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Wouke

Hello,

I am the vicar’s daughter. That meant there were certain expectations in my surroundings about how I ought to behave. People kept an eye on me. On Sundays, for example, I couldn’t go roller-skating or to the swimming pool, when the other girls in my neighbourhood could.

My teacher in primary school was a member of the Reformed Church and Reformed Church children were the teacher’s pets. There used to be religious ‘pillars’. You were either Catholic, Reformed or Dutch Reformed… My father was Dutch Reformed, so I was too. I was a bright girl, but my parents were told I was a mavo (lower general secondary education) pupil. My parents got angry, because they knew that was wrong. ‘Don’t worry!’ they said to me and went to talk to the school. I attended gymnasium (grammar school).

My parents always made me feel I was welcome. And that I can be who I am. That has given me a lot. My father was truly my soulmate. He always answered my questions. He never said: ‘You’re too young for that.’

I was happy we moved to Leeuwarden when I went to secondary school. I had a lovely time there. After parties, the boys would always walk me home, quite properly. When I moved to Delft, I quickly realised not many women studied there. I was not Wouke anymore, I was a woman first. That’s what it felt like. The first time someone walked me home here, he put his foot in the door. The boy didn’t want to leave. He just stood there. He wanted more. That came as a shock to me.

I want to be appreciated for who I am, with my positive and negative sides. And not just because I am a woman. In Delft, I was in the minority in a man’s world. I had to find my way there. I tried different things. At a party, for example, I started kissing my closest girlfriend. Just to provoke the men. Or I once asked a lout of a bloke to take me home. And when he was standing hopefully at the door, I quickly said: ‘OK, bye now. Thanks a lot!’ Even then, a woman with technical training was much sought after. When I graduated from TU Delft, in 1984, I could take my pick from five jobs. I was quite a left-wing student, but still chose to work at Shell. My fellow-students thought that was strange: ‘Lefty Wouke, off to an old boys’ club like that!’ they said. I thought it would be a challenge to see if I could still be me in an entirely such different context like that. It was, after all, something I had done more than once.  

If you submerge yourself in a different environment and meet the people in it, it is always different from what you expect. ‘Us’ versus ‘them’ is never so black and white if you are willing to get to know the other better. And I like to get to know others better. And find out what they are about. Probably because my parents made me feel very welcome, I have enough self-confidence to do this. I discovered how people could be distinguished in various ways on the basis of their characteristics. This has helped me to better understand people and situations. It helps me to realise that people exhibit certain behaviour based on their surroundings, where they are from, on their upbringing and that it is also shaped by their personality and character. It doesn’t define their essence. By being aware of that, the behaviour is less in the way of what someone wants to tell me. In this way, you listen to people and appreciate them more because of who they are and what they can contribute and not because of how they behave.

This is how I discovered at Shell that my extrovert character was an addition to the predominantly introvert people who worked there. It helped to see why I experienced so much friction. Despite the friction, I continued to be who I was. I kept wearing fishnet stockings to work, sometimes even to provoke a bit. Still, that rebelliousness is also part of me.

‘Sometimes people do stupid things, but usually they are very nice.’ This is a quote from my daughter, something she said to me when she was very young. There is so much truth in it. I was very proud she had figured this out at such a young age: to be open-minded in life. I want to pass these words of wisdom and their meaning on to the next generations.

Love,

Wouke