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Female Tech Heroes role models #4 – John Baekelmans: ‘Equality is in my DNA’

Mar 25, 2020 11:38:42 AM. By: Anna Mazur

When we create the wrong products or solutionsit’s because we haven’t listened to a diverse enough audience.' After three and a half years of leading the imec nanotechnology research brancin The Netherlands, John Baekelmans is certainly the right person to talk to about the present and future of technology and the role that diversity and equality play in it. He calls for changing the stigmatized image of STEM industries and leads by  exampleNext month John is starting a new role as CEO of Rombitscale-up in Belgium.

The coming months we will introduce female and male role models who act upon increasing diversity in the tech industry. By telling their personal and career stories, we can inspire and learn from each other. 

Why is diversity so important to you? 
Equality for me is a given. It is in my DNA. But that doesn’t count for everybody else yet. So, we need to, through positive messaging, promote the idea further. Diversity provides you with the different views, insights and much more balanced outcomes. You just need to be able to see that and give it an opportunity. The topic has progressed a lot over the past ten years. I’ve seen some of its evolution and actually was not very happy in the beginning. Working in an American company I was sometimes getting forced to put females into roles, even if they weren’t the highest qualified for the job. Not because they were female, but because of enforced quota. And that’s wrong. What is right is to bring in the balance, bring in the diversity and to show that because of adding a female type of leadership you are becoming a better company. That’s what I believe in.

How does diversity in the workplace contribute to the future of tech? 
For me the importance of diversity has certainly become clear over the past ten years. People of different origins, but also men and female, all have different opinions. If you surround yourself with people who always say ‘yes’, because they’ve been brought up in a similar environment, you don’t really really get a reflection what customers really want. You can maybe create very innovative technologies and products but you don’t create the products that have the right impact, for all people. I’ve been driven a lot by the fact that if you want to create the right solution you need to think about all angles. And if you want to think about all angles, you need to have the right balance in place.  

Can you share some examples of inclusion at imec? 
I have three female directors here at imec on the High Tech Campus. One of them is the HR director, the Finance Director and the General Manager of our Eindhoven site. The General Manager started as a researcher and climbed up thanks to her capabilities to unite and bring people with a common goal forward. It was a natural leadership evolution she went through. So, for me, the decision was never about assigning a male or a female, but about what that person can do and how he or she can unite and excite the team more than anybody else.  

At imec in the Netherlands we have about 20 different nationalities. And also that mix brings a very rich perspective to everything we do. Are we perfect yet? No, we are not. And the reason is that technology is still one of those areas where the inflow of the female students is typically more attracted through social reasons versus technology reasons. And that’s not right. It’s like there is still a pre-conceived notion that ‘I’m gonna be better at this and bad at that’. 

In your experience, which sectors within STEM have more a balanced workforce and which are still unbalanced?  
Today our inflow of female candidates is pretty scarce. In certain parts of our business we have biochemistry and physics talent needs and that’s where today we have a rich balance among the applicants. I think that in tech sector we are all suffering from the fact that the diversity of the talent pool that we can bring into our workforce is less than if we were a law firm or other kind of more ‘social’ employers. The high-tech industry probably has the most unequal numbers, from a balance perspective. Technology is not always perceived as ‘sexy’. We need to change that, show that technology is not just for nerds. When we create the wrong products or solutions it’s because we haven’t listened enough to a diverse enough audience. And that’s what I am trying to change through leading by example.

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More than 50 percent of my directors are female. Was it because of me? Well, I was a little bit lucky, some of them were already here, but I also tried to grow them as much, equal to their male counterparts. I don’t make a difference and that’s what I think we should aim at. We are always aiming for a greater balance, but if they are not coming, we cannot hire them either. 

So, it starts with education? 
It starts with education. And one of my call-outs is to make STEM even more appealing than it already is today. I think it needs to start as early as possible in secondary school. The people we see today who say ‘I don’t care about the pre-conceived notion, I’m gonna go for it’, they become very successful. Anybody who I encounter who can have an influence on that, I talk about the issues and try to make him or her part of ‘the mission’. At imec we are organizing for example lots of tours for younger people through our experience center. To get the younger generation excited about all we do! The mentality that technology is only something for guys in white suits or nerds - that mentality is wrong and has to shift. We need to also show examples of female leaders in high tech, so people can see what is possible. Let’s just make sure we don’t overdo it either because if the pendulum swings too much to the other side, people might not believe us anymore.  

What do you mean with the other side? What is too much? 
If it becomes too feministic. It is not because the high-tech industry today has more males than females that everything those males do is wrong for example. In the past some female interest groups sometimes went overboard with that and started lacking credibility. We just need to respect both ends. It’s going to take a bit more time to make the high tech industry fully equal but we are on the right track by talking about these issues in the open now. It’s up to us to make the difference and sustain it! 

Learn more about the Female Tech Heroes movement and join us to create more diversity!

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