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Episode 10: Sana Sellami on urgent change and impact

"Because we also have to bear in mind that we are not just educated by education. It may be that in some way you were intrinsically motivated by something else which then makes you end up somewhere else."

“We should just stop talking about that. There are so many talented women walking around who really want to do something. And we need those people!"

[general intro]

>>> You are listening to Let's Talk, a podcast where the talking points consist out of impactful initiatives, strong support offerings, and participation as a catalyst for innovation. Your host is Bart Wuyts, CEO of the group Blenders and WEB, the incubator of inclusive workplaces and innovative strategies concerning entrepreneurship, sustainability and job placement, among others.

[intro speaker]

>>> Welcome to this episode in which we have none other than Sana Sellami as our guest. Sana is a sociologist and communication strategist, building expertise within the field of diversity and inclusion, where inclusive organisational culture and inclusive communication are key topics. Furthermore, she is hugely passionate about education and dreams of being able to initiate structural changes here. The conversation between Bart and Sana meanders from labour market shortages, to the role of education and what is expected of a government, to positive trends - and companies setting a good example.

Sana, welcome! It is great to have you as our guest today! The topic we want to talk about in a broad sense is diversity and inclusion in the labour market. There are a few guiding questions we're thinking about, which you've also looked at. But the conversation will grow organically, depending on what you have to say and what triggers us. But to start with, it's always interesting to get to know you a little bit better. Tell us: who is Sana?

Yes. It's always so hard to introduce myself - I find that anyway. Even though I've done so many times before, including while conducting trainings and workshops... So yes, my name is Sana. Sana Sellami. I am an inclusion strategist: a strategist who deals mainly with diversity and inclusion. And in that, I guide companies, mainly internally, to make changes when they want to work on diversity and inclusion. And that can range from coaching a one on one executive, to really a full structural change within the company where persons ask the following question: 'we really want to go for diversity and inclusion but we don't really know what or where to start...' - then we start from scratch. Whereas other companies may have already mapped out a route, already have a diversity and inclusion policy, and still get stuck somewhere or bump into something - and then they ask us to help them with this. So it very much depends on where the company stands in its journey to inclusion. It does come down to me trying to guide companies and on these trajectories we usually touch upon policies, management, HR,..

Is it mainly larger companies that you are looking at to work with?

Not necessarily - and for me the scale of the company does not really matter - but I do notice that depending on the budget a company has, they do or do not contact me. I work with small companies as well as large multinationals, and equally well with NGOs, non-profit organisations, cultural institutions, etc. And I notice that in some sectors there is much more demand for this than in others. Especially now with the crisis we are in. And I personally do notice that companies that already have a project in mind are starting to downsize their efforts in this topic. Or putting a little less urgency on it because they are like 'we have other problems on our minds right now'.

Do you do that in Flanders? Or also in the Netherlands? Because you have a Dutch background as well?

I accompany and train organisations in Flanders and in the Netherlands and as long as the language of communication is English, I do it in other countries as well - French is really not one of my strengths. But I certainly don't limit myself to Flanders only.

How did you come to become an expert in diversity and inclusion? Why did you set the goals to become a strategist in these topics?

My story actually starts with... I have always been someone who wants to pursue impact, and I thought when I had just graduated from university - so after my PhD, that I was going to be able to create impact especially in a government agency. So that's where I started. I really enjoyed my work there, I learnt a lot, I saw a lot of things. But what was my biggest stumbling block there: that it was all a bit slow. It was very bureaucratic, and I can accept that some things are slow, but sometimes I think 'ok but now we really need to shift gears'. And that wasn't always possible and at one point that started to eat at me a bit. And then I decided to do the same thing I was doing more at policy level - I worked for the CRB: the Central Council for Business - that's an organisation that coordinates social consultation at federal level, we were talking about wage negotiations, about how to activate minority groups in the labour market: themes I'm also working on today. So I was already working on these issues back then, but in my opinion still too much from an ivory tower. And then I made the switch: 'If I really want to narrow the gap between minority groups on the one hand and companies on the other, I shouldn't do it here. Because here I just don't manage to realise the impact I want to realise.' So I made the switch to step into the commercial world. It helped that I had filled my backpack: we had research, we knew, so I then was about to really be able to act according to all that knowledge. And then I really started working with companies, reflecting and acting together to make the change concrete.

