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‘Women’s brains work differently and that's an added value. It's not something you have to change’ - Gülden Yılmaz [Interview]

Article-‘Women’s brains work differently and that's an added value. It's not something you have to change’ - Gülden Yılmaz [Interview]

Women-in-Food-Interview: Gülden Yılmaz
Gülden Yılmaz is director of the healthy and safe food systems programme at Wageningen University & Research, a position that puts her at the interface between science and industry, public and private sectors. Her goal is to inspire multidisciplinary teams to co-create and find solutions to the many challenges faced by the agri-food system. We caught up with her to find out more about her career path.

What made you choose a career the food industry; did you see it as the best place to make a positive impact or did you ‘fall into’ it? 

“I definitely didn't fall into it. There was a lot of thinking going on when I was in high school about what kind of direction I would choose. Of course, we didn't realize how many challenges were coming but I thought, ‘If I can tackle something with food, then it's the basis’. Starting from a very early age, I developed a sense of responsibility and tried to do something positive. Food fit very well into that.”

How welcoming and inclusive do you feel the food industry is for women in general and in your experience so far?

“I started in the food industry in Turkey, and then I came to the Netherlands to do my PhD. I've been working in different types of industries, from plastics to paper to chemicals and other types of manufacturing. I can say that, where I've had experience, the food industry does slightly better than all the others.

“I think it's more open to women, but that’s also [women’s] choice. You see that more female students study food engineering instead of mechanical engineering or chemical engineering. It was the same at the Technical University where I studied in Istanbul; we were dominantly female whereas in chemical engineering you saw more male students. I recently read a report from McKinsey, and they indicated that it's quite equal at the start but, as you evolve into managerial functions, you see more men.”

Have you ever had the impression you have hit a glass ceiling?

“In my career, being in the Netherlands, it was a problematic because I come from Turkey so [there was] the question of a glass roof – not so much because I was female but because I came from another country. I had a lot of experience in that country -  also managerial experience - but somehow it didn’t count. That was a little bit frustrating.”

Do you have any advice for women who are trying to further their careers whilst navigating male-dominated circles?

“I've been in management teams that were dominated by men and there is a significant difference in how men communicate and how women communicate.

“You see that men are more to the point and maybe more structured, whereas women are more multitasking – they consider a much bigger picture – and that's a fundamental difference. Sometimes trying to get a message [across] is difficult because the minds work just differently. I think many industries, including the food industry, can benefit from these different perspectives.

“I've met women in higher positions who totally adopted [...] a very masculine style of leadership. And in my opinion, it’s wrong to adopt that fully because we have other strengths. [If you] copycat in that sense, you're losing your own strength.

“My advice would be, stay yourself and move from your own strengths because men can do some things very well, but women can too. Our brains work differently – how we perceive things – and that's an added value. It's not something you have to change.”

You work at the intersection of strategic development and research at Wageningen University & Research. What do you enjoy most about this?

“I'm in a very lucky situation because I work for the corporate, which means I operate throughout the whole area of Wageningen, starting with primary production. So, we [research] plants and breeding, food as medicine, consumer habits, behaviour, data management, modelling, artificial intelligence, and so on.

“I have a very broad area that I work on [but] the solutions that we are looking for sometimes are available in other applications or other industries. So, what I love most is being able to combine all that to come up with impactful directions.

“You can't just tackle one step of the value chain and expect an impactful change, you have to consider all the value chain [...] and think in a multidisciplinary way to deliver solutions that you cannot come up with on your own. You don't know what you don't know!”

You must be so busy with all your work. Do you have any tips for keeping a work life balance?

“If you like your work, it's quite difficult because your work is part of your life, just as your family [is]. What helps for me is really setting up boundaries. The most important tip is to plan your day with a good structure and also plan in some breaks for your head. I noticed that [when] I can go out for a walk at lunch and have a proper lunch instead of sitting in front of the computer, the afternoon becomes more efficient. That's why they have 40-minute lessons in schools: you have to switch off!”

Do you think it's useful to have women-only networking sessions or women-only mentor programmes?

“Support networks are important, but I don't like to be discriminative towards any other gender. I think it's very important to be connected to each other and I'm sure that sharing experiences helps a lot [...] but I wouldn't limit it to women only. It's important to look broadly and to understand the different groups and motivations and personalities.”