When scandals break out, the weaknesses of a corporate culture suddenly become very visible like cracks in a wind-shield.

Examples of such scandals are numerous : the suicide of a young employee working for Dentsu Aegis Network who was literally drowning in work; the case of an executive from the company Über who refused to believe that a woman customer had been raped by one of the company’s drivers and who sought to disprove her claim by obtaining her medical records; allegations of sexual harassment against a former CEO of Fox News; or the waves of suicides at Orange, the French telecommunications company.

The problem always lies in the culture.

All studies looking at corporate culture show that the leaders’ commitment is an absolute prerequisite for openness and sound ethics in an organization. What better test for corporate culture than the integration of different genders at all levels ? If a company is lagging behind on an issue socially as important as gender diversity, then it is the leaders who are responsible for the lack of commitment and they alone can address the problem.

Being ‘against’ or not being unequivocally ‘for’ gender diversity is a weak position for leaders who see themselves as visionary, innovative and attuned to both the needs of their customers and employees.

The fact is that the progress made with regard to gender diversity in both large and small companies is really slow and the resistance is still felt at all levels, especially in management positions. Why ?

We have to go back a bit in history in order to understand.

The Schlumberger case

For a long time, companies and their leaders have encouraged the traditional model of the man going to work and the woman staying at home. In the business world, women who worked were assigned to support jobs and had low level of responsibilities compared to their qualifications. Women had very little opportunity to actually develop a career.

The ‘baby boomers’, of which I am one, studied in schools where boys and girls were segregated and girls were most of the time directed towards non-technical and non-scientific subjects.

It was accepted that a woman sacrificed her personal ambition in order to support her husband’s career, typically when it was necessary to make a career move that often involved a house move as well, or when children were born.

In the 1960s, 1970s or even the 1980s, a woman engineer or operations manager was an exception. Couples facing dual career challenges were rare. In the 1980s, a change was beginning to be felt. Big companies such as IBM and HP were beginning to implement ‘diversity’ management practices. They were investing effort and money in response to legal pressures (Equal Employment Act) and also to improve their image.

My company Schlumberger was in 1994 ahead of the game in cultural diversity but nowhere in gender diversity. It was like a blind spot. We were a typical male company. Internal opinion surveys were showing serious weaknesses in listening to the employees and a strong tendency to communicate  only ‘top down”. We were known for our lack of flexibility  and we used to say ’anywhere, anytime, no choice’ to describe the level of commitment to the job we were expecting from our field engineers.

15 years later, Schlumberger was leading the industry in cultural and gender diversity and was given as an example. It happened for simple reasons: the leadership was fully committed to it starting by Euan D. Baird, our CEO during all this period and the women selected  responded very well to the challenge.

We treated gender diversity as a business objective and were very clear on the basic principles. All management was engaged in the search for best women candidates, nobody was allowed to compromise with performance standards in order to make gender diversity numbers look good, women had to climb the ladders like men, most of them  started as field engineers because it was the best way to develop future managers.

As head of HR, I was in charge of managing the integration of women into the world of oil platforms and their access to international careers. It was the beginning of a profound change in our corporate male culture which ‘forced’ all of us and specifically our leaders and our HR function to become more open to the reality of a changing society.

In the very first days ,we asked Benoîte Groult, a French writer who always championed the advancement of women in society, to come and speak to women executives and engineers in our company. Her message was clear: the change would be very slow, the path full of pitfalls, but it was necessary to learn how to take advantage of the momentum and never let go, despite the setbacks. She reminded her audience that as a young woman she didn’t have the right to vote in France (the right for women to vote and to be elected was introduced in France on 21 April 1945).

Women recruited in the first years were wonderful pioneers.They adapted to field conditions which were not at that time ‘ready for them’ (no women toilet or room in the rig). They impressed the client with their skills and their determination.

On the HR front, we needed to integrate maternity leave and the concept of dual careers in our management of international careers where mobility is playing an important role. We had to become attentive to the conflicts between family life and work demand. This was not a typical attitude for traditional male companies .

This change in thinking had a significant impact on the whole leadership. We began discussing issues that had not previously been addressed but which had been very much present in people’s minds. As an example we included women high performers on maternity leave in our stock option distribution to signal to them that we wanted them back. We issued dual career policies and we included gender diversity results in our management by objectives. Men benefited tremendously from that change in culture. They became much more at ease to take paternity leave and they opened up about personal topics such as their mobility issues.

