Top Women's Dinner 2022: 'Use Your Momentum to Make Your D&I Mark'

Top Women's Dinner 2022: 'Use Your Momentum to Make Your D&I Mark'
How do you engage diverse talented individuals and prevent them from leaving too soon? These questions featured at Management Scope's Top Women's Dinner 2022, attended by top female professionals who recognize that increasing diversity requires an active attitude. ‘I have seen it too many times: Someone is dropped into a team unprepared and plucked out again like a splinter. It takes a joint effort for organizations to become inclusive – it requires an unbelievable amount of communication.’

‘Are we shaking hands?’ This question, asked by one of the participants at Management Scope's annual Top Women's Dinner as they entered the room, makes you realize that the pandemic is not quite over yet. For now, however, virus peace reigns and it is nice to come together in person. The general topic at this roundtable: How can organizations become more diverse? And is a diverse organization necessarily inclusive? These sorts of questions have been made all the more urgent by the planned refinement of the Dutch corporate governance code, which for the first time explicitly calls for a ‘policy on diversity and inclusion’.
In view of the Chatham House Rules, participants in the discussion are not mentioned by name, but they are a diverse group in terms of background, education and experience. Originally lawyers, accountants and technological experts, they now work as entrepreneurs, professional Supervisory Board members, Board members and consultants across various sectors. The venue is the eighth floor of Apollo House in Amsterdam – the home of Allen & Overy. Brechje van der Velden, Managing Partner of this law firm, is hosting and moderating the discussion. Also present were: Laetitia Griffith, Shaktie Rambaran Mishre, Nicolette Loonen, Marieke Snoep and Maggie Feng.

Using the momentum
Once everyone has taken their seats and the first course has been served, Van der Velden is the first to ask what the theme of diversity and inclusion means to the discussion participants. It is a personal passion to all in attendance. ‘I believe in actively guiding women towards their next job, and in the past I have even made room for the woman below me to get my job,’ as one director explains. Moreover, the gathered participants stress, it is simply your responsibility as a Supervisory Board member or director to ensure greater diversity and inclusion. As one multi-Supervisory Board member says, ‘You have four or perhaps eight years in which to make your mark. Use that momentum. How often do directors and Supervisory Board members start by mentioning all the things they would have liked to have changed in their exit interview? You need to do it while you are there. I feel that I can be held accountable later for the things I did during my tenure.’ However, selecting candidates based on diversity alone is insufficient. As another Supervisory Board member says, ‘For me, knowledge, experience and skills are prerequisites to being able to contribute to an organization. Asking a woman just for show is not going to work – neither for the organization nor for the woman.’

Has there been any progress at all?
Participants agreed on the importance of diversity. Lots of studies have shown that diverse teams – in terms of color, gender, culture, nationality, opinions, perspectives – perform better, are more attentive to different stakeholders and have higher recognition among employees and customers. They argue that this will only become more relevant. Today's large, complex social problems can only be solved if everyone is prepared to get involved. Building trust and connecting are therefore more important than ever. ‘You will not achieve that with three white men at the top making all the decisions.’
Van der Velden observes that the choice of broad diversity is quite rational. Yet the dinner conversation is initially about gender. While according to the Female Board Index 2022, more women than men have been appointed to the Supervisory Boards of listed companies for the first time, the prevailing feeling is that things are not progressing and it can seem as though things are regressing rather than moving forwards. ‘Getting the younger generation of women to build careers for themselves really is a challenge,’ says one senior consultant. ‘There is a lot of pressure from the ‘mother mafia’, as well as the pressure to build a career. You see that women are struggling and it is important to continually talk about these issues and find out how you can help. It is very frustrating.’

One = none!
Van der Velden moves the discussion in a different direction and asks what it will take to make that broad level of diversity a top priority. ‘I still think it starts with gender,’ replies a Supervisory Board member and entrepreneur. ‘We have been working on it 40 years now, and we still have not managed to achieve a 50/50 male/female ratio. That is why the quota was inevitable, despite being a ‘kill or cure’ remedy. Once the male/female ratio is sorted, I expect the rest to change naturally. On average, women have more ‘feminine’ qualities such as seeking connection and being open to other perspectives. With more women at the top, overall diversity will therefore increase.’
It is a thought-provoking proposition that immediately provokes discussion. Everyone agrees that having one woman on the Executive Board or Supervisory Board is not a guarantee for feminine qualities. That woman may even exhibit masculine qualities simply to fit in with the team. So: one = none! And, conversely, some men have feminine qualities. The question is whether it is even desirable to consciously strive to create a balance between masculine and feminine qualities. One multi-Supervisory Board member does not consider it a relevant criterion. ‘When assembling a team, I consider expertise. What do I need and what am I lacking? IT knowledge or financial acumen, for example? So my guiding principle is specific content and quality. I then go in search of somebody who is diverse and different.’

