Today we are celebrating International Women’s Day all around the world, but definitely also at Fronteer. We celebrate achievements but also raise awareness about women’s equality. The number of women in leadership positions is still very disappointing (only 12,4% of Dutch board members are female) whilst we all know that a diverse team performs better. Our colleague Leonie van Mierlo recently wrote a management book about female leadership. She proclaims: “women need to take their position and become ‘new role models’ when leading from their femininity”.
We are very proud that we have two amazing women that recently obtained two leadership positions in our organisation: Claire Bloemendaal as our new Lead Link and Frédérique Molenbeek as our new Associate Partner. We asked them everything about their view on female leadership. Read the interview below.
Role models and female leadership
Which woman is your biggest inspiration and role model?
Claire: Frankly, I don’t have one role model but I admire different people for different reasons. I happened to be thinking about this when I was watching my kids in the playground. My 3-year-old daughter, who’s rather wee, stood up for her younger brother when another kid tried to snatch his tricycle. The boy was bigger than both my kids combined but got shunned away by my daughter. Solely on attitude. While young kids do see a difference between boys and girls, they don’t yet attach a value judgment to it. I think women are more likely to see themselves as an underdog, my daughter Wies, barely 1 meter tall, certainly does not and really doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. I admire that attitude.
Frédérique: I’m not sure if I have one clear source of inspiration or role model. I get inspired by many women that are out there, who are courageous in standing up, standing out, and starting initiatives that help others to grow too. The story of J.K. Rowling particularly resonates with me; as a single mother, she became an international best-selling author in just a few years with her imagination and perseverance. Rejected by publishers at first, she finally secured a print run of 1,000 copies for her first book. She has a strong and brilliant following on social media, where she is not afraid to speak up; puts people in place, responds to criticism and shuts down trolls.
What does female leadership mean to you?
Claire: I hope in the future we can sunset the word ‘female’ in this context. I can talk about feminine leadership qualities that women bring here. But that’s already outdated in this discussion. Rather than female leadership, I’d suggest pivoting towards female ‘friendly’ leadership. The rules of the career game have been drafted in executive boardrooms by white men in suits who have never been confronted by sexism. We are currently aiming for equality, but to achieve equity – leveling the unequal opportunities – you have to give women more opportunities than male leaders until there is an equal representation of men and women in an institution set up by men and change the rules of the game.
Frédérique: Being able to work and lead from your true authentic self, without having to adjust to others and their expectations. From there I believe strong & natural leadership will flow. In my work, I have noticed feminine traits are often to think things through thoroughly. By visualising future scenarios, the most relevant actions in the now can be taken. I believe female leadership is less triggered or driven by competition; working with a connected team, empowering each other to grow and accomplish shared goals.
What do you think is the biggest prejudgement about women in leadership positions?
Claire: That straightforward women are bitches, whilst straightforward men are ‘cool’.
Frédérique: Too often I hear when women occupy leadership positions, they have a masculine skillset. They have adjusted to a male-dominated work environment. In Dutch, those women are often referred to as “ice-rabbits”, where they are convicted of being quite strict/mean/bitchy, which again carries so much judgment. On the other end, women are sometimes framed as being distracted, or not committed enough when she has a family of four. We need both feminine and male traits to excel in leadership roles. As my brilliant colleague Leonie van Mierlo wrote in her book; stop fixing the women, fix the system.
The difference between women and men
Do you think that women will face other challenges at work than men?
Claire: I have 2 young children, who are great, but have paused my career for 18 months each. In addition to maternity leave, mental and physical recovery is impactful for at least the same amount of time and it’s impossible to share that burden with the father. Now that I am back to my old self, I think that motherhood also brings perspective and a reinforced intuition. But that’s not the problem, free childcare and a Scandinavian leave model would help enormously. Until then, equality at home is a key to success. At our home, we divide the care for children and household work (but also finance and income) 50/50. That way you start your working day with an equal mindset.
Frédérique: Absolutely. And it’s not even that visible. They are the small details that have seeped through our society and the way of working; examples where women can be belittled by starting a meeting with “Hi girls…”. Bringing across an idea takes longer and requires harder work. Julia Wouters in her book “On the sideline of power” (“De zijkant van de macht”) describes that men are often less engaged during a meeting when women are talking. Women are also more cautious. It is often that they only apply to jobs where they know they tick all of the boxes required, whereas men believe they can do it with only ticking a few. We need more of the Pippi Longstocking mentality: “I have never done it so I think I can do it”
What would the world look like if at least 50% of all top positions were filled by women?
Claire: The world would look much brighter. Not only because men and women need each other for a balanced policy, but also because it puts other topics on the agenda. Subjects and policies that appeal not only to men but also to the other half of the world’s population. Besides that, we have many major and fast-approaching challenges in the near future. You need a variety of perspectives to understand and solve these. Please don’t think you can do so with just a bunch of men or only a group of women, we need each other there.
Frédérique: Ever seen women pick a fight? Or even starting a war? [….] We need both female and male traits for successful leadership. Like yin & yang, the shadow and the sun, where contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected, and interdependent. We need masculine traits for confidence and decision-making, and we need feminine traits to connect, work from empathy, and humanity to achieve a shared ambition.
Women @ Fronteer
Do you think there will be a change noticeable at Fronteer now that we have more women in leadership positions?
Claire: I must say we already have a very empathetic and supportive culture at Fronteer. But we can always improve when it comes to equity. The metrics in most companies were invented by men, but how do you make them female-friendly and multicultural-proof? And as men and women are clearly different, so are the perspectives we bring to the table. I am looking forward to having more diverse pairs of eyes and minds wrapped around big challenges and seeing them being tackled in ways that were unthinkable. And how can we really attract a diverse team? We should strive for equity instead of equality and do so fast!
Frédérique: Ha! YES! Subtle but yes. Change at Fronteer is only noticeable over longer periods of time. I am quite fond of using the soccer game as a metaphor. I have long thought, in general, in order to become part of a leadership team I had to learn to become a striker; being quite visible and scoring. I realised though, my strength lies within connecting the players to win, analysing the game, see gaps and opportunities, as a midfielder. This metaphor was embraced by the founding partners and we now understand and work from our own strength. I truly believe, and I am excited for the next few years where we will learn to combine our strengths to progress our business and develop impactful strategies for our client.
Picture of Wies, daughter of Claire Bloemendaal, © Mathijs van der Vinne fotografie