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Interview with Nancy Harrington Jones

#LeadTheChange #ChooseToChallenge

Nancy Harrington Jones

Nancy is currently the Chief Culture & Conduct Officer at Société Générale Americas, overseeing the management and implementation of the Culture & Conduct program, which is a strategic priority for the group. The primary objective of the program is to secure safe, sound, and profitable businesses that will inspire long-lasting, confident relationships with Société Générale's clients, peers, and employees. This is accomplished by promoting and enforcing behaviors that embody the group’s values, making Culture & Conduct principles the cornerstone of the way Société Générale Americas operates business on a day-to-day basis.

Nancy was the Chief Human Resources Officer of Société Générale Americas from 2007 through May 2016, and prior to that was the Global Director of Human Resources for Information Technology, based in Paris. She spent several years in the Information Technology Division in various management positions, in addition to working for the CFO and managing the Internal Technology Audit Team.

If someone refers to you as an ambitious woman, what does that mean to you? Do you think “ambition” plays out differently for women than for men? How?

Right now, given where I am and what I have accomplished in life and career, I do consider myself an ambitious person. When you add “woman,” though, it starts to hold a feeling of micro-aggression. We rarely hear people say, “he’s an ambitious man.” It leaves me wondering: does that imply that I am bossy, pushy, or some other negative connotation that is often felt and subtly expressed when we talk about a successful woman’s career? It is one of those ‘code’ words that are used too often.

How have you seen gender equality evolve throughout your career? Have you witnessed meaningful change?

I currently sit on a trading floor (when we are not remote) and I began my career sitting on a trading floor. I can tell you that it is a very different world, in general and for women.  I often tell people that the things you see happening in the movie, The Wolf of Wall Street, are not hyperbole; that is what it was like.  All the bosses were men. There were calendars with naked women on desks. People went out for drinks at lunch and came back aggressive. Dirty jokes or stories about last night’s strip club outing were told loudly and freely, and birthdays usually meant gifts of strippers on the trading floor. As a young woman fresh out of college, it was a scary place. My only goal at that time was to get a job off of the trading floor.

For women today, it is very different than when I started my career. I am not saying it is ideal, but regarding behavior, awareness, what is accepted and what is expected, things have clearly changed a lot.

However, in terms of mindset, I am not sure there have been huge strides. I began my career in IT, and today we may see a few more women in the field and in positions of power, but we are nowhere near equity. We know that change has to start at the beginning, by attracting and retaining young women in STEM programs. We’ve made progress, sure, but there is much more to be done.

What are some of the challenges companies face with respect to gender equality?

I read a post the other day that really resonated with me, about how diversity & inclusion programs in corporate America have predominantly benefited white woman. I agree with this.  

There is so much more to do to level the playing field for everyone. It starts from the beginning, outside of companies, with education, opportunity, mentoring, sponsoring, all the things we know. Companies, for their part, need to take a hard look at their policies, their vocabulary, their unwritten rules. They also need to be able to pin-point where problems lie and design actions to address them. If recruitment is a challenge, companies should test blind recruitment screenings in which recruiters don’t know the gender, race, age, etc. of candidates when preselecting the slate for interview. They should recruit from non-traditional sources and get away from school elitism.

What more can companies do attract female talent? What is your position on affirmative action?

Having dedicated networks can have a big impact. At Société Générale, in the US, we have a Women’s Network which partners with networks on university campuses to encourage women to apply for our internships. Once they arrive, they receive a mentor, are included in our Women’s Network events, and helped to navigate the organization, in the hope that they will choose to work for Société Générale as a place where they are included, cared for, and wanted. We have had great success: 48% of the incoming analyst class are women.

I think that women attract other women, but so do true allies. Our Women’s Network at Société Générale does a lot to ensure female candidates know we want them and are there to help them succeed, but I think we also need to help men understand the role they can play as allies, and how they can create the change and not feel displaced.

I am not sure I fully sign on for affirmative action, but I do believe that, in our industry, people need goals to achieve.  What we have been doing so far has affected change, but it feels like in the entire space of diversity, equity, and inclusion, we need more disruption, more radical thinking, more concrete goals. 

I have talked with a firm in the UK that helps companies hire senior women, and further provides a year of coaching to help with their integration and improve their chances for success. I think firms need to think about equity and inclusion as finding ways to make the environment one that breeds success for all, which sometimes means that people need an extra hand. 

Do you feel the glass ceiling exists in your industry? How can women break through it?

There is definitely still a glass ceiling. While it has cracks where some have gotten through, it remains intact.  If I had the whole solution, I would be the most sought after woman in business.  Breaking it requires a lot of hard work, perseverance, speaking up when you see issues, and not letting “the small things slide.”  I love the saying, “real queens fix each other’s crowns.”  I think it is key for women to support one another: mentor, sponsor, create opportunities, and share your strength, hope, and experience. Pay it all forward.

What does it take for women to lead in your industry?

I think this is a space where women can excel, if they find the opportunities and seize them.  I believe woman are, by design, always adapting and finding solutions, required to be multitaskers and problem solvers. These are the skills needed to be an innovator and a change agent.  Now, the difficult part is to take the necessary risks, to realize your ideas are worth attention. Find mentors and sponsors to help you, volunteer for stretch assignments or something outside your comfort zone, and make sure you take credit for what you do.

What challenges lie ahead for gender equality, in general?

I think what we are seeing due to the Covid crisis is just shocking. The staggering number of women leaving the workforce… Opting out, often to manage family and other obligations, as well as losing their jobs at a much higher rate. It just shows how much work we have to do.  Although I think that, generationally, gender expectations are lessening, what’s happening during Covid shows us that we are still far from equity, in life and in work. 

But I am always the optimist. I have been interviewing leaders about what they want to retain from this remote working experience we have all been thrust into. I expected business discussion about dealing with clients, but often it started with personal topics. To my surprise, many men said, “I never want to give up having dinner with my family a few times a week, it has been a life-changer.”  So maybe, just maybe, we have reasons to be hopeful. 

We also know this crisis just further highlighted the inequity in every aspect of life for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, who were so adversely impacted in terms of health and wealth. Put the equation together, and we will have to start really talking and dealing with the extreme challenges faced by the women in these groups.

We forge ahead, break some glass, fix some crowns, and never accept the unacceptable.