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Striving for an organisation where everybody can be themselves

Inclusion & diversity at NWO: current state of play

The organisation of the meeting Connect@inclusion & diversity, the filling of vacancies via the Dutch Participation Act and an incentive grant for refugees in science: these are just a few examples of the many initiatives that have been deployed during the past two years in the context of the NWO-wide “Implementation Plan Diversity” that was launched in 2018. Angeniet Gillissen (Institute Manager at NWO Institute NSCR) coordinates this project in the area of internal personnel policy and Astrid Zuurbier (NWO Domain Science policy officer) coordinates the aspect related to science funding. Gillissen and Zuurbier talk with the editor of Inside NWO-I about the progress of the project, their personal involvement with the theme and what they think an inclusive and diverse organisation should ideally look like.

If you search on the NWO website for terms like “inclusion” or “diversity”, then you will quickly discover what the organisation’s ambitions are in this regard: ‘NWO wants to be an organisation where everyone feels welcome, can be themselves and can bring out the best in themselves and in teams. We therefore strive for a diverse organisation with an inclusive culture where everybody is needed, irrespective of cultural, ethnic or religious background, gender, sexual orientation, health and age. NWO does this by focusing on its granting policy and its employer’s policy.’ And that NWO also looks beyond its own organisation is clear from the various initiatives it is involved in. On 31 October 2017, NWO signed the Diversity Charter, which has now been signed by more than one hundred organisations. By doing this, NWO committed itself to working on greater diversity in its own organisation and in science, inspired by the conviction that great diversity in individuals and perspectives leads to more creativity and innovation.

Subsequently, in September 2020, the National action plan for greater diversity and inclusion in higher education and research was launched in close collaboration with various parties including NWO. On behalf of NWO, Zuurbier helped to write the plan, which describes the ambitions and actions needed to create an inclusive, diverse and safe learning and working environment. In December, the plan was hotly debated in the Dutch House of Representatives and motions were submitted about it. Zuurbier: ‘One of the discussions was about including diversity of the research group as a quality criterion when assessing research proposals. We feel that the diversity of the research group contributes to the quality of the research. People who have different kinds of knowledge and expertise can achieve more together. It is therefore not just a matter of diversity. You can only build a good team if everybody feels at home and can work according to his or her qualities. The crux therefore lies in the combination of diversity and an inclusive work culture. Our plan was not originally written for members of parliament, but it is good to know what the Dutch House of Representatives thinks about the plan so that we can respond to their views in the coming months.’

Gillissen on personnel policy

A year ago, Angeniet Gillissen took over the role of coordinator diversity & inclusion at NWO-I from Angelique Schilder (head P&O at CWI). At NWO-I, the focus is on personnel policy. In her previous job as general manager at Atria, Institute on gender equality and women’s history, Gillissen already focussed on this theme. ‘For me, it was a logical and interesting step to focus on diversity and inclusion within NWO too. In this position, I want to do more than just examine the figures when it comes to men and women at work. I also want to actively contribute to an atmosphere and culture on the work floor where everybody feels welcome, irrespective of their background. It is important that there is room for differences and that people appreciate this importance.’ Therefore, NWO has started an entire series of initiatives for personnel policy to shape inclusion and diversity (see box at the bottom of this article).

‘It is not the person who hits, who determines how hard the blow is. That is determined by the person who receives it.’

‘It’s a very wide-ranging project with many different themes’, says Gillissen. ‘All NWO colleagues who take responsibility for part of this project do so in addition to their regular work and, importantly, with considerable enthusiasm and commitment. We are all making a considerable effort to keep the ball rolling.’ Besides all of the current initiatives, such as organising seminars for employees and providing incentive grants, the NSCR Institute Manager believes the most important thing is to create awareness within the organisation. ‘Inclusion and diversity are about having respect for other people. People are often not even aware of the fact that they are discriminating or hurting others. You can only become aware of that when you see and feel somebody else’s pain and, in particular, recognise it. ‘It is not the person who hits, who determines how hard the blow is. That is determined by the person who receives it. It would be fantastic if people became aware of this’, says Gillissen. Within the workgroup and in P&O, we are now thinking about how awareness can also be created amongst employees. This is mainly because inclusion and diversity are increasingly on the social agenda and are receiving more and more media attention. The theme undesirable behaviour is an aspect that is being further elaborated with the help of the NWO-wide code of conduct in which the emphasis will be on bringing the discussion about undesirable behaviour out in the open. Scientific research has revealed that undesirable behaviour occurs least in departments where people with different backgrounds are represented. And where there is an open culture in which the differences between people can be discussed constructively and there is mutual understanding. For example, organising training courses with the help of virtual reality is one of the possibilities under consideration.

