Inge Bleijenbergh
Inge Bleijenbergh

The road to equality: how do we make social systems in organisations more inclusive?

Equality, diversity and inclusion: These are important themes in our society, but also in the action research of Professor of Methods Inge Bleijenbergh. She delivered her inaugural address on these topics in June 2023. Her research provides insight into the social systems of organisations, and how they can be made more inclusive, diverse, and equal. Bleijenbergh's research covers topics such as gender relations in the workplace and the working conditions of migrant workers.

In our society, we still see people being given unequal treatment in organisations. Bleijenbergh explains: “The salary of women and workers of colour, for example, is still lower than that of men, especially white men. Equal opportunities therefore do not lead to equal outcomes when unequal conditions apply to different groups. That is why we need to critically examine existing power relations and try to change them.”

Bleijenbergh investigates how these dynamic processes of inequality interact in different situations, what role intersections in social identities play in these processes, and what is gained from analysing them in collaboration with groups with diverse experiences and viewpoints.

Democratic perspective

Bleijenbergh frames her research from a democratic point of view. She does this using participatory methods, such as focus groups and group modelling. “I think it’s important to involve all stakeholders in knowledge production. The people on the sidelines, such as women of colour, migrant workers and farmers, are at the centre of the research process. This makes it possible to really find out what interests different groups have in a social problem. Because once people discover together how a problem is structured, they have the motivation to actually start working towards solving it.”

Portret Inge Bleijenbergh

Inequality in social systems

According to Bleijenbergh, themes such as inequality are deeply embedded in an organisation's structure and culture. “An organisation is a social system. People often take the culture and structure of that system so much for granted that they no longer see that there is inequality.”

“Take gender relations in the workplace, for example. The default employee is often a white male with no care-taking responsibilities. Companies tailor their assessment criteria to this so-called standard employee to assess whether a person is ambitious or has enough potential. So if we want to strive for more equality, we need to adjust our assessment criteria. In this context, it’s important to bear in mind that everyone has care-taking responsibilities, not just women with children: anyone can have sick parents, for example. Every employee potentially has care-taking duties, and we need to bring our assessment criteria in line with this fact.”

Bleijenbergh also studied the working conditions of migrant workers in collaboration with Tilburg University and the General Services Administration (Gemeenschappelijk Administratiekantoor, GAK). In this project, unions, employment agencies, employers and workers were invited to look together at what structure determines relatively poor working conditions. “Investing in migrant workers, even if they are only here temporarily, is definitely worthwhile. But how to do it? By arranging good accommodation in such a way that people are not dependent on their employer. But Dutch language training is also an important condition of employment. This makes it possible to give this group a better negotiating position.”

Value good representation of underrepresented groups, also in management positions and in contact with political parties and administrators.

The road to equality

After years of research in the field, Bleijenbergh says there are several ways to make social systems in organisations more inclusive. “Value good representation of underrepresented groups, also in management positions and in contact with political parties and administrators. You can, for example, use target figures for leadership positions. If 25% of your employees have an international background, then 25% of employees in management positions should also have an international background.” There is also a need for more awareness around the prevailing corporate culture and where it can lead to people being excluded. “One way to do this is by offering courses on social safety and how to strengthen it in your organisation.”

Bleijenbergh is using her expertise to work towards equality. In this context, she has some great new projects planned for the coming year. “For example, we plan to do group modelling with farmers, policymakers and environmental organisations to better understand which dynamic processes are getting in the way of sustainable agriculture. This will hopefully form the basis for a conversation on how best to approach the transition to sustainable agriculture.”

Text: Alon Winnen

Photos: Duncan de Fey and Ali Lowni