"We're making good progress with our work when men start wondering if they've been appointed just because they are men”

"We're making good progress with our work when men start wondering if they've been appointed just because they are men”

As of December 1, prof. dr. Yvonne Benschop, Professor of Organisational Behavior at Radboud University Nijmegen,  joins the board of the LNVH. We had a conversation with her about gender equality, diversity, inclusion, and her vision for the LNVH.



This conversation is a great opportunity to get to know you (better). Could you first give a brief description of your career and your motivation to work in academia?

I was born and raised at Radboud University Nijmegen. I started as a Political Science student because I could also focus on Women's Studies in that program. In practice, this option turned out to be more limited than expected, so I decided to create my own curriculum to include Women's Studies. Soon after, I combined this with Business Administration, the predecessor to Business Studies, because I saw work and organizations as crucial ways to achieve more equality in society, and that was my interest. I see work as a place where people with diverse backgrounds meet and collaborate, potentially serving as a breeding ground for a more equal and inclusive society.

My enthusiasm for acquiring knowledge was recognized by my teachers, who then asked if I would consider pursuing a PhD. Being a first-generation student, I didn't have a clear picture of what that would entail, so I approached it with an open mind. I thought: I'll give it a try, and after four years, I can still do something else. But after two years, it was clear that academia had captured my heart, and it would never let go. I loved it, both the aspects of conducting research and working with students. I felt: this is where I belong. And I've stayed ever since.

In your field, Business Administration, you focus on issues related to gender equality, diversity, and inclusion. The terms diversity and inclusion are often used together, but they don't mean the same thing. How would you define the importance of both?

Firstly, it's interesting to examine what the term 'diversity' represents. If you look at the meaning of the term, there are two very different lines. The first is about issues of inequality, dating back to the '60s and '70s, focusing on sex, gender, and racism. However, in the '90s, the tone of the diversity debate changed, considering it as a source of individual differences that organizations could benefit from. Suddenly, diversity was seen as good for organizations, and they could use it to their advantage. Instead of addressing problems in organizations, discrimination processes, and unjustifiable marginalization. In my opinion, much more focus should be placed on the latter.

When you juxtapose diversity with inclusion, we generally say: diversity is about the heterogeneity of the workforce, and inclusion is about what an organization does to allow all those people to thrive. Even there, you can go in two directions: is it about a company's efforts to allow its people to thrive and develop in a way that suits them and is good for them? In other words, about well-being. Or is it about how a company can use the diversity of its workforce to differentiate itself from competitors?

If we follow the latter trend, if companies focus on diversity for their own benefit, my question is: in what way does a more diverse organization contribute to achieving organizational objectives? In other words, why should organizations want to pursue a more diverse workforce and more inclusive policies?

There are several reasons for this. The classic reasons always include becoming more innovative and creative as a company and improving decision-making by having people from different backgrounds collaborate. However, the actual evidence for this reasoning is thin. Simply because it's unclear what diversity exactly is, what an improvement in organizational performance precisely entails, and what the direct causal relationship between the two is. It's challenging to demonstrate.

But I also believe that companies should not approach diversity in this way. I think companies have a broader responsibility than their economic position, and they also have a responsibility in society, which is inherently diverse. I think companies also have a social responsibility to welcome people from society and be a good representation of society. From a moral standpoint, it should be beneath an organization to be confronted with issues like a gender pay gap or segregation patterns. Just as companies, in my opinion, have a responsibility on an ecological level, to sustain our world for future generations.

In your research, you focus a lot on intersectionality. How would you characterize the added value of an intersectional 'lens' in your research on issues related to gender equality, diversity, and inclusion in organizations?

An intersectional approach ensures that the interventions you design to bring about change in companies take a bigger step towards diversity and inclusion. If your intervention is based on a small group that resembles the group already present, you won't bring equality and justice much closer. For example, if your policy only focuses on the advancement of white, fit women instead of white, fit men, that's a rather limited view of diversity policy. On the other hand, if you look through an intersectional lens, considering multiple identities and the consequences for people at the intersections of different dimensions, you can design policies that can lead to broader justice and equality. Of course, that's easier said than done, and it's also theoretically a very complex concept to apply, but I believe that broader perspective is the future.

How are you involved in transferring your research to practice and actively promoting gender equality, diversity, and inclusion in organizations?

Education is an important way to achieve that. I not only teach students but sometimes also young children and people in practice through executive education. I find it crucial to occasionally leave the university and stay in touch with what's actually happening within companies and organizations in this field.

Simultaneously, conducting concrete research also plays a significant role. For instance, I am involved in INSPIRE, the European centre of excellence focused on addressing inclusive gender equality in research and innovation organizations in both public and private sectors. In that project, we look for good examples of institutions taking a pioneering role, examine how they do it, and derive lessons from that. We then translate that knowledge, in collaboration with communities of practice, into applicable interventions.

From your expertise, how do you view the current state of the academic world regarding the aforementioned issues?

Well, I think we need to seriously scratch our heads about that. Take the Women Professors Monitor, through which the LNVH advocates for gender balance in the Dutch academy. That's closely monitored, but I wonder: how many professors of color are there? I find that truly lamentable in the Netherlands. Of course, it's not unique to the Netherlands that people of color are underrepresented in academia, but it stands out, considering we were a former colonial power with colonial territories in Indonesia, Suriname, and the Antilles. One would expect more representation of people from those regions in the higher echelons of academia. And that is only to a limited extent, so there is much room for improvement.

That is also one of my focal points as a new board member of the LNVH. Much needs to be done in that area, and it cannot be fought for only by professors of color; white professors must also advocate for it.