Zuurbier on grant policy

For more than two years, Astrid Zuurbier has been the quartermaster for inclusion and diversity with respect to research funding at NWO. Zuurbier, who gained her PhD in cell biology, started her first research job at the Dutch Cancer Fund and subsequently moved to the field of ICT in 2010. She therefore became part of a real man’s world. ‘I did not see a single female role model’, she says, still with a certain amount of surprise. When Zuurbier started to work at NWO in the ICT team, she continued to be interested in women’s visibility on the work floor and that is how she took on her current inclusion & diversity role. One day per week, she focusses on inclusion & diversity and she is fully committed to the many programmes and calls that NWO has initiated with the action plan Diversity. At the bottom of this article, you will find a selection of the many current programmes.

Just like Gillissen, Zuurbier is part of the project team Diversity together with colleagues from all NWO units. The team is committed, motivated, keeps seeing new opportunities and identifies needs from society, but also from within the organisation. ‘One of the plans that we are making in consultation with the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) is the adoption of a rule for grant applicants who want to undergo a gender transition, the route that a transgender person can take to partly or completely undergo gender reassignment surgery. Such a person could experience a delay in his or her grant application trajectory or, after an award, experience a delay due to an operation or transition period, for example. That could be compensated for.’ NWO could also consider this from a P&O perspective because such request could also come from an employee, adds Zuurbier. ‘If you have a guideline for this within NWO, then that reduces the threshold for employees to make it known to their line manager that they want to start such a trajectory. I recently heard a transgender woman at an online lecture describe how important it was for her that her line manager had supported her throughout the entire process. Her story made a considerable impression on me.’

Societal developments

The stories of Gillissen and Zuurbier make it clear that many different projects are currently underway in NWO for both personnel and grants. And it is also clear that it takes a lot of time to come up with and realise projects within the organisation. Nevertheless, NWO also dares to look beyond its own walls and is trying to incorporate societal developments in the current diversity policy. Zuurbier: ‘The COVID-19 crisis has affected everything. Also the granting process of our organisation. We now want to better understand which effect the coronavirus pandemic has had on researchers’ careers and which measures we can take in response to this. How can we set up the process in such a way that unequal opportunities are minimised?’ And according to Zuurbier, “Black Lives Matter”, a movement from the United States that arose in response to police violence towards Afro-Americans, is one such societal theme that NWO cannot ignore. For example, in June 2020, NWO published a statement to promote inclusive science in which NWO and the NWO Institutes condemned the racist actions and violence in the United States. ‘Such a statement is fantastic, but it also needs to be accompanied by genuine action. We would like to develop a research programme about “anti-racism” that is tailor-made for the Dutch context and history. How can we counteract racism in the current Dutch situation?’, says Zuurbier.


Gillissen and Zuurbier finish the interview by considering when NWO will have succeeded in becoming a diverse and inclusive organisation. They do this with the awareness that not just NWO has a long way to go still, but society as a whole as well. Fortunately, neither of them has to think long about their answer, and they are resolute in giving it. ‘People who are insecure and do not feel at home, do not tend to speak out. An organisation is inclusive when everybody feels free to speak out’, says Zuurbier. Gillissen adds: ‘NWO will have succeeded when everybody feels welcome at NWO and nobody experiences a threshold to apply for a position within our organisation. And once our workforce forms a representative reflection of society.’