How long have you been doing this with companies?

Since five years.

And do you feel that when you look back 5 years, that you have indeed had more impact than when you were working in government?

I'm going to say.. There definitely is a change. Between 2018 and 2020, change was slow. Back then I noticed that companies were like "it's nice to do something" - but investing in diversity and inclusion obviously goes beyond "we'll do something nice once", or "we'll do a nice campaign" or "we'll do a nice event". Investing in diversity and inclusion is not a one-off thing either. During that period, by no means all companies recognised that it was something to take hold of seriously and structurally. And that did change somewhat in 2020, around corona. Then I noticed that surely many companies found their way to me, rather than me knocking on their door.

How do you explain that?

One of the causes will undoubtedly be what happened in America, especially the death of George Floyd. One could see then that mainly multinationals very much wanted to show the outside world 'we are not like that' and 'we are against that injustice'. One also then suddenly could see statements from big companies appearing on social media.... And however you turn it, we did notice that things started to seep through here in Flanders too. And mainly in big companies. Despite the fact that there are many people who keep saying 'we are not America'.

Right now we are no longer in a period where we have to convince companies of the importance of diversity and inclusion - but we still do have to make companies aware. And I find that very unfortunate. We still need to work on raising awareness on 'what does it mean' and 'how do we address it'. There are certainly a number of companies that are already further along and have already carried out actions here and there, but does that mean we are already there? I don't think so.

I can only agree with that. Perhaps in the same period, the tightness in the labour market also played a role in the shift among a lot of employers: people then, out of necessity, start paying attention to including more diversity in the company.

There's something to it. The big question from within HR is ‘we can’t find them’, but then I always think 'well.. Imagine you're a fisherman and you're fishing and you're not catching any fish then you don't keep fishing in the same spot all the time either then at some point you're also going to say 'oy I might have to hang my rod or fishing net somewhere else' and that's also something companies do lol. Companies have had one for a very long time and some companies still keep on fishing in the same pond but that pond is running out. And now it's really important to start looking at 'OK, but where can we find the talent'. And just because you start looking for talent doesn't mean the talent will be eager to find you, because do they know you? If they know you, how do they perceive themselves as a company? If that is, let's assume, a positive or not so positive or doubtful perception of 'okay what do you do about it? What are you doing as a company to change that perception. For instance, do you have ambassadors who will talk to the people you are looking for who will engage with them and be able to tell them how are we doing within our organisation. If all those steps are not done. Then you can't expect someone who maybe has never heard of you to suddenly come and apply to you.

So are you saying that if you start working for companies now and you notice these kinds of statements 'We are not finding them', that you then are going to help them in finding ways to discover a new spot on the pond? Another pond?

Yes and the approach varies from company to company. Sometimes the company is at the stage of realizing that they ‘can’t find new candidates’. What we do then is looking at the recruitment and selection process, for example. How is that handled? Let's start at the beginning. When we start looking at the people who apply. Is there already a measure of diversity in that? Yes or no? Well, we can find that out. If there is: then how is selection of CVs done? What is done with the candidates who are contacted, are they kept in a reserve pool, for instance? In what way are they contacted? And we very honestly are going to look at the trajectory: where do we actually see that funnel that is very full at first with lots of applications. Where do we see that there are possible biases, possible decisions being made on which, for example, that diversity that was present at the beginning is becoming less and less. I always try to map this out in an objective way to really see 'where is the challenge now'. Because I can shout very loudly 'you have to start recruiting and selecting inclusively' and you have to make your vacancy inclusive – and then we’ll see that companies still don’t represent society among their employees. So it is really super important first of all to really look at where the challenges are at, where are the problems? Because there are plenty of solutions. We've known it for years, there are lots of books on how to make your recruitment system and your selection process more inclusive, but that's all well and good, you still do need to check what's really going on first. Only then you can start on closing the gaps.

You mentioned just now that you did another PhD after your studies, was it already on this topic? Inclusion or diversity?

That was about the connection between education and the labour market.

Also a fascinating theme! And what did you find out?

