On joining Ingenieurs- en architectenbureau voorheen J. van Hasselt en De Koning as an associate in 1918, Reep VerLoren van Themaat (1882-1982) would later write: “The office was still rather basic: letters were handwritten and copied, and we performed the bookkeeping ourselves. Before very long this all changed, which brought about major improvements.”[1]  

In the first place, these major improvements involved the purchase of a typewriter and, shortly afterwards, the appointment of a typist: Miss Groen.[2] One year previously, in 1917, the engineers at the firm of Dwars, Groothoff en Verhey in The Hague had also taken on their first typist: Miss de Graaf.[3] 

Shorthand typist Sophie Beijer (b. 1901) seen here in the offices of Dwars, Groothoff en Verhey, ca. 1920. Her predecessor, Miss de Graaf, had been employed only for a short time. (source: Royal HaskoningDHV company archives)

With the acquisition of typewriters - an American invention - ‘typewriting’ as a new occupation became increasingly commonplace in Dutch offices too. The innovation brought about a minor revolution in career opportunities for women, which until that time had been extremely limited.[4]  Both in the Netherlands and elsewhere, machine writing was soon regarded as an occupation that was particularly suited to women.[5] More specifically, young, unmarried women, since married women were not supposed to work.[6] 

However, in the first half of the 20th century, 50% of Dutch women over the age of 15 were not supported by a husband. This large group needed paid employment, for example, in a decent office. Miss Groen, Miss de Graaf and the typists who followed belonged to this category. 

‘Endless reams of paper’[7]

Finally, I would like to mention Miss van Putten. We are all technical, to a greater or lesser extent. Miss van Putten is not technical at all. Over the course of the years, she has settled into a routine and has acquired a great deal of technical experience. The amount of work that she alone has shifted is truly enormous,” Jan Pieter Heederik, the youngest director of DHV told a festive audience on the occasion of the 25th anniversary in 1942.[8] 

Group portrait on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of DHV, 2 January 1942. Those present include in the second row, third from the left Gerardina van Putten; the same row, fifth from the left: Elisabeth Bregman; in the first row, the directors and founders with their wives: third from the right, Jan Pieter Heederik; behind the flowers, Bastiaan Verhey. (source: Royal HaskoningDHV company archives)

Gerardina van Putten (1907-1962) was the daughter of a window cleaner from Amersfoort. She worked as a typist for the firm from the age of 21. In 1942 she described how she had seen her work change and get busier. To start with, the work consisted primarily of “typing letters and the odd report or invoice every now and then. The larger reports, like all the specifications, were always printed and arrived in the typing office complete for dispatch. […] Over the years, the amount of work increased however, and the amount of typing work increased proportionately. The cyclostyle was introduced into the typing office. […] On the one hand, the cyclostyle lightened the workload […] but on the other hand, stencils of all the specifications led to a huge increase in work.”[9] 

The cyclostyle or stencil machine was able to make copies of typed text or (line) drawings. It was a precursor to the photocopying machine and was used up until the 1970s. (source: Collection IISG Amsterdam ST-G-1/A. Photo Amsterdam Museum)

The work continued to grow and a second typist was recruited, namely Elisabeth Bregman. She summarised the early period of her work as follows: “Six months filing correspondence and six months typing letters, reports, lengthy specifications, written in all types of legible and illegible handwriting, typing out shorthand written at frantic haste and all sorts of other stuff.”[10] 

Dien van Putten continued to work for the firm until her sudden death in 1962. She became the secretary of director Jan Pieter Heederik and was in charge of ‘secretarial office A’, which was the most important within DHV and had the most typists, five in all.[11]

Left: Gerardina (Dien) van Putten, right: Elisabeth Bregman in 1942. (source: Royal HaskoningDHV company archives)

Wave of emancipation

In the 1950s Dutch women spent on average 70 hours per week doing housework.[12] They were ‘the shock-absorber of reconstruction’, indispensable in the post-war Netherlands and widely appreciated.[13] That was until Dutch feminist Joke Kool-Smit published her criticism of the life of a housewife in 1967: Het onbehagen bij de vrouw (‘The discontent of women’). Her article triggered an impassioned response and paved the way for a second wave of feminism which swept through the Netherlands between 1967 and 1981. The goal: the right to paid employment, childcare and a more equitable division of care responsibilities.[14]   

