A number of years ago, Marloes Brans, lawyer and counsel, was working for Houthoff in the global city of New York. Together with Helena Sprenger, lawyer and partner at Houthoff New York, Marloes regularly attended networking events and so came into contact for the first time with the renowned women’s events there.
Marloes: “I was incredibly impressed with the setting of the events and the kinds of women coming to them. I was astonished at the appeal of these kinds of events, as was apparent from the huge number of women attending. These women were really getting out and about and networking with each other. American women are quite confident anyway and the oft-heard taboo against women demonstrably doing things for each other clearly played no role here. In short: these were gatherings that proved to be enjoyable as well as useful and inspiring.”
Back in the Netherlands, Marloes met up with Marry de Gaay Fortman, lawyer and partner, who has been campaigning for many years for more diversity in business, particularly women at the top. Marry was immediately enthusiastic about Marloes’ initiative to organise such an event in the Netherlands on behalf of Houthoff. The idea and a great network were brought together, and so the event was born.
Marry: “Not everyone at Houthoff was immediately taken by the idea. Some asked whether we should really exclude men from such an initiative. Recently, I was asked to give a presentation for a group of young, all-male entrepreneurs in Rotterdam. So we shouldn’t carry on as if there are no highly specific men’s clubs and men’s events being held here and there.”
In 2019, the ladies event in Amsterdam will be held at the home of the Dutch National Opera & Ballet. The building on the Amstel will be open to our guests during the afternoon. We will have the opportunity to attend a small part of a rehearsal and then be given a tour behind the scenes of this unique theatre. The Dutch National Opera & Ballet is one of the few companies that produces everything in-house, from costumes to the scenery.
In previous years, the ladies event was held in the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk museum, where we were treated to exhibitions by Munch and Tinguely respectively. The events abroad also take place at a location with a more culturally oriented approach. For example, the ladies event in Singapore is organized at the National Gallery Singapore.
The first women’s event organised by Houthoff Buruma, as it was still known as at the time, was the Corporate Ladies Event in 2015. This format combined discussions on specific topics with culture and the opportunity to meet familiar colleagues, but also to get to know new faces. The concept was given the title Cocktails, Culture & Content, where the last ‘C’ took on a different theme each time. In 2015, Compliance was in the spotlight, while 2016 took ‘Commissaris 3.0’ as its theme. In 2017 it was Confrontation. Last year, the theme was Connect. This year, the panel discussion will be all about Change.
General Counsel, senior corporate lawyers, company secretaries and especially supervisory directors and executive boards are all invited to the Corporate Ladies Event. Despite the firm’s initial doubts, it became clear that there was a need for such an event.
Marry: “The funny thing is that not only do the business contacts of our female colleagues come to the event, but all of the partners in the firm invite contacts. Each year more and more female clients of our male partners sign up to attend, knowing perfectly well that their contact person will not be there.”
We are proud of the female representation at all of the foreign outposts of Houthoff. Cecile Eijsink-Bonnier will shortly be taking up the reins in Tokyo, Esther Veltman works and lives in Singapore, Jessica Terpstra manages the London office, Helena Sprenger manages the New York office, Houthoff’s representative in Houston is Carmen Bakas and Greetje van Heezik plays a key role in the Brussels office.
THE CONFIDENTIAL ATMOSPHERE ALLOWS SCOPE FOR FRANK RESPONSES TO PROPOSALS
The discussion on a specific topic is led by Marry and a panel of women, each of whom can shed light on the theme from a different angle. The open atmosphere during the discussions is an interesting phenomenon. The level of the group and the feeling of confidentiality gives the participants the confidence to respond frankly to proposals, exposing and discussing issues from their own experiences.
Marry: “You see that people take examples from each other during the discussion and learn from each other’s experiences too.”
CONNECTION BETWEEN THE CURRENT AND FUTURE GENERATION.
