The students’ sexist behavior reveals the core problems in the management culture

I have rarely been as angry as I was at the reporting of the abuses during the lustrum parties of the Amsterdam student association ASC/AVSV. This is so much more than a bunch of brats behaving badly at a party; this reveals three core problems in the governance of our society.

Let me start by saying that even in my student days I have never understood anything about the concept of a student union and have never been a member of it. Joining a club of beer guzzling fraternity balls so you could make ‘friends for life’ was a formula I didn’t understand 25 years ago either. I preferred to choose my friends myself.


What I understand, precisely because it relates to my profession, is that a culture is something you design together, and that in this very design everything that can go wrong goes wrong. Women are here dehumanized and relegated to objects. That object even gets a name: “sperm bucket”. Women are threatened (“to break women’s necks” to “put their dicks in”) simply because of the fact that they are women. Despite a year of discussions about a safe and respectful culture in the student union, during the lustrum parties, naked women were placed on a stage for entertainment, where men butted their heads. Johee, joho, what fun, what entertainment.

Anyone who thinks it’s a small group of drunk men with a bad sense of humor is wrong. This is the largest student union in the Netherlands with thousands of members, with hundreds of men collectively shouting ‘whore’ when talking about women. Hundreds of men who will soon claim top positions in our country and become the center of our government culture. Among these hundreds of men are future CEOs, top lawyers, politicians and spin doctors. These men will be the pillars of the government culture in 2040.

Pillars of management culture

Let’s take a look at some of the pillars of today’s government culture. We are talking about a Prime Minister who has no active memory on virtually every difficult issue. About a cock-sender running a football club. About a minister who would rather pay a penalty to the judge in a case of favoritism (albeit at the expense of the taxpayer) than be open in writing. About administrators sending professionals who make critical voices heard to a ‘function elsewhere’ with all the love and pleasure. And about a media mogul who lets his lecherous relatives and friends work quietly with young girls – because a desk was set up where these girls could report abuse.

Three core problems

The problems surrounding the current administrative culture can be summarized in three themes: 1) seeing women as sex objects, 2) letting favoritism prevail and 3) covering up problems. And precisely these three elements come back to the question of the student union in Amsterdam. Not only because, for these male students, the women have become whores and sperm buckets in an association that revolves around building friendships and expanding the network (that is, favoritism).

But you can also see it in the way they try to solve this problem: to make it small by focusing on the four speakers (and not on the hundreds of participants who just as well shouted ‘whore’). Wanting to get to the bottom of everything with an investigation, and – until the results of that investigation are known – to stop ‘mediation rumours’. A recognizable step-by-step plan, devised by a spin doctor, who often comes into play when problems in a management culture need to be covered up.

The problems surrounding the current administrative culture can be summarized in three themes: 1) seeing women as sex objects, 2) letting favoritism prevail and 3) covering up problems.

Eveline from Zeeland

A new culture does not come out of the blue

If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. If you want to do things differently, you have to approach things fundamentally differently. It therefore does not help to write the fifteenth internal investigation and start the endless cycle of conversations about culture. A new culture does not have to take years at all (as is now often tolerated in relation to the problem with Amsterdam students: “a culture change simply takes time”). A new government culture does not just appear out of thin air. To do that, you literally have to do things differently, set up differently, design differently. But if you do it smart, the turnaround can happen very quickly.

I see a role for technology in this. HR robots are already being used by some organizations throughout the process of selection and recruitment for positions. You can easily program these robots in such a way that being a frat ball doesn’t mean a dash in front, but a dash in the back. You can also easily design a wristband with speech recognition that, via ‘instant feedback’, begins to vibrate annoyingly when the man degrades women. I just want to put some options on the table.

A basic redesign, and soon thanks

It is not that complicated to develop technology that tackles the three core problems in the governance culture. If you want it, it’s done. The problem, as with most innovations, is broad adoption. Awareness is an important step for adoption and we all have a role to play in this. We all have to make sure that kind of problems is not tucked away and stored internally, but instead comes under the magnifying glass. As uncomfortable as that magnifying glass is. Only if we keep naming and addressing can we realize that it is time for a fundamental redesign of our government culture. As far as I’m concerned, that time is not now, but yesterday.

About this column:

In a weekly column written alternately by Bert Overlack, Mary Fiers, Peter de Kock, Eveline from Zeeland, Lucien Engelen, Tessie Hartjes, Jan Wouters, Katleen Gabriels and Auke Hoekstra, Innovation Origins tries to find out what the future will look like in a weekly column. These columnists, sometimes supplemented by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way on solutions to the problems of our time. So it will be better tomorrow. You can read all previous episodes here.

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