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Annetje Ottow on a safe (and unsafe) environment: ‘An open dialogue is crucial’

Revelations about unacceptable behaviour and sexual misconduct in the TV and sporting world have rekindled the public debate about a safe environment. At Leiden University we are coming together to prevent unacceptable behaviour and provide proper care and support for victims. According to President of the Executive Board Annetje Ottow, good leadership and open dialogue are crucial to that process.

How do you view the recent revelations and the focus on a safe environment?

‘It’s really shocking. But I think it’s really important that the stories are finally coming out. It’s a shame that it has to be this way and that it has taken so long, but better late than never. Like many women, this is very familiar to me personally. Since this has all come to light, it immediately had us as Executive Board asking what this means for our organisation.’

And what does it mean for the University?

‘Creating a safe working and learning environment is nothing new to us. We’ve been working on this for a long time now. At the beginning of last year, we asked our staff to complete the Personnel Monitor Light. The results shocked us as the Board. It really wasn’t fun to read. But at the same time, I’m glad we did it. Across the entire organisation, various aspects of workplace stress and an unsafe environment play a role. The number of reports of sexual misconduct was limited, but even one is too many.’

‘Like many women, this is very familiar to me personally. Since this has all come to light, it immediately had us as Executive Board asking what this means for our organisation.’

So there’s work to be done to ensure a safe working and learning environment. What approach is the Executive Board taking?

‘The Board wants to make it clear that, just like many other organisations, we don’t have all the answers. But we have been working on this for some time already. In response to the Personnel Monitor, we asked our faculties, institutes and expertise centres to look at the figures from the Monitor from their own part of the organisation and to discuss what this meant for their team or organisation, what could be improved and how they planned to tackle this.

‘In our response to the problem, the Board relies heavily on the leaders and managers in our organisation. But this also requires something from all of us if we are to have an open conversation with one another and get the issues out in the open. To help us develop the skills needed for this, we are offering online courses, inspiring articles, videos and more on the new Let’s connect! platform. You can take a course on how to give feedback and deliver bad news, for example. We want to help our colleagues develop their leadership skills and thus empower them.’

What does the Board hope to achieve with this approach?

‘We are realistic enough to know that we won’t be able to solve the entire problem of people feeling unsafe. But we hope that this approach will bring more issues to the surface and above all that there will be structural improvements within the organisation. And the latter is complex. When we have heard of people not feeling safe this is also due to us being a fairly hierarchical organisation, and that’s something you can’t change overnight. It’s part of our history, a history we are proud of and which has brought us a long way. But change is clearly needed to ensure that everyone feels included and safe.’

‘Discuss what this means for your team or organisation, what could be improved and how you plan to tackle this.’

The Board wants to make structural improvements within the organisation, but what can you do right now for students or staff who experience unacceptable behaviour or even misconduct?

‘What all the recent events have shown is that you can’t expect victims to raise their finger and step forward. There is a huge barrier to doing so. As an organisation, we have to do all we can to remove this barrier. We as the Board want to create a safe environment where people can talk openly. The University has confidential counsellors and we recently signed the Amnesty manifesto against sexual violence. We ensure that we have various facilities that students and staff can use if they do experience something terrible. The pages on the staff members’ site have recently been updated. We’ll soon have a new staff ombudswoman who can carry out an independent investigation at the University.

‘These are all institutional matters. But it’s about people too. Reporting misconduct is not just the responsibility of the victim. Bystanders must step forward and say: “I’ve witnessed something and I think we should do something about it”. We really must stop closing our eyes to things. It takes courage from the person who is experiencing it, but also from the person who witnesses it. Everyone has a role. It’s not just about the alleged perpetrator and the victim.’

What is your personal message to anyone who does not feel safe at the University?

‘That’s something I can be very clear about: don’t keep it to yourself but seek help. I’ve been in situations where I’ve felt unsafe. Moments when I felt a knot in my stomach, where you’ve got your back against the wall and can’t do anything. It makes you doubt yourself enormously and in extreme cases can even destroy you. I am all too aware of that.

‘I’ve always been lucky that there was a bystander who spoke out or someone who told me not to doubt myself. That’s why I would advise people to try to talk to someone you trust as soon as possible. Don’t keep it to yourself because you will only end up feeling worse, and it won’t solve anything either.’

One last question: can you describe the Board’s hopes for the University and a safe environment?

‘We think it’s important, as our Strategic Plan says, to be a learning organisation, and this also applies to providing a safe environment. I recently attended a workshop by Sandra Groeneveld, a Professor of Public Management in The Hague. [Watch the webinar, ed.] I learned from her that hammering home the zero-tolerance message about unacceptable behaviour can also kill the conversation.

‘Of course, we have zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. But in many situations where people feel unsafe, an open conversation is actually important. If we don’t have that conversation, we’ll never learn how we can improve. Without that conversation, implicit assumptions and (unintentional) blind spots do not become visible. Moreover, it means a victim is unable to speak out. People sometimes feel unsafe due to bad communication and the whole thing proves to be a misunderstanding. You have to talk about this with others. If you bring others with you on this journey, it will make a huge difference.’

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