4 min

#EmbraceEquity: On International Women’s Day, meet four women at Kiwa

More women than ever before are in senior management roles: according to Catalyst, 31% of senior managers globally were women in 2021, and 90 percent of companies had at least one woman in a leadership role. This is progress, but gender equality remains one of the world’s biggest challenges, with discrimination, pay gaps and underrepresentation still commonplace.

At Kiwa, we are committed to closing these gaps and improving gender equality. A key principle of our CSR Strategy is improving employee health and satisfaction, which includes striving for a balanced representation of women, both in the total number of employees and management positions.

To mark International Women’s Day (IWD) 2023, we spoke to four inspiring Kiwa colleagues about their roles and career experiences as women, their views of the IWD theme #EmbraceEquity, and their advice to other women considering a similar career.

Safety, autonomy and gender equality

Gender equality has progressed over the last few decades, and as a radiophysicist, Ellen De Geest experienced this first-hand. Ellen is now Head of Health & Safety at Vinçotte Belgium, a recent addition to the Kiwa Group. As Kiwa expands, its risk pattern is changing, and Ellen recently took on an additional role as Kiwa Group’s Global Head of Health & Safety. “More people are working with customers in the field, and we need to make sure they have a set of tools to protect their health and safety,” she said.


Ellen De Geest, Head of Health & Safety at Vinçotte Belgium

In her new role, Ellen is developing the Kiwa Safe Working framework, which will include life-saving rules, a last-minute risk analysis, and, very explicitly, the authority to stop. “This is about being clear that people are not obligated to work in unsafe conditions where they could get injured,” she explained. “If our colleagues in the field think a situation is unsafe, they communicate with the client to find solutions. If there are none, they won’t do the job.”

The authority to stop gives Kiwa colleagues autonomy over their safety. Ellen’s own path to health and safety has also featured personal risk. She studied radiophysics and business management, and she began working in a team of 30 people on radiation protection – they would consult with customers to check and improve their radiation protection. But as a young woman, this raised safety concerns: radiation is dangerous during pregnancy.

Ellen needed a job that would provide flexibility if she did decide to have a family. She was able to work with the company to tailor her position through a process called job crafting. “It’s is when you craft your position in a way that you can best use your talents,” she explained. “My job became a mixture of technical work and being with customers. Initially we did it to make sure it wouldn't be challenging when I got pregnant, but it became an advantage because it was more flexible.”

This kind of flexibility will be vital in supporting gender equity. As Kiwa’s Chief Integration and Transformation Officer Ivonne Verlinde noted, starting a family is one of the biggest challenges women can face at work. “Privately, it was the best thing that could ever have happened to me,” she said. “But professionally, it was the most challenging because I stepped out for a few months of maternity leave, then I had to fight my way back into the role. I think we need to accommodate these life-changing private events in a way that people can continue their progression.”

Women are still surprising in male-dominated spaces

Fast-forward to 2023, and the broader industry is still adjusting to women in traditionally male roles. Caroline Brunner, now a Food Safety Auditor at Kiwa Sweden, started out in a sales and customer service role at Kiwa. “I studied food and nutrition for my bachelor’s degree at the University of Gothenburg, and I was really interested in Kiwa’s food certifications,” she said. “After about eight months I started to train to become an auditor instead.”

Caroline studied in a class with a majority of women, and in the certification business in Sweden, the gender balance is roughly equal. While she notes that the certification side of the business has already made great progress on gender equality, the industry as a whole still faces challenges: the environment in which Kiwa operates has traditionally been male dominated.

Caroline works with a variety of clients, from food producers to restaurants, on several different certification standards. As a young woman, she has occasionally been greeted with surprise – a reaction she believes is familiar to many women in roles that men had traditionally held. “I've experienced customers making comments like, ‘wow, you are so good at this job, we’re really impressed.’ I don’t think that’s something they would say to an older man – they would expect him to be good at the job.”


Caroline Brunner, Food Safety Auditor at Kiwa Sweden

Making the extraordinary ordinary

That surprise is echoed for women in leadership positions. As Kiwa’s Chief Integration and Transformation Officer, Ivonne Verlinde is one of four Kiwa Group board members. She is responsible for improving performance across Kiwa, covering ICT and the rollout of an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, and economic, social and governance (ESG) topics, including safety.

Ivonne has a technical background and has held leadership positions in various male dominated industries, but it has been a natural progression for her, in which she has played to her strengths. “I guess if you look from a distance, it may look special,” she said. “But for me, it's completely natural to be in this kind of environment. I've been the first woman in many situations, and I have noticed that, as soon as I entered a position or a company, people were surprised.”

Ivonne chose to pursue more technical subjects at high school, followed by an industrial engineering degree at a technical university; she quickly became used to studying and working with fewer and fewer women. The first step she took into her career was at a company that built buses for public transportation, where very few women worked and was quickly promoted into one of a series of leadership roles. She went on to be the first woman in the leadership team at the Caterpillar dealership she worked for, the first woman on the boards of ERIKS, Mammoet, and now Kiwa.

Ivonne is interested in why people find it remarkable to see women in leadership positions – when people are happy to see a woman in the role, she asks why they think it’s a good thing, and what their expectations are. “One of the things people say is that it’s a reflection that we are a modern company. I think it literally visualizes for people that it is possible to be in a position even if you don’t fit the traditional mold.”