Women today have reached all levels of responsibility. They have enjoyed an international career at the same time as being able to have a family. Men and women engaged in dual careers have found a much more supportive corporate culture. Leaders and HR managers became much more open and available to discuss these issues.

It was a deep cultural change and one which was badly needed. If we had not done it, our future today would be totally disconnected from our times.

Understanding the resistance and coping with it

In 2004, thanks to the reputation we earned, I was asked by the European Commission to lead a group of companies interested in better understanding the nature of resistance to changing the corporate culture, particularly in the scientific professions and in the business world. This became the WIST (Women in Science and Technology) project. There were about 20 companies in the group representing several sectors: air and space, automotive, energy and chemistry. A number of European universities were also involved.We worked on this project with researchers between 2004 and 2008 and as practitioners we realized the importance of researchers’ inputs in this domain.

The first conclusion we reached was that scientific disciplines in universities did not attract women for various reasons related either to preconceived ideas coming from parents and teachers, or to the fact that universities simply did not go out of their way to attract women to these courses, thus by omission putting them off applying.

It needs to be said that the professors in these disciplines were and still are, for the most part, men. Changing this situation in universities was, and still is, vitally important. It is difficult for women to succeed in an industrial field such as engineering if they are not present right from the start. In an article published in the New-York Times in 2013, still available on the internet, Eileen Pollack (2013) accurately describes  the subtle and numerous obstacles for women to enter a university course. In particular, a preconceived idea exists in certain academic circles that subjects such as physics or mathematics are not suitable for women. In France, the Grandes Ecoles d’Ingénieurs, which admit candidates based on national tests have struggled to achieve their aim of 20% of students being women and many have far fewer female students than this.

Part of the solution was to have more female professors in university science departments. We created within the Schlumberger Foundation the Faculty for the Future programme in order to create more conducive conditions to women pursuing scientific careers. Any woman who becomes a Faculty for the Future Fellow is expected to return to her home country to pass on her acquired scientific and technical skills. The results have been very encouraging, with hundreds of women opting for a career in teaching science (Schlumberger, 2017 STEM from developing and emerging countries. Available at: http://www.facultyforthefuture.net/).

It will take time to change the culture at the top of universities and schools so that more women are encouraged to study science and technology and follow careers in these subjects. For the time being the gap exists. As an example, 30% of the employees in a technology leading Company like Google are currently women, but only 17% of the engineers and developers are female.

Companies working with universities on this specific issue help enlarging the talent pool of women in sciences and technology and are first to access to the best women candidates.

The WIST group looked closely at the situation in each of the participating companies and carried out in-depth surveys and interviews to better understand the nature of the resistance in each company. It was obvious that in the sectors involved, women with a family and whose performance was either comparable to or better than that of their male counterparts gradually resigned, for various reasons. The main reason for women resigning was in the rigidity of management practices in the company concerned, particularly poor management of maternity rights and the negative impact that maternity leave had on their careers. This is still true today, to varying degrees. The lack of flexibility in the working time and in the working location was also a strong cause of resignation for women.

Although typically denied by the leadership, the persistent presence of a  glass ceiling was and continues to be the most subtle and difficult obstacle encountered. Often women are guided towards support functions in their careers because it seems that companies are afraid to take risks and entrust them with real responsibilities.

Finally, we saw the emergence of another obstacle: the sustainability of dual careers. This was particularly interesting because it concerned both the men and women in a company.

Dual careers are now the norm at all levels of society; the new generation does not really consider it a valid option for a woman to stay at home. A couple increasingly control family affairs and their respective careers together. This does result in couples having to go through some particularly stressful periods in order to manage the conflicts between their careers and their personal lives.

The number of dual career couples is growing rapidly and company management in general is increasingly facing problems that are no longer limited to women. More and more men choose to take an extended period of paternity leave in order to care for young children and protect the career of the spouse. Companies cannot remain indifferent to these new scenarios and must be able to address them effectively, offering a framework within which they can be enacted.

The case of single parents is not as prevalent, but when it does occur, it is more challenging and it requires mobilization of all resources available.

