What is your story of strength?
I grew up in Amsterdam, and I was really bad at school. I was dyslexic, I wasn’t good at learning, so I always had to prove myself. A lot of of people did not believe in me, including my teachers, and I failed so many subjects, had to redo them, had to improve my grades to pass the year. Over and over again, I had to prove to people that I actually was smart, that I was able to achieve things, and I surprised a lot of people the moment I graduated with a masters degree.
Now, was I able to do that by myself? Definitely not. I think my biggest supporter was my dad. He was always fighting for me and pushing me to do better, there was a belief system there, he saw that I was capable of achieving things.The moment I graduated high school and started studying things I was interested in and cared about, I excelled, and I think it generated respect from family, friends, teachers, to see that you can achieve things if you set your mind to it.
That fact, that I have always had to prove to people that I was better than they thought I was, is my strength because I have always had to fight. I have always had to fight. That is a mentality that I have not been able to let go of, and started at such a young age that now it is a survival tactic. I don’t know how else to approach things other than to always be and do the best that I can, so that there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that there is nothing I can’t do. And, it really equipped me for everything that came next in my life.
What does being a woman mean to you?
Women are the key to society. Women are the leaders in the family, the teachers of the children– they are what keeps everything together. Being a woman equals strength for me. It equals bravery. Because women are the gender that is at a disadvantage in life–on all fronts, whether professionally or within society more broadly–women have to be fighters. Whether you like it or not, the fact that you are a woman means you are a fighter.
You don’t have to be feminist, but there will be a point in your life when you are going to have to stick up for yourself, stand up for your rights, point out what is wrong with the situation, and say that is not right. That is what women are: we are strong, we are brave, we are fighters. But, we are always at a disadvantage in society, whether we like it or not.
I also think most males have no idea what it is like to be at a disadvantage in life. Many of them–although I won’t say every one of them, it depends on where you live, where you grew up, it is not the same in all cases–but in many cases, men are more privileged than women. They have an advantage when it comes to their education, to their careers, and they always seem to be one step ahead somehow, regardless of the fact that women may be better educated. To be women means your gender puts you at a disadvantage for no good reason.
That said, we should also give credit where credit is due. There have been many advances over the years, and even in this past year with what has happened around sexual harassment, more attention being paid to gender diversity, things are in the works. As long as awareness is being raised, we can continue fighting for what is our right to be equal–even if I doubt it will ever be achieved.
What is something you are trying to work on right now in your life?
Now that I am in a place where I feel more situated, I have started to work a lot more on diversity issues, on raising awareness where I can, whether at work or outside of work. I am now able to do that as I got to point where I am in a good place, I feel confident in what I am doing, and now it is time to stir things up a little and improve what and where I can.
This work on diversity, including a report I am writing on women in energy, is something that is just the beginning, to raise awareness of the role of women in a part of the world where women are certainly at a disadvantage, and it has helped me think more about my future and where I want to go next. I think doing more on empowerment and female leadership not just personally but as a career is something I am passionate about, something that is important, and something I am thinking more and more about.
How can women–and men–help other women?
From an organizational perspective, once you are in place where you are comfortable you can do a lot more. Once you find out how an institution works, you can figure out how to bring change to an institution–that is one way women can help each other. You can also raise awareness among men by explaining that change is necessary, and why. This is also valuable, and an opportunity for women to play a role, steering men in a direction where they help and empower women–because like it or not, most places are run by men. So if you can change their mentality, or at least put enough pressure on them to change their decision making, this can help women. I think a lot of men in theory are supportive of women, but perhaps do not know how to be supportive or necessarily see the importance of it until they are confronted with it. Sometimes, women just need to push for it.
Individually, women can learn from each other, among each other. You do not have to work together, be in the same place, or live the same kind of life–sharing experiences goes a long way toward raising awareness and bringing change. Even when you share your thoughts and experiences, you end up with brainstorming sessions, good ideas, and that is one way to create change or help one another. In the end, all situations are unique. You cannot compare one organization with another, one individual with another–all organizations are unique, every person’s way of thinking is different, even between two women.
This does not mean you cannot support one another, but rather than you have to figure out and navigate how to do this in a way that is in accordance with each individuals’ beliefs. You have to figure out what people–men and women–care about, and figure out how to make this relevant to supporting women. And, from a leadership perspective, you need to know, man or woman, when to step back for the greater good, to give others an opportunity and a seat at the table.