Marry de Gaay – Sharing what you do makes a difference!

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Sharing what you do makes a difference!

Marry de Gaay Fortman is a partner and lawyer at Houthoff. She is involved with public-private issues and specialized in economic public right and governance. Next to that she is also the chairman at Stichting Topvrouwen. This role helps her to enhance the visibility of board ready women for positions in the boardrooms of the Dutch businesses. To make this happen they’ve created a database of 1.300 topvrouwen (great women).

Making visible what you do is not the same as taking the stage

A common thread throughout my career is the importance to show your surroundings what it is you do without any self-assertion and throwing elbows. Because a second thread in my working life is that you get further when you’re able to connect, work together and can learn from critique. This thread doesn’t go all to well with the need to always be predominate. Being predominate is for me totally different from giving visibility to what you do. Making something visible is much more nuanced. It’s that nuance that makes it effective. Even the smallest things can make it clear to the world what you stand for.

Working 9 to 5 instead of 5 to 9

Being visible in a world dominated by men means that you have to be able to present yourself at the moments that matter. I learned during the annual event of in 2016 that women network completely different than men. Where men connect at the end of the event at the bar, women do this during the event. They often leave right after the event to work on some emails or other work that needs to be done. A missed opportunity!
This shows that women work from 9 to 5, where men work from 5 to 9.
The second day of the Topvrouwen-event I pointed this out to other women, that it’s important to stay afterwards and that they were really missing opportunities if they didn’t.
Of course, they were still free to go, but I noticed that a lot of these women had never thought about the effect of their actions. A lot of the women ended up staying, with a lot of great contacts as a result. With this example I want to show that being visible depends on the things you say “yes” to, where you initially might think “no”.

Quote: Being visible depends on the things you say “yes” to, where you initially might think “no”.

Openness about your interests creates opportunities

To figure out which moments were important for me to enhance my visibility, it helped me that I knew I like a challenge. That means that it comes natural to me to express what I want. This doesn’t mean that I immediately make my capabilities visible, but it does help me to show that I’m curious and wide oriented. That’s how I ended up in the first Works Council of Houthoff. It was not something that I hoped to achieve for many years, I was actually a little surprised that they asked me. I’m still very interested in the entire organization and not just my own team. In that way my openness has naturally led me to new opportunities, where if I had a more closed off personality I would have missed it.

Use the professionality of a situation

If you ask me how I’m doing the “bonding” with men, my answer is that I use the professionality of the situation. If you’re in a business environment, you can always share what’s on your mind, business-wise. If you’re attending an event with a certain topic or theme, make sure you can participate on the matter. Be prepared. When attending an event, approach people and start a conversation. You can only do this if you take yourself and your job serious. If, after the business bonding, you’re sticking around for the networking and drinks, that’s the time to show what kind of person you are. Your attitude in both settings show who you are as a businesswoman and people will remember you!

Quote: If you’re in a business environment, you can always share what’s on your mind, business-wise.

The subtle art of not giving a fuck!

Of course, I got my inspiration from other people, but in the end I think it’s important that your develop your intuition and follow that. There’s not one truth, just like there’s not one company. Learning about different truths and different companies help you to deal with unexpected situations. You learn a lot from different settings. Every setting demands another approach and a different way to reach your goals. A tip to read when it comes to this topic is: “The subtle art of not giving a fuck”. This book shows that you learn the most from situations you’ve encountered and how you handled them. By solving problems and taking actions you get further in life. When you work in the corporate top of a company it’s important to stay close to your own principles. The feeling of ‘I don’t give a fuck, because I trust my way’, really helps you to be successful and be happy in your job. I sometimes think that this feeling comes more natural to men, than women. Women often first have to conquer a real setback, before they can step into this feeling. The get their strength from conquering the setback. If seen it happen that from the moment forward a woman becomes successful in a way that’s sincere and doesn’t cost her to much energy.

Go after your goals, both private and business wise

Three months after the maternity leave for my youngest son, I got asked to become managing partner of Houthoff. I really didn’t expect that question at that specific time. One of my most valued principles was that I would be home in the first year of my child’s life. But, when I got asked, I knew I would do it anyway. I realised that I’d gotten the trust and that this was the time to take on that role. I did find it hard that this would mean that I woudln’t be home that often. Fortunately, I realised that I could do this position my way. I could organize it in a way where I was performing well in my managing partner role and at home.

A helping network helps

I realized that I was going to make this work, but that I needed the help of others to do so. I created a helping network around me which meant that I let others take over the care, but not the responsibility. If you let your life be let by fear, great opportunities will pass you by. I, of course, was lucky that everything worked itself out. I’m blessed with healthy children. But if anything had happened to them, there’s no doubt what my decision would have been. My gut feeling is a clear compass. In my case it was so clear to me that I had to say ‘yes’ to this opportunity. That feeling really helps me to go for it and take on this challenge.

Always try things I haven’t done before

As long as I’m healthy, strong and full of energy I want to keep trying new things. Recently I supervised the trade mission to Italy, parallel to the state visit. That was quit a demanding job and I’m proud of the successful mission. For the first time, 40% of the participants were entrepreneurial women. We were also able to generate awareness for the position of women in international context by organizing a CEO round table with Dutch and Italian women at the top. I will always approach things that initially give me a little knot in my stomach. That appears to be of value once I’m working on it. I can’t say what my specific ambition or dream is other than this. I will always be open to learn something new every day and hope I will be able to do so for many years to come.

I would like to close with the following call to action: will all board ready women please apply to our database at

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