I mainly looked at primary education. So whether, based on what you have studied and the diploma you have obtained, you can find a job that suits you. For example, if you don't find a job based on your level of education then we call that a vertical mismatch. If you start doing something different from what you actually studied, that's a horizontal mismatch. And if so, how does that impact your employment outcomes? And then we looked at pay, job satisfaction and turnover.

We also looked at whether there are certain study motives that influence the probability of whether or not you are vertically or horizontally mismatched, and then to what extent do those study motives indirectly impact your employment outcomes.

Study motives? Then you go back another step? And what are the main conclusions? If you can say that in two sentences?

That actually depends very much but, what we did see is, for example, with vertical ‘over schooling’, people end up in a job in which they are paid less, they tend to be less satisfied with their job. With study when they were horizontally mismatched, it depended a bit.

That can also be a choice, of course: not working in the area or subject of your education..

Right. Because we also have to bear in mind that we are not just educated by education. It may be that in some way you were intrinsically motivated by something else which then makes you end up somewhere else.

Yes and you now say 'over-educated' but actually it means rather under-appreciated or under-deployed?

Sometimes people also consciously choose it themselves. For instance, when you are a recent graduate and mainly when you don't have enough experience. Often people see it as a stepping stone. For instance, not only on the basis of study, but also in my own environment, I know a lot of people who graduated with a master's degree, but when they start looking for a job, after a few months they don't find it, and then consciously choose a job that requires a bachelor's degree. They then start working 'below their level'. But the same applies,... I still find today that by no means the right level of study is linked to every job. And then you might apply for a master's job so to speak, but it turns out that you don't necessarily need a master’s degree at all. So I am not really in favour of selecting purely on the basis of diploma.

No no absolutely not. There are plenty of examples of people who do master's-level jobs and don't have a master's degree, but whose personality and experience and commitment make them perfect candidates.

Yes exactly.

So of course that's also a bit of a still fairly outdated idea often. It might be a good entry point sometimes but we shouldn't exaggerate it.

That's right.

While, of course, we still have our system set up that way.


If we take the trip to the research and project we did ourselves for a moment: we had as a specific target group longer-educated women with migration backgrounds, and the barriers they experienced. But we might even need to open that up a bit further.... How do you view the barriers that people with migration backgrounds experience in order to participate fully in the labour market? Because in Belgium we are still lagging behind, we are the worst students in the class in Europe in that respect.

Yes, I think one of the things.. I'm going to name it as it is, discrimination in the workplace is one thing. I'm not going to say that all companies discriminate. But it is a reality.

It is also a persistent problem. Is it higher in Belgium than in other countries do you think?

I dare not say.

You can compare a bit with the Netherlands perhaps - do you see a difference there?

In terms of hard figures, I don't dare say whether there really is a difference there. I am sure that in the Netherlands there really is also discrimination on the shop floor also during selection. What I do know is that the Netherlands, for example, is a few steps ahead. In that sense, for example, Muslim women who wear a headscarf have a bit more opportunities there than here, in my opinion. If I look here, for example,.. I also teach at Thomas More and I work together with a number of educational organisations, and I hear about the problems some girls encounter when looking for an internship: often the reason for rejection is because they wear a headscarf. Then I think, OK, we still have a problem there or we stillhave a number of steps to take. And I think in that respect the Netherlands is several steps ahead.

I also think that the so to speak rucksack is not filled equally for everyone. Looking at networking. If we start looking, for example, at people who graduated from university or college who have a migration background: their backpack is filled in a different way than someone who is white and who has, for example, long-educated parents. The fact is that we really do need to provide more opportunities for those groups to be able to expand their networks.

How do we do that?

What I always find interesting is visiting companies at a very early stage, for example, making introductions at schools. And really asking professionals to share knowledge, to share practical knowledge with students - beyond your job title. So really what it means exactly. By no means everyone knows what they can ultimately do with their degree. And if you lack the people in your network who can tell you a bit more about what a particular job entails, then you don't know either. So there too, we as companies have a responsibility to give students that. Years ago, we held a focus group for a large multinational for students in economics and I had asked 'what do you know about this multinational'? These are actually students who were going to work at such a multinational at the end of their studies.... And they really couldn't answer... Or they thought such a big company would really be nothing for them. Yes those are really things we need to work on. We need to do that better.

