Michaël Mellink, Senior Partner, Life Sciences, at Odgers Berndtson Amsterdam and Anne van Herwijnen, Partner, Life Sciences, Berwick Partners (an Odgers Berndtson company), continue the conversation on promoting diversity within the bio-medical sector with Ada Kruisbeek, founder and CSO at DCprime (until 2019) and Karin Klijn, Professor and Chair of Neurology at the Radboud University Medical Center.

Is there anything that keeps women from being recognised as leadership material?

Michaël Mellink: In my experience as a headhunter, there is a natural modesty in women. I find they want to be able to do something well before they are convinced they can really do it. Perhaps I need to be more persuasive and tell them: "You are a good fit, you have the potential and the quality so you can easily grow into it”. Men will tell me “let's just try it, and we’ll see where it goes”.

Ada Kruisbeek (AK): Yes, I see insufficient enthusiasm when a great job comes along. Being too modest, too nuanced, not being assertive enough. Seeing too many obstacles when the woman concerned is having or planning a family. All of that is still an issue, to my astonishment. I already talked about that 40 years ago. Companies must therefore proactively pursue a policy in which promising women are taught how to respond when a great job materialises. The role of older women can also become more significant. Get successful women to tell young women their story, to provide insight into the possibilities and the flexibility that they themselves had. The women of my generation were not only bothered by the social attitudes of the kind of "you are a bad mother." They also limited themselves, as in "I have children, a family, so I can't do that commission role”, for example. This applies in particular to the Netherlands where many women start working part-time the minute they get children; you simply cannot expect to perform in a director position with commitment, when working 80%. You most certainly can have a family and a director position, it is a matter of organising.  In networking, women often exclude themselves, because they have multiple tasks. That is where they can make a huge improvement. For example, becoming chairman of assessment committees, signing up as a volunteer for supervisory boards for bodies in their sector, etc. Despite the fact that they might sleep an hour less, women should increase their visibility through a broader commitment, just as I did. Mine was an academic career, but also a business one, and that all went well. We cannot blame it on generational attitudes anymore.

Karin Klijn (KK): For me, an important factor is the lack of role models. We have 52 department heads at the Radboud University Medical Center, and I believe only around 10% of them are women. That’s far fewer female than male role models. If you see fewer women in these positions, this option will come to mindless. We could also do more about mentoring, connecting women who have that ambition with women already in these positions. When women express that they want to continue working full-time when they have their first child, there is still much judgement and misunderstanding in their professional environment. Women are still questioned when they want to keep working full-time when they have children. Very little has changed from what I experienced when I was in that phase myself. And that was twenty years ago. In our society, there is still an expectation that women choose to decrease the time they work when they have children. I do not judge anyone who makes the choice not to continue to work full-time and I find it remarkable that someone judges a person who chooses to do so. I spoke to an English professor who told me that when she was pregnant, all her English friends said “how are you going to organise that” and all her Dutch friends asked, “how much less are you going to work”. "We are a very progressive country, but in this respect, we are much less progressive than we think"

Can the diversity gap be bridged?

(MM): That will take some time. Clients will not settle for less experience and make concessions with regards to quality. They are still inclined to give preference to qualified or overqualified candidates, not to those who may have potential. Furthermore, people are still inclined to add a man to a male environment instead of a woman.

Why do women not always make it to the executive level?

(MM): Due to men that want to share the territory with each other, so facing equally suitable candidates, there is sometimes a preference for a man because that ‘seems’ comfortable. And some believe that for a woman, a career is not everything, and then there’s the care for children. That is especially true in those senior roles. When children come into adolescence, they need more time and attention. Then, you often see women taking on that role more.

What benefits are there having women at senior management and executive level?

(MM): You get a more mixed view of situations and how they should be assessed. There is a different strategic vision and perspective.

(AK): Countering the macho atmosphere with a different attitude. You see that in sports too. I play golf a lot, and it is completely different if you play golf with only women, even if there are competitive ladies among them. Put men together and you immediately have a contest! With every point that is scored, there is "I do that better than you". Precisely by having more diversity in a senior management situation, this is diluted somewhat. Then it's not just about ego. It’s more nuanced, with more risk avoidance. On the other hand, if you play golf and you avoid all risk, you will never win.

(KK): You get a very different discussion, because you have a more diverse management style, in the behaviour, in the characteristics that people bring with them, in the choices that are made, in the way in which discussions are held and in how people are treated in the organisation. More diversity gives more room for different opinions, which benefits the creativity of the organisation.

Should executive search firms play a role in the diversity discussion?

(MM): Take a good look at the potential and where there is uncertainty in women, play a supportive role.

Anne van Herwijnen: Our role is to turn diversity into a topic of discussion. But diversity should not be the leading discussion. It is part of viewing staff as an asset, as human capital. Look at the capacities and competencies needed in the organisation to get where you want to go. Think in terms of progress, have a vision for the future and what people you need for that. We should be careful to say we need a different ratio of men and women. We need to look at men and women in the same way and ask the same questions. What are they capable of, what can they deliver, what are they good at, what kind of ideas do they have around innovation? Diversity is only a small piece of context. The larger context is empowering people to be their best. It is part of the discussion that I find more important: ‘how to view your staff strategically’.

(AK): Executive search could offer a more nuanced view of circumstances: “Look, this person's resume has a bit of a slump, because at that point the lady had two children, and one child was disabled and it took a while until all of that could be managed, but on the other hand….” That would mean that person won’t have to end up in the wrong pile of CVs.

(KK): They have a lot of information that comes from seeing what’s happening at the top of many different organisations. It means that executive search can have an almost neutral view of what diversity can do in organisations. If search firms recognise the importance of diversity in all its facets and can bring stories, data and/or insights from their perspective, that can certainly be helpful. A firm may actually influence the client on this aspect.

Read the first part of this series about closing the gender gap in bio-medicine.

Michael Mellink

Michaël Mellink is a Senior Partner in the Amsterdam office and Head of the Life Sciences Practice. He specialises in advising clients on board and senior level appointments for Pharma, Biotech, Me...

Insights

Insight

The seven deadly sins of board directors

If you’re looking for your first non-executive directorship, you can learn as much from these bad...

Insight

Revealed: what clients look for in executive search firms

An independent survey of leading CEOs, Directors and Managers reveals what they consider the most...

Insight

10 compelling reasons for using a search firm to hire leaders

Why retain an executive search firm? There are many reasons, but we have pinpointed the ten most...