We need to expose students to female role models

Interview with Associate Professor Marleen Dieleman

This month is Gender Equality month and we share the stories of three remarkable Dutch female professors in Singapore. This is our second interview, this time with Associate Professor at the NUS Business School Marleen Dieleman. Marleen's research focuses on corporate strategy, in particular of Asian family business groups. Her work on Asian family businesses has been widely recognized and mentioned in global media, including the Economist, the Financial Times and local media in Asia. Today she tells us how being a woman has influenced her career in this male dominated environment.

Associate Professor Marleen Dieleman

Which event or person has influenced the success you have achieved most?

“A big part of my success is without a doubt having the courage to step into environments that are unfamiliar. Going out of your comfort zone forces you to see new perspectives and meet new people. My move to Asia was a big part of this, and so was my research in Indonesia and consulting for Asian business families. This opened my eyes, and a few doors too! Also here in Singapore, I think it is very useful and stimulating to step out of the expat world and connect with people who think differently.”

To what extent do you think that being a woman in academia complicates or perhaps facilitates a successful professional career? 

“I recall one incident where I walked into a department photo session after teaching a class and there was a sigh of relief at my arrival. I realised they were suddenly so happy to see me because I was the only woman. We do have a few female faculty members in our department, but for some reason none of them showed up. I happened to be dressed in a cream-coloured suit and the photographer directed me to the middle of the photo like I was some sort of angel who had come down from the sky! It was an embarrassing moment for everyone, but I am glad it happened because it created awareness.

Associate Professor M Dieleman

Most people realise there is something called “unconscious bias”, or, in academic terms, homophily. People tend to feel more comfortable with their own kind, and implicitly select similar people for leadership roles, often without the intention to discriminate. This is obviously a problem if most influential academic leaders and scholars are men and you are a woman. This tendency is deep-rooted and I am not very optimistic about this changing rapidly without targeted action.

While on the topic of unconscious bias, I would like to state that it is equally important to realise that you, also as a woman, may find yourself at the privileged end of unconscious bias. When I was a director of an Indian company, I experienced first-hand the difference between how people treated me - and how they treated my fellow directors - who were mostly Indian men. The negative stereotypes towards my Indian fellow directors were a wake-up call for me, making me realise that being white made all the difference. Occasionally, there is a tendency to inflate my qualities simply because I am part of a privileged group, and I try to make the best of that unearned privilege to support others who are less fortunate and more deserving.”

Are you in touch with female peers or are you a member of any network organisation with other women from academia? What does that bring you?

“I am a big believer in networks of women and in women supporting one another. While I am not part of any academic women’s network, I have been very active in various women’s networks here in Singapore. I would recommend every woman and girl to do the same. Thor, my husband, affectionately calls it my ‘witches clubs’.

In the course of trying to move the needle towards hiring more women, especially in board positions, I was able to meet a range of fantastic women, both Singaporean and Dutch. This network has helped me a lot, in addition to making my life more fun. I also use these networks to draw on for guest speakers in my classes at NUS, as I strongly feel that my students should be exposed to more female role models in business.” 

What do you think are the biggest differences between Singapore and the Netherlands when it comes to women in academic positions? What can these countries learn from each other?

“In 2009, while I was leading a research centre on governance at NUS, I got to know Juanita Woodward. She, at that time, co-chaired an organization in Singapore called BoardAgender, which aims to increase the percentage of women on boards. Using a database from my research centre, we started putting out reports and press releases with statistics on how many (or: few) women were directors on SGX-listed company boards. The numbers were quite low and it caused a stir! We did this for a couple of years and then I moved on to doing a comparative study on women on boards in Asia, together with Alicia Yi from Korn Ferry, an organizational consulting company focusing on talent. This was quite useful as Singapore prides itself on topping all sorts of rankings. I am a bit mischievous, so I chuckled when the Business Times, the leading business newspaper here, printed a front-page headline based on our work saying that Singapore was behind India, Malaysia and Indonesia. Indeed, the regional comparisons proved to be helpful in stimulating action from different parts of society.

In academia, The Netherlands seems to be ahead of Singapore in terms of the percentages of female full professors, at least in my field. Our business school is a bit conservative and I don't think they see gender equality as an important theme. But what we can learn from Singapore is the relatively meritocratic way of assessing people, and the relatively low level of politics involved in choosing people for leadership roles. They assess and hire people based on performance and potential. The pitfall, however, is that unconscious bias may still seep into judgments, unintentionally resulting in low diversity. Hence, I believe awareness is key for providing equal opportunities.

Although the Netherlands is ahead with women in high academic positions, we are still not at the desired level. Having done a few studies in the area of gender diversity, I’ve come to believe that equal opportunities will not happen in our lifetime without further action. That is why I am not against quota. I understand the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands recently received judicial approval to apply a preferential policy for hiring more women for the coming five years. I think it will speed up the process, but it is good that the measure has a limited time span.

For those not in favour of quota, other alternatives are available, including requiring organizations to publish annual gender diversity targets and the degree to which these were achieved. This places the issue on the agenda of the board and holds them publicly accountable. Thus, it is a useful case of ‘what gets measured, gets done’.”

Finally, what advice would you like to give to young girls, what is the advice you had wanted to get yourself?

“When I was younger, I often felt that I needed to try to fit in, but I wish I had discovered earlier that it is often better to follow your own path, even if it means you stand out. The courage to do so will often be rewarded. But, standing out successfully also means respecting other groups you stand out from. Without that effort to respect others, they won’t accept you and that may block your path to success.”


Marleen Dieleman is associate professor at NUS Business School in Singapore. She holds a Ph.D. from Leiden University in The Netherlands. Marleen teaches and researches on the strategy and governance of family business groups. She published widely on these topics, including books, articles in academic journals, book chapters, cases and reports. Her work is featured regularly in international media and she is a frequent invited speaker. Marleen has worked with various family business groups as a consultant, family meeting facilitator or board member.