Inspiring people @WUR: Petra Caessens

‘To be honest, I was hesitant about being part of this series. It feels strange to be included in a list of inspirational people. I feel very middle of the road, but I also think it’s important to speak out on this issue. That’s why I wanted to have this conversation today. I’d love to see people who are ‘different’ serve as a role model for others, although I realise how difficult this can be.’

Wageningen University & Research is committed to creating an environment of inclusion, diversity and equal opportunities because we are convinced this contributes to better research and education. We spoke to Petra Caessens, director of operations at the Plant Sciences Group, about diversity and inclusion.

Can you be 100% yourself at WUR, both as a person and as director of a sciences group?

Almost 100%. Like most people, I imagine, I adopt a much more professional role at work than I do when I’m with my friends and family. While I can be myself in terms of who I am and where I come from, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to do that. I always have to take others into consideration. I can’t just say everything that’s on my mind. We’re all different and that’s something we all have to take into account. I do think it’s important to stay true to myself and to allow others to be themselves as well. That’s easy for me to say, I’m very middle of the road. This can be a huge challenge for people who look or act differently, in whatever capacity.

I think courage and action are extremely important in this regard, although may seem strange in a different setting. At WUR, I can be myself and people tend to see me as approachable and friendly. People like to use the word ‘authentic’ these days to describe a positive personality trait. This bothers me: how can authenticity - or being yourself - be considered a personal trait? It’s not an accomplishment; it’s not something I had to work for. What’s helped me a lot is just being myself and staying true to who I am. Trying to be something you’re not is hard work and adds nothing to our organisation. It would also make me deeply unhappy.

Give everyone the space to be themselves and speak their minds

How long have you been working at WUR? Can you compare it to other workplaces?

I studied here, earned my PhD in food technology here, and carried out part of my PhD research at NIZO. I then spent nearly ten years in the corporate world, at DMV-International, Campina which later became FrieslandCampina. I then lived and worked in Australia for nearly four years before returning to Wageningen and working for Shared Research Facilities. I can draw on my experience in both the public and the private sector, in the Netherlands and abroad.

In Australia, I was surprised to see more mixed relationships on the streets, at school and in sports. There was a stronger sense of connectedness, not just between people with different skin colours, but also between people from different backgrounds and different social strata. Admittedly, our community, school and work environment consisted mainly of highly educated families. But when you looked outside that bubble, there were some big social differences. The biggest and most poignant is the gap between the average Australian and the Aboriginals. The differences in the social strata could be see just ten kilometres from our home, where many children went to school every day without having breakfast. Unfortunately, we are seeing this more and more in the Netherlands as well.

In my late twenties I became manager of a small team at DMV in Veghel. I was the out-of-towner, there to tell everyone how to do their jobs. That’s how some of my Brabant colleagues saw me at the time, just because I’d studied ‘north of the rivers’. When they found out I was born in Limburg and still celebrated carnival, they warmed up to me a bit. This just goes to show that prejudice is everyone and often disappears when you get to know someone better.

We all pass judgment, myself included. For example, I had always thought that everyone who worked at a university came from an academic background. I didn’t, and I always thought I was the exception. Until we played the game Cross the Line with Percy Cicilia Jr., project leader at DARE,. That’s when I discovered that only a small percentage of the group had at least one highly educated parent. This turned out to be a subconscious judgement on my part.

In the corporate world, I noticed that many people would stay quiet during meetings, only to complain afterwards. They didn’t feel comfortable speaking up or they assumed their feedback would be ignored. That’s something we should all be more aware of. There could be many reasons why people don’t speak up or don’t feel comfortable. It’s not just a male/female thing, it could also be a personality trait or because they’re an introvert or find it hard to think on their feet. These are things we should take into account. We should create a welcoming and friendly environment in which people feel comfortable speaking their minds. There should always be a filter and we should always take people’s feelings into consideration in our attempt to be constructive.

What stands out to you at WUR in terms of diversity and inclusion?

When I returned to Wageningen in 2010, I was pleasantly surprised to see it had become much more international. This was mainly due to our international students, PhD candidates and postdocs. Now that I think about it, international might not be the right word. Most of the managers and support staff are Dutch.

I am happy to see that diversity and inclusion are high on the agenda -- and not just because they’re hot-button topics. I am also developing in this area and am starting to become more aware of my own blind spots. That’s why this issue needs more attention. Organising a diversity and inclusion week and some MINDLAB performances is not enough.

We have to grow in that, too and force ourselves out of our comfort zones. I’ve noticed that I still struggle with personal pronouns (she/him/they). It just takes some getting used to. I truly believe that getting to know someone better makes things much easier.

Being the only girl in chemistry courses fuelled my desire to prove myself. It shouldn’t be like that. We have to be aware of how this works and what it means to be the exception to the rule. That won’t solve everything, but it’s a start. I believe that working together and spending time together can foster a better understanding and lead to less exclusion.

Are the yardsticks against which we measure candidates inclusive enough?

What can we do create more inclusion?

I think it helps to recognise and embrace differences. For example, twenty years ago my two-year-old son referred to a black man on the street as Black Pete. I was embarrassed, but it also made me realise that he learned this from the world around him. Or when I heard the son of a white father and a dark-skinned mother say to his father: ‘You don’t feel that discrimination because you don’t know what it’s like to be looked at differently.’ Awareness is important and acting accordingly is a process that can be painfully slow.

I once attended a workshop on international and intercultural collaboration. Each group was given their own set of rules and every set was different. Try to get anything done. An experience like that is very eye-opening. As is living and working in a different culture.

