The powers that be


In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. The following year, National Women’s Day was observed in the US, eventually spreading to the rest of the world and recognised every 8 March. As statistics on work, violence and poverty show, the struggle for equity continues. We spoke to three of Flanders’ most influential women about their jobs, their personal lives and their dedication to their convictions.

Sandra De Preter  © Diego Franssens
Sandra De Preter © Diego Franssens

Flanders’ 10 most influential women on work, convictions and choices

In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. The following year, National Women’s Day was observed in the US, eventually spreading to the rest of the world and recognised every 8 March. As statistics on work, violence and poverty show, the struggle for equity continues. We spoke to three of Flanders’ most influential women about their jobs, their personal lives and their dedication to their convictions.

Mieke Van Hecke Director-general, Flemish Secretariat of Catholic Education (VSKO)
As director-general of the VSKO, Mieke Van Hecke is one of the most influential figures in Flemish education, with the organisation representing 64% of primary schools and 75% of secondary schools in Flanders, as well as boarding schools, centres for adult education and university colleges.

“My power is linked to my position, not my person,” says Van Hecke. “Because I represent such a big majority of our educational system, of course people pay attention to what I have to say on behalf of our members.”

With degrees in law and criminology and a habit of speaking her mind in no uncertain terms – she recently famously argued that “everyone deserves a second chance, even Michelle Martin” – yet also deeply religious, Van Hecke has an unusual profile to hold a powerful position in an organisation closely linked to the Catholic church.

“I am not afraid to speak from my own conviction,” she told De Standaard last year. “I try to keep the difference between my personal and professional views as minimal as possible. It’s not that hard, primarily because I am also willing to admit when I have had to change my point of view.”

All too often, she tells me, “people in public functions are too afraid to doubt or question themselves. But how can you be authentic without doubt? And what is wrong with adjusting one’s point of view as the context evolves? It is because I am not afraid to question my convictions that I am also not afraid to be assertive.”

The mother of four, Van Hecke, 65, believes the role of parents and educators is to teach children to make conscious choices. “That is how my parents raised me, and it is exactly what I tell my children: Be yourself, be critical, take responsibility and make choices.”

“Choices” is a word Van Hecke uses repeatedly throughout the interview. Reflecting on her own life, she comes back to it again. “My feminism is that I make my own choices – in consultation with my husband.”

Her advice to young women is unequivocal: Make your own choices. “Don’t let anyone foist anything on you. I chose to stay home for 10 years to raise our children. That was my choice. But equally, if a woman wants to combine a career and family, that is her right, too. What matters is that it is the right choice for that person at that point in time.”

She says the best advice she ever received was: If an opportunity presents itself, jump! And don’t let the idea of possible failure stop you.

Professor Marleen Temmerman Director, department of reproductive health and research, World Health Organisation (WHO)
Gynaecologist, professor, former senator (sp.a) and fervent humanitarian: Few Flemish women have fought as long, hard and publicly for women’s and children’s rights as Marleen Temmerman – or Mama Daktari as she’s known in Kenya – where she worked as a gynaecologist for many years.

Her husband lovingly refers to her as “my Duracell bunny” because of her tireless commitment to women’s rights – a cause the 59-year-old defends from the bustling streets of Washington and Geneva to the field clinics on the dusty plains around Mombasa, Kenya.

Temmerman was the head of Gynaecology-Midwifery at Ghent’s University Hospital before being appointed director of the department of reproductive health and research at WHO. On leaving the Belgian senate, she was awarded a departure fee of €84,382, which she donated to the International Centre for Reproductive Health, a non-profit she founded in 1994. The organisation today employs more than 300 people in Kenya, Mozambique, Rwanda, Ethiopia, China and Latin America and runs a halfway house for victims of sexual violence in Mombasa.

“Throughout my career, my goal has always been to improve the reproductive and sexual health and rights of women and girls across the world,” she tells me. “I come from a family that is socially engaged. My mother and father have always been very active in their local community. I can’t turn a blind eye to social injustice. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to do something about it – especially injustice toward women and girls.”

