“I was involved in diversity when the term did not even exist yet”

"Female CEOs? That’s a question of a few years"

Since summer this year, Stichting Topvrouwen has had a new board member: Erik van de Merwe. With the appointment of the very experienced Van de Merwe – previously a supervisor at Achmea and Rabobank, among others, and currently a supervisor at various charitable foundations and a management adviser – our board has attained a perfect balance, with two women and two men. An interesting detail: Van de Merwe’s accession to the Board happened very spontaneously.

We look back to Stichting Topvrouwen’s Annual Event: a warm September evening at the Hermitage in Amsterdam. The guests had listened to the speech by the Chair, Marry de Gaay Fortman, walked round the exhibition ‘Catherine the Great’ and were looking forward to the dinner. At that moment, Erik van de Merwe spotted Sieto de Leeuw, a board member of Stichting Topvrouwen. De Leeuw and Van de Merwe had already known each other for a long time. “So we immediately got talking. At some point, Sieto mentioned that he and his fellow board members Marry de Gaay Fortman and Mariëtte Turkenburg were looking for one more member for the board. Straight away I thought: hey, I could do that. I’ve got the necessary experience and I want to make more time for activities that centre on the interests of society. I made my interest known. A few formalities were necessary, but after 15 minutes Sieto came back to me: the other board members were immediately enthusiastic.” “It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” as Marry de Gaay Fortman put it in her speech at part 2 of the Annual Event, which was held a week later.


All this enthusiasm is no surprise, because Van de Merwe is a trailblazer when it comes to diversity, both as regards gender as in a broader sense, and throughout his career he has been dedicated to creating diverse teams. “I was already doing that in the 90s, when I was CFO of the predecessor of Mees Pierson and had to put together a management team following a reorganisation – the word diversity didn’t even exist then. Nevertheless, I was sure that it was valuable. There has always been a need for well-considered decisions, different visions and a broad outlook. As a result, at that time and in every administrative and supervisory role that I have taken on since, I have made clear choices: I have aimed to achieve a balance in gender, age, culture, and orientation.” When he put diversity on the agenda in the 1990s, choices that Van de Merwe made were certainly not conventional. “For example, I had an outstanding female employee and I appointed her head of legal affairs. It was an appointment that was not in line with expectations, because of her lack of management experience. Moreover, I have the impression that at that time women were somewhat more uncertain than they are nowadays. You still see women being more reluctant to apply for jobs when they don’t meet 100% of the requirements, and this was even more the case in the past. So that promotion did indeed raise eyebrows.” Van de Merwe did not worry about the reactions. “From extensive talks I had gained an outstanding impression of the woman in question. I did some coaching – that’s always important with fresh talent – and was quickly confirmed in my choice.” He subsequently carried on along the same lines: when Van de Merwe joined Achmea in 2004, there wasn’t a single woman sitting on the board; when he left the insurer last summer, half of the eight supervisory board members were women and the board had been considerably rejuvenated – a turnaround for which he can be given the credit.

Holy Grail

For Van de Merwe, management experience has never been the Holy Grail and in his role as employer he has always looked further than that one limited quality. "That's the key to greater diversity. If you continue to search in the same way, you’ll never find any new faces. How do you still guarantee quality? That’s exactly what brings about diversity: with different points of view and versatility, you defend the interests of diverse stakeholders.” But do organisations have confidence in the ‘toughness’ of, say, a 38-year-old women with no executive experience, who is in the running due to her knowledge of ICT and technological innovations? “Why not? If such a person is properly prepared for the job, the added value is obvious. The important thing is for there to be sufficient different competences on the board as a whole. It is also important for there to be good coaching."

Cultural improvement

Van de Merwe is convinced that in 2016, things are heading in the right direction with respect to diversity – including gender diversity – at the top. "A pessimistic picture is painted in the media, but things are going reasonably well. Many companies put a lot of effort into building diverse teams and in the levels below the executive board, there is an enormous amount of diverse potential."" There you have it: “These people will soon be storming through to the top, definitely." They will even reach the ultimate position: "More female CEOs – that’s a question of a few years." This organic development does not mean that Stichting Topvrouwen is working for change for nothing. “Diversity needs to be on companies' agendas. Making real efforts on behalf of diversity is a task for supervisory board members in general and the Chair of the supervisory board in particular. He or she must encourage discussion and, furthermore, look first at women when candidates are equally suitable. This is still not happening enough. In all honesty, I find many supervisory board members to be rather conservative."

By talking about the issue, stimulating the discussion and presenting best practices, this reluctance can be reduced. But if everything fails to move along smartly enough, does Van de Merwe see some merit in a quota? "I'm not an advocate of that. Quotas present us with a problem, as diversity is broader than gender alone. If you establish a quota for women, do you then have to serve other groups in the same way? Does it mean that x number of young people or people with a different cultural background or orientation have to be on the board? That won't work. I prefer to work on the cultural change I mentioned. Or rather: cultural improvement. We emphasise the urgency of the issue and ask organisations to join us in working towards our objectives. In the meantime, we call on women to showcase themselves en masse in our database. That will work."

Text Nicole Gommers