I lead the communications of the European University Association which represents 850 members across Europe. I am also involved as a volunteer in Amnesty International in Belgium, whose board I chaired for four years until recently. 

Christel Vacelet
Director, Communications, Public Affairs and Membership, European University Association

What inspired you to work in the international association sector?  

I graduated in International Relations and European Affairs and couldn’t imagine working in another environment. I also thrive in an environment that aligns with my values and with colleagues who share similar values. 

International Associations are remarkably diverse in terms of goals, size and financial security so it is difficult to generalise too much. Nevertheless, it is certainly a sector where you get great satisfaction working on common goals, often having to wear different hats, finding creative solutions on a shoestring and remembering to keep a healthy work/life balance. 

Can you remember a time when you needed to #BreakTheBias? 

University leadership is still very male-dominated (a bit less than 20% of universities are represented by women today). When I started in the association, female rectors were an even rarer occurrence, especially in the most renowned universities.  

To raise the profile of women and to make their voice heard, the choice of speakers at events and the selection criteria for committees are especially important. I contributed to defining best practices in those areas and ensuring visibility for women as well as for a more diverse and representative body of speakers and committee members.  

Structural changes and deliberate policies are especially important to #BreakTheBias. This is not about working hard and hoping for recognition, it is about realising that most people, including ourselves, are not aware of their bias and often consider they make the most rational choices when selecting a speaker, proposing a candidate for a committee or promoting someone. Training and self-awareness are incredibly important to change the status quo. 

How important are diversity, equity, and inclusion for the future success of associations?  

Associations are the voice of their sector, and it is incredibly important that they reflect this sector in all its diversity both in their membership and in their governance. To do that, they need to assess what their sector is like and to what extent their membership and decision bodies are representative. If not, they risk irrelevance by pursuing goals or activities which are not valuable to many of their members.   

Improving diversity should be a genuine part of the association’s DNA, not just a box to tick. When well done, a DEI strategy allows many discussions to take place. This is beneficial for everyone in terms of governance, membership, staff hiring, developing skills, work-life balance and much more.  

What concrete actions have helped you promote DEI? Any recommendations? 

Improving DEI also means creating long-term goals and the conditions for real cultural change. When more diverse profiles are hired or involved in our associations, one of the main risks is for them to leave, having to endure exclusion, discrimination or simply inappropriate comments. This needs more than a new policy, it requires a shift in mindset.  

To improve DEI, I have been very mindful of hiring processes, selecting a wide variety of applicants, when possible, in my professional role at EUA. I have also adopted a diversity strategy with a very concrete action plan in my volunteer role at Amnesty International – including a mix of goals, activities and training.