Dianne Bevelander: My Three Key Lessons for Female Empowerment

The second half of our interview with Dianne Bevelander, the Associate Dean, MBA Programs at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM). Dianne is a true female hero who campaigns tirelessly for female empowerment and equality. Read the first part of the interview here. 

Dianne has held several successful strategic leadership positions and is currently responsible for a multi-million euro revenue portfolio. Her international experience spans the globe, with successful recruitment initiatives and strategic alliances on every continent. She is a member of the Executive Management Committee of RSM.

Dianne teaches personal leadership development at RSM and at various other Business Schools internationally. Primary research interests relate to management education, social network theory and the development of human capital with particular emphasis on the career development of professional women. Leading through innovation, Dianne designed a Women's only elective at RSM focusing on the empowerment of women aspiring to leadership roles using the mountain (Mt Kilimanjaro) as an outside classroom, and as a metaphor for business.

Dianne is on a number of International Educational Boards and is often included in conference organisation, keynote addresses and plenary talks. She has an MBA from the University of Cape Town, South Africa and a PhD from the University of Lulea, Sweden.

We spoke to Dianne about her campaign for the first honorary doctorate to be awarded by RSM to a female scholar; her three key lessons for female empowerment; and her project to open the Erasmus University Centre for Women in Organisations.

TNW: Please give us three examples of female RSM MBA alumni who have gone on to achieve great things.


Maria van der Heijden is an MscBA 2000 alumna and Founder, Women on Wings. Specialising in business administration and change management, Maria is a social entrepreneur who manages partnerships with rural Indian organizations in the SME sector.

Lorna Goulden is the Founder of Creative Innovation Works and The Internet of Things. Watch Lorna’s fantastic Ted Talk , where she predicts how our everyday lives will change now that more and more devices are interconnected online.

[TNW: We’re excited to announce that we’ll be interviewing Maria and Lorna in the coming weeks!]

Denise Eikelenboom is Director at ANWB Medical Air Assistance. Denise worked for ten years as a helicopter pilot for the Royal Air Force. In 2003 she launched her own aviation consultantcy. "As a pilot I always had to stick to the rules. Starting my own businesses is much more exciting", she says.

TNW: Last year, you gathered support for the first honorary doctorate to be awarded by the Business School to a leading female scholar. Tell us a little about that.

DB: Business schools are still very male dominated.

Most of the professors are male, most of the cases we use in class have one or more male protagonists, most of the textbooks and articles used are written by men. There are very few female role models.

At RSM, the President of the University and I are the only operational female role models and there are only three female Professors at RSM. As a consequence of this, it is perhaps not surprising that the initially nominated candidates for the honorary doctorates were all male. I started to ask, don’t you have any female candidates? Last year I really pushed it. And I must add, some of the faculty were really supportive and helped a lot. So last year, for the first time, we gave an honorary doctorate to a female scholar

TNW: Congratulations! And who did you give it to?

DB: Alice Eagley. She wrote a booked called “Through the Labyrinth”.

TNW: What a wonderful thing to achieve, for you and for her.

DB: She’s received many honorary doctorates, but it was the first one from the Netherlands, so I think it’s wonderful.

We have a similar issue with speakers. When I ask why there are no female speakers, people tell me that female speakers are hard to find. So I suggest they come to the President of the University, or to me, or that they open their network up slightly so that they can find more female speakers. It’s not done maliciously, it’s not done intentionally. These are the biases in society and this is what I’m trying to change at RSM. So every time I see something like this I write to the Dean or the person concerned and ask them what happened. I’m sure I’m driving them crazy, but that’s ok!

TNW: In 2008 you were awarded a grant for research into gender differences in the networking approaches and capabilities in MBA classes. What were your findings? How do these findings relate to your Kilimanjaro Leadership Project?

DB: Firstly, I found that women and men network slightly differently. Women like to work with women in their teams and they like to socialise with women, but what I found was that when there is an element of risk, women tend to turn to men. Of course, business is all about risk. This was only preliminary research, but if I take the findings and translate them into business, this doesn’t bode well for women. It’s natural for women to turn to men because men are seen to be ambitious, courageous, risk oriented, and they are still the dominant group, or coalition, in corporate society.

