‘The discussion needs to loosen up’

Annelien en Hester in gesprek met elkaar

One is the first female Rector Magnificus of Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), the other is the new Social Safety Officer at ESHPM. Both have the same ambition: that everyone can feel at home on the campus. Social safety plays a major role in this. Increasing this calls for a systematic approach. Read the double interview with Annelien Bredenoord and Hester van de Bovenkamp here.

Reading time: 6 minutes

The essence of social safety

Social safety is a broad term. It may concern an open culture, diversity and accessibility, or also inappropriate behaviour and socially unsafe situations that must be reported. What do you see as the core of this term?

Annelien: "To me, social safety means that I work and live in an environment in which I feel safe to be myself and can also develop myself to the maximum."

Hester: "You can make a really complicated policy definition of it. But at heart, it also comes down to: do you feel at home at your place of work or study? Being at home or being yourself can mean something different to everyone. This means that you have to empathise with each other, and to think about how something may appear to the other person and how you respond to this. Sometimes, someone needs an extra push in order to feel free enough to say something. Empathising is a very important aspect of social safety."

An important role

Annelien: "Social safety is an important issue everywhere. But at a university such as ours, it is a genuine priority. Firstly because we offer an education to people in the bloom of their youth. It is a phase in which they are more vulnerable and susceptible. It is therefore extra important that they are able to develop in a safe environment. Secondly, it is essential for researchers and their knowledge development that there is scope for differences and diversity. This is the only way to conduct truly critical research."

Hester: "I am very aware that this is a priority area and at the same time, a complex subject. This is why I found the recent report from the KNAW very interesting. It really makes the different layers of this subject clear. It lies in the culture, structure and systems, which all contribute to a socially safe (or unsafe) culture."

"Social safety is so broad that it is complex"

Looking further

Hester: "I myself became a Social Safety Officer because ESHPM had an unpleasant history in this regard. What most shocked me about this history was that I failed to see that it was not safe for an immediate colleague and that she did not feel free to discuss her situation with colleagues. Something can always go wrong sometime, wherever you are. But what struck me most was that people don’t dare to talk about it. Although my motivation arose for personal reasons, I do see the different levels of the overall problem. It goes far beyond how we deal with each other. We also need to pay attention to the structures that hinder social safety."

Annelien: "I that there is now systematic attention to this theme for the first time in history. Coincidentally, I’ve just done an interview with the Times Higher Education on social safety and the old-fashioned, misogynistic outpourings of certain student associations. There is no single answer or policy line for addressing this. You have to work on different levels and develop various action plans. On the one hand, there is a whole set of measures in the field of prevention, such as leadership development, bystander training courses and adjustments in the physical domain. And on the other hand, we have been working on a system of confidential counsellors in case something nevertheless does happen. This might appear fragmented, which is why the next step is to develop a central entrance desk. I think we are now taking major steps."

Annelien Bredenoord luistert naar Hester van de Bovenkamp

Everything in connected

Hester: "Everything is interconnected. There are projects such as discussions on recognition and rewards or pressure of work. Social safety is related to all the subjects that play a role."

Annelien: "I totally agree with you on that. Social unsafety is also related to a low percentage of women in leadership positions. With the recognition and rewards project, we want to promote a greater diversity of talents, character and preferences. Of course, you still have to be good at something, but that can go beyond the traditional route of publications and raising money. Such a project can bring about an important cultural change."

Hester: "It would be good if teamwork was also part of what is valued. That empathetic people who good are creating a socially safe culture are valued for that quality."

Cultural change

Annelien: "In the year that I have served as rector here, we have drawn up a systematic plan. Where can we deploy resources, and where can we free up budget? To my mind, these were clear steps with concrete implementation. It will just take a while before this cultural change has been realised. The preventive level is now just a question of doing it. The only challenge we face is finding people, which isn't all that easy nowadays. What I do want to achieve is to loosen up the discussion. I think we have already been pretty successful in that. We recognise that this is a focus point and talk about it openly. That is already a huge step forward. Six years ago, that wasn't happening yet."

Hester: "No, that's true. At the same time, those talks aren't always easy. Training is very important. What we see internally is that many young women who did not feel safe before are responding to this. We also want to hear from other target groups. That really is still a challenge; how do you make this a subject for everyone? We have already taken many steps forward, but the next one is that everyone realises what this means in their daily work. It's not just about boorish behaviour. It can also be about the impact of a meeting that you didn't anticipate. Of course you can say what you want to say, but think about the impact. We also need to get away from statements like, I don't feel unsafe, so it isn't unsafe. That shows too little capacity for empathy."

Annelien: "I also want us to take care that the term 'social unsafety' doesn't become a sort of container term for certain forms of dissatisfaction. We need to protect people who are the subject of complaints and stories against a trial by judgement culture. The principle remains that you're innocent until proven guilty. I also don't want a culture in which people say, I have to think twice before I can say anything at all. No, you can say a great deal and it can also be controversial. That's also diversity. We will have different views and that's fine. But people need to understand that a certain hierarchy involves certain responsibilities. If you are higher up the pyramid, you have more power and that can be intimidating for other people or lead to uncertainty. That's just something you have to be aware of."

Dubbelinterview met Annelien Bredenoord & Hester van de Bovenkamp

"If you don't try, you don't learn"


Annelien: "The most important thing now is to keep track of the coordination function, particularly in view of the amount of different measures. If something belongs to everyone, it can also belong to no-one. Ownership has to be retained."

Hester: "It’s such a broad subject that it’s complex. However, time is on our side. So I'm positive about being able to take steps forward in the coming years."

Annelien: "I'm also optimistic and hopeful, because where has this been dealt with so systematically before? Where has anyone had such an open discussion? Where has a policy been actively pursued and research conducted? However, I found out from a lecture by Mariëtte Hamer (former Dutch MP) that there are still many things we don't know yet. What are effective measures? What’s the best way to go about this? We are doing many things and investing a great deal, but we are also still making discoveries. Together, we have to have enough tolerance to be able to say in a few years' time that certain programmes probably didn't make a difference or perhaps were even counterproductive. It’s trial and error."

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