I do think it's an excellent suggestion you make. Let companies visit the school because at school you actually can reach all the students.


Because if you make the selection already at the stage of the invitation... When you invite students to drop by the company, maybe half of them won't come... So inversing it and bringing the companies into the student’s life, that is actually a very effective approach!

Yes and I think really is quite an effective measure. Because this way, you really give students the opportunity to get acquainted with 'what is that really like', 'what can I really do'. If I look at my own education: when I was a student, I know that a McKenzie, for example, would come along and explain what they do. But not onlysuch big companies should come along. Flanders is the land of SMEs....

Yes indeed. At what age should we reach these young people?

If we are going to look purely at bachelors, I really think from the second year onwards. In the first year, students are not yet sufficiently engaged with this. I am now talking very much from the students' point of view.

But shouldn't you be doing that earlier too?

Yes also.

Here in Turnhout we would very much like to start what we call a 'weekend school': where you reach out to children in the fifth year of primary school, sixth year of primary school, first year of secondary school. So that at that age you already bring them into contact with professions, and in a way offer them role models to help them make a responsible choice for their secondary education.

As early as the fifth grade?

Yes, children as young as 10. Because what do we suffer a lot of in Belgium? I don't know the figures in the Netherlands, but in Belgium it is an increasing problem that young people leave secondary education without a diploma. They leave school early. And very often this has to do with the fact that they didn't choose the right course of study, they didn't choose a direction that suits them. And if you look a bit further back, you see that young people, children from more vulnerable backgrounds, are also not encouraged in primary school to choose certain fields of study in secondary school - they actually end up too easily in what we now call the 'B stream'. And that is such a shame!

I totally agree: the earlier, the better. That's what I meant when I mentioned that rucksack earlier. Because you see that, and you address it: a large outflow without a diploma. But here in Belgium we also have another, even bigger problem, namely that of educational inequality. And indeed, I think: if we want to do something about this educational inequality, initiatives such as a weekend school are very important. Because that is indeed how you fill the rucksaks of children, young children, who would otherwise not or insufficiently receive this. So I'm definitely in favour of that!

And that's what you mean by educational inequality: not everyone has the same opportunities, from background, at home.... ?

Yes that. But also what we see and know from research: young people with a migration background are more likely to end up in the B stream, they are more likely to get a B or a C certificate when an A, B or C certificate is issued. It is called the waterfall system: we see young kids start in an A stream and as their school career progresses they eventually end up in a vocational direction. This is not to say that a vocational direction is necessarily bad, anything but! Because we need these people just as much. But I do think you have to give people the choice as well as give people enough information to be able to make the right choice. And if that happens in an unfair way, or in a biased way, and that therefore certain students end up in certain directions - that's simply not fair. This way we lose a lot of talent, which we are already losing very hard today. And then indeed we get students who are tired of school, or students who feel that they are actually too intelligent for this direction and they then rebel, they are in a kind of vicious circle and they then stop their education.

Sana you are working as a strategist and you are helping a lot of companies and organisations like that. What is your dream? If you look ten years down the road now: what would you dream of?

My dream really would be that everyone gets the fair - and I wanted to say 'equal'first but that's not the right word - that everyone gets the fair opportunities that he, she or they deserve. That would be my dream.

And that is not the case today. What - in your opinion - would be the most important intervention to accelerate that?

I think - and this is something you see more in the Netherlands and somewhat less in Belgium - that the government plays a very important role, it plays a very important exemplary role. In the sense that if discrimination occurs, on the labour market or on the rental market, then the government should take tough action against it. Now it seems - to my feeling - as if they are going to do a spot check here and there, and do some practical tests, and then we will see what comes out of it. It's really very important to me that a government is really going to take a very prominent role in this and really be a clear trigger for solving the structural problems here in Belgium. And as long as that doesn't happen…

But what would you do?

