Wittenborg CEO Maggie Feng for SER: Plant the Seeds of Equality at the Dinner Table

Wittenborg CEO Maggie Feng for SER: Plant the Seeds of Equality at the Dinner Table

Life as a Working Woman in China and the Netherlands

What follows is a translation of a Dutch article written by Maggie Feng for SER.nl's column 'Topvrouw uitgelicht!'.

When I arrived in the Netherlands as an exchange student thirty years ago, I was surprised that so many mothers worked part-time or not at all. This was very different in Beijing. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts – all women worked full-time. There was no gender pay gap and no differences in job levels. This mindset shaped my view of gender equality.

After all, we were raised as independent children with a world of opportunities ahead of us. The one-child policy gave all children from big cities in China the same opportunities, which we seized confidently. Although the policy was sweeping and not without controversy, it also ensured that in education there was no longer a difference between boys and girls, who were treated the same way. And, between fathers and mothers, there was no difference for which company, in which position and how many hours they worked.

A world of/without differences

If you do not grow up with differences, you do not experience them. You feel like you are equal to others, regardless of gender. Your gender does not influence your expectations for the future or what your future work environment expects of you. This offers space and freedom to make your own choices and to set your own course. I went to college with that mindset, thinking of all the opportunities that lay ahead of me. Opportunities did come my way, and led me to where I am now: CEO of Wittenborg University of Applied Sciences.

It's not Peter's fault

Because women are strongly under-represented at the top of the business world, last January, hundreds of Dutch women on LinkedIn changed their first names to Peter, the most common name of Dutch CEOs. I kept my own name. That the white man at the top is called Peter is not Peter's fault. But what about the fact that many women have to make an extra effort, be more articulate, and present themselves more firmly than men in order to reach the top? We can do something about that, my Chinese upbringing being an example.

I understand all the initiatives that call attention to the need for more diversity in organisations. At the same time, we have to accept that we have a long way to go until initiatives like these are no longer needed and we only know opportunity inequality in the workplace as a concept from history books. We cannot just flip a switch. It is not where there is a will there is a way, nor is it a fight against men. The many interesting and fruitful discussions over the past few years and the engaging empowerment conferences provide support to this cause. Many good initiatives for more women at the top have been deservedly applauded. Nevertheless, the landscape is only changing slowly, as the number of women in top positions remains largely the same.

Cultural change needed for equal opportunities

Indeed, it takes more than consensus, intention and theory to achieve gender equality. On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 10 February this year, it was said that not until 2040 will there be an equal number of men and women professors. How is it possible that after years of talking and planning, the results are still so meagre? I think that is because there are still solutions that haven't been looked at.

Let's face it: gender equality is not only achieved by introducing a quota. We have not even remotely achieved the required number for women at the top. It requires a cultural shift to embed a 50/50 male-female ratio in all layers and facets of society. Not only in numbers, but also in opportunities, respect and understanding for each other, but also in running a family. Cultural change is a long road. You tackle it at the roots, at the upbringing. At home, with the family at the kitchen table, is the breeding ground to plant seeds together that will grow into more equality.

Basis for gender equality in education

The new generation needs new examples and different expectations. It does not mean that boys will become girls and vice versa. It does mean that boys and girls will be more involved in cooperation from an early age. This reduces the distance between them, so that they become more involved in each other's lives in a natural way. Let boys help in the household, teach girls that they can make themselves heard. Give space to the experience of being allowed to be in all areas, regardless of gender.

Then, once these children become adults, they will enter a world where they cannot live without each other. By teaching youth from now on to look at life differently, to see and understand each other, you are building a generation that takes it for granted to work together, to set goals together, to grow together, both at home and at work.

Let's create a new image for them by looking not backward but forward. Let's shake off historical, cultural patterns and stereotypes on our way to equality. We must show that fathers have their share in the household, that pregnancy is a wonderful and beautiful gift and does not get in the way of a career, and that transgressive behaviour only stops when we see each other as equals.

At the kitchen table, we learn that one person is not worth more than another, and that we all have our own qualities that collectively and side-by-side contribute to each other's well-being.

WUP 8/3/2022
by Maggie Feng with Carmen Luttikhuis, English translation by Marius Zürcher
©WUAS Press