International Women’s Day 2021:
#ChooseToChallenge virtual roundtable
International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrates the achievements of women, and acts as a call to action to accelerate gender parity. Ahead of IWD 2021 we held a virtual roundtable with leaders from across Bureau Veritas Certification: seven women, from four continents, who share their perspectives on progress – as well as the barriers that continue to hold back women today.
Andrea Sterl - Certification Managing Director, Germany
Fanny Zou – Certification General Manager, China
Karolina Lachi Kolarova – Certification Director, United Kingdom
Martha Angelica Triana – Certification and Commodities Director, Colombia
Monica Beau – Certification & Food Director, South & West Europe
Monica Botas - Certification Director, Spain
Sherry Orel - Certification, Assurance and Audit President, North America
“We’ve come a long way”. A conviction expressed by most of the women that took part in our virtual roundtable is the progress that has been made in the past 30 years.
“There are more women in the boardroom, acting as role models for young women today”, says New-York based Sherry Orel. A sentiment echoed by Fanny Zou on the opposite side of the world: “There are more and more female leaders in China. If a woman chooses to be a leader, she can succeed.”
The progress is tangible as several participants share a common memory from their early careers of being the only woman in the room. Monica Botas in Spain, and Monica Beau in Paris share more than a first name: they both started their careers in management positions in a factory. At the time, says Monica Botas, “it was unusual to see a woman with responsibility in a factory. My challenge was to make everyone see it as normal.”
“It’s a question of credibility”, says Monica Beau. “I was a new engineering graduate, surrounded by butchers in a poultry factory, clutching my diploma! And being a woman definitely didn’t make the task easier.”
Their experience – and that of Martha Angelica Triana, who laughs off her experience as a female cargo inspector in the mid-nineties (“They wouldn’t let me on the boat”) – is perhaps not unexpected. Bureau Veritas frequently recruits engineers and other technical profiles, professions which have traditionally been dominated by men. Companies like Bureau Veritas are actively seeking to redress the balance, discussing the issue openly, and promoting women from a range of educational disciplines into management roles.
A “woman leader”… or just an effective leader?
One point that frequently comes up in the discussion is that soft skills are increasingly prized as leadership traits, a trend which has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Men and women leaders worldwide have been upending traditional top-down power leadership models in favor of those that emphasize listening to, and empowering team members. Surely this is a trend that favors women?
“Empathy, effective communication, agility: these so-called “feminine” traits are qualities needed to be a leader”, argues Karolina Lachi Kolarova. Fanny agrees, citing openness and a willingness to listen to your team as one of the top three qualities needed to be an effective leader.
Martha Angelica goes further, challenging a traditional stereotype: that women’s emotional nature makes them weak. “Emotion is not necessarily a bad thing. Emotion can demonstrate ability to show empathy and understanding towards both colleagues and clients.”
Sherry warns women against falling into the trap of trying at all cost to be heard. “Women in particular think that speaking is what identifies you as a leader. Being heard is important, but listening to those around you is essential.”
Barriers to overcome in the workplace, and at home
While important advances have been made, barriers remain at home and at work – and often, the two are intertwined. On a personal level, women themselves are eschewing the have-it-all mentality of the 1980s, instead seeking a balance that can be hard to achieve for practical reasons. Fanny explains, “We need to balance work, life and children. China is a large country, which means I need to travel a lot for my job. This is not an issue unique to women – we all need to make compromises that work for our family and our careers.”
One issue that has come to the forefront in the media in the past year is the impact of the pandemic on gender equality. Global data from UN Women estimates that it could wipe out more than 25 years of increasing gender equality, as women do more domestic chores and family care, and lose employment and education opportunities.
Martha Angelica sees this on the ground in Colombia. “We can see from the news that more women have lost their jobs than men. There are real barriers, but there are also barriers in women’s minds: when two adults live together, everyone should take responsibility for housework and childcare, not just women.” But she also recognizes that however responsible an employer is, they cannot change what happens outside the workplace: they can simply seek to accommodate it. “At Bureau Veritas, we’re trying to be as flexible as possible in the way we organize meetings so as not to exclude women who suddenly find themselves facing increased childcare obligations due to schools and nurseries being closed.”
Mental barriers also weigh heavily when it comes to applying for jobs. “I see it all the time,” says Andrea Sterl in Germany. “A woman will only apply for a job if she meets 100% of the criteria: a man will apply if he only meets a handful of them”. An interesting knock-on effect of this is that a woman who does reach a senior position can sometimes intimidate the men around her. “The competence, skills and energy shine through. Not all men are comfortable with that.”
Choosing to challenge stereotypes
All in all, the world is a better place for women in business than when our panel began their careers. Women are notably freer to define their own style, rather than conforming to stereotypes.
“I genuinely believe there’s been a big shift in the past few years in institutions recognition of the value – and values – that women can bring to the table,” says Karolina.
“I would challenge the idea that to be equal is to be the same,” argues Monica Beau. “Women don't need to act like men to succeed”.
The women who are leaders today have each played their role in advancing gender equality in the workplace, a fact neatly summarized by Monica Botas.
“If my work has served at some point to demonstrate that Bureau Veritas is an equal workplace where employees are empowered regardless of whether they are women or men, and where the opportunities are the same for all, I will feel I have contributed a lot.”
This article is the first in a new series of articles on women in leadership at Bureau Veritas Certification. Throughout 2021, we’ll be publishing profiles of the virtual roundtable participants. Visit our website each month to read a new article!