“Women at the top often feel distant”

Unless you find your female role model at your kitchen table every morning

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“Women at the top often feel distant”

Female role models in the technical sector are scarce but very important, knows Applied Mathematics student Ymke Tolboom. She found her role model in Joleen Blok, dean and data manager at the Máxima Medical Center, but first and foremost her mother.

Ymke Tolboom (21) is in the final phase of her Applied Mathematics program. Joleen Blok (52) studied Physics at Radboud University. She then obtained her PhD in Medical Sciences, for which she also took a few courses at TU/e. And so, she became the first female general clinical physicist in the Netherlands. She has worked in various hospitals and is now the first female dean at the Máxima MC, as well as strategic information manager. Does that make her a role model? “Don’t blow it out of proportion,” says Blok.

A man’s world

Tolboom lived with her mother during her secondary school years. While Blok is at work, Tolboom gets the freedom to develop herself. They live together, but clearly have their own lives. She learns from her mother to find joy in everything she does; to take control of her own happiness. “I’m always very busy. People often ask me how I manage to do it all, but I’m having the time of my life. I see that same mindset in my mother as well. She keeps developing herself.”

It is only when she starts studying at TU/e that she realizes that her mother is the exception rather than the rule. That was not just because of the lecture halls full of men. It was also in the subtle things. “For example, I noticed that when fellow students talked about their parents’ jobs, they always started off talking very proudly about their father and only later mentioned their mother.”

When Tolboom moved out to live on her own, she truly realized how special her mother was. “I began to appreciate how my mother managed to combine her busy schedule with family life. How, despite her full-time job, she was there for me whenever I was faced with a problem. It was only then that I really started to admire her.”

Of course, being a role model is valuable, but it’s also just something you are based on experience

Joleen Blok
Exemplary role

Blok is no stranger to studying in a man’s world. When she started her Physics program, she was one of only three women in her year. “At that time, it was the highest number of women they’d ever had in a year. Though it wasn’t a large group. We were only a few dozen students in total.” After obtaining her PhD, she became the first female general clinical physicist in the Netherlands, but she was not particularly concerned with that. “I was aware of it, but it was just a fact. I didn’t really pay it any mind. I thought the fact that there were so few training opportunities for my profession was a more pressing matter.”

Still, Blok realized all too well that she had an exemplary role. “That started back when I was studying Physics. I was 24 at the time and got to visit schools to talk about my studies. This was through the then-called Association of Higher Technical Education. They wanted to level out the male-to-female ratio in science subjects.” In small groups, she would talk to secondary school students about her field and answer their questions. “They were always very enjoyable conversations. It felt really valuable.” And she continues to be a role model for young women around her today. “You notice that you’re someone young colleagues look up to and I still get questions sometimes, but don’t blow it out of proportion.”

Tolboom reacts to her mother with some surprise. “You always make light of it. Like it’s not a big deal at all!” Blok laughs. “Of course, being a role model is valuable, but it’s also just something you are based on experience”

Clear the path

Blok did not have a female role model herself. Nevertheless, studying in a man’s world was not a problem. “I always had male mentors who saw potential in me and helped clear the obstacles in my path so I could achieve things.” However, she does mention her own mother as an example. “She was forced to stop working after she got married, because that was just the way things were back then. She didn’t agree with that, so she stayed active. She’s always been someone who went against the status quo.”

For Tolboom, studying in a male-dominated field is also not a problem. She sees it as a fun challenge as opposed to an obstacle. Tolboom and Blok share a vision that you only have one life to leave your mark on. Tolboom: “So we both follow our own path in life and encourage each other to draw energy from the things we enjoy.” Blok: “‘Freedom within constraints’ is what they call that.”

Of course, you sometimes read or see something about women who have reached the top, but that feels so distant

Ymke Tolboom
Vrouwen in de Top

Like mother, like daughter. This is evident from the upcoming Vrouwen in de Top [Women at the top] event that will take place on May 21, with Tolboom being one of the organizers: “I noticed that for many women, it’s not necessarily a given to be able to talk to a woman who has completed a similar study program as them and then continued to develop. “Of course, you sometimes read or see something about women who have reached the top, but that feels so distant.”

Tolboom brought up this issue with her mother. And so, over breakfast at the kitchen table, the idea emerged for a small-scale setting where female students can talk to successful women at the top in an accessible way. The event, titled “Vrouwen in de top”, was inspired by Blok’s conversations with secondary school students to promote science subjects. “Not just to talk about the obstacles of building a career in a man’s world, but to give every student the opportunity to interact with a female role model.”

Vrouwen in de top” will take place on Tuesday, May 21, and is intended for all female students at TU/e. The event will start at 6:45 p.m. in the central hall of Atlas. After the opening, students get to speed-date with inspiring role models from the technical sector in three rounds. Afterwards, there will be a networking drinks party with snacks and beverages.

Blok herself will also attend the event as one of the women at the top. She is proud to see her daughter so engaged in this topic. “She’s bursting with energy. That’s so great to see.” Blok also derives a lot of inspiration from such events herself. “The new ideas, the energy of the younger generation and seeing what issues they are currently facing. That motivates me and makes me think about how we can continue to engage and attract these students to enter the professional field.”

Dining with top women

Also Student association SSRE hosts an annual event to meet female role models. It's known as the “Technical Women’s Dinner”. There, in between courses, inspiring stories are shared of female role models. And the top women also join the dinner themselves. The organizing students encourage fellow students to ask lots of questions. Here you can read a report on last year’s event. This year, the third edition was held on International Women's Day, March 8.

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