Being a British professional and single mother living in Paris, I fully understand the trials and tribulations that women have to face in their working lives, in France and the wider world.
That is why I was interested to commemorate “International Women’s Day” this year, yet again, by attending the Franco-British Chamber’s conference entitled “Women and Corporate Social Responsibility: What role for business?”, being held at the sumptuous British Ambassador’s Residence located in the heart of Paris.
How would the distinguished panel… Véronique Morali, President of the Women’s Forum, Siân Herbert-Jones, Group Chief Financial Officer of Sodexo, and Noëlle Lenoir, Partner at the Paris office of an international law firm and former Minister for European Affairs, tackle the long-standing issue of promoting women in the business world and more particularly, as Sir Peter Ricketts, the British Ambassador promises, “help participants understand how business can play a role in helping resolve the issues which affect women, both at home, abroad, and in the various zones of conflict around the world”…?
To put matters in context, after passing gender quota legislation in 2011, the proportion of female non-executive directors in France’s top listed companies has increased to 23.5% by mid 2012. As at October 2012, women accounted for just 14% of the positions in executive committees in the UK, however great progress is being made to reach the target of 25% by 2015.
This year’s “International Women’s Day” debate was kicked-off by the moderator Maïtena Biraben, the French TV channel Canal + journalist and presenter…
Trying to concentrate my English-thinking mind on the French-speaking panel discussion, I was keen to follow Guest of Honour Véronique Morali’s thoughts on the topic at hand… President of the Women’s Forum for Economy and Society since January 2011, the Sciences Po and prestigious ENA graduate is also President of Fimalac Development, Vice-Chairman of financial services company Fitch Group, Founder and CEO of Terrafemina.com (an information website dedicated to women) and Forces Femmes, an association supporting unemployed women over the age of 45 to re-enter the employment market or to create their own businesses. When asked by the moderator “Est ce que c’est un sujet d’être une femme ? » (is it an issue for you to be a woman in the corporate world), she answered “jamais”… She believed that it is the “complimentarité” between men and women which is the objective to strive for in the working world, however, she added that she is all for using “efficacité” and “realité”, and a “vrai solidarité féminine” against any remaining vestiges of “machismo” in the corporate world.
Mrs. Morali continued that in the current economic “crise”, the access to financing must be made easier for women setting up their own businesses.
For Siân Herbert-Jones, an Oxford University and Institute of Chartered Accountants graduate, long-standing partner at Price Waterhouse in London and Paris, and currently Chief Financial Officer and a member of the Group’s Executive Committee of Sodexo, it is a matter of changing behaviour in corporations in order to further promote women in the business world. In her company, she continued, they have been successful in making some changes to further accommodate women’s family needs, such as ensuring that meetings are held later than 8:30 a.m. and not after 6:30 p.m., thus helping women manage the difficult task of juggling the hugely important responsibility of raising their children with that of their demanding careers. How many times did I have to unwillingly stay late in the office in order to fulfill the uncompromising demands of my job… faced with unsympathetic bosses.
The third guest speaker on the panel, Noëlle Renoir, a French stateswoman and lawyer by qualification, the first woman and the youngest member of the French Constitutional Supreme Court (‘Conseil constitutionnel’), European Affairs Minister between 2002 and 2004, and most recently a Councillor (‘Conseiller d’Etat’) and partner in the international law firm of Kramer, Levin, Laftalis & Frankel LLP, had some very interesting insights into the state of women in French (and European) politics, in which she spent most of her career… a field which she still considers a very difficult terrain for women, it being a very “violent” world – its danger, she added, being that one can become very cynical within it, which is contrary to a woman’s natural essence.
Mrs. Renoir continued that despite the fact that France today has one of the highest percentages in the world of women in the work force, historically, women in France acquired power through “séduction”, which after having more recently worked on a close basis with American women on a professional level, seems to her to not be the case in the U.S. She argued that the culture of society itself has to change… and added that it is a problem inherent to Latin countries… the fact that it is not “bien vu” (accepted) to bring up “feminist issues” in such countries.
As the debate wound to a close, it was interesting to note that the majority of questions asked at the end of the session were posed by men!
To end the evening, we made our way to the State Dining Room where the conference delegates were treated to a gracious cocktail… the perfect environment to mingle and network with Paris’ Franco-British business community, and where I had the chance to say hello to Catherine Le Yaouanc, the General Manager of the Franco-British Chamber, and chat with members of the Women’s Forum, a unique and influential international forum dedicated to advancing women’s empowerment. Its annual 3-day “Global Meeting”, held in Deauville, France attracts over 1200 business and opinion leaders from around the world, helping to facilitate the sharing of expertise and experience across various sectors, such as business, politics, NGO’s, academia, culture, and the sciences.
After a delightful exchange with a true corporate expat, who has travelled and lived in a myriad exotic countries around the globe, I left the Ambassador’s Residence a lot wiser about the subject of “Women and Corporate Social Responsibility”, thinking there couldn’t have been a more civilized way of commemorating “International Women’s Day”.