The March 2020 edition of the WDC News Update sees the launch of a new series, entitled “Women of the Diamond Industry,” focusing on the issue of gender equality along the entire diamond and jewelry supply chain. The series will provide a platform for women in the industry to tell their own story and describe the particular challenges they have faced in their careers.

The first article in the series is authored by Iris Van der Veken, Executive Director of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC).

Iris Van der Veken, Executive Director of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC)


I got my start in the jewelry business 18 years ago. It was an entirely new environment for me, have coming to the business from a publicly listed technology company. My first job in the industry was at Rosy Blue, a diamond firm owned by the Mehta and Bhansali families. It gave me the kind of head start that was essential and immensely empowering at that stage of my career.

I was based in Antwerp, but being employed by a firm that was spread out globally I got the chance to visit offices and manufacturing sites in countries as diverse as Thailand, Sri Lanka, Armenia, South Africa and India, all the while raising my son mostly on my own.

The industry was clearly changing at an accelerated pace. This was the time when the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme had just come into effect and companies like De Beers, Rio Tinto and BHP took lead with proprietary initiatives on responsible business practices.

In hindsight, I feel lucky to have had the equality of opportunity and the true mentorship that I received at Rosy Blue, which is still not a given for women across so many different industries and organizations. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that back then, in early 2000, the gender ratio in our industry, especially at higher levels of management was very skewed. In so many respects, it still is.

I would visit sites around the world and would see many women working on the manufacturing floor, but that number thinned out, unsurprisingly, as you went up the management ladder.

I had been brought up with a strong work ethic and a value system that had taught me to push my boundaries, thanks to my open-minded parents. I had learnt that the path to real growth was neither linear nor smooth, and sometimes, despite one’s best efforts, things don’t turn out as one wants them to.

Looking back at my childhood, my grandmother, who passed away at the age of 99, stands out as a strong female presence in my life. She had been a young widow who raised three children largely through grit and resilience. These are qualities that I hold in high regard.

Turning 50 this year, I find myself becoming increasingly vocal about inequality and injustice and speaking out against it. Like most women, I have had my share of sexism and have encountered people who don’t share the same principles of empowerment that I do. However, I am positive and hopeful. At every step of my professional and personal growth, I have had the privilege to have mentors and role models – men and women, from both inside the industry and elsewhere. They have inspired and renewed my faith in the principles of human dignity and the transformative power of collective effort.

The time to act is now. The reality is that we are not doing enough. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap report, it will take 257 years to close the economic gender gap.

The COVID-19 crisis, which is unprecedented in that it is being experienced to one degree or another by all humanity, provides a unique opportunity for governments and business to recognize the enormity of the contribution women make. They should focus particularly on sectors where women are over-represented and underpaid, including daily wage earners, small business owners, and especially those working in cleaning, caring, cashiering and catering sectors, and in the informal economy.

Globally, women make up 70 percent of frontline workers in the health and social sectors, like nurses, midwives, cleaners and laundry workers (source: UN Women). We urgently need strategies that specifically mitigate the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak on women, and which will support and build their resilience.

I believe that some of the biggest challenges for women today come from gender-based perceptions and a belief in stereotypes that reinforce old and unconscious biases. A lack of networks and mentors, due to a thinned-out pool of women at the upper echelons of management, compounds that problem further. Add to that the non-recognition of women’s unpaid labor and their disproportionate share of housework and child-rearing responsibilities.

The latter is exacerbated even further in already underprivileged and impoverished communities, where women are often more directly involved in the extraction and processing of natural resources, and at the same time are responsible for the unpaid tasks of securing food, water and shelter for their families.

The situation of women in artisanal and small-scale mining is a particular preoccupation and deep concern of mine. They rely on the income from this informal economy to support their children, but, despite the absolutely critical role they play in the field, their efforts to be recognized as economic actors are most often ignored. I strongly advocate for more engagement and support to women in artisanal and small-scale mining. It is encouraging to see seeds of impactful projects from GemFair, PACT, IMPACT and DDI, just to name a few. Yet we need to do more. I strong suggest that you read the following:

In some parts of the world there are still significant cultural factors barring women’s progress. Often not enough is being done to remove legislation that prevent women from owning land, gaining access to finance or starting their own businesses. These are fundamental barriers to creating gender equality.

If we want to fulfil the 2030 agenda, achieving the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, we need both governments and the private sector to step up and take action towards achieving gender equality.

Personally – and I am deeply aware that I speak from a place of relative privilege – I would like to see the women and girls I have met on my journey around the world to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

Opportunities in education, healthcare and the workplace will enable them to become meaningful participants, not only in their families, but in their communities and the world at large.

I would also like to see a world where we no longer need to make a case for women’s rights and how it relates to solving the enormous challenges that our planet is facing today. The example of how a handful of female political leaders have successfully managed the COVID-19 crisis is a powerful set of case studies in the women’s true ability to lead. We should no longer have to argue for this, when it is seen in practice every day. In this respect especially, I am proud of my RJC team, walking the talk every day.

The ways in which our world and its systems are deeply intertwined are obvious to us now. The year 2020 has also shown us how our problems are interconnected. It is imperative that we renew our faith in collaboration and partnerships – a big part of which is making sure that the one half of the world’s population has the same rights and dignity as the other half!

The world is living through a health and economic crisis of historic proportion. Let us take the opportunity to reshape the agenda on equality across genders and embrace SDG 5. The time has come to understand that striving for gender parity yields higher competitive advantage to smart companies and society in general.

For my part, I am proud to see the dial changing in the jewelry industry and plan to use my leadership role and experience to drive positive change for the generations to come. I am hopeful we can do this – all together.

From the series