WUR’s inspirational women: Eefke Weesendorp

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. In this edition of WUR’s inspirational women series, we introduce Eefke Weesendorp, head of Diagnostics and Crisis Organisation at Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (WBVR). “In my career, from ‘stable girl’ to head of department, I haven't really experienced gender inequality.”

“In the high containment unit we all wear the same work clothing, which eliminates rank and status. From board member to cleaner, we all look the same. This promotes equality at work, and accessibility too, I think.” This is the story of Eefke Weesendorp, who works on animal infectious diseases at Wageningen Bioveterinary Research (WBVR) in Lelystad.

In this time of coronavirus, the department has grown to about 100 people helping with diagnostics

Can you briefly describe your career?

“I work at WBVR in Lelystad on animal infectious diseases and now on the coronavirus too, mostly in the high containment unit. After completing a Master's degree in Animal Sciences at WUR, I was able to carry out PhD research on classical swine fever at WBVR in 2005.  Once I had my PhD, I opted to work as a researcher in the Department of Infection Biology at WBVR. I was inspired in part by WUR’s Talent & Topic programme, a kind of master class for in-depth scientific study, which I was able to do after my PhD.

In 2013 I was asked to lead the viral diagnostics group of about 15 staff. Diagnostics was a new field for me, involving routine research into animal diseases for export purposes and research into notifiable animal diseases. A short time later, we had to contend with an outbreak of bird flu. It was a constantly changing time, in which we couldn’t do any planning, but I really enjoyed it.

“I’ve been head of the Diagnostics and Crisis Organisation department since 2015. This is where all the disciplines in the field of animal diseases – and now coronavirus – come together. The department originally had 30 people and had grown to about 65, but it now employs about 100 people at this coronavirus time, including help from other departments. Fortunately, I have seven project leaders and four team leaders who manage projects, as well as taking care of some of the personnel management. A video was made about our lab during the corona period (Science Talks Corona). It features me talking about our testing capacity for the coronavirus. We have to limit this to 1500 tests per day so that we can still continue with our other regular and statutory work.”

I haven’t found that the fact that I'm a woman has worked against me at WBVR

You’ve been a PhD student, a researcher and now head of department, so you’re in a position to make comparisons. Do you feel that gender inequality is more of an issue in certain positions or groups than in others?

“I haven’t found that the fact that I'm a woman has worked against me at WBVR. But I do notice that people start to look at you differently with every step you take. Especially if you rise up the ranks within the same job. The great thing about our organisation is that there’s lots of room for growth if you want something and you show ambition. I also worked in the stables in Lelystad during an internship in animal care and biotechnology, and in the stables at Zodiac for a research project. In my career, from ‘stable girl’ to head of department, I haven’t really experienced gender inequality.

At analyst and project leader level within WBVR, you find a gender balance of 50/50. “That’s not the case in all organisations. In the diagnostics world, there are lots of women working across the board, but in private organisations I often see more men at the top.”

Do you notice a difference in how men and how women are treated in your work environment at WUR (working groups, meetings, projects)?

“When I joined the management team (MT) in 2015, I was the only woman. Now there are just as many women as men in our MT. At WBVR I don’t notice any difference in how men and women are treated. In my experience, it’s knowledge and experience that determine whether people take you seriously.”

You are president of the European Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians. What’s the story about gender and diversity in the EU context? Is it a man's world?

“No, it’s definitely not a man’s world. If anything, it’s the other way around – you find a lot of women working in animal diagnostics. Funnily enough, the past president, the president and the vice president are currently all women. In the rest of the management board, the numbers of men and women are pretty much equal. The fact that I’m president I owe to the encouragement I got from WUR, when I was a PhD student, to look beyond the border. I took part in Young Epizone, an EU youth network, where I was a work package leader. I was therefore able to gain international experience when doing my PhD.”

In my experience, it’s knowledge and experience that determine whether people take you seriously

You hold a busy, managerial position. What do you do to maintain a balance between your work and your personal life?

“That is indeed a difficult aspect of my work. When I became head of department, I had very young children. Together with your supervisor, you then have to make sure that you don’t take on too much. During the corona period especially, with primary school-age children who I had to teach at home, and with a partner working from home – all this during one of the busiest periods ever in the lab. It helps that I’ve always enjoyed my work and been energised by it.”

Do you have any tips?

“Organise things so that your work or your shifts are manageable. I now have an evening shift once a week for corona diagnostics and I work alternate weekends.

“And you also need to be well-organised at home. Fortunately, I have a very practical solution – excellent back-up from my parents, who are able to look after the children three days a week. If you’re at home, you need to find the time to recharge your batteries. That’s why I no longer open my laptop at 10 pm, since our lab work is never ‘done’. If they really need me, they can always phone.

“Look after your colleagues. We also discuss this kind of thing within the team. We send someone home if we notice that things are getting too much for them.

“You also have to ask yourself if it’s right for you – this kind of work with a heavy workload. You make a choice that demands a lot from you. When there’s an outbreak, everyone has to step up their efforts. It also requires a flexible partner who understands and who supports you.”

Have you noticed a glass ceiling and what can you do to break through it?

“No, I’ve never experienced it. On the contrary, I think WUR offers many opportunities to people who want to keep growing. Start early by working out what positions you aspire to. If you plot your ideal pathway and discuss with your supervisor what you want and what you need to do to get it, you can achieve a lot.”

What would you like to see for an inclusive working environment?

“In terms of the number of women, we are pretty diverse at WBVR, but there’s room for improvement when it comes to other nationalities. For example, we work in accordance with strict protocols (including Ministry ones) that only exist in Dutch. That makes it hard for people who don’t speak the language. You can’t just change that overnight. And in the high containment unit we work with a showering regime. This isn’t much of a problem in our culture, but I can imagine that people from some cultures wouldn’t want to exit the shower at the same time as a colleague.

“We have taken on people of various nationalities, but you find that it’s more difficult for someone with a Syrian background to work with us than, for example, for someone from Poland. So WBVR is quite diverse, but there is still work to be done.”