There are a number of things. For example, the headscarf ban: I would really like to see that abolished. That's really something I think.... We're in 2023.... Do we seriously still need to discuss that! Do I seriously still need to prove what my abilities are all about?! That there are really still people who say "because of your headscarf, you can't do job X or Y". If we just look at education today: whichever way you look at it. How many women have graduated as teachers today who either get a job but decide for themselves - because they have no other option - to take off their headscarf in order to be able to teach, or who decide to teach Islam because that way they can continue to be themselves, or who would have loved to teach but who, because they cannot be themselves completely in education, choose either not to work or to do a totally different job. If there is anything I would abolish, it is that. 100%.

Headscarf ban gone.

Yes. And I know this is probably going to be a very politically charged thing. But that's one thing. I really think we should just stop discussing about that. There are so many talented women walking around who really want to do something. And we need those people!

And secondly, it is really very important that the government takes a leading role. That the government shows how things should really be done. For example now with the current government: surely there should be some diversity within the composition of our government, and they have done that. Of course, I don't know how that all works internally and who holds exactly which posts, but I do know that it is important for a government to show how diverse we are and also to clearly signal 'look how inclusive we are'. Look at what steps we are taking as leaders of this country, to ensure that every individual can thrive. And as a government agency, you have a certain responsibility to businesses, you have responsibility to the economy, to education. And that to me is very important: to concretely address the challenges we have, together.

You teach yourself you said earlier?


What subject do you teach?

Psychology. Social psychology and consumer psychology.

For which students?

Communication and marketing students. And both within the international course, i.e. the English-language course, and within the Dutch-language course. And I then mainly make a link to those students to link psychological insights to their field of study. Because very often students are like 'how do we, marketing and communication students, get to study the subject of psychology?' They do then see through the study that that is super important to be aware of that!

Yes indeed!

And so in addition to that, you do strategy guidance on inclusion and diversity as an independent consultant. I can imagine that you enter different companies and organisations, and that you regularly are surprised when you see how things happen today. And that you might also sometimes be frustrated about things that can't or shouldn't happen. Let me turn it around: when was the last time you really walked out of a client's office with a big smile because you were so happy about what is happening or changing there?

I had a meeting last year with a client who had contacted me through his wife - I already had a project going on with her at another company. Who had prepared a presentation and told me 'this is what we want to do'. They had done a survey - which I always recommend: know where you are, know where the challenges are, don't just go and request micro-aggression training from a D&I expert if you don't know whether micro-aggression is something that happens in your workplace. That company knew very well what challenges they face, and which of those were the big challenges. And they would want to start addressing those, knowing that that would take time. And to start addressing those challenges, they were going to break them down into manageable chunks. They knew what they wanted to start with and where they would eventually want to land. And then the question was to me what I would do. To which I replied 'if you are already going to do all this, I wouldn't know what else I could add.' I could give them pointers from my expertise. But they really already had a very clear goal in mind. And what was also very good was that they had not only made a baseline measurement but that they would also revisit and measure each time after a year exactly what had or had not worked: "If we have done X - for example, in terms of recruitment, that they wanted to make the job ads more inclusive - then that has / has not been effective."

Or again, an education authority that is testing out certain practices through a pilot project and then wants to see if they can extend it to the whole education authority. Things like that. That's when I start to shine. Because too often, companies and organisations that are working on this no longer see solutions, they just get entangled in a myriad of challenges. And I can understand that, because it's a lot. Some organisations tell me that they have been working on this for years - and that's true, they have been working on this for years - but they don't see any effect. And that's because once they organise something here, then they do an event there, you hold an iftar once because some Muslims work in your organisation.... They might have a D&I manager in house but because he is there everyone thinks 'he will solve it'... But if you then map out what you've really done, what you've achieved with that and what you haven't - looking at that honestly is important. And that's one of those things: if a company does that, then I'm super happy.

Alright. And you train them in that as well.


Was there anything else you definitely wanted to say? Or is there another pressing question Artemis has on her lips?

Not really an urgent question right away. But how can people and companies find you?

They can always contact me via LinkedIn.


>>> You have been listening to Let's Talk, the podcast where we feed the dialogue around inclusion in the labour market, highlight impactful initiatives and let lesser heard voices have their say. Were you captivated, did this conversation make you think, would you like to be one of our next guests yourself? Let us know, follow us on social media and be sure to subscribe to this podcast series!