Inspiring people @WUR: Diana Machado de Sousa

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 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?
Diana Machado de Sousa, Personal Professor at the Laboratory of Microbiology at AFSG, 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.

I studied Biological Engineering in Portugal, a programme frequented in majority by (Portuguese) women. During my sandwich-PhD – in Portugal and in Wageningen – I experienced that Wageningen had a positive impact on me; it was interesting to work with people from such a variety of cultures and with different backgrounds. This instilled in me a strong sense of inclusivity that was not restricted to gender. On returning to Portugal, I became an assistant professor at an engineering department. While women are well represented at the universities in Portugal, there is less cultural diversity compared to Wageningen.

Different treatment and educational styles

When I started a Tenure Track at WUR in the Netherlands in 2013, I did not feel being a woman affected my career opportunities. As my career progressed, though, and especially after taking a leadership position, I became aware that the higher ranks of academia are dominated by men. So if you ask me if women are treated differently there, I can empathise. I’m a small woman who is not too old and doesn’t shout or overrule, and in meetings with men this often results in them not giving me  enough space to make my point. People generally pay more attention to what male and older professors are saying. I also noticed that students look differently at a female professor than  a male professor. Though both genders are respected, students usually attribute more authority to male professors. I like to connect with my students, create an atmosphere of trust and be accessible to them. As such, I’ve received feedback that I’m a ‘caring’ person, which doesn’t make me any less an academic.

So, yes, I have experienced a different treatment sometimes, which bothers me. Each person, man or woman, has a set of personal characteristics. What needs to be remembered in academia is that matters such as knowledge, expertise and seniority are not related to personal styles, and everyone deserves equal respect and recognition.

Positive discrimination can play a role in reducing gender inequality

How do you think WUR might reduce inequality in opportunities?

To make the number of women and men within WUR comparable, you could give women an advantage for vacancies for a defined period. Positive discrimination is practised already at other universities in the Netherlands and abroad. I also think that clear procedures should be implemented to avoid discrimination in, for example, Tenure Track juries.

Diversity at an organisational level

What may also help with diversity issues is if Human Resources prioritises diversity and inclusion. People working at HR and other supporting departments are mainly European, so maybe some diversity there would help as well. Scientists often are of a different background, travel a lot, and bring in different ways of thinking. Also, our students come from all over the world. Yet, there’s still plenty of room for increasing diversity within the permanent staff at our organisation.
Wageningen has a lower percentage of women in leading positions (fewer female chair holders) than other universities in the Netherlands and Europe. We have to be more transparent on this subject and try to increase the percentage of women in leading positions within WUR.

Show society that scientists are diverse in gender, race, religion and social background

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 think WUR has a societal role. We can change the world by changing the way of thinking in our own organisation. WUR’s role is to be a place where everyone is welcome, and everyone has to be reminded of that as often as possible.

I am a member of the Wageningen Young Academy (WYA), and diversity is a hot topic there. We try to open the dialogue on diversity and pass on our opinion (and that of other WUR scientists) to the Board. Another working line of WYA is on science communication, and there we want also to show our views on diversity to society. We have just launched one activity, called “Sketching science: Imagining an inclusive future for scientists and scientific research”, where we will visit schools to discuss the image of a scientist with the children. This doesn’t always have to be a white man, as children may think. A scientist can be of different gender, culture and background. It’s important to show different role models and evidence that scientists can have many ‘different shapes’. We must make sure children see those examples and never lose their openness to differences while growing up.

More diverse teams

At the management level, you always see the same types: high achievers. But it is proven that people working in a diverse team are happier and have better results. The more diverse a team, both gender-wise and character-wise, the better all talents are used. People have more potential for growth in an inclusive team. Such teams can make a change.

So we have to start choosing people with different talents and with complementary characteristics. Team members have to think differently. Your final goal is to have the best team, and the best team is not composed of ‘best’ individual people. You have to look at someone and ponder how you can use their characteristics for the common good.

Cherish differences

This also applies to Tenure Track committees. Don’t look for the same type of person; judge different qualities similarly. Some people are mainly great scientists, while others are better at teaching or at communicating science. Promote the right environment for them to excel and support them to create their own path. We cannot all be good at everything. There are different aims and goals for teams; we should create an environment for everyone to contribute to those teams.

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.

WUR is generally quite inclusive. As I’m from Europe, I fit in relatively easily. But we still hear about cases of discrimination, like race discrimination in student houses at the start of the COVID-19 crisis. So, we continuously need to pay attention to underlying forms of discrimination. Never ease up on it and keep working at it. That’s the duty of the people and of the organisation.

Even coming from Southern Europe, I encounter some of that: one of the stereotypical characteristics is that we are laid-back and always late. Others often make jokes about this prejudice, but I take this seriously and tell myself not to be late.

Give more opportunity and recognition to research teams rather than individuals

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

I have to recall the presentation of a large project in the Netherlands, it was a public event, and on stage, about 10 men were showing off the ‘diverse team’ they work with. The picture on the slide showed a team of female and male PhD candidates and postdocs, whereas there was no woman to be seen on stage. This is not really a diverse team, in my view. The higher in the hierarchy of a project, the more men are in the lead, I experienced.

How do you stay inspired and motivated in your work?

I love my job and feel personally committed. But, I do realise, that this commitment is only possible when I feel a connection with the people I work with. I perform when I feel good. My motivation is increasingly driven by the development of the people in my group. I want to learn about processes within a group and what keeps the members running. The same for my PhDs; I want to see them grow and feel connected with the team. My plea is to give more opportunity to teams.

How do you see WUR in the future?

Hopefully, within ten years, we at WUR will become even better at promoting diverse teams (and not just focusing on ‘the best individuals’), which will increase the sense of belonging at WUR and make our research even more disruptive.