Are you in favour of positive discrimination or quotas?

I used to be against it. and couldn’t stand the thought of being hired just for being a woman. But my stance is starting to shift. I was shocked when I heard how surprised my daughter was to see a female physics professor at her university. It’s 2022! And don’t get me started about the way we talk about female politicians. Like Kaag being a witch or overly emotional. Sigh...

No, enforcement alone isn’t the answer. It has to be a combination of quotas (enforcement) and awareness. You can’t have one without the other. I’m in favour of focusing on awareness; for example, through role playing exercises, workshops and resources like MINDLAB. When hiring new employees, we should actively approach female candidates for higher management and chair positions; strive for balanced communication; ask good, non-discriminatory questions; and hire candidates based on their answers rather than our own gut feelings. Incidentally, some of the questions we ask can also have an inherent bias. We still have very few people of colour in management positions. One reason is our selection criteria, which needs to be thoroughly reassessed. Are the yardsticks against which we measure candidates inclusive enough?

If we can’t find a suitable female candidate to fill a long-standing vacancy, I’d be happy to hire a man if that helps the organisation move forward.

At WUR, it doesn’t matter who you love, what language you speak, where you were born or what you believe in. What is your experience with this? How many nationalities are there at PSG? Does everyone feel seen?

In my experience as a straight, white woman: yes. There are a lot of nationalities at PSG, mostly thanks to our international PhD candidates and postdocs. But I don’t know if a gay or lesbian person would share this view. We should hire people based on their expertise and on how well they fit in the team in terms of their work ethic and personality. We should also try to be as open as possible toward everyone. I’m not saying we’re diverse enough, but I do see we’ve started the process and I’d love to see people who are ‘different’ serve as a role model for others. Role models are important, but it’s not always easy to be the one who steps up because they’re different from the rest.

A diverse organisation is more pleasant and more productive

What else can WUR do to improve diversity?

I think more diversity leads to a more pleasant organisation, which in turn makes us better equipped for the future. A diverse organisation is also more productive. It opens up new developments and new networks and leads to a more varied influx of people. In that regard, I’m pinning my hopes on the youth. Most students don’t see diversity as a problem and don’t understand why a woman or a person of colour would be less suitable in positions of power.

The international classroom has done a lot for education and research and I hope it will do the same for our organisation.

Do you think we’re becoming more diverse? And do you have any suggestions on ways to improve our diversity?

Most of our operational management directors are female and if you include the corporate directors in the Directors of Education Council (DBO) you reach a good 50-50 balance. More and more women are joining the Board of Directors, including the two new WFSR and AFSG directors, who will start in January 2023. Women are still the minority in the ABCDE group, at least when I was a member. I used to joke there are more women in my direct family (I only have sisters) than there are in this group, but fortunately things are starting to become more balanced. I do think our recruitment and promotion policy needs some serious work.

As a woman, are you a minority at the board level? Do you feel like you’re treated differently?

Less and less. As a board member, I did notice that when a woman made a statement, that statement first had to be verified by a man. Fortunately, I don’t see this in DBO or PSG meetings. On an individual level, I sometimes think people treat me differently than they would a man.

Does everyone at WUR have equal (career) opportunities? If not, what could we do to reduce this inequality?

I would hope that everyone with the same competences is given the same opportunities. Climbing the career ladder is harder for some than others. Take single mothers, for example, who move to the Netherlands to work and have no social safety net to fall back on. They have dramatically fewer opportunities, but I don’t think this is the fault of the organisation. However, it’s our job to be understanding and to help however we can; for example, by discussing the situation with the manager and the team and offering more flexibility where possible. As an organisation, you want to attract people with the right skills and talents. You should seize every opportunity that comes your way. A long time ago I was given the opportunity to take on visible roles and tasks in the organisation, for example in the field of campus development. I took those opportunities because I enjoyed the work. Ultimately, it made me more visible in the organisation. Perhaps it even helped me get to where I am today.

How does WUR view talent?

That’s a tricky question; you can be talented on so many levels. WUR is very active in talent acquisition and has several talent programmes, such as courses, coaching, tenure tracks, and learning and development programmes. However, we tend to lose sight of people once they finish these programmes. We don’t really help them grow into another position or offer much in the way of career guidance. Unless you ask a manager for help, you’re sort of left to your own devices. We lack step-by-step plans for new positions, succession planning and active mobility programmes for specific career paths. There’s a lot we can do to improve our career guidance.

How do you stay motivated at work and what gives you inspiration?

Interacting with people, cracking a joke every now and then, and attending substantive meetings. I’ve noticed that I don’t really prioritise reflection and I don’t schedule enough time for things that fill my cup. I’m trying to change this by participating in more activities during the D&I week, by attending caregiver meetings and by actively contributing to our substantive meetings on our strategic research themes. These are usually the first things I scrap in my agenda. My downfall is working too much and not saying no enough. When I’m not doing enough to fill my cup outside work, my job satisfaction starts to suffer.

Another way I keep things fun is by walking. For me, walking is the perfect way to recharge. From walks in the Netherlands to hiking holidays abroad.

Where do you see yourself in ten years? Will you still be at WUR?

In ten years I’ll be an old lady! What I’ve learned over the years is that I have to keep challenging myself and doing new things that keep me on my toes.

I love that I get to work with so many young people at WUR.

I was appointed for four years, with the opportunity for an additional four-year extension. After that I’d have to find something else, either within or outside WUR. I’ll be happy as long as I’m doing something I enjoy. I have a pretty big hand in that and fortunately there are plenty of opportunities at WUR thanks to our diverse and relevant topics.