Marloes: “In 2015, the group consisted mainly of women who had already notched up many years of experience. We are now seeing the trend towards the next generation of top women. The connecting function of the event is particularly special. Among the experienced women, we clearly sense how pleased they are to see the next generation of women in business, and we hear from the younger women that they particularly enjoy seeing that there are actually a great many highly inspirational examples at the top.”
Asking everyone to get talking to each other during drinks and actually arrange something together turned out to be a good move.
Marry: “I am now in favour of a quota. In principle, I feel you should resolve this yourself as a company, within your company’s culture; you must embrace all the talent you have, and that includes so much female talent, and enable this talent to rise to the top. Not only that, you permit it to get there. There will always be an element of empathy, that’s just how it is.”
In March 2018, the Bedrijvenmonitor presented the Management and Supervision (Public and Private Companies) Act (Wet bestuur en toezicht), This gives an idea of the results achieved since the Act came into force in 2013 and shows that we are making progress, but not fast enough. The target figure of 30% is still by no means in sight. The European Commission is recommending that governments introduce enforceable quotas. France, Germany and Italy, amongst others, have shown that quotas work. In France, they are even taking it one step further. The law has been tightened up there so that appointments that are not in line with the quota are invalid and the remuneration of directors is simply suspended.
Marry: “What Marloes does really well is to break down the barriers by saying right at the start: the idea is that you make contact with each other, so above all exchange your business cards. Feel free to talk with someone because you think, ‘how nice, what do you do’, but also because you think, ‘what could we do for each other?’ What struck us was that thanks to Marloes’ encouragement, they found it much easier to get talking to each other afterwards.”
Marloes: “Try not just to be active in arranging something with someone, but also think about what I can give to whom, and whom I can connect with whom. It’s a kind of interaction, and that makes it more specific too. We sometimes tend to beat around the bush a little, but just ask it straight: ‘can I do anything for you, and can you do anything for me?’.”
CONNECTIONS BETWEEN WORLD REGIONS
This year the event will have an international orientation for the second time. Els Houtman, responsible for the international strategy and the associated customer relationship management, connected the six outposts of Houthoff with each other.
Marry was the first woman Managing Partner in the history of Houthoff (2001 to 2007). For many years, she has championed women at the top of their profession, both within and outside Houthoff. At Houthoff, she works together with office colleagues Rixt de Vries, lawyer and partner, and Sylvia Dikmans, tax consultant and partner, to promote greater diversity and more women in the firm. Together with Marielle Koppenol-Laforce, Marry makes up half of the Houthoff supervisory board.
Els Houtman: “Coincidentally, all of the Houthoff branches abroad are led by women. A great opportunity to give the event an international focus this year and to extend it to these locations. And so the theme ‘Connect’ was created from this idea of bringing people together.”
The same themes will be discussed in all the cities. These and the responses to them will be bundled together later in a publication which we hope will give us an insight into the lives of top women around the world. We are of course incredibly eager to know; the woman working in Tokyo and the woman in New York, and those in between, are they faced with the same challenges? How do you make connections in your work and private life, how do you maintain friendships? How do you maintain contacts with your clients? And how does that work in these different countries?
The ladies event is a great example of how Houthoff puts its international strategy into practice. Els Houtman is involved in this in her day-to-day work.
Els: “I try to find the connections between all of our branches. And I find that the best way to do that is to phone everyone each week. When I call, I hear something from Singapore, and then I think, ‘hey, wait a minute, I’ve heard that name mentioned in Houston too’ and then I make the connection. That weekly connection over the phone is incredibly important, not only for being international, but also being a unit. Because you see that it’s quite difficult if you are there on your own in Singapore or in New York, for example. It’s then that you need a huge amount of self-motivation to start something up and keep it going each day. To help with this we hold what we call a ‘homecoming’ twice a year. The connection with Houthoff in the Netherlands is renewed, we discuss global themes such as renewables, water management, tax structures and what Houthoff can offer its clients regarding these themes.”
Els brought the successful Dutch event to six cities in the world where Houthoff is represented in 2018.
Marloes brought the concept of the Ladies Event to the Netherlands.