Partnership in the dual career couple

So, in the end, does it all depend on the company ? This cannot be the case, because the family is the unit that must, ultimately, sustain the pressure.

Pursuing a dual career is not without consequences for the family unit that does, in fact, become a kind of small company.

Dual career is not a luxury. It is a necessity in today’s cyclical economy.

The couple must cooperate effectively to achieve a certain balance and the logistics must be finely tuned to manage the activities of each; the children themselves have to be more flexible and independent. If grandparents are available to help out, then this is a huge bonus.

Today, I am an adviser in a company whose digital world influences everything. Location and time of work are very flexible, and diversity in every sense (cultural and gender) is very present. All employees juggle with their smartphone, their Skype, their electronic calendar and their relentless alerts. Permanent and immediate access to family and work seems crazy but this is part of the solution.

At a conference about women in the Middle East, I was impressed by the directness of the questions, largely about couple solidarity, and often asked by veiled women. I complimented the organizer, a Saudi woman, who had worked for several weeks despite having three young children. She explained that she relied on her husband, who was very supportive of her career. ‘If he had not been supportive,’ she replied, ‘I would not have married him.’

Leadership and HR engagement

The challenge for the leadership in the search for diversity is, of course, to look ahead and be aware of the aspirations of the new generations entering the world of work.

The Human Resources department is the interface with the new generations and it needs to manage this relationship in a sensitive way.

Several clear lines of action are emerging :


The same recruitment procedures must apply to all and the same treatment for the same job. This might seem obvious in theory; however, in practice, many companies are still far from having a completely unbiased approach to recruitment. One way to achieve a more objective attitude would be to have a recruitment team composed of a sufficiently diverse group of people that preconceived notions and stereotypes can be neutralized. But the real force is the management commitment to parity at all levels.

Parity as a management attitude must be sought also in regard to remuneration. Leaders tend to deny the problem rather than analyze it and address it.

Parity is a necessary condition to ensure the quality of human relationships and the creation of a climate of trust within a company. The best women are quick to notice repeated  differences in treatments between genders and leave for a better company.

Support for families

Public services and the state play important roles in helping households to raise children while parents are working. Scandinavian countries and Canada are often cited as examples. Here, one year of maternity leave for the mother is the norm and the possibility of sharing it with the father also exists. In other countries, such as the US, there is pressure on companies to offer flexibility in returning to work for the mother and an opportunity to participate in the children’s care for the father.

Increasingly, family-friendly employment policies become a criterion of employer choice for the new generation. It comes as no surprise that Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Apple are, today, among the companies offering the most generous assistance to compensate for the weakness of the US social system. All the leading companies have now adopted so-called family friendly practices and this again is good news for both men and women.

However, it should be said that over-extended assistance for women in maternity leave may lead to too long a career break and make the return to work difficult. Good practice for both company and employee during this period is to keep in touch and the employee should prepare intelligently for a return to work and the restarting of career aspirations. Some companies, for example, have introduced “in touch days’, where women on maternity leave return to work for a certain number of days during this period so that they can keep abreast of developments.

Give a chance to women to prove themselves

It is about the famous glass ceiling.

Leaders are the ones who could break it while still enhancing the performance culture.

One of the most difficult and complicated tasks for a company’s human resources department, board of directors and management team is to choreograph the succession plan on which the future of the company is based. A company must identify at all levels the talents that will allow it to progress  in all fronts. Establishing a list of potential talent involves choosing the most promising candidates. Such judgement will always be subjective, for example, assessing people’s skills, and a risk will be involved. A company must ‘learn’ to take risks in proposing early on women candidates for positions of responsibility as it routinely does with men and monitor closely their progress in the ladder.

This is a continuous and tedious work. Gender diversity at the top is the reward  of a long and consistent care from the part of leaders to achieve parity in career management. There is a huge difference between those companies decided to partner with all their employees, men and women, and be part of the solution at all stages of their development and those which are not sincerely trying, are indifferent, or do not feel concerned.

This difference is visible first in the quality of the resulting culture and the overall performance over a long period.

This difference is a fundamental part of the company reputation in the marketplace and earning this competitive advantage the right way is central to the leadership agenda.

Pierre Bismuth