Three Female Executives on D&I: 'Policies are Increasingly Complex'

Three Female Executives on D&I: 'Policies are Increasingly Complex'
A diverse, inclusive company benefits performance, but how do you make everyone feel welcome and how do you deal with dilemmas? Three top executives take a candid look at their own diversity and inclusion policies. “It can mean leaving a job open for longer, even if this affects your business. That is when it is most important to persevere.”

It is immediately obvious that the participants in this discussion do not form a very diverse group. Four are women, including the interviewer, and there is only one man. “I should have declined, really,” says Petra Tito, CHRO at accounting and consultancy firm Deloitte. She is laughing, but she means it too. “Our policy is to only participate in panels and such that are made up of at least 30% men and 30% women. We either decline the invitation or send someone of the other gender. Apparently, I did not pay enough attention this time.” Every participant at this roundtable discussion is also white, middle-aged and highly qualified, as the majority of people seated around boardroom tables today still are.
This is the traditional image they want to change within their own organizations: Tito as CHRO at professional services firm Deloitte, Jeannine Peek as the CEO of IT and consulting firm Capgemini Nederland and Gita Gallé as COO/CFO at the Prinses Máxima Centrum, the Netherlands’ national center for pediatric oncology. Three organizations in three different sectors, which despite this, have surprisingly similar approaches to diversity and inclusion. Besides gender equality, they also strive for a balanced representation regarding ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, personality and neurodiversity and a company culture that respects and appreciates difference and where everyone is free to be themselves. 

What challenges has your organization encountered regarding diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I)?
Gallé: “Everyone who works at the Prinses Máxima Centrum knows our mission: to cure every child who has cancer, with optimal quality of life. We are all fully committed to that goal, from the doctors, nurses and researchers to the people in our IT department and kitchen. While this makes for a common bond, there are also differences within our organization, between care provision and research for example. These are two separate worlds. Our care is mainly oriented towards the Netherlands, while our research department is much more international, with people of 40 different nationalities who are often younger as well. They pressure us as supervisory board, telling us we must pay more attention to inclusion.
Diversity, equity and inclusion are also relevant to our interaction with patients. Cancer is the great equalizer, and the children who come to us for treatment are a reflection of our society, but our health care providers are mainly Dutch, white and highly qualified. We need to reflect society more accurately, also to enable us to communicate more effectively with children and parents from different cultural backgrounds. As to gender diversity, there are more women than men in healthcare. Medicine is a sector with a very high proportion of women. We actually have to actively seek out the men at times. Despite this, our organization still has too few women at the top. We’re working hard to change that.”
Tito: “At Deloitte, there is a similar split between auditing and consulting. The first is mainly made up of Dutch nationals due to the need for RAs to hold local qualifications, but 30% of our consultants have an international background. We have 70 nationalities working for us. Their areas of expertise are diverse as well. As our services include consulting, accounting and tax advice, we employ a range of very different people, from auditors and aerospace scientists to cyber security specialists in hoodies and psychologists. You want to offer them all a positive work environment. Gender equality is another thing. Currently, 43% of all our employees are women, and the goal is 50%. However, we do not see women advancing to partner and leadership roles in equal measure. Plenty of women come in at the entry level, but the pipeline seems to be leaking around the middle. We still loose most women between 30 and 35 years of age, as they struggle to combine family and career. We’re trying to retain more of these women by listening to them better. What are their needs? We are also doing our best to lighten their workload, to give them more autonomy and options to arrange their work more flexibly. This is actually becoming increasingly important to men as well.”
Peek: “We see the same at Capgemini. The people that come in are a good mix of men and women, and our management team also has a sufficient number of women. Still, we, too, have women leaving mid-career and we are attempting to stem that flow by facilitating their progress to more senior levels. In the more technical roles, women remain extremely rare. I am active at Topsector ICT, where I work to resolve the mismatch between supply and demand for tech workers in the Netherlands. We all need to take up the challenge to get more girls interested in STEM. Both my own daughters have just begun their first year at the University of Twente, a technical university. Too many female students-to-be associate technology with geeky guys with pens sticking out of their shirt pockets. We need to get better at convincing girls and women that technology is not only interesting but also socially relevant; take the energy transition for example. We still have a long way to go with this.”

What practical dilemmas have you faced when encouraging diversity and inclusion? Do you ever encounter resistance within your organization?
Tito: “Oh yes. We went a bit too far in our zeal for inclusion. We were celebrating every imaginable international holiday but did not name Christmas and Easter anymore. People did not appreciate that, and it does not make sense either. You want to include everyone at your company, and that includes the Dutch. We have since gone back to honoring occasions such as King’s Day and Liberation Day. We say, yes, we are an international organization, but we are also proudly Dutch.
We sometimes experience resistance too when we decide to actively seek out a woman to fill a specific role, even if it takes longer. This is not always easy  and we often have heated discussions amongst ourselves. We do not have a problem with that, though, as dialogue, also on board level, is important to us. We hold Hanging out with Hans sessions, for example, where people can discuss diversity issues with our CEO Hans Honig. You will never get everyone on board, but luckily most people do accept that diversity is the ethical choice and that it makes us a better, and nicer, company.”
Peek: “We see the same resistance. If 25% of your top 100 managers are women and you are promoting four people, to maintain diversity at least one should be a woman. But sometimes this needs careful explaining to the men. No, you are not being passed over; three of these four positions are still going to men. I once got asked during a webcast, ‘Do we men still have a place on the podium?’ I understand their concerns. Those men are likely thinking, ‘Do I still matter? I feel unseen and ignored.’ Inclusion means being there for everyone, also for older white men. We need to find a good balance. You cannot please everyone, though. That way, your company will never become more diverse.”
Gallé: “It is important  to ensure that communications are truly bilingual. We are not quite there yet. And regarding our hiring policy for new colleagues, it was justly pointed out that our hiring committee consists entirely of white men over 50. That has to change, of course.”