Traditional certainties and established role models shifted. Young women, better qualified than ever before, preferred paid employment to life as a housewife.[15]  Women’s magazines encouraged their readers to take up resistance: “Show your dissatisfaction, your opposition, your sense of imprisonment. Don’t bottle it up.”[16]

Haskoning canteen in Nijmegen, 1971. Until the mid-1980s, women worked mainly as typists, secretaries or dinner ladies. (source: Royal HaskoningDHV company archives)

In the workplace at both engineering firms, women were also making themselves heard. For example, in 1985 an edition of Haskoning’s staff magazine focused on the so-called 'Central Services’ department. This department belonged to the non-productive part of office activities, whereas the productive part was made up of the ‘technical whizzkids’.[17] 
The editorial staff made a direct appeal to the latter group: “You will find out the effort which is required to provide you with the essential ‘support and service activities’ without which no project would ever leave your drawing board.” And later on: “You will read in this edition how conservative you are, how unfriendly your attitude is to women, how poor you are at organising things and how sloppy and obstinate you can be in your work.”[18] Four secretaries who were interviewed were unanimous in their judgement: Haskoning was “a conservative firm where there was an evident distance between men and women. […] most men seem to think they know better.”[19]  

Apart from this shift in tone, the ratio of men to women in the engineering firms was also changing.[20] In 1942, the total share of women in the workforce amounted to 5%, by 1985 this had risen to 14% of all workers.[21] 

“This type is still relatively rare”[22] 

In 1928, Miss W. van Santen started work as a civil engineer with DHV. She had just qualified from the school of engineering in Delft. It is not known how long she stayed with the company and on which projects she worked.[23] She seems to be a curiosity, since even fifty years later female engineers were an exception in engineering firms.
The reason she joined the firm probably had something to do with the marriage of her boss, Bastiaan Verhey. In 1910, Verhey married Jo Rombach, a pioneering chemical engineer who had just qualified in Delft.[24] The story goes that her dowry was a microscope and microscopic specimens. When, at the end of the 1930s, Jo Verhey-Rombach was working as headmistress at the Montessori lyceum in Amersfoort (as well as a teacher of maths and chemistry), “her husband encouraged her in these activities and took on a share of the family’s care responsibilities”.[25]  

It’s quite possible that the emancipated Bastiaan Verhey was the driving force behind the appointment of Miss W. van Santen. In this respect, his departure signalled an end to a short progressive era: his successors would only appoint the next women engineers at the end of the 1970s. They were rarities and thus newsworthy. 

The DHV staff magazine, Overdwars, diligently interviewed these young, recently qualified women and devoted a generous amount of attention to their femininity: “Boukje Zwanenburg is one of the few female engineers within DHV and doubtless within the engineering field. That certainly provoked surprise and admiration.” These words were written in 1979.[26]
In 1992, five female consultants working in Haskoning's International Projects division described a number of incidents during their work abroad in 1992 and concluded: “On balance, there are some pros and cons of being a woman in this profession. One advantage for example, is that you stand out amongst the grey mass of male consultants without having to do anything. So in this way, it’s sometimes easier to walk into an organisation and, simply out of curiosity, people will have more time for you.”[27]

Climbing the career ladder 

The next phase of the emancipation process was climbing the career ladder within the firms.
Whereas the traditional technical disciplines continued to employ almost solely men, the first female managers were mainly found in upcoming domains, such as the environment and in support areas, such as human resources and public relations. For example, from 1983 onwards, legal expert Hilde Jansen was head of human resources at IWACO (International Water Consultants), a firm of Rotterdam-based consultants.[28] At the end of the 1980s, urban planner Elsbeth van Hijlckama Vlieg became Director of Urban Planning, and ecologist Annemarie Goedmakers was appointed head of the business team for Nature and Landscape Development.[29]  

In the mid-1990s, the proportion of women working in both firms had risen to 19%. The rapid expansion in the field of environment contributed towards this increase. From the very start, the number of women working in this new domain was high, probably because there were no established traditions when it came to the division of roles or hierarchy in this field.[30]  

Annemarie Goedmakers in the 1980s. (source: Werry Crone, Collection IISG Amsterdam BG B34/176)

 The British environmental scientist Catriona Paterson (third from the right) as a 26-year-old project manager working on the Black Sea Coastal Environmental Management Project, at the time the biggest international project carried out by Posford Duvivier Environment (PDE). On the far right: Julia Everard, fellow environmental scientist at PDE. Georgia, 1995. (source: Julia Everard archives)

