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‘Sometimes choosing a different path can take you further’

On International Women's Day (8 March) we take time to consider female emancipation and participation. What does this day mean for Leiden University, and how does it tie in with our aim of becoming more diverse and inclusive? We talked about these issues with Annetje Ottow, who recently became the first female president of the Executive Board of Leiden University.

What does International Women's Day mean for you personally?

‘I think of it as a symbolic day when the whole world reflects on this theme. A lot of organisations use the day to focus attention on one of their key female role models. For Leiden University, that person is author Annie Romein-Verschoor, the Leiden alumna who, in the last century, spent her whole life tirelessly working to improve the lives of women. An annual lecture is held every year in her name on 8 March here in Leiden, at which an inspiring figure gives a lecture and women have the opportunity to meet with one another.’

‘This year, the event will take the form of an online video with pitches by nine eminent and progressive women, who will each talk on a topical issue that is important for women. Do join the event and listen to what they have to say! So, yes, the University will be focusing attention on the position of women on 8 March. But, the more important question is: what are we going to do structurally differently in the future?  We are currently working hard on the recommendations from the Diversity and Inclusion Work Plan produced by our Diversity Office, but that work still has some way to go.' 

As a child, did you have a symbol or role model that you admired? 

‘I used to think not, but recently I started to realise what an enormous effect my grandmother had on me. My grandfather owned a rubber factory, and one day my grandmother walked into his office and, throwing a rubber sole onto his desk, asked loudly: “Why does a man earn five cents, and a woman only earns three cents for the same work?” A short while later, my grandfather introduced equal pay for men and women. More recently, there have been other women who have been my role models, including Yvonne van Rooy (former president of the Executive Board of Utrecht University, Ed.). She is a strong administrator who at the same time has a lot of time for and interest in people as individuals.'  

Have you ever felt it was a disadvantage being a woman?

‘Throughout my career I have had a lot of support from my colleagues and my supervisors - most of whom have been men. Of course, there is always some pushback, but what success boils down to is the quality of what you do. You have to persevere and keep on showing what you are capable of. After my son was born, I was very ill and it took me some years to recover. In that period, I left the legal profession. Obviously, that kind of time out isn’t nice, but it does give you the opportunity to look at things differently. If I hadn’t had that experience, I would probably never have written a PhD dissertation, and that dissertation benefitted me greatly in the end.’ 

You yourself have a successful career. But there are still not very many women at the top at the university; there are relatively few women professors, for example. People talk about a ‘leaky pipeline’: women and minorities are more likely to ‘leak’ out of the pipe along the way.

‘The leaky pipeline metaphor is to my mind too negative. I would advise people not to focus too one-sidedly on the academic race for grants and publications in scientific journals. Don’t get too caught up in what others around are doing, but believe in your own strengths. There are times when choosing a different path will get you further, and there are many different ways of having an impact on society. An interview in a newspaper, for example, can be just as valuable as a journal publication. Swimming against the tide may mean that people notice you more.’

As president of the Executive Board, what are your plans for improving the position of women at the university? 

‘This is something the whole Executive Board is working on together. Diversity policy is in my portfolio, that’s true, but it’s a theme that Hester Bijl (rector magnificus of the Executive Board, ed.) and Martijn Ridderbos (vice-chairman of the Executive Board) also strongly supports. The faculties are also fully committed and various programmes are already in place, including courses for staff. And, of course, we want all our staff and students to rally behind this policy. Diversity policy is much broader than gender alone. Specifically in terms of female emancipation, having more female professors comes to mind, but there’s also the issue of better guidance for women during their career and the continuous focus on a safe environment.’

There’s also some criticism of this policy. People are afraid that universities may become ‘safe spaces’ like the American model, which can pose a threat to freedom of expression. What are your thoughts on that? 

‘I see it the other way round. If you commit to diversity and inclusion, and make sure that everyone is treated with respect and that everyone has a voice, you are promoting a valuable and free exchange of experiences and ideas. By adopting this open and inclusive attitude and really listening to one another, including to those people who are “different” or who think differently from you, I believe you are really promoting freedom of expression.’ 

When can you say that the diversity policy has become a success? 

‘When staff and students can be themselves and feel comfortable at our university. That’s what we all have to work towards. There are lots of great things planned for the coming period. The fact that I’m the first female president doesn’t really play much of a role in this. Of course, a male president of the Board can be just as committed to this theme, as long as there is a real focus on it. Luckily, diversity policy has become much more the norm than a few years ago when it was something of an unknown quantity and people often found it hard to look at things differently. Change doesn'’t happen so quickly in this area and there is still a lot to do. But we are making progress and I am positive about the future. I hope that together we can develop our diversity policy into something that everyone can identify with.' 

Annie Romein-Verschoor lecture on video

What are the biggest challenges and hopes for female emancipation in the coming years across different sectors? For the 30th Annie Romein-Verschoor lecture, nine inspiring women will discuss this issue, each in a short video presentation. Online we have the opportunity for several lectures that everyone can watch at their leisure, including after International Womens Day. At the same time, we are also making the Annie Romein-Verschoor lecture accessible to a much broader audience.  

View the lectures online (from 8 March 08:00 hrs.)

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