The LNVH advocates for proportional representation and visibility of women within the academic community. Although the number of women professors is increasing, only a small percentage of women academics progress to the highest positions. The (yet to be published) Women Professors Monitor 2023 shows that by the end of 2022, the share of women professors was 27.6%. The proportion of female students (51.5%), female graduates (54.4%), female PhD candidates (45.1), and women assistant professors (45.9) is much higher. However, we still see a sharp decline in the percentage of women in successive job categories after the position of assistant professor, from 45.9% for assistant professors to 33.8% for women associate professors and 27.6% for women professors. What do you think is the biggest obstacle for women to advance in the academic world?

I think there is a complex set of factors underlying that. Firstly, the biggest obstacle is not with those women. The biggest obstacle lies in the normal organizational processes that are not designed to recognize people with potentially different career patterns or qualities as those with the qualities to perform well in the highest positions. We've gone through almost forty years of neoliberalism and new public management, and they have profoundly affected profiles and ideas about ideal academics, based on a very traditional male model, which only fits very few modern academics. It was always a very narrow mold that bypasses qualities that are much broader, but over the years, the requirements have been raised across the board. The requirements have become higher and higher, to the point where only a very small group remains that meets all those requirements. But that says little about someone's qualities; it mainly speaks to how available you are, how strong your network is, and how fortunate you've been with funding.

Would the solution then lie more in initiatives that are already underway, such as Recognition and Rewards, so that a broader view is taken of what makes a good academic and what factors count in that?

Exactly. It's crucial to have a much broader perspective because that not only improves your organization but also allows for different knowledge. At the moment, a lot of knowledge is lost from people who don't fit into that narrow mold. The questions they pose will never be addressed in science, and that's a substantial loss in content. It involves specific research questions or fields of research that are missed because there are gatekeepers who determine what good research is and who good researchers are. And those gatekeepers pretend to oversee their field, but you never completely oversee such a field. You will always have gaps that you don't see, and you only discover them when you look very broadly with a diverse group of people.

What, in your opinion, needs to happen to accelerate the progression of women to the highest positions within academia? What insights from your field could the LNVH use to promote that?

You need to consider which organizational processes you can systematically address. And that means being willing to question all of them. To think about everything: who benefits from this, and who are we excluding with this? Then we're not talking about inclusion but exclusion. And I think we will be shocked by the number of processes we have that exclude people.

Academia is simply not built for people with different work patterns or for those who gather and acquire knowledge in a different way. Because it's so systemic, a lot of restoration work needs to be done from within to bring about change. It means that as an organization, you have to question your own routines. In your normal organizational processes, inequality is already inherent. You need to look at the whole system and not assume that you can solve it in a simple way because such a system is designed to maintain itself, not to change itself.

We know that there is a much broader group of people with the qualities to be a professor, but they don't come to the surface when we recruit and select as we do now. It's also crucial to look not only at the selection criteria you use but also at how they are applied to candidates and who is allowed to apply them. So, it's not only systemic but also very political: who can determine who ends up in the next position, and what are the interests of all those people in such a committee? Because that largely determines the outcome of that committee.

How do you view positive discrimination, such as establishing chairs for female professors or quotas? Is that one of the ways we could address this?

Yes, that is certainly one of the ways, especially if you want results relatively quickly. If you leave it to the co-optation of the existing people, then it progresses at the pace we see now: excruciatingly slow. I would like to accelerate that process, and setting quotas is one way to do that.

At the same time, it's very complicated because people have various opinions about it. Research shows that women professors who have a chair specifically created for a woman also suffer because their chairs are quickly constructed as 'lower-status chairs.' Therefore, it's crucial to demonstrate that quotas do not concern the quality of the candidates; no, quotas concern the quality of the appointment procedures. It's nonsense to assume that women are appointed who are less competent. All women eligible for a professorship are more than competent. So, quotas correct the appointment procedures of the past, not the candidates. By establishing those chairs, you want to rectify historically that we haven't been able to recognize and appoint female talent.

And there are always women who will say, 'yes, but I don't want to be appointed because I'm a woman.' I think the LNVH should counter that because you're not appointed because you're a woman. You're always appointed because you would be a good professor. I understand that it's complicated for individual women sometimes. But you cannot not be appointed because you're a woman; that's just part of it. I would like to turn it around: we're making good progress with our work when men start wondering if they've been appointed just because they are men.

Starting today (December 1), you become a board member of the LNVH. In your opinion, with which themes should the LNVH definitely deal with in the coming years, and why?

Intersectionality. We should not only look at purely women in high positions but also women from different backgrounds, women of color, women with disabilities. I would like to see us look more broadly in that regard.

If, in an academy, you need the intellectual power of people, it cannot be that you sideline people who are brilliant but have a different capacity than the more than full-time commitment you demand from them. You must be able to give them a place as well. If you don't display that flexibility, you lose many brilliant people.

For which themes do you want to (continue to) emphasize yourself as a board member?

(Laughing:) All of the above.

In addition to intersectionality, I also find social safety important. Although I think the term social safety doesn't cover it, it's too euphemistic. It's about combating everyday sexism, racism, and discrimination. So, I want to commit to that as well. Again, it's ingrained in the norms. I find it beautiful to see that they are beginning to change under the influence of social movements, but I would also like to put some organizational pressure and strength behind it to further facilitate that change. Because at the moment, we are simply losing so much talent because they walk away due to the prevailing pressure and culture.

Additionally, I find Recognition and Rewards a very important topic. Because that's where you can create diversity, where you can show: there is more than one way to be a good academic.


Photography: Duncan de Fey