Despite not fitting the mold, Ivonne says she has many of the ingredients that have been in favor of her progressing, including a supportive upbringing in which her parents encouraged her to use her talents and through which she had the opportunity to go to university. Some people have to overcome more hurdles.

Opening doors with equality in education

In China, the trend for more women to pursue higher education gives them access to top careers, says Victoria Yao, Head of Legal at Kiwa China. Victoria joined BCC Inc., when it became part of the Kiwa Group in 2022, as one of several women in leadership positions – the CFO and the heads of human resources, product and systems certification are all women.

“Both in China and at Kiwa, we do not treat women as people who are different from men” she said. “When we recruit and promote people, their gender is never a consideration: as long as you are capable and fully able to do the work, then it’s your turn. It’s not the case that men should be given the priority.”

Victoria studied law at China University of Political Science and Law, then took part in a scholarship program and went to Oxford, UK to pursue an English law degree. After then taking the New York State bar exam, she returned to China and worked at different law firms.

Victoria’s international education and career path has helped her develop an understanding of people and cultures around the world that help her navigate legal requirements, particularly if there are adjustments to be made. In a recent example, the team developed a lighter version of the general terms and conditions that come with the standard certification agreement clients sign when they work with Kiwa. “In China, if you share a document like this, the client will negotiate with you clause by clause. For small transactions, people need greater efficiency.”


Victoria Yao, Head of Legal at Kiwa China

Making adjustments to support equity

This kind of bespoke approach can also help drive equity in the workplace. Although the gender balance is quite equal in health and safety roles, the technical people working in the field are still mostly men. This has posed an equipment-related challenge for Ellen in her position as Head of Health & Safety.

“We didn’t have a line of protective clothing for women at Vinçotte,” she said. “I had been wearing a protective jacket on field visits that was designed for men, and the fit was all wrong – it was tight around the hips and long in the arms. We recently launched the first protective clothing line for women. Equality is ‘everybody gets a pair of shoes’; equity means everybody gets shoes that fit.”

This is just one example of what companies like Kiwa can do to improve equity – and it doesn’t just benefit the individuals, but their teams, the company and the industry more widely. “It is proven that when you have diverse team members, you become a stronger team, because you create several perspectives to a problem or an opportunity,” Ivonne said. “Then you need inclusivity: it’s not enough to invite people to the party, you also need to let them join in.”

“I think equity is the next step after diversity and inclusivity,” Ivonne added. “There's a fairness element to it: people should have opportunities to put their talents into the mix so that they feel valued and fulfilled. But it takes energy to bring in a different perspective, and equity is about giving each other support so that everyone can perform to the best of their abilities. And thus there also is a business case element to it: it creates value for the company.”

Victoria also believes that supporting equity is valuable to the company. “If you have family-like culture within a company, there will be a strong emotional tie between people, which will also encourage people to perform at their best. And once this kind of business culture is cultivated, it will improve the reputation of the business, because it will demonstrate to the outside world that we are stronger together when we face barriers or challenges.”

Caroline added that equity is about more than just gender: it’s about background, age, ethnicity and much more, and valuing each person for what they can bring to their role. “It's not about me being a woman or my age. My education and my skills are what got me here, not anything else.”

Stand out, stretch and speak up

Ivonne believes that as an employer, Kiwa is inherently attractive, including to women and the younger generation. “I think we are in a strong position because the work we do is very relevant to society. From Kiwa’s perspective, we can tap into that talent by stimulating people and taking a chance on them. If you give someone a chance and offer them a stretch, that person will be motivated to make it work.”

A defining moment in Ivonne’s career was a stretch promotion: in her first graduate role, she established strong working relationships with her colleagues and made more and more suggestions for improving processes. The company owner saw potential in her and promoted her to Director of Operations.

The first year was a struggle, but in the end, support and self-awareness were key to her success. “As women, I think we can sometimes focus on the things we don’t know. But from early on in my career, being self-aware has helped me look at what I can bring to the mix. It’s a good idea to get to know yourself and speak up. You can’t expect people to notice your performance; allow yourself to be explicit about your personal ambition.”


Ivonne Verlinde, Chief Integration and Transformation Officer at Kiwa

Encouraging the next generation of women in TIC

Wherever you are in your career, it’s vital to look around you for support, motivation and inspiration. Ivonne highlights the importance of building a network of support in the company. “You need to have senior sponsorship if you want to progress, but don’t make the mistake of only focusing upwards. Your support comes from your surroundings, the teams you work with. It’s very nice to work with people, and if they like to work with you too, you’ll create the foundation for that progression.”

Victoria’s advice to women who want to pursue a legal career is to balance their work and life. “Here in China, there are a lot of women who are very successful in their careers, and they work really hard. But I think that’s only part of life; family and friends are also an important part of our lives. So we should not only invest in career and learning, but also in family and friends.”

Ellen highlights that even though women are a group, they are also very different individuals with their own talents. “You need to know yourself and understand your strengths. It's important to connect – I always get a lot of energy during a conference or training and so broaden my horizons by meeting new people. By connecting with others, we can grow and uplift each other.”

For Caroline, it’s important to have strong role models. “I meet a lot of inspiring women every day at work, and of course, there are a lot of men lifting up women as well. Make sure you have the right people around you; when you have that, you can do whatever you want.”

“I'm so grateful for everything that the women in our history have done for us. We've come this far, but we still have a big job to do. It's so important that we keep talking about equity and make sure every woman knows her worth. As the quote says, ‘Here's to strong women, may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.’”