News - April 16, 2015

Cracking the glass ceiling with coaching

Rob Ramaker

Wageningen UR is trying to boost the number of women at the top. To help matters, a mentoring programme for talented women started at the end of October. Looking back, how do the mentors and mentees view the initiative? ‘Coaching was just the ticket.’

Wageningen UR has an abundance of female students, PhD candidates and researchers. But emancipation falters in the top echelons, we learned in the autumn of 2012. A survey showed that women account for less than 10 percent of professors. Like wise, men predominate in DLO’s management. Following protests, an action plan was produced at the end of 2013, intended to steer the gender balance in the right direction. This plan includes a mentoring programme in which talented women are coached individually by established scientists, either men or women but in practice mostly women. The aim is to see fewer women drop out on the way to the top. In October a pilot was launched with some twenty couples, including mentor Birgit Dauwe, interim business unit manager at Rikilt, and mentee Anne van Doorn, DLO researcher at Alterra. While they did not know each other beforehand, they have been meeting regularly these past months at a cafe in Wageningen.

Why did you decide to take part?
Anne: ‘I’d been wanting to get some coaching for a while. Just to have a chance to reflect on my work, which I’d never done before. I read about this programme on Twitter and as it happened, I fit into the target group perfectly. For me, it wasn’t so much about emancipation, I’m in it for the coaching.’ Birgit: ‘I’m increasingly realizing the impact of “strength in numbers”. An organization needs a broad base of female potential, otherwise you’re always different and an exception. Only when you pass the 30 percent mark do you help define the culture. I want to do my bit towards reaching that goal.’

What did you design the coaching to include?
Anne: ‘Initially, we wrote a coaching requirement. I wanted to know how to best use my strengths and skills in my work, and how to best balance work and home.’ Birgit: ‘And being noticed, yes?’ Anne: ‘Certainly. I’d been doing project work for a while, but I was keen to step it up. I wondered how I could achieve that.’ Birgit: ‘We have talked about ambition. What your dream future looks like and what your ideal working day involves. It was immediately clear that Anne had a strong drive to take a step forward.’ Anne: ‘But it wasn’t easy getting used to having a mentor, because I never talk about myself. On the first occasion, I found it really strange to talk about myself for an hour.’

There is no room to think freely about your development

How did you benefit from your discussions?
Birgit: ‘I enjoyed seeing Anne apply what she was learning straight away. We talked about possible actions and by the next time we met she had already tried out three things.’ Anne: ‘Since January, I’ve had the opportunity to coordinate a new research programme. I had the feeling that this was a lucky break, that it just happened to come my way, but Birgit told me that it isn’t about luck.’ Birgit: ‘On the contrary, it has a lot to do with your own actions. The point is that you take charge and that things no longer simply happen to you. You are aware of what you want and don’t follow the herd every day.’

Ambition, being noticed and future dreams, that all sounds very abstract. What lessons did you learn for solving day-to-day problems?
Anne: ‘When you transfer to a new job, you need to draw on your other qualities. That’s something we’ve talked about. Take conflict management, I am someone who prefers to avoid conflict, but sometimes things come to a head and then you can use certain tactics for handling the situation.’

Have you already applied these tactics in your new role as a coordinator?
Anne: ‘Yes, but I haven’t yet applied all of Birgit’s tips.’ Birgit: ‘We’re still working on that.’ Anne: ‘A very good tip was that you need to give yourself some room to experiment. Everything doesn’t have to be right from day one in a new situation. You can try doing things first one way, then another; you learn and develop. It’s a useful lesson because it enables you to be much more relaxed in dealing with a new situation.’

Before the interview, you described yourself as a scientist, and explicitly as a mother. Did motherhood play a large role in your discussions?
Anne: ‘Not very explicitly, although sometimes after a stressful period of time, I’d need to get things off my chest. I do agree with Sheryl Sandberg [Ed: top woman at Facebook, wrote a book about having a career as a woman] that emancipation starts at the kitchen table. You can talk until the cows come home about the glass ceiling, but at the end of the day it’s about two partners who sit down at the kitchen table and make good agreements about how to share their domestic tasks.’ Birgit: ‘In your case, all that’s fine. Of course there are issues, with children’s parties and sleepless nights, but it isn’t at the heart of your coaching requirement because there’s a hand-on father involved who has a similar background.’ Anne: ‘I must say I’ve never had any problem at Wageningen UR. In fact, I was hired while I was pregnant.’

How do you hope the coaching will influence your further career?
Anne: ‘It has already helped me enormously. Of course, we’re only talking about a four-month period, but it has already helped me set my own course and become more self-assured. What’s more, you become aware that you really do have something to say. Coaching was just the ticket.’ Birgit: ‘I’ve also learned a lot. I thought that being a manager meant I was already a coach, but in that hierarchical relationship you are never completely free of expectations. Neither party is completely free to be open. It was an eye-opener to hear from someone unconnected to me at work how managers are viewed.’

Would you recommend this to others?
Anne: ‘I have already recommended it to the person I share an office with. Really, every employee should be coached. Not very intensively, but three or four time a year in addition to the R&O interview.’ Birgit: ‘To be honest, I was shocked that Anne is 38, in this position and had never been coached before. I think external reflection really is an integral element of the process of developing greater professionalism. Even among the knowledge professionals who you are dealing with here, it is evidently not a foregone conclusion that they would have come across it. Sometimes the idea of coaching is even interpreted negatively. Anne: ‘In our organization courses are always about improving in a certain role, such as leading a project. There is no room to think freely about your development. Birgit: ’So if anyone is advised to get a coach, they think there’s something wrong with them.’ Anne: ‘Like when you offer someone a mint. But in fact it’s a good thing.’ Birgit: ‘Coaching really is a present you give yourself.’

Foto: Sven Menschel