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Interview with Valérie Le Boulanger

#LeadTheChange #ChooseToChallenge

Valérie Le Boulanger

A graduate of the Normandy School of Management with a degree in Economics, Valérie Le Boulanger began her career in banking, where she remained for some thirty years. 

She first joined Crédit du Nord to manage projects directly related to banking activities: risk management, financial engineering operations, banking strategy in the corporate market, commercial policy. She entered the world of human resources in 1998 as head of the training department. This turning point was a revelation; she would never leave this people-centered position. In 2004, she became Director of Human Resources in the Corporate Relations Department, then Director of Employee Relations for the Crédit du Nord Group, a position she subsequently held at the Caisse d'Epargne Ile-de France and then for the BPCE Group.  

In August 2016, she joined Orange as Director of Social Relations. She is in charge of collective bargaining and social dialogue in France and abroad, and of advising on social strategy for cross-functional projects within the Group. 

In 2018, she was appointed Executive Director of Human Resources for the Group's 150,000 employees in 27 countries, a position she held until September 2020.

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?

I don't think this description would be spontaneously applied to me.  My career has been characterized by three major values: work, empathy, and benevolence. I have never been driven to reach a particular rung on the career ladder. On the other hand, I think that my accomplishments, and above all my interpersonal skills and sense of empathy and teamwork, have been recognized and valued.

However, ambition, so long as it is not all-consuming or toxic, can be a powerful driving force. Ambition is about making a difference, having priorities, establishing an end-goal and sticking to it. A woman's priorities are certainly broader than those of a man, with the need for balance between personal and professional success. I am personally convinced that no one gets to the top alone.

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

Gender equality has clearly evolved, with increased awareness at all levels: political, legislative, societal, and so forth. Very concrete measures have been taken requiring companies to address gender inequality, and this has led to real progress, including new legal provisions. In France, for example, companies must assess compensation upon a woman’s return from maternity leave, and the Copé Zimmermann law has seen quotas imposed on boards of directors. More recently, the introduction of a national gender equality index provides further evidence of this shift. More broadly, mentalities and attitudes towards gender equality have changed significantly, impacting many of the areas that define women’s career trajectories in companies.

What are the challenges companies face with respect to gender equality? How can they have concrete impact?

Challenges are many and far reaching, affecting all areas: recruitment, mobility, remuneration, and access to positions of leadership, due to the notorious glass ceiling. But access to certain professions is also restricted insofar as, from the outset of education, certain fields are more heavily gendered than others, which makes it difficult for companies (in tech or IT, for instance) to course correct.

Companies today are taking numerous measures to strengthen gender diversity in all functions and prevent discrimination in any form. To list only a few examples: writing gender-neutral job ads, keeping a gender-balanced short list, sensitizing managers to gender inequality, and allocating a budget to fill the gender pay gap for male and female employees holding equivalent positions and responsibilities. We should also talk about the progress made with respect to maternity leave—measures put into place to help women maintain ties with their companies during leave and to facilitate their return to work, and so forth. We’ve made great strides, even if there remains work to be done!

Do you feel the glass ceiling still exists? How can women break through it?

The glass ceiling still exists, and while the feminization of executive boards or positions of power in companies is progressing, there is still a long way to go in many sectors!  There are certainly many reasons for this, but I think that there is a real awareness that is pushing the majority of companies to set up initiatives to identify women with potential and provide the support needed to help them access positions of authority: dedicated training sessions (e.g. leadership, self-confidence), mentoring, policies addressing talent management and valorising women with potential, active networks allowing for exchange and visibility... Such initiatives can help women today advance in their careers and break through the glass ceiling.

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

Beyond looking at how gender equality factors into company policies, values, and DNA, I believe very much in the power of role models, testimonials, and networking to show that yes, success is possible!  I am not very comfortable with the label, "affirmative action;" let's not forget that recruitment is first and foremost a question of finding candidates with the desired and required skills, attitude, leadership, the ability to assimilate and progress within a group, and so forth. However, I believe that it is probably good practice, for example, to ensure that in any recruitment or mobility program, there is a female candidate for every male candidate, with equivalent skills, on the short list.

What does it take to be a female leader? Do you think more women in positions of leadership is/would be a good indicator of increased equality?

In addition to having the required knowledge and skills, particularly in terms of leadership and managerial posture, it is undoubtedly necessary for women to work, more specifically, on visibility: the ability to convey their work, achievements, and convictions, and build up a diversified network of contacts and support, within the company as well as externally. In short, women must also develop their image! 

The number of women in positions of leadership is an indicator that is now taken into account in most companies, which are taking action to increase their numbers to ultimately break the glass ceiling.

What piece of advice would you give to women joining the workforce?

Be yourself, don't try to be someone else or imitate men. I think that authenticity undoubtedly lends itself to more serenity in one's work, as well as in one's personal sphere.  Let's not strive to be feminist at all costs. I think that everyone, depending on their profile, environment, education, temperament, and skills, has something to offer.

What challenges lie ahead for gender equality, in general?

Probably the glass ceiling—the need to encourage female representation in company management, up to the highest levels of leadership and governance. This also surely requires the capacity to better accompany women during maternity-related absences and facilitate their return to work.