Preventing departure
According to the top female professionals present, the real challenge might be less about recruitment policies and more about retaining diverse talent. One entrepreneur says, ‘How often are women or men from different cultural backgrounds hired simply in order to boost diversity, and they leave again within the space of one or two years because they are not the right person for the job? So they are getting hired for good positions, but that does not automatically change a culture.’
The conversation naturally turns to inclusion. Diversity can only be a success if the ‘outsider’ is given real space to contribute and, if they have differing views and perspectives, they are not dismissed as someone who ‘does not get it yet’ or ‘does not understand our culture.’ Conversely, we have a primal desire to belong, and so if a corporate culture is too far outside of the ‘outsider’s’ comfort zone, they are unlikely to feel comfortable in their role. Even then, the risk of failure is high. It is a shame, because it means that the company also misses out on a commercial opportunity, stresses the same multi-Supervisory Board member. ‘Often, that person starts their own company and builds up their own clientele. It leads to a segregated society that I do not think is desirable. On the other hand, if someone does do well within your organization, you can hire other diverse talented individuals through word of mouth and market your products and services to new target groups.’

Slow down in order to speed up
Van der Velden wants to know how to break the pattern of diverse talented individuals leaving prematurely because they are not supported. Good onboarding is a major factor, according to the top female professionals. Selection processes are usually very extensive and meticulous, but often what is lacking is a thorough onboarding program aimed at giving the new team member a place within the company. Sponsorship can contribute to this, but more importantly, there needs to be a much greater focus on inclusion within teams. ‘If you want to build diverse teams,’ says one director, ‘you have to slow down in order to speed up. When I played field hockey, we trained for weeks after the summer in order to play as one unit again. We do not do that in business. I have seen it too many times: Someone is dropped into a team unprepared and plucked out again like a splinter. It takes a joint effort for organizations to become inclusive – It requires an unbelievable amount of communication.’
Newcomers should be given the space to showcase their talents, and teams should be given time to discover somebody’s added value and how to reap the benefits of diversity as a team. ‘It is also important to actively address the fears of the majority. As a white male, am I still relevant? Can I still get promoted? If you do not do that, people perceive the ‘other’ as a threat rather than as a useful addition.’
An entrepreneur with employees from dozens of nationalities knows from personal experience that some discussions seem to take forever due to language barriers and cultural differences. ‘I do not see that as a waste of time and a hassle, but rather as an asset. You end up with better, more original solutions. A diverse team enables you to think out of the box... so you no longer have to work on it in separate sessions. We should make people more aware of that.’
Even for the top teams, ‘People have to want to welcome you and listen to you,’ according to one Supervisory Board member at a large insurance company. That is why it is important for women and people from different backgrounds to do their own due diligence investigations when asked to fill a supervisory or Board position. Does everyone agree with your appointment? Are you being asked to fill the position in order to boost the diversity record or because you will truly complement the existing team? What is expected of you? Once hired, you have to have the courage to challenge people if you feel your opinion is not heard or respected: ‘You hired me because you want change, but now that I am there, you do not want it. You have to be bold.’

Quotas and headhunters
Outside, dusk is setting in and dessert has been served. It is time to name some measures and obstacles that can promote and inhibit diversity. ‘Are we in favor of quotas?’ asks Van der Velden to the entire group. Most participants find it an ‘awful tool’ that they would rather not use, while also recognizing that it can break through an entrenched culture. A few are wholeheartedly in favor of quotas. ‘When I began my working life at a consultancy back in 1994, almost as many men as women were already being hired at that company. But women were leaving faster. Later, Lilianne Ploumen lobbied for quotas with the motto: ‘Where there is no will, there is a law.’ ‘As far as I am concerned, we have been waiting long enough. I find it odd that quotas are still considered a risk, while not having diversity on Boards and Supervisory Board poses a much greater risk. By definition, it makes you less future-proof.’
When it comes to their experiences with search agencies, the women are fairly unanimous. Many headhunters search in a way that is too narrow and biased, within their own bubble of highly-educated white men. They sometimes even propose lists that do not include any female candidates, against explicit requests to include women. Another problem is that search agencies are often brought in to assess a team, establish what is lacking, draw up the profile and search for the right candidate. This increases the risk of tunnel vision, especially if the headhunter has an old-fashioned view of who should fill a certain position – such as a man with extensive management experience.

A mandatory catch-up
To finish, over coffee, Supervisory Board members scrutinize their own roles. ‘We should not accept undesirable behavior from search agencies, but perhaps we are also too eager to outsource recruitment and take too cursory a view of the profiles that they draw up,’ says once Governance Consultant and Chair of a Remuneration Committee. ‘We need to spend more time – whether or not under supervision – assessing the team and its individual members, and then draw up the job profile ourselves for the headhunter to work with. This means that you consider who is a useful addition in terms of content and personality and who enhances the chemistry within the team. Teams that work well often have good chemistry.
In order to change the system, Supervisory Board members, especially members of Nomination Committees and Remuneration Committees, should occasionally be required to take refresher courses on diversity and inclusion, a fellow Supervisory Director suggests as a concluding proposition. ‘After all, years of experience as a director do not automatically mean that you contribute objectivity and focus to a nomination process.’

This article was published in Management Scope 08 2022.

This article was last changed on 28-09-2022