About three years ago, several dignitaries from the Dutch business community gathered in a church and looked around uneasily. Where should their shoes be left? Representatives from KPMG and PostNL were invited to a meeting on diversity by Karen van Audenhoven-Van der Zee, professor of psychology and dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Free University (VU). Only at the end did they identify the place: the Blue Mosque in New West, Amsterdam. They did not even know in advance that they were going to talk to the Imam.
‘It takes courage to set up such an extraordinary meeting,’ says Jolanda Van Sheikh, then head of diversity and inclusion at KPMG, an accountancy and consultancy firm. “That’s Karen’s character. For years, the two met regularly at meetings under the title ‘More Color at the Top’, a venture by Van Audenhoven to explore why the Dutch company’s top remained so white and what to do about it.
Like the other three acquaintances, Van Shayk of Volkskrant He spoke with delight at the appointment of Van Audenhoven as the new Director of the Social and Cultural Planning Office (SCP), the country’s most important social science research institute and government advisory body.
From the ivory tower
In the opinion of four, the position is ideal for her. Van Audenhoven is not afraid to step out of the ivory tower of the university. In the late 1990s, they established the Institute for Integration and Social Religion at the University of Groningen (RUG), where research should be conducted that has a direct impact on training.
‘People warned that it would not be good for her career,’ says Ellen Goebbels, a fellow psychologist and professor who met Van Odenhoven in Groningen. At that time, as a scientist, you did basic research – she did it at a high level – or you were engaged in training. Yet she set up the institute, which I thought was really progressive.
Even in the SCP, research does not take place in a vacuum: the Institute is legally obliged to evaluate policy in The Hague. With her appointment, Van Audenhoven will gain a special place in the public debate. Incumbent SCP Director Putters has routinely broken government policy in recent years. ‘Under her leadership it certainly will not be any different,’ hopes Mirjam van Prague, VU board chairman who has served as dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences in recent years. Because she dares.
Diversity remains one of its spearheads, the trio hopes. From a young age, Van Audenhoven appeals to anyone who deviates from current norms. ‘We lived in Friesland and my parents were a little hippie,’ she explains on a recent VU podcast. ‘We ate pasta and rice, not really involved. But when we get to Randstad, people ask, ‘Where are your blocks?’
Dealing with uncertainty
Although the differences between people are rich, in practice it often does not work that way, she realized during her psychology degree. At the heart of her research is the question of how a team can be greater than the sum of its parts.
The answer she found consists of two parts. First, learn to deal with uncertainty. You can train your brain for this, says an internationally renowned psychologist. “Immerse yourself in as many different and uncertain situations as possible,” she advises on the podcast. Hence her invitation to leading people and CEOs in extraordinary places like the Masjid.
After facing their prejudices there, the CEOs present a dilemma. Some people need a new kidney, but only one is available. They must jointly decide who to donate the kidney to. ‘Then, most people think: it went very well,’ says Van Audenhoven. “It simply came to our notice then. It’s not a bad idea, it’s a quick decision. ‘
The second condition for a successful diversity policy is this: to take advantage of differences, you must ‘start from the point where it’s not always right and really take time’, says Van Audenhoven. Diversity means that people with difficult opinions will challenge you and delay your decision making. She is the first to conclude that she can still make a profit there. ‘As a manager I sometimes think: I have to keep going, I have to achieve my goals.’
In a relaxed mood, VU board chairman Van Prague says Van Audenhoven sometimes described himself as a ‘Frisian-headed man’. According to Professor Jacqueline van Stekelenberg, a direct associate of Van Audenhoven on the VU faculty board, that perseverance is what makes her suitable for the position of SCP Director. ‘She knows how to get people to do things. In a world where things do not always go smoothly, that’s an important advantage. ‘
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