Most worrying to Temmerman is the rate at which African women die during childbirth. “Every minute a girl or woman dies due to complications related to pregnancy or childbirth. That’s two full Boeings per day.”

Many women, I suggest, are afraid to label themselves as feminist. “In my view, equal rights for men and women is such a fundamental issue that I don’t understand how you can not be a feminist,” she responds. “Equal rights have nothing to do with the negative perceptions of ‘butch women’.”

Annemie Turtelboom Federal minister of justice (Open Vld)
Annemie Turtelboom, 46, studied economy and marketing, and prior to her appointment as federal minister of justice, she held the positions of, among others, minister of internal affairs and minister for migration. “I’m a salmon, a fish that swims upstream and defies waterfalls,” she said in 2011. “I forge my own path and grab all opportunities that come along.”

Asked by the women’s magazine Libelle whether she was the fervent feminist many say she is, Turtelboom answered: “Yes, absolutely. As I grew older and had my own kids, I became even more feminist! I realised that even if you have a supportive husband ... as a woman you still have to justify why you are seldom or never at the school gate to pick up the kids, or why you don’t do this or that with the children.”

Sophie Dutordoir CEO, Electrabel
Sophie Dutordoir looks back on a career of more than 20 years in the energy sector, starting out as head of communication at Ebes, the predecessor of Electrabel, in 1989. Twenty-three years on, she was the woman who went into full combat with vice-premier Johan Vande Lanotte and state secretary Melchior Wathelet when she deftly bypassed their price freeze on gas late last year. “I am not motivated by power or by its attributes, but by the pleasure I take in solving problems, seeing results and achieving things together,” the 50-year-old told Psychologies magazine recently. “I’m not authoritarian, but I also don’t like mediocrity.”

Dr Christine Van Broeckhoven Molecular biologist, director molecular genetics at the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology (VIB)
With more than 450 publications, several international awards and 30 years’ experience in molecular genetics, Christine Van Broeckhoven (PhD, DSc) is one of the world’s leading authorities on neurodegenerative illnesses and related disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and early-onset dementia.

Asked in a recent interview whether she was afraid of mental degeneration herself, the 60-year-old replied: “It never crossed my mind when I was younger, but as I am getting older, I do spend more time thinking about it, especially considering that my brain is an enabler for my work, which I would like to continue to do for a while yet. It is also why I give people the advice: ‘Live today, not later!’”

Isabel Albers Editor-in-chief, De Tijd
In 2011, Isabel Albers became the first female editor-in-chief of a Flemish daily newspaper. The 41-year-old was previously political editor at De Standaard, where she was widely recognised for the quality of her journalism. In 2009, Albers was awarded the Dexia press award in both the economic and general journalism categories.

Upon her appointment at De Tijd, Albers was immediately given the opportunity to raise the stakes: She was asked to rejuvenate a daily that had come to be seen as, if certainly quality, a dull economic newspaper. Within a year of her appointment, she had changed the format, tweaked the content policy and implemented a strong “cross-media” strategy. In 2012, De Tijd won the Newspaper of the Year award from the German-based

Sandra De Preter CEO of Flemish public broadcaster VRT
With a career of more than 25 years spanning functions at British American Tobacco, Delacre, Barry Callebaut and Sanoma Magazines, Sandra De Preter was a seasoned navigator of the corporate jungle when, in 2010, she was named head of VRT, becoming the Flemish public broadcaster’s first female CEO.

De Preter, 52, was put through her paces straight away when she was tasked with developing a new management agreement and saving the organisation €65 million by the end of 2011. “Of course it wasn’t easy,” she told a newspaper at the time, “but at least we’ve cracked the hardest part right away.”

It is a solid determination to forge ahead that typifies De Preter, who admits she works best when faced with problems. “I like being challenged; I don’t have the same energy for things that become too easy,” she shrugs.

