Accenture CEO Nicole van Det: ‘It’s incredible that women in leadership still is special’

11 October 2023 Consultancy.eu 10 min. read
Profile

The CEO of Accenture in the Netherlands – Nicole van Det – is the fourth consecutive woman to hold the top role. While it might not be common at Accenture now, however, a woman in the top job still is regarded a notable (or even outstanding) achievement – a tokenistic point of view which irritates Van Det, and she believes distracts from “the core of the problem”. 

The appointment of Nicole van Det as country leader of Accenture in the Netherlands two years ago extended a run of four women to assume the position. Anja Montijn-Groenewoud became the first woman to hold the role in 2006, and subsequently Manon van Beek and Irine Gaasbeek stepped into her shoes.

But while the idea of women leading a business clearly has become normalised at Accenture – which also made Julie Sweet its first woman to hold the rank of global CEO in 2019 – it remains an exception, rather than the rule.

Nicole van Det, Accenture

In the Netherlands, there are still relatively few women at the head of (large) organisations. How to move beyond the long-standing tradition of male-dominated Dutch boardrooms remains a bone of contention, though.

Speaking to Consultancy.org, Van Det explains that too much focus on quantity is often applied to the subject, and while “a women’s quote is nice”,  it might gloss over systemic matters at “the core of the problem”. As to what she can do herself, Van Det is hopeful of “creating movement” in the industry.

“I want to make a difference – both with our customers and internally,” Van Det explains. “I like to bring about change, create growth. I've always had that ambition.”

Her career to date suggests she has more than succeeded in that goal in several industries. After obtaining a PhD from the medical faculty of Leiden University in the mid-1990s, Van Det worked for Elsevier Science for several years, before shifting into consulting in 1999.

After making an impact with customers at home and abroad for more than two decades, she ascended to the role of CEO for Accenture in Netherlands – and her two years in the job have coincided with an impressive growth spurt at the firm.

The Netherlands is lagging behind

“When it comes to the position of women in Dutch business, it seems as if I am replaying a broken record,” notes Van Det. “In the Netherlands we have been talking about it for decades and every time the discussion fades away after a while without anything having changed. It's quite sad that we still have to talk about the topic.”

That is even within her own firm. Gender equality is an important focus within Accenture and results have materialised – globally Accenture has been among the best-scoring companies in the Bloomberg Gender-Equality Index for two consecutive years and ranked at the top of Refinitiv’s index of world’s most diverse and inclusive companies.

But even at a frontrunner such as Accenture, getting women into leadership positions is considered challenging.

While women make up 47% of the approximately 730,000 employees, they hold just under 32% of managerial roles. Despite this, Accenture still outperforms the market average in the Dutch technology sector, where only 17.8% of vice president and 12.4% of C-suite positions are held by women.

Van Det asserts that the bar should be higher, however. While many believe that the Netherlands is a progressive country and the country would lead on this front in comparison to other countries, the Dutch in fact are lagging behind.

In the latest edition of the WEF’s Global Gender Gap Report, the Netherlands is in 28th place, far behind leaders Iceland, Norway and New Zealand. Meanwhile, neighbouring countries Germany and Belgium are also in the top ten. Some other countries that rank above the Dutch are Nicaragua, Namibia, Rwanda and the Philippines.

In terms of economic participation and opportunities, the Netherlands ranks an even worse 77th. In line with this, the WEF noted in its analysis that only 15% of board positions in the Netherlands are occupied by women.

Supply or demand

How is it possible that the Netherlands is lagging so far behind? People often point to the employers. Companies are said to be run by an ‘old boys network’ that – consciously or not – mainly appoints other white men to leadership roles. Den Haag – the seat of the Dutch government – also seems to be hinting in that direction. The government has backed a quota that obliges listed companies to have at least one-third of the Supervisory Board consist of women.

Van Det, however, has a different take on the matter. She contends that while setting quotas might look positive performatively, if it doesn’t address the factors which keep women out of lines of work in the first place – from conscious and unconscious bias among recruiters, to a lack of flexibility to accommodate family commitments, or the yawning gender pay-gap – then “you can set all kinds of quotas without anything really changing.”

She continues, “We do everything we can to hire as many women as possible and allow them to grow. And that doesn't just apply to Accenture – I also see other companies doing their best. There are 100,000 reports that show why diversity is important – including for business results. So that’s not where the problem lies.”

