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NWO hangs out rainbow flag during Coming Out day

Column Léon Ouwerkerk: "Safe work environments don’t just happen, not even with smart people"

On 11 October, Coming Out day is celebrated, a day that devotes attention to the moment that lesbian women, gay men, transgender and intersex people (LGBTI+) openly come out for her/his/their sexual orientation or gender identity. NWO/NWO-I celebrates Coming Out day by hanging out the rainbow flag on 11 October at the offices in Utrecht and The Hague and at all NWO Institutes. This year, Léon Ouwerkerk, P&O advisor at CWI and LGBTI+ coordinator for the entire NWO and NWO-I, has once again written a personal column about Coming Out day.

It's Coming Out day! A day to celebrate that LGBTI+[1] persons can be open about who they are. In the workplace, people can only be open about this if they feel socially safe.

Interestingly, last July, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) presented a report called Social safety in Dutch Science (Sociale veiligheid in de Nederlandse wetenschap) [2]. This is an interesting document with guidelines and tips to prevent undesirable behaviour and to adjust this on time. It covers many aspects of this complicated area, one of which is culture.

According to this report, the general opinion in science in the Netherlands is that it is an open environment where people are equal and are judged by their achievements, and where everyone can make themselves heard and will be heard, regardless of position, descent, nationality or identity. In reality, this is not the case. Often divergent suggestions or perspectives are perceived as problematic. This diminishes the advantages that diversity has for the quality of science and scientific work. A diverse range of voices should, in fact, be an enrichment that can lead to a broader horizon. Consequently, people who don’t fit the mainstream picture will feel forced to adapt or even leave science.

At the most recent NWO Pride meeting, on 28 June at NWO Institute ARCNL, a very senior person wondered if the changes regarding the LGBTI+ community may be going too fast for society. He suggested that maybe we should be less assertive and adjust the pace a bit for the sake of more conservative people. At that point, a young researcher stood up, and they got into a discussion. The junior person passionately stated that it is not fair to expect LGBTI+ persons not to exercise their full rights and be who they are. How long should they have to wait?

The senior person admitted that some good points were made, and promised to rethink his point of view. It takes a courageous person to do so, but the same applies to the junior person to speak up to someone very senior. I was happy to notice that at a Pride meeting, people feel safe enough to speak out and listen to each other. And actually, that should be the case in every work situation: especially in academia, everyone should feel free to make themselves heard and exchange arguments.

And that is also one of the recommendations in the KNAW guideline. They state that every scientist should develop the ability to constructively talk about behaviour, as it is part of a healthy working environment and necessary for good scientific work practice. Talking about behaviour is at the core of a - much-needed - culture change. It helps to mutually explore where certain habits come from and to inform us about what behaviour does to us. It is also important to make yourself vulnerable by asking how your behaviour can be improved.

Safe work environments don't happen automatically, not even when people are smart. Organisations have the duty to help their employees develop the skills they need to create a working situation where women and minorities (such as the LGBTI+ group) feel comfortable. For this reason, and also for ambitions like Open Science and Scientific Integrity, it is important that people develop the skills to raise doubts and ask difficult questions without provoking defensive reactions.

In that perspective, it makes me 'proud' that with our NWO Pride meetings, we organise socially safe meetings where people can have a constructive discussion about behaviour. I hope to see you there next time, no matter whether you are an LGBTI+ person or an ally because everyone is welcome to the discussion.

Questions and/or remarks

If you have any questions or remarks about LGBTI+-related matters, please contact the NWO LGBTI+ coordinator, Léon Ouwerkerk, by phone at +31 6 47 77 81 01 or by email


[1] Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons

[2] KNAW

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