The share of women increased slightly: at the beginning of the new millennium, 25% of the workforce was female. In the ‘productive’ sector, this share was now 14%.[31] Indeed a rise, but at the same time this increase illustrated that from 1945 onwards very few (Dutch) women were choosing to work in sectors where men predominated.[32]  

It was time for more drastic action. Jan Bout (b. 1946), at the time chairman of Royal Haskoning’s board of directors, decided it was time to appoint a woman as the new financial director.[33] On 1 January 2008, business specialist and economist Maartje Bouvy (1972) was appointed to the position of Corporate Group Finance Director for an engineering firm that now had a workforce of around 4,000 employees. The headlines in industry magazine Cobouw claimed that Bouvy was no symbolic appointment – stating categorically that her gender was not the deciding factor in her recruitment.[34] 
In the same year, one woman in DHV’s management remarked: “[..] at these international management meetings, there are about 3 to 4 women for every hundred men. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that women really do raise other issues which are very important for business operations, but which are sometimes underrated by men (…) except those women are not always in those influential positions to really produce an impact in respect of those issues. It would be a good thing to bring about change in these areas.”[35] 

International Management Meeting DHV in The Hague, 2010. On the first row, from left to right: Marga Donehoo (director Corporate Initiatives), Anke Mastenbroek (SSI COO (Operations)), Janette Horn (SSI Group Environmental manager); second row: Mirjam Soeterbroek (director Communications; and on the third row: Marjolein Demmers (director advisory group Environment and Sustainability). (source: Royal HaskoningDHV company archives)

Role models and mentorship

In 2021, the proportion of women employed at Royal HaskoningDHV worldwide is 28%, a minority which is still in line with the share of women employed in engineering in general. Nevertheless, of all the women working for the company, a majority of 61% now work in the ‘core business’, against 39% in supporting positions.[36]  

At last, women now have role models inside the company. In this way, Rika Prayudani, Resident Controller in Indonesia, was inspired and encouraged by Jaska de Bakker – the first woman CFO.[37] And engineer Esther Kromhout, who built a series of airports worldwide, became director of the Aviation Business Unit. One of those who encouraged her to take this step was her colleague, Marije Hulshof, Global Business Line Director for Industry and Buildings.[38]  

Civil engineer Sheilla de Carvalho consciously aims to set an example for younger female colleagues. She works as the Director of Business Unit (Industry & Smart Asset Management) in South Africa and as Resident Director in Mozambique. Up until the age of 10 she dreamed of becoming an astronaut. She studied in Cape Town and continued to work on the African continent so that she could make a difference to people’s lives as an engineer. At Royal HaskoningDHV she is now one of the three women in top management in South Africa.

Work in progress at the Palmar Residential Towers Site in Mozambique, april 2021.Team from left to right: Karina Darsan (structural engineer and site manager); Taquidir Taquidir (civil engineer and project manager); Scheila Tope (Human Resources); Sheilla de Carvalho (senior manager); Maura Sitoe (Health Safety & Environment officer). (source: Royal HaskoningDHV company archives)

“I do think that I bring – as a woman – some aspects that my counterparts have not. Our experiences of the world are different. I think I’ve been able to bring that to the role.”[39]  

Like her fellow managers, De Carvalho is a big fan of ‘mentorship’. In this respect a real change has taken place within the firm: unlike previously, women are given full support and encouragement in their professional development. This varies from practical training sessions, such as Female travel safety to the wider programme, Female leadership.

In more than a century the share of women working at Royal HaskoningDHV has increased to almost 30%. Since the 1980s, they have been clearly making their professional mark on the business. Reason for optimism and an incentive to even speedier progress in the future.

Over the years, the percentage of women working at Royal Haskoning and DHV was comparable and likewise the development in numbers also kept in step with each other. The series of figures has been compiled from the years for which data is known (from either of the two firms or from Royal HaskoningDHV). (source: Royal HaskoningDHV company archives)



About this project

In October 2021 Royal HaskoningDHV will celebrate its 140th birthday. To mark this milestone, we have commissioned a series of striking stories highlighting key moments in the firm’s history. We are proud of our heritage and this is a great opportunity to share our stories with a wider audience.