I developed the Kilimanjaro Leadership Project to show women that they can take risks with one another, and to encourage them to develop a different attitude towards risk.

If I hold a Women in Management event, men don’t come to the talk and engage, women do! With the Kilimanjaro project, by excluding men from doing something they really wanted to do, it made them really start to question why they were being excluded and to think about some of the issues surrounding gender diversity. And the men came to me and they said Dianne, this is discrimination! And I said, if you want to see it that way, I am fine with that! But then I said, now you can help women achieve. Help them train, help them raise money. You can be the number two now and let the women be number one. And some of them actually do, I must say. The women get a lot of support from the men now. But the men still really want to climb Kilimanjaro and they ask whether we can have two groups. They come up with everything to try and climb Kilimanjaro. And I say, they can climb it anytime they like, just not through RSM!

TNW: You deliver Women Empowerment workshops across the globe. If you could distil the content of these into three key lessons, what would they be?


 One of the key lessons is that women need to appreciate that they can be anything they want to be. They have choice.

They weren’t born thinking that they are bad mothers if they don’t sit at home with their children, or they are bad wives if they don’t make the home environment wonderful! I want women to realise that society has set up these structures through politics, religion and media. I want them to know that they have choice. It’s hard in some societies. Take the woman I talked about earlier from China, who started her own business and it failed. It’s really hard, but women have choice and they can be anything they want to be.

The second thing I teach is about biases – that women are often guilty of also being biased against women.

If I ask many women to describe male traits, they say courageous, adventurous, assertive etc. If I ask them to describe female traits and they say warm, relationship oriented, team oriented, that kind of thing. I then give them a test, about a powerful person who is courageous, ambitious and assertive. I give one group the real woman’s name, Heidi, for example. And the other group gets the same test but I change the protagonist’s name to Howard. I ask them whether they would like to work with this person, what they think of their leadership style, etc. And everyone wants to work for Howard because he’s great, strong, someone you’d like to be led by. They would follow that man; he’s ambitious, driven, direct, goal oriented. But Heidi is seen as cold and calculating. She’s seen as competent because she makes money, but no-one wants to work for her.

So I show how this happens, how society creates these biases and describes women and men using these kinds of adjectives, so that when we see a woman acting, according to us, like a man, we don’t like it. Women don’t and neither do men. So I talk to them about these biases and again I bring back, you have choice. Slow down your thinking and you ask yourself, is this a bias or do I really not think she’s capable or likeable?

The third lesson I like to present is that women need to help other women become more powerful.

Women have to become more benevolent, more charitable, and speak positively about every other woman they meet, or not say anything at all.

I’m not interested in handbags. I don’t see men going around criticising each other’s ties, do you? At work, women must stop saying anything negative about other women as part of common dialogue. And quite often the negative thing comes from a good intention. I’ll give you an example. When a woman at work is going through a divorce or a hard time, other women will say things like, Jenny we’ll help you, don’t worry. We won’t give you as much work, take it easy. It’s very nice. But then Jack from another department hears about Jenny and what does he hear? That she’s weak, needs space, that we mustn’t be so hard on her. What they should be saying about this woman Jenny is that she’s fantastic, that she comes to work even though she’s going through a rough time and she does a damn good job. So when we speak about other women we must only say positive things.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our community?

DB: Yes, I’ve been very fortunate that the Dean has agreed that I can open a centre called the Erasmus University Centre for Women in Organisations. My main focus will be for the University to register gender. I will continue to conduct research with companies and organisations as well as work with MBA, MSc and Bachelor students, to get all to register gender. The Centre will also be a resource for companies and students. I’ll be running courses that might include, for example, a Back to Work short-program because in the Netherlands there are many women who are highly educated but who have dropped out of the workforce to raise a family and have lost their confidence. I want to raise a lot of awareness around the women issue. I also hope to work with the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship here at the University and with Simone Brummelhuis, on a stream within the Centre for female entrepreneurship. Overall, the aim is to make the University and its students more aware of issues around gender.

In the long run, society will be hugely benefited by greater participation by women across all organizational levels.

And by participation that brings increased diversity of opinion and approach that should come from women in leadership positions rather than the demand that they merely adopt the approach of men.

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