The WEF report seems to support Van Det's observation: despite the Netherlands’ poor position on the list, the Netherlands is actually mentioned as one of the five countries where companies are committed to a more gender-diverse workforce.

“The problem is that we cannot find enough women for leadership positions,” she adds. “There are many companies in the Netherlands with great targets, and we are all fishing in the same small pond.”

Set aside

This immediately raises two questions: why is the supply so small, and what needs to be done to increase it? First, the figures at Accenture show the inflow is not so much the problem, where things go wrong is with the flow.

Van Det argues, “We have enough well-educated women who are suitable for further growth, but they often drop out as soon as they have children. We can make things very complicated, but that is what it ultimately comes down to. When I came to the Netherlands at the age of 17, I was amazed that it was so normal here to stop working.”

According to Van Det, the fact that it is still mainly women who put their careers aside for child care can partly be explained culturally. Suggesting the Netherlands is “still a bit old-fashioned in this area”, Van Det sets out how the culture is not yet structured in such a way that “having a business career as a woman is seen as something positive”.

“When I was pregnant myself, I was quickly told: ‘Then you are going to work less, aren't you?’ – from progressive people, of all things… But I grew up in Suriname, and all women work there – otherwise you just have no money. So I knew as well as anyone that children and work can be combined in someone’s life.”

At the same time, Van Det thinks that historically better salaries in the Netherlands reinforced its child care culture, as many families could afford to live “comfortably with a single income”. And when it comes to making the decision on who will assume primary responsibility for child care, the odds are (significantly) higher that women take on the role.

Male partners often pick up a better salary, notably even when performing similar roles, so pragmatically women end up pausing their career. Meanwhile, the Dutch financial system around childcare support provides little stimulus for both parents to remain in their job.

“In the Netherlands, if both parents continue to work, they spend almost more money on childcare than they bring in,” Van Det explains. “And even when they decide to continue working, there is no guarantee that they are assigned enough days at childcare. Due to the shortage of staff there is often simply too little capacity.”

Naming the pain

Culture and failing childcare. Together, according to Van Det, they form the “cocktail” that hinders the advancement of women to the top.

“What we are very good at in the Netherlands is talking about all kinds of dimensions – which indeed do have an influence – without mentioning where it really hurts, namely: it is still socially undesirable, it is not financially attractive and often not even possible.”

“But the younger generation still makes me hopeful,” Van Det quickly adds, adding, “across younger generations, it seems much more normal to divide the tasks at home equally”, opening up more possibility for two parents to stay in work. At the same time, the pandemic may have reinforced this shift, as it is now “much more normal to work flexibly, making it easier to combine work and private life.”

However, Van Det finds it incredible that it has still not been possible to remove the other ingredient – facilities for parents to combine work and family – from the cocktail. While the country is still thought of as socially democratic by commentators in the UK and US, the Netherlands has undergone more than a decade of neo-liberal economic policy, and talking about strengthening social security and public services has been out of fashion for a long time.

On the lack of support for parents to continue working, “I often wonder how a highly-developed country like the Netherlands has come into this situation. And you hardly see the topic addressed anymore, at political level and talk show tables it’s always about the same topics.”

For a moment it seemed as if things were finally moving. When the now-collapsed cabinet of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte was formed, and Van Det heard that they wanted to make childcare free, she breathed a sigh of relief. But then the government rowed back on that pledge, saying the country “cannot make it free because of the shortage of staff.”

Van Det laments, “And people are now even saying that it is not a good idea. While Sweden has long shown that the concept works.”

It’s your time

In this context, the appeal to government for a women’s quota might become a little clearer. It is a positive step, but also one that lays responsibility in someone else’s inbox – suggesting that there is a lack of goodwill within companies, while the ball is just as much in the politicians’ court.

“Make childcare free and do everything you can to solve the staff shortage,” says Van Det. “That is what the solution should be about.”

“This also encourages cultural change,” she thinks. “If child care becomes easier both practically and financially,  it becomes more attractive for women to continue working. And then it automatically becomes more normal – then you are no longer the exception but the rule.”

In the meantime though, Van Det calls on women not to get dispirited, and to keep fighting for their dream jobs – despite the poor levels of support they may perceive – or in fact receive. They can help make the change that will lead to many more women follow in Van Det’s footsteps, at Accenture and beyond.

“Young women invest so much in their studies… they do that because they have an ambition. My advice is simple: keep investing in yourself. It’s your time now. The world is your oyster: companies are waiting for you – we know we are more successful with you on board. What are you waiting for?”