It is an energy she puts to good use, while admitting that life isn’t exactly nine-to-five and that it isn’t always easy being both mother to two teenagers and CEO of a 2,000-strong organisation. “Of course you always have to work hard to achieve your goals, but I do think that often men can take this dedication further than many women simply because they have a partner at home who chose to work less. For many women, it remains a juggling act.”

De Preter believes that quotas for women on boards are a “necessary evil”. “I strongly support the premise behind feminism – that men and women are equal and entitled to the same fundamental rights,” she states. “And if introducing a quota system is what it takes to get more women into ‘all-boys clubs’ to make organisations more diverse, then so be it.”

De Preter is a strong believer in the value that diversity provides within businesses and organisations in general, and the media in particular. “We offer our audience a mirror on the world,” she says. “If we only employ journalists with a certain socio-economic and cultural background, we will produce one-dimensional views of the world. Diversity in its broadest form – beyond gender – is vitally important in the media. It’s in the best interests of the viewer but also of the success of the organisation.”

Asked what she considers the most important lesson of her career, De Preter is quick to answer: “Be true to yourself, always, even in difficult times. Know which personal values are non-negotiable and stick to those, even in the face of adversity.”

And what advice would she offer girls today? “Go after your dreams – even if they don’t conform to what people expect of you. All too often both men and women are confined by clichéd expectations stamped on them by their environments. We should teach our children to break free of those restrictions and to be and do what makes them truly happy.”

Michele Sioen CEO, Sioen Industries and independent director at Belgacom, ING Belgium and D’Ieteren
Michele Sioen was appointed CEO of the Sioen family’s textile business in 2005, shortly before her 40th birthday. The mother of three, she was one of two women nominated as Trends Manager of the Year in 2012. Yet she is against quotas for more women at the top. “While I support pushing women to achieve, I am against forced appointments of women to top positions,” she told Trends magazine recently. She admitted, though, that “there are simply too few women with adequate experience at the top.”

Sioen, 48, considers the most important lesson of her career to be: Where there is a will, there is a way. “Whether you are male or female, to achieve your goals takes commitment and perseverance. Of course I don’t deny that it’s extra hard for women with young children who also want to build their career; but it is not impossible.”

She thinks that doing what you love is vital in achieving success. “People do things well that they love doing. Passion and conviction are therefore fundamental to achieving your personal goals.”

Claire Tillekaerts CEO, Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT)
Born and raised in Ghent, where she later studied law and headed her own practice, 55-year-old Claire Tillekaerts was last year appointed CEO of Flanders Investment and Trade (FIT), which represents Flanders to the world’s investors. In 2011, FIT brought in 174 investments to the region, leading to the creation of more than 3,700 jobs.

Tillekaerts says she sees no problem with a woman representing Flanders on the international business stage. “Of course, as a woman, I wear a headscarf when I visit a mosque abroad, but I won’t do so when I receive a Saudi delegation here in Brussels,” she told De Standaard. “Ignore gender issues,” is the number one advice she would give to young women. “Do not imitate men’s behaviour. Just be yourself and do your utmost best.”

Ingrid Lieten Flemish minister for innovation, government investment, media and poverty
In 2009, former De Lijn director-general Ingrid Lieten (sp.a) was appointed vice-minister-president in the Flemish government under Kris Peeters, in which she was given the mandate for innovation, government investment, media and poverty. Lieten, 50, looks back on an illustrious career as a lawyer and later corporate leader, which culminated in being voted the most powerful woman in Flanders by Trends magazine in 2009.

Lieten is a strong proponent of helping women forge successful career paths to the top of their chosen fields. “Flanders is wasting a significant part of the talent of highly educated women: Only one in five professors is a woman,” she told Het Nieuwsblad in 2011, promptly announcing that she would commit €3 million to helping female academics advance in their careers.

As part of her media mandate, Lieten’s directive is clear: By the end of next year, she wants greater diversity in terms of gender and cultural background among the workforce at the VRT.

The powers that be

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