“I’d rather have been called Chief Happiness Officer”


She studied at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS), completed her PhD there too, was a lecturer there and now, at 33, she has become Diversity Officer at Maastricht University. But Constance Sommerey would have preferred a different title. Something with happiness in it.

Because, Constance Sommerey says, “diversity is not an aim in itself. It is about whether people feel at ease, whether they feel appreciated. A colleague of mine from Leiden said that she was responsible for the happiness of the university community. In our case, that would mean some 23 thousand people, staff and students.”

I read about a company that had appointed a Chief Happiness Officer. A CHO.

“You did? Well, exactly, that's what I mean, I would also like to be called that.”  

So do you have to concern yourself with our happiness?

“It is all about people feeling at home here, being appreciated for who they are. People often say that the UM is already very diverse, that we are home to a lot of nationalities, that we work together despite all the differences. That is when I say: no, not despite, it is because those differences exist that we have to work together. Because we all benefit from that. It would be nice for the people who do not belong to the standard group if they were appreciated because they are different; that it is an added bonus.

“We do indeed have many nationalities here, but diversity is hard work. For lecturers too, you have to know how to deal with that, how to mobilise the various backgrounds in a tutorial group. For example: how do you, with your specific background and experiences, read this text? It doesn't just happen by itself; it is arrogant to think that we are already diverse so everything is fine. Everyone has their biases, their prejudices, lecturers too. Dealing respectfully with the differences and with the clashes that can come from those differences, requires training. My work is actually more about inclusivity rather than diversity.”

Inclusivity, is that not starting to become more of an overworked phrase, a kind of mantra?

“That is exactly something that I only ever hear from white men.”

Those afflicted with white privilege?

“Most certainly, it exists. I have it too, I am from a white German family, my parents were academically educated, my father's hobby was philosophy so I read those books too, I learned English, spent time in the US, all advantages that many others don't have. I even had the liberal idea that inequalities would right themselves. But opportunities are not equal, and that doesn't just apply to women. This white privilege implies that you can't even grasp what it means if you don't have it. Everything runs smoothly for us, so you really have to listen to people who are in a different situation.

“As far as women are concerned, I often hear: I am not having children because it would ruin my chances of a career in science. Or they already have one child and for the same reason don't want a second child. We should develop policies for this; in Germany they have the Familien Freundliche Universität. We can't change the law here, we have these four months of maternity leave, which is way too short, some people add parental leave and use up their holidays. If you want to hold on to young parents, you have to move towards more flexible contracts.

“This is also a problem in the tenure procedure. This now states that if you are away for six months, you can add those months on at the end. But this means that you are running six months behind on your male colleagues, which has consequences for your chances of funding, for your salary. After five years the ones with children are disadvantaged. So I say: if you have to deliver ten publications in five years, change that to nine.”

But then you lower the standard.

“No, you have to publish a certain amount during the time that you work, if a woman works less, then it is correct.

There are people who feel that there should be a quota for female professors, for example.

“I'm not in favour of that, you are better off trying to convince people, make them see what the advantages are. We also know that experiencing diversity is the most convincing argument for fighting for it. So, you have to make sure that you actually become more diverse.”

The rector has said on several occasions that at the end of her term, so in just over two years, if there is still no improvement, it might be time for a quota.

(Sighing) “Yes, I feel the same. The problem, unfortunately, is that the discussion is only about quotas. While there is a lot more: be aware of it when recruiting, the CV of a woman with children will look different. It starts with the vacancy text: how do you phrase it in such a way that not just white males respond.

“Diversity is ultimately about individuals, but you often have to think in terms of groups in order to achieve definite objectives. Then you must not lose sight of for example, that a woman of colour faces both sexism and racism.”

You are going to talk to the faculties, but will you also talk with students? With associations? They don't have many foreign members.

“I will talk with them and ask them how they see diversity.”

But the matter has been ongoing for years and hardly anything has changed. Should the UM set it as a condition for subsidies?

“I would be for that, but I would have to speak with the rector first. I have, by the way, already been in contact with other students, including Dionyx, the LBGT-and-other-letters group for students and youths in Maastricht; they explained to me that GSD is a better term, Gender and Sexual Diversity. I will be looking for similar groups; I also hope that they will come to me. If for example they would like gender-neutral toilets, okay, that is easily arranged. Just take off the signs. If you can give people the feeling that they belong, why not?

“Ideas in the areas of diversity and inclusivity are more than welcome. The Executive Board is going to support this with 75 thousand euro every year. Organisers may receive from a thousand to fifteen thousand euro for such things as grass roots projects by students and staff. Proposals can be submitted from next month. We are looking forward to them.”



UM Diversity Day on 8 March

Constance Sommerey and Lies Wesseling from the Centre for Gender and Diversity are organising the UM Diversity Day in Kumulus Theatre (Herbenusstraat 89) on Thursday, 8 March 2018. 

Language: English.

9:30: start morning programme: Sexual harassment and the meaning of consent at UM

14.00: start afternoon programme: Age Friendly University

Admission is free, but please register: https://www.maastrichtuniversity.nl/events/maastricht-university-diversity-day


“I’d rather have been called Chief Happiness Officer”
Constance Sommerey
Author: Wammes Bos
Joey Roberts
Categories: news_top,
Tags: diversity

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