It may seem that everyone has said everything about the scandal around The Voice of Holland, but I don’t believe this to be the case. Righly, the recent discussion around The Voice of Holland has revolved around a culture that prevents the abuse of power. Luckily, in response to the scandal, the Executive Board made it clear in a mass email that the responsibility for unacceptable sexual behaviour always rests with the perpetrators.
However, beneath that terrible tip of the iceberg of unacceptable sexual behaviour hides a whole iceberg of the abuse of power against women and others. This is a big problem in the scientific sector that was clearly shown in the film Picture a Scientist, that is now available on Netflix. In the film, witnesses talk about scientists that are cowed and ignored and whose work is ridiculed and deemed to be impossible simply because they are women. They are often female scientists at the beginning of the careers, but also often female colleagues in ‘sandwich management positions’ (managers that have other managers above them, Eds.).
‘They are seen as troublemakers who block the smooth running of processes’
As a female member of the scientific staff, a member of the Works Council and a DEWIS (Delft Woman in Technology, ed.) board member, colleagues often confide in me about the abuse of power that they experience. While it may not be about unacceptable sexual behaviour, it does put their careers and, often, their health under pressure. Sometimes the colleagues have approached HR, a confidential advisor or ombudsperson, or have talked with their supervisor or the supervisor of their supervisor. Unfortunately, in general this has not achieved anything. They are seen as troublemakers who block the smooth running of the processes. More often than not the affected persons are not helped by the changes that DEWIS are sometimes able to bring about as a result of these reports. Many of them leave TU Delft.
Abuse of power towards women is an important factor in gender equality and it remains a pressing problem. The official bodies (ombudspersons and confidential advisors) and rules (see the web page of the Integrity Office) are important but insufficient. The underlying culture needs to change.
In organisations with a culture based on thinking and decisiveness, most supervisors go for efficient and not for effective solutions. This is disastrous in problems concerning the abuse of power. All too often the victims of abuse of power hear that they are exaggerating, that the person who treated them like that is much more important for the organisation than they are, or that it was probably a misunderstanding that they need to sort out themselves by discussing it with the people in question.
A change in culture starts with responsible leadership. Responsible leadership means taking time, even if this appears inefficient at first. Supervisors need to be easily accessible for informal discussions and to really listen to the problems of employees, find solutions to problems and follow them up.
Claudia Werker is Associate Professor Economics of Technology and Innovation at the Faculty of TPM. She has worked at TU Delft since 2007. She is also the Vice Chair of TU Delft’s Works Council.