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by Léon Ouwerkerk, CWI, interviewed by Monica Divitini, as part of the ERCIM HR initiative to create awareness for diversity in the broadest sense.

Diversity remains an important topic. ERCIM News’ Monica Divitini interviewed Léon Ouwerkerk of CWI. Ouwerkerk: “At CWI, we think it is important that everyone feels safe to be themselves in the workplace. That is one of the reasons for us to take actions to reach more diversity, equity and inclusion. I am glad to be asked to tell you more about our policies”.

rainbow cakeWhat role do you play in your organisation?
Actually I have two roles. As manager of the HR department of Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI), the national research institute for mathematics and computer science in the Netherlands, I have a responsibility for our HR policies including stimulating equity, diversity and inclusion. This concerns cultural, ethnic and/or religious background, gender, sexual orientation, capability for work and health, and age. At CWI, we think it is very important that everyone feels safe at work.
The other role is as LGBTIQ+ coordinator for our mother organisation the Dutch Research Council (NWO for short), which is more informal and personal, but also much appreciated in the organisation. LGBTIQ+ stands for homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer persons.

Maybe the latter already sounds heavy for some people, but actually we like to keep it light, positive and inclusive for everyone. For example, on several Coming Out Days we had cheerful rainbow cakes for everyone at CWI. A small gesture like that already shows that you give attention to this group. And during our Pride events, it is very important that straight allies are invited too and that we have diversity in speakers as well. We sometimes discuss difficult issues there, but the general tone should give energy.

To help us with LGBTIQ+ inclusion, NWO is a member of Workplace Pride, a not-for-profit foundation dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTIQ+ people in workplaces worldwide. Through Workplace Pride, we learn to shape our policies and gain knowledge from other members. We can join their activities as well.

Last year, we signed their Declaration of Amsterdam, showing our commitment in fostering a more inclusive workplace for our LGBTIQ+ employees. As part of this, it is important that the employer identifies and supports leaders and decision makers (including straight) that actively strive to create LGBTIQ+ inclusive working environments. But LGBTIQ+ employees themselves also have a responsibility to endeavour being visible at work and collaborate with their employers on diversity and inclusion, leading the way for all employees.

Being part of the community myself and at the same time “employer”, I feel a double responsibility to provide a safe, comfortable, equal opportunity workplace and promote authenticity for LGBTIQ+ employees. Especially as a member of the management, it is important to be “out”, in my case open about being gay, and actively strive to make things better.

Why do you think it is important to promote inclusion and diversity in research institutes and universities?
It is scientifically proven that diversity in organisations brings inspiration, creativity and innovation. But it is also important that academic organisations are in connection with and a representation of society, to be able to give answers to today’s questions, which is not possible when you are a white, straight male stronghold.

On top of that, we have an interest in this as academic organisations. There is a war on talent going on. The labour market is tight and talent is scarce. Diversity is very important to leave no talent unused, but it also makes you more attractive as an employer, especially for the younger generation. There really is a win-win here!

Can you briefly explain some initiatives that your organisation has started to promote diversity and inclusion? Any initiative that you are particularly proud of?
Most of our LGBTIQ+ initiatives are focused on inclusion. At NWO, we organise Pride events where mostly LGBTIQ+ scientists, from mathematicians to astronomers, tell about their research and their personal life. This offers positive role models, network opportunities, and shows that the employer supports this (also with budget). Seeing the rainbow PR posters for these events is already supportive for the community.

I have also been lobbying for some time to make our centralised terms of employment more inclusive like including transition leave for transgender people, special attention for rainbow families etc. I am proud of my colleagues that they did more than that: with the support of the unions as well, our entire terms of employment are now being carefully reviewed on all diversity issues in general.

We also made a diversity plan, with very diverse action points. Among others, at CWI, we are making our recruitment and selection process more open to diversity by offering a special toolkit and a bias training to management. To improve social safety, we are introducing bystander trainings for everyone, and we recently had a big event with actors playing socially-non-safe-scenes and a discussion panel on side of it.

Have you faced any challenge in promoting inclusion and diversity?
Surprisingly little when it comes to LGBTIQ+, but more in general we sometimes get asked if we are not exaggerating a bit. My opinion is that when the balance is so far off, you sometimes have to take some extra steps to correct the situation.

Are there lessons learned or best practices that you would like to share with other organisations that want to work around these themes?
You can’t expect people to work on diversity on top of their regular work or in their spare time. If you think it is important, give some dedicated persons the hours to work on this. It shouldn’t be volunteers’ work.

One last tip: share your pronouns under your email. It implicitly shows that you support your LGBTIQ+ colleagues, and that you are a safe person for them.

Léon Ouwerkerk (he/him)
HR manager
CWI, The Netherlands

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