DSM: Challenging the Notion That Great Minds Should Think Alike
DSM is a company with evolution in its DNA. Once a state-owned coal mining operation (Dutch State Mines) turned into a bulk chemicals company, DSM is now a leading innovator in the life sciences space, boasting a cutting-edge portfolio of nutrition, health, and sustainable-living products used by millions every day. The company’s transformation has been so radical that CEO Feike Sijbesma, who has led the organization since 2007, reports that the name DSM has taken on a new interpretation for many: “Doing Something Meaningful.”
According to Sijbesma, who also acts as Climate Leader for the World Bank, caring about sustainability, environmental, and social impact is no longer just an option for companies:
I think 10 years from now, people will find out that those two things, doing well and doing good, have to—and must—go hand in hand. Otherwise, people don’t work for your company anymore…people don’t buy your products anymore…you lose your license to operate.
As DSM has adapted its business model to a changing world, so too has it aimed to change the face of its workforce. The company has been very actively moving from a leadership and employee base that was primarily Dutch, male and of a certain age to one that better reflects the company’s multi-national footprint and diverse global consumers. The recently announced CEO succession introducing Geraldine Matchett (CFO) and Dimitri de Vreeze (COO) as Co-CEOs underpins this.
Catalyst sat down for a candid discussion with DSM’s Chief Technology Officer Marcus Remmers, Daniëlle Glasbergen, scientist (specifically, Application Development Specialist in the Sports group at DSM protective materials), and Global Learning and Development Specialist Kirsten Bosma. We discussed the company’s efforts to create a more diverse, inclusive workplace, how far it has come, what progress still needs to be made, and the kind of commitment it takes to move the needle day by day.
Catalyst: In your time with DSM, what kind of large-scale changes (if any) have you seen from an inclusivity perspective?
Daniëlle: I have to say the organization has become more women-friendly since I joined in 2009. I think the old boys’ club is long gone. Many directors in R&D (research and development) are women now—there were only men in those roles when I started—which is really good to see. And they also really support the women in the organization. Another interesting thing is that many of the women in R&D are moving to the business. So, the business is definitely seeing the value that women offer…but getting women into science is still a challenge. Though that’s not necessarily a DSM issue; it’s more of a global issue.
Kirsten: I’ve been with the company since 2010. I work in the Head office in the Netherlands and initially felt like I’d entered into the old boys’ network of Dutch men, over 50. There are still a lot of Dutch men, but we now also have a lot of women and people with other national backgrounds making it a much more diverse group of people. I hope the men don’t feel threatened but see the beauty of being a diverse company.
Marcus: I’d say we’re at a maturity level in the organization where the clear male-dominated culture is gone (I look to the women to confirm that I’m not wildly off track) but we still need to be aware that unconscious biases remain: Even if we don’t intend to discriminate, we may still hold believes that “Scientists are men” which may influence our actions. We constantly need to remind ourselves that we were raised with these biases—they’re deeply ingrained.
Catalyst: Daniëlle, from your point of view—in the lab, for example—would you agree that DSM has moved past the point of outright discrimination?
Daniëlle: I think you can easily say there isn’t open discrimination against women. I worked in a mechanics group that was nearly all men. I think as it goes with all jobs, you need to prove that you know what you’re doing, and that’s gender independent. If a guy screws up it would be an issue…with a woman, it’s the same. Once I got the respect that came with knowing what I was doing, my team always said I was “one of the guys.” I’m not sure if you told a man he was one of the women he would be equally happy to hear it, but I never saw it as an issue, maybe an unconscious bias, but definitely not discrimination.
I have found the older men in the organization can act like father figures; they’ve told me “When you have kids then you need to think about your career…” It’s also my choice to say, “That’s none of your business. I’ll determine on my own how I manage my life and my career.”
Marcus: Daniëlle, I think that’s an important point! From a company perspective, it’s really important that we fight the perception that to be a scientist you have to work 80 hours a week in the lab, and there’s absolutely no way you can do this while having a family. That’s flat-out ridiculous. There are flexible models for men and women in science, and in business – it is critical for us to stress this.
Catalyst: Kirsten, from a Learning and Development standpoint, how has DSM tried to address the very deep-seated issue of unconscious bias?
Kirsten: Since September 2018, we’ve hosted Brighter Together Inclusion and Diversity workshops, which are half-day workshops for teams. We spend a lot of time exploring how people see the world through their own pre-programmed lenses: identifying unconscious biases, accepting that we all have them, then learning how to recognize them and what we can we do to mitigate them. In the end, we relate insights back to the team and discuss how they can be more inclusive in their day-to-day interactions.
Catalyst: What was the driving force behind the program?
Kirsten: In 2017, all of DSM’s executives went through a program called Lead and Grow, and one of the sessions was on inclusion and diversity. There was a real appetite to expand on the topic. Our Inclusion & Diversity council also wanted to focus on increasing awareness of unconscious bias in 2018, so this was integrated heavily into the Brighter Together sessions. In January of 2019, the DSM Leadership Team participated in one of these workshops, which led to several initiatives to take it further down into the organization.
Catalyst: Have you participated in a workshop? Did you experience an “ah-ha” moment that changed the way you think about things?
