Kennis en inspiratie

Esther Mollema about implicit bias in organizations (interview)

Women outperform men and are equally ambitious. Yet they are in the minority in top positions. Trainer Esther Mollema attributes this to mindbugs: implicit bias that men and women develop from birth. In organizations she brings those mindbugs to light.

The Dutch think of themselves that they make no difference between men and women, but in practice they do, ”says Esther Mollema (55). “In organizations they are convinced that they choose the best leaders, but in reality, unconscious bias plays an important role.”

Unconscious bias

For eighteen years Mollema has been trying to make organizations and their leaders aware of these mindbugs. That is quite a challenge.Esther Mollema over onbewuste vooroordelen in organisaties“The Dutch don’t have more prejudices than people in other countries, but we think much more positive about ourselves. That makes it extra difficult to face our mindbugs. We make a huge number of decisions every day, so we can’t possibly all think about these consciously. As a result, we make most of our decisions unconsciously. In doing so, we fall back on what – often stereotypical – ideas we have received in our upbringing. ” For example, 95 percent of Dutch managers initially indicate that they consider women and men equally competent. But a mindbugstest of more than 11,000 of them shows that 83 percent have an unconscious preference for a man as a leader: 87 percent of men and 80 percent of women. No wonder that so few women reach the top of the Dutch business community: only 6 percent of the directors and a quarter of the supervisory directors of listed companies are women, according to the latest Female Board Index. “With characteristics such as taking initiative or result-orientation, men and women still think more of a man than of a woman,” explains Mollema. “But that is completely unjustified. A large international study shows that employees rate their female managers even better on these characteristics than men. The explanation is that women often feel they are the underdog and therefore go the extra mile to be accepted. At the moment, that makes women better managers than men, even though they are not genetically different. ”

Less intelligent

About five years ago Mollema was invited by a Protestant organization (she can no longer figure out which one, FP) that wanted to examine her unconscious prejudices. “I asked them to talk about their mindbugs in small groups, but no one dared to speak up. Spontaneously, I suggested that they all write down their views anonymously on a note. I then read it to the whole group. This resulted in extreme statements such as: “Women are less intelligent,” “Because they have periods, women cannot hold leadership positions” and “God does not intend for women to lead.” The women and some of the men in the party were shocked. A discussion about this was hardly possible. ”

Ambitious women also encounter other obstacles in organizations, says Mollema. “They often don’t know about the unwritten rules, because they don’t belong to the inner group with whom these rules are shared. This group usually consists of people who resemble the managers; in an organization with male leaders these are usually men. They tell each other who you should go to to get something done and who you should definitely not kick in the shins. Because women often do not belong to the inner group, they also earn less than men with the same work, because they do not know what to negotiate – for example about benefits. And they think their manager wants the best for them, but often he mainly wants the best for himself. A good manager will help you take the next step in your career, so I advise women: choose a good boss and not a job. Women have learned in their upbringing to do an excellent job. Then they think they will get the promotion they deserve, but in masculine organizations it doesn’t work that way. You have to ásk for the next step in your career. ”

Hard work

There are many conscious and unconscious prejudices about differences between men and women in the workplace. Mollema puts a number of these ideas into perspective.

Women have less ambition than men.

“That statement is incorrect. The Dutch are less ambitious than employees in other countries, but there is no difference between men and women. Often “saying you are ambitious” is confused with “being ambitious”. Women show their ambition by working hard and trying to make their dreams come true. ”

Women profile themselves less than men.

“It is true that women find that difficult, because they have not learned it. On the other hand: in high-performing organizations you do not need to profile yourself as much, because your actions count more heavily than your urge to profile. I like that better. In any case, it is important to take the opportunity if you are asked to talk to the management or give your opinion on TV. Women are quick to seek excuses because they are lapsed by such a demand, but they are doing themselves short with that. ”

Women are more critical about themselves than men.

“This is somewhat true. When a woman is turned down for a position, she thinks, I am not good enough. A man blames the hiring committee. But I feel that being self-conscious is a very good quality. I wish leaders were a bit more critical. ”

Women are less able to negotiate than men.

