I became aware that in the Netherlands it sometimes does matter in a discussion whether the person raising an issue is a man or a woman.
There are other examples: When I was on the board of the NWO department for Earth and Life Sciences, a study was conducted on grant allocation. It revealed a clear gender bias in how funding is allocated. The percentage of women who get a grant is substantially lower than for men. Applicants with foreign names also score much lower.
And in my own work, I’ve sometimes heard a head of sales say they didn’t want to hire a woman because ‘it wouldn’t go down well with the clients’.”

Do you experience a difference in how people respond to you as a woman at universities or in the business sector?

“I come from the horticultural sector. It’s a very direct world, with little subtle communication. Horticulturists are extremely business-like, and if there’s a problem they’ll say it bluntly and straight away. I think people at universities tend to display more ‘desirable’ behaviour, which I’m not so sure is really desirable.”

How does it work at the Advisory Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (AWTI), of which you are a member?

“AWTI is a governmental organisation, so from the start a lot of attention was given to a good balance between men and women. As a result, there’s a relatively high percentage of women on the Council. In terms of ethnic diversity, however, the situation was quite dire until recently.”

Did you experience gender inequality in your own work?

“Sometimes. It’s especially noticeable with financers. Private equity funds are clearly less interested in companies with a female CEO. A CEO with a research background is also suspicious; researchers are seen as lacking business sense.
The idea that women are less good with numbers is a misconception. The majority of first-year mathematics students are actually women, but they often drop out later on in the programme. The idea that women are always empathic and friendly is also a misconception. (She laughs.) I’m not friendly at all!”

Did you experience a glass ceiling?

“Not a glass ceiling, but a glass cliff. Have you heard of it? What happens a lot is that when a difficult situation arises, with a high risk of failure, men tend to step back and women step forward with the idea that ‘someone’s got to do it’. It’s been scientifically proven that this is the reason women are more likely to fail in high positions.
This is something I recognise, having been in that position more than once. I didn’t have a natural inclination to become CEO, but at times when things were not going well and I felt something should be done about it, I would more often than not step up and say ‘I’ll do it’.
There’s a lot of talk of glass ceilings and glass cliffs, but what I see mostly is the phenomenon of ‘sticky floor’, which is something that is more internal to women. Women often feel insecure and they’re quick to believe they cannot do something, which is often simply untrue. If a vacancy lists ten criteria and a man meets five of them, he thinks he’s got a good chance. If a woman meets seven out of the ten criteria, she thinks: ‘I’m missing three, so I’m not going to apply’. A man’s attitude tends to be: ‘I’ve never done it before, so I think I can do it’. Which by the way is my motto.”

Do you have any tips for women with ambition?

“You have to be daring. Know what you are capable of and focus on that, and you can learn the rest as you go along. If there’s something you can’t do, look for people who can help you with that last little bit.
Don’t try to be too perfect and kind at work. Kindness is important at home, but don’t let it get in your way at work.”

At WUR we have a Tenure Track System for academic staff. What do you think of this career policy?

“I see it as a beautiful instrument for giving people a path to follow. I also think it helps more women get into the ‘pipeline’. From what I’ve seen of it here in Wageningen, people are given good feedback and serious advice. I think this peer consultation is very well organised. It’s an intensive track: a hurdle course of assessments. I do think there’s a lot of focus on publications and acquisition and quantity. I believe education and educational excellence should weigh more heavily. A Tenure Track is a good way to give excellent people a chance to shine. Life is hard, but if you’re ambitious, you should grab this opportunity. I assume the system allows for flexibility if someone’s ill or pregnant. I think similar tracks at other universities are less intense. The advantage about Wageningen is that you get good feedback; the disadvantage is that it costs the entire organisation a lot of energy and time.”

How do you feel about the number of women, the culture and inclusivity at WUR?

“What I see is that Wageningen has a relatively low number of women professors. This is probably in part due to the disciplines Wageningen specialises in: areas where women are traditionally well represented, like healthcare and language, are not taught or researched here.
I do think people at WUR have the very best intentions when it comes to gender and inclusivity. I assume that the shortage of women professors is largely an unconscious development.
What makes it difficult is that 50% of the problem lies with the women themselves, and 50% with their environment. If you look at the women who graduated when I did, very few of them chose an ambitious career. This was primarily due to personal ambitions.
But if a woman is ambitious, she soon discovers that it really is more difficult to have a career as a woman. I don’t want my three daughters to experience being rejected for something they really want, just because they’re girls.”

What do you do as a general director to create a good balance between your work and your private life?

“My children are all grown up now. But in order to create and maintain this balance, for a long time I worked four days a week. People say that you have to at least work full-time in order to have a career, but I don’t agree. You just have to perform well.
When our daughters were young, we had an ideal solution for child-care. We joined forces with friends of ours to care for and raise their two and our three daughters. In this way there was always at least one of the four parents available. It was the best decision we could have made. We believe this, but more importantly, so do our children. I got two extra daughters, and they got two extra parents.
So, to create a good balance between work and private life, your home front should be taken care of. Make sure you have a good team. And don’t aim for perfection. You have to accept that things don’t always go according to plan.”

What are your plans for 5 to 10 years from now? Will you still be working at WUR or elsewhere?

“I was appointed for four years. If WUR wants to keep me, and I like the work, my contract might be renewed for another four years. I’m really enjoying it so far, not least because of the colleagues. There are some really great people working at WUR, and many of them I haven’t even met yet, like PhD candidates and guest staff. I hope I’ll soon find my way and contribute enough, because WUR does have a complex matrix structure. It takes a while to really understand how the organisation works.”

And what will the culture within WUR look like by then? Ideally?

“I hope we can shed our unconscious prejudices. I’ve completed some of those prejudice tests myself. You tend to think that you’re free of such beliefs and behaviours, until you realise that everyone, including you, is prejudiced. Take job applications for example. I know how hard it is to create a profile that doesn’t lead to pre-selection, even in terms of the words you use. I’m all in favour of anonymous applications, but that doesn’t work at a university because you have to send in a publication list. The composition of the selection committee also matters. I’m concerned about gender, but even more so about diversity. If you have to write Mahmud al Maheb on your application form, you’ll face far greater prejudices still.”

If you have any suggestions for our next edition, please contact Eva Siebelink, Project Manager for Diversity & Gender.