No talent for submission…

Yesterday’s newspaper featured a story about the life and work of a female Dutch politician who had been active in the Dutch social Democrat party, Sonja van der Gaast – Bakker Schut. She was a convinced feminist and activist and knew how to motivate and activate her environment like no-one before…. However, the necrology said ‘She never made it to the top because she had no talent for submission’.

Suddenly all puzzle pieces fell into place! Why do talented Dutch women have to have ‘a talent for submission’ to reach the top? What leadership culture do we cultivate when reaching the top can only be achieved by women who master the art of ‘submission’? What does that tell us about the ‘leaders’ (or should I call them ‘managers’) at the top? Apparently those ‘leaders’ have a hard time facing an authentic, driven woman with a personality that is greater than theirs… How terrifying is that!

Not much has changed in Dutch leadership culture since the days of Sonja Bakker Schut. When I was preparing my package for a promotion to IT technical executive last year many people in my surroundings warned me that it was going to be tough – making that promotion would mean I will have to ‘swim with the sharks’ and that was not something they saw me readily do.

Indeed, the board consisting of two men and two women, rejected the package. Not because it was lacking technical quality or experience – after all the most important criterion for a technical executive – but because Dutch leadership culture does not have room for strong, outspoken women.

I was litterally told that although all technical criteria were met by the package it was rejected because my ‘personality‘ does not fit with the requirements of the executive level. The board report contained two sentences and did not explain which personality characteristics are required for executive level or what I need to improve.

I saw the photographs on social media of the #nietgenoeg #womeninIT event yesterday in Amsterdam. Happy faces, panel discussions, prizes won…. Unfortunately I was unable to join the event due to my travel schedule. In stead I promised to write this blog in support…. implicitly I promised to never stop the fight….

Maybe this new initiative will generate traction and start a movement. Let’s hope that that is true. But first and foremost we need another generation of leaders – leaders who are not afraid to onboard strong, talented women. Leaders who do not demand ‘submission’. I am afraid that it will take at least half a generation more to reach that point.

And I want to extend a message to my ‘sisters’ as well. Ladies, never forget what Madeleine Albright has said : ‘A special place in hell is reserved for women who do NOT support other women!’. The two ladies in that promotion board should be utterly ashamed of themselves for their lack of support and their display of ‘swimming with the sharks’. Whoever swims with sharks ultimately will be eaten by them!


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