How consistent are you? If you cannot find a suitable woman right away, do you leave the job open?
Peek: “A while back we explicitly wanted a woman for a certain vacancy. Our team said ‘Sorry, no suitable women, but we did find a great guy.’ After a lot of back and forth I said, ‘OK, fine, go ahead and hire the guy.’ Right away, I felt bad for not sticking to my guns. I learned from that. From now on, we will just leave the job open longer if we have to. You cannot expect others at your company to do the right thing if you do not set the right example yourself.”
Gallé: “Are there truly no suitable women candidates to be found? I find that hard to believe. Your definition of quality plays a role as well. How is quality determined? My colleagues and I have discussed our organization’s hiring and succession policies. We currently focus mainly on, ‘Who has the best reputation in the scientific community? How many articles have they published?’ Those certainly matter, but other measures of quality exist as well – especially for leadership positions.”
Peek: “Sometimes you prioritize the quality of the team over the quality of the individual. If I can improve a team by making it more diverse, that may lead me to accept someone with a little less IT experience, for example.”
Tito: “We sometimes leave positions open for longer, if we specifically want a woman for the role, but do not want to make concessions on quality. That can mean looking a bit harder, but those women do exist. It can become tricky when the vacant position impacts on your business, if you struggle to deliver to your clients. Even then, though, you must persevere.”

It can be hard to get diverse teams to bond well; what leadership efforts does this require?
Tito: “We perform an inclusive leadership assessment for our managers, including 360-degree feedback where they get assessed by their own staff. Then we provide comprehensive coaching on how to lead a diverse team and discuss ways to encourage inclusion in practice. As their leader, are you interested in all the members of your team, do you invite them to share their opinions, pay attention and listen to what they have to say? How can you use clever management techniques to get more out of that diverse team? For example, how do you get more introverted types to speak up in Zoom meetings? How do you create a safe environment, where people are willing to share mistakes? How do you make people feel like they belong?
We officially communicate in English, but coffee break chats tend to be in Dutch, which can exclude colleagues who do not speak the language. The Dutch language also contains some rather non-inclusive expressions. ‘De zweep erover’ (cracking the whip) for example, can have a very different connotation if you are not Dutch. Dutch humor can be problematic too, with sometimes unsuitable ways of referring to cultures or women.”
Gallé: “Yes, those microaggressions can be hard to root out. How do you establish a culture of truly inclusive behavior? You need connective leadership, to bring colleagues closer together. We set up  lunch break sessions a few times a year: the ‘Máxima chats’, where radio host Frits Spits talks to three guests; a child or parent and two colleagues. In his own inimitable style, Frits asks them what their time with us and working for us is like. Guests can also have a Dutch celebrity call in to ask or tell them something or request a song. These sessions create a sense of engagement and inclusion: people get to know each other from a different angle, hear a colleague’s take on the work… They build bridges and help build a beautiful atmosphere.”
Peek: “We tell people in our international community to communicate it to us when they feel themselves unheard or when things go wrong. I often receive messages saying something like, ‘I am from Turkey, can I share my experience working here with you?’ I always make time for that,  for other groups in our company as well, of course. As organizations, we do our very best to have the dialogue about inclusion, but where people work together it is normal to have tensions and things that go wrong. I doubt this will ever change. But keep the possibility for conversation open. Take inappropriate behavior: the publicity around The Voice of Holland led to extensive debate on what is and is not acceptable at our company. Not everyone shares the same views. While one person finds a certain remark offensive, another says, ‘It was just a compliment or a joke, are those against the rules now?’ You have to talk about that. And again: be consistent. At my previous employer, a customer was behaving inappropriately towards a female account manager. This led us to discuss if an employer should accept such behavior in the name of customer relations. To me, the answer is simple. No.”

What future developments do you anticipate regarding diversity, equity and inclusion?
Tito: “We have spent a long time dividing people into categories; focusing on women, or LGBTQ+, or neurodiversity, but every person is unique. In other words, Deloitte has 7,500 people’s individual concerns to consider. DE&I policies are increasingly complex. Gender equality is not enough anymore. Every man or woman is different. We must support people’s individual career paths, based on their unique circumstances. This takes a lot of effort, though, and we also still need to serve our customers. That has led organizations to debate how far such individualization should go.”
Peek: “The terminology keeps changing.” Laughing: “Fifteen years ago, I took a course on how to behave as a woman in a man’s world: to be more extroverted, adapt our style of dress and modulate our voice. Now, it is all about inclusion and individual support. Who knows what we will consider important in ten years’ time. But there are enduring themes, such as the importance to be acknowledged and that of exemplary behaviour.”
Gallé: “We mainly discussed gender equality, but what about the fact that 25% of people in the Netherlands have a migratory background? How do we reach those people, how do we embrace different cultures? The labor shortage makes this even more relevant. We are running out of people here; we need to make good use of every talent. And then there is Generation Z. I recently read somewhere that  today’s young people form the most left-leaning generation in decades. They are also less singularly focused on their careers. What can we do to recruit and retain them? It will require a very different approach, one that is more customized, with more individual attention for work/balance, shorter lines of communication, more informal feedback moments, interesting team activities, social debate… That is what we need to be working on.”

A great topic for the next roundtable discussion, is the unanimous conclusion. ‘But be sure to include one of those yougsters in the discussion, though.’

This article was published in Management Scope 09 2022.

This article was last changed on 26-10-2022