Kirsten: Interestingly, we ended up making the workshops team exercises after piloting one within the global Talent Development team. Looking your colleagues in the eye and talking about your own biases or exclusive behaviors was very powerful. Our team learned that we had an abundance of extroverts who could really command the conversation, which left a handful of our more introverted colleagues on the sidelines. Recognizing that allowed the extroverts among us to think about their behavior and be more purposefully inclusive moving forward, which really makes us a better team.
Catalyst: Marcus, as a senior leader and vocal proponent of diversity, how do you leverage your role to affect change, particularly as it relates to helping tackle unconscious bias?
Marcus: First, we’ve been working really intensely to make the educational disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) attractive for women. We know that interest starts very early and depends on many small factors. While there is no difference in aptitude between the genders in STEM subjects among school-age kids, there is a large disparity in gender representation in the workforce. So, right now, we’re thinking a lot about outreach programs that can impact students at a young age—programs where our scientists go to local schools to teach kids about the kind of science we do and get them excited about it. Of course, these are efforts that will only produce results in something like 20 years. But we see it as part of our responsibility.
One example: DSM recently hosted a pop-up biotech museum in Delft, Netherlands, celebrating 150 years of biotech in Delft. They invited thousands of area school children from 700 local schools to visit and learn about microbiology from the company’s own scientists. More than 18,000 visitors experienced the exhibit.
As far as getting women into DSM, there are some basics that we need to execute really well. For example, when you write a job description, you write it so that it appeals to men and women. We know women interpret job descriptions differently than men, so we shouldn’t set ourselves up for bias from the start. I also insist that in every [hiring] commission we have at least one woman—and preferably a balanced group of men and women—conducting interviews. Lastly, we need to make sure we have both women and men as candidates. Even if the candidate pool doesn’t statistically allow for an equal number of men and women—and I think in STEM you’re usually looking at a percentage of women in the low 30s—the point is to look as long as possible to ensure we have a fair representation of talent across genders.
The one thing we can’t and should not do is hire candidates because of their gender—we need to put quality first. I also don’t think anybody would want to be hired because of gender…but we need to give everybody a chance.
Catalyst: Have you encountered resistance in trying to implement any of these changes? To diversifying, generally?
Marcus: I’m not sure it’s ingrained into the genes of everybody to examine the composition of the group to make sure we have a diverse interview team. I wouldn’t say that we are unconsciously competent on this yet. It’s still something that we have to actively remind ourselves about. Every now and then it gets forgotten…and that’s a problem. To be fair, I’ve yet to meet anybody who would say this [more diversity] is a bad idea—but it requires a consistent level of awareness throughout the organization. I’d certainly like for us to get there.
In my leadership role, I feel it’s particularly important for me to constantly remind myself of my own unconscious biases and to model better practices to others, because if I show that it’s important to me—and as such for DSM—that could go a long way toward building a culture where this level of awareness is part of our way of working. But I don’t think it’s solely my job to make it happen…it’s everybody’s job.
Catalyst: Are there other programs geared specifically toward supporting women at DSM so they can one day move into the leadership pipeline?
Marcus: One thing we observe—and Daniëlle you mentioned this—is that a higher percentage of women than men leave the sciences and gravitate toward positions in the business or people management. I would love to understand better why this is the case, but we do know it’s a trend at DSM based on the data. That said, there are a number of efforts in place dedicated to supporting and mentoring women. These efforts take into account that there is still a tendency for women not to apply for a role if they don’t meet every qualification, even when they are part of the organization and looking to move to the next level. The more we can expose them to role models who have done just that and encourage them to take the risk to move forward, the more everybody will benefit.
Daniëlle: For myself, I have gotten the positive feedback that I’m good at translating tech to the customer. And I think many women naturally are good at creating relationships and connecting with the customer, so it’s an easy transition into say, business development. I try to make an effort to connect with the other women in the sciences, particularly the women directors in R&D. I keep them in the loop about what I’m working on, and projects I’m looking into…just maintaining that contact is really valuable for me and helps keep me focused on the science, which I love.
I also feel supported generally by DSM in that my hard work is recognized. I started as an intern with the company and worked really hard for a couple of years, and as a result, they brought me on permanently. And I recently got assigned to a one-year secondment abroad. I’ll be heading to San Francisco soon to provide technical support to one of our teams there. So, they see that I do good work and I put in a lot of effort, and in return, they put a lot of trust in me and I’m offered new opportunities.
Catalyst: Is there anything that makes you particularly proud to work at DSM?
Marcus: For me, that’s an easy one. Working for a company whose motto is “Bright science. Brighter living”—a company that is science-based not for the sake of being science-based but for making the world a little better for everyone—is incredibly inspiring. DSM is truly purpose-led and performance-driven. That means everything we do, and everything we touch in R&D, must fight climate change, contribute to resource scarcity and circularity, or improve the nutrition and health of people. With more than 20,000 of us globally, including about 2,000 scientists…what they can do together is so much more than what any one person could do alone. I’m just incredibly proud to be part of that.
Kirsten: The wide range of sustainable products and solutions that we create—from nutrition to materials—still amazes me. But on top of that, the wide range of people who work at DSM. Diversity all around is part of what I love about working at this company.
Daniëlle: A long time ago, my family moved to the south of the Netherlands to work for DSM, which at the time was a coal mining company, and that’s so not what we’re doing now. DSM has adapted to the needs of the current day and age, and I think that’s really spectacular for a company of this size. Now, we’re making the world a bit better for tomorrow.