More about inclusion and diversity within NWO

  • See the NWO website for more initiatives in the area of inclusion and diversity.
  • “Inclusion/exclusion” is the theme of the most recent edition of the NWO magazine Onderzoek, which explores inclusion and diversity. Read the digital English version of the magazine via the NWO website.
  • On the intranet Joost employees from NWO-D can also find more information about inclusion and diversity using the search term "Diversity". A large part of this information will soon be made available on the NWO-I website as well, for all NWO-I employees.
  • Do you want to contact a confidential adviser after reading this article? Employees from NWO-I can find the information on the NWO-I website. NWO-D employees can find information about confidential advisers on the intranet Joost.
  • Do you have a question or suggestion about inclusion and diversity within NWO? Then please contact

Text: Melissa Vianen
Newsletter Inside NWO-I, January 2021

Initiatives personnel policy

Several NWO initiatives aimed at personnel policy explained:

  • The organisation of the meeting Connect@inclusion & diversity for all NWO and NWO-I employees on 21 March 2019. The aim is to organise a second edition in 2021.
  • On 1 January 2019, NWO became a member of Workplace Pride, a foundation that strives for improving the lives of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals and intersexuals (LGBTI) at their places of work. In 2019, the first network meetings took place for members of the LGBTI community and NWO employees were cordially invited to attend. In 2021, NWO will organise a conference Tech@WorkPlacePride. The conference theme will be “Different kinds of energy” and NWO Institute DIFFER will host the event and provide a substantive/scientific contribution about energy.
  • In 2018, an extensive employee satisfaction survey (MOZ) was held under NWO-D employees and the NWO-I office. Based on the outcomes, NWO-wide action points were formulated, including tackling “Undesirable behaviour”. It proved necessary to organise training courses in providing feedback with respect to undesirable behaviour and devote extra attention to the availability of confidential advisers within the organisation. After all, as an organisation, NWO must offer its employees a safe working environment where employees can be themselves. The information was subsequently made more easily available via the intranet Joost and the NWO-I website.
  • Everybody who can work but cannot succeed in the employment market without support falls under the Dutch Participation Act. This Act aims to ensure that more people can find work, including people with an occupational disability. At the end of 2020, a considerable number of these jobs at NWO has been filled. In recent months, due to the COVID-19 crisis, the emphasis was mainly on retaining these jobs.
  • NWO P&O is producing the toolkit “Inclusive recruitment and selection” with recommendations and tips for people who make decisions in the recruitment and selection process. The toolkit demonstrates what P&O staff can do during the recruitment process with respect to optimising diversity and inclusion. The toolkit ties in with the training courses that will soon be offered for P&O advisers. The training courses will focus on inclusive recruitment and selection: for example how do you write a more inclusive job advertisement and how do you deal with subconscious prejudices?
  • Women In Science Excel (WISE): a programme that gives talented female researchers the opportunity to start their own research group or to expand their existing group within one of the NWO Institutes. With this initiative, NWO wants to improve the gender balance within the research groups.


Initiatives granting policy

Several NWO initiatives aimed at personnel policy explained:

  • NWO strives to realise an inclusive selection and assessment process in which gender diversity has a place. Two videos were recently produced for referees and committee members in which several concrete ways were offered for improving the assessment process and making it more inclusive. With this, NWO is making an effort to reduce the effects of subconscious convictions, such as the ideal image of a good researcher or what a research career should look like. As the first step in implementing the videos, training courses will soon start for policy officers who act as secretaries for the selection committees.
  • Call Incentive Grants for Women in STEM: in the Netherlands, the percentage of women working in many natural sciences and engineering disciplines is low. With this call, NWO aims to retain women who are qualified in science or the engineering sciences, and to provide them with a stable launchpad for an academic career. To this end, this grant will support women who are temporarily without funding but who, nevertheless, have good prospects of obtaining a permanent or more senior research position (from Tenure Track) in the natural or engineering sciences.
  • In 2019, NWO together with other parties like the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science was an organiser of the European Gender Summit about diversity in science. The aim of the summit was to make gender equality in research and innovation the norm and to embed gender as an important characteristic of quality. The Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Ingrid van Engelshoven, launched the idea for the national action plan for greater diversity and inclusion in higher education and research. Zuurbier: ‘Interestingly, NWO had already planted the seed for this by bringing all of the boards together in 2016, and we drew up the plan with the most important stakeholders in the field. This means that now the plan is here, everybody knows how to connect with each other easily. The plan has already led to a heated debate in the Dutch House of Representatives and it received attention in ScienceGuide. This again underlines just how important and current the theme is and that a lot still needs to be done.’
  • Hestia - Impulse for Refugees in Science. Researchers who had to flee their homeland due to war or another threatening situation often face obstacles, such as a different language and working culture in the countries where they settle. This makes it more difficult for them to continue their academic career. With a Hestia grant, these academics can continue their scientific ambitions or career in the Netherlands. This programme started in May 2018 and is an overwhelming success.


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