“Not true. They are less able to negotiate for themselves, but they are good for the organization. When it comes to themselves, they feel that they should get what belongs to them, without having to ask for it. But that’s not how it works in most organizations at the moment. Negotiation is not necessary in a transparent and fair system. Women and organizations have to grow closer together. ”

Women are less able to network than men.

Esther Mollema over onbewuste vooroordelen in organisaties“That is right. Men see this more as a necessary evil in order to progress. Women don’t always understand its usefulness; through their upbringing they trust that their qualities will take them further. But you really have to know the right people to achieve your goals. If you keep an eye on why you chose a certain position, networking becomes less difficult, because then you know what you are doing it for. When I think: this person can help me further up my career ladder, I don’t dare to speak to him, but when I think: he can help me with my goal of making mindbugs visible in the Netherlands, I dare. ”

Women give more priority to their private life than men.

“The Dutch spend more time on their private life than people in other countries; We ourselves make a distinction between men and women. When a man says he works 60 hours a week, I ask, Every week? And until what time do you work on Friday? Then those 60 hours often turn out to be a bit exaggerated. Women with full-time jobs only work a few minutes less than men working full-time. Is for women it is difficult that they have to show their most ambitious side during the period that they have children. I advise women so as not to make any major work decisions. In those years they think that their ambition will diminish, but it usually returns quickly. ”

Women find delivering good products more important than making as much money as possible.

“That’s right. Women are more driven by ideals. Men sometimes see earning a lot of money as a means of achieving something in their private life: buying a boat, getting more freedom. Incidentally, I meet more and more male leaders who also follow their ideals to work.”


Mollema is a great proponent of more diversity in (the top of) organizations. “Research shows that diverse teams are more successful and achieve better results than homogeneous groups. That’s because in mixed teams there are more different opinions. That makes decisions richer and better. Provided that the manager can direct it in the right way. ”

But how do you ensure that these diverse teams get off the ground? “You cannot prevent mindbugs,” says Mollema soberly. “They arise between our birth and third year based on what we see around us. But you can remove prejudices from the process of the organization by carefully observing exactly where things go wrong. Then it turns out, for example, that questions are invented on the spot during job interviews. This encourages the confirmation of prejudices. It is better to complete an agreed questionnaire. Each member of the selection committee gives a score after each question, which is later compared to that of the other members. It is best for them to speak separately to the candidates for a position, as they will be least influenced by the other committee members. It is also important that job vacancies are free of language that primarily appeals to men and deters women. For example, “You are decisive” amounts to the same thing as: “You help your team and monitor progress”. The first formulation is more likely to appeal to men, while the second will reach both men and women. Explain to candidates how the application process works, because women often drop out if they unexpectedly have to take an assessment, for example. Explain to new employees what is negotiable. And after an assessment interview with your fellow supervisors, justify why you give an employee a certain assessment before you communicate it with the employee. Others can then give you feedback on any mind bugs you might have. You rate people who look like you statistically too high, people who are different from you too low. ” Mollema also has a tip for ambitious women. “Work abroad for a number of years early in your career. It strikes me that women with experience in another country reach the top faster, because there they have been given opportunities that are still lacking in the Netherlands. ”


According to Mollema, the introduction of measures for more diversity requires a discipline from organizations that we often lack in the Netherlands. “If organizations promise to improve their lives, they will forget about it two weeks later. This makes it extra difficult to change the balance of power in the Netherlands. With awareness of your prejudices you are not there yet. Relationships will only change when companies link agreements to them, which they also adhere to. There are organizations where, with my help, does work, like ABN Amro. There, the percentage of women in top positions rose from 23 to 40 percent in two years. ”

According to Mollema, it is no more difficult to get top men moving for this than top women. “Only very masculine men refuse to work for more women in top positions, because they are afraid of their own career. I see the group of men who are committed to diversity in their company growing – but that could also be wishful thinking.

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