I changed my mind about Quotas …
An interview by Alessandra Zocca
Christel Verschaeren, Director, Global Organization Change Management & Europe Integration CIO Organisation and Co-Chair Europe Women Council
PWI – Christel, first of all congratulations for winning the AXA WO_MEN@ WORK AWARD 2011! (*)
How does this brilliant achievement inspire you to continue pursuing gender balance in the business arena?
This AXA WO_MEN@ WORK AWARD 2011 has been really a unique experience, I was impressed by the press coverage and by the attention I suddenly received on the social media (Facebook, LinkedIn). But, actually gender balance is not something recent in my professional life.
In fact I have been active on this topic for over ten years. I am still passionate about it “by definition”, because my personal history is linked to it and its part of who I am.
Winning this award gives me even more motivation to continue and to keep looking for initiatives and opportunities that can help women (which is very rewarding) - but also companies. Companies need indeed to take-up the agenda of diversity management and put in place concrete diversity policies. Thanks to the visibility I gained through this award I hope I will have the possibility to help more companies by sharing the experience and the lessons learned by IBM in managing diversity.
Alessandra, I would like to highlight that this award is not only personal recognition for me and recognition for IBM, but also a reward tothe team of volunteers who worked actively with me on this topic. We are a network of about 200, mostly women and some men who are voluntarily involved - on the top of their normal job - in the European and Country Women Leadership Councils and we work in cooperation with the HR Diversity leaders in Europe.
PWI – What triggered you to start fostering gender equality and women's support?
It all started in 1999: at that time I had just been appointed as a manager and I was a single mother (my daughter was eight years old) when the Country General Manager for Belgium and Luxemburg contacted me and asked me to become his Executive assistant. This is a job that people normally do for a year and it is meant to be the trigger for a career move, it is a job which allows you to see the full scope of the company, a great learning opportunity. The only downside of this position were the long hours required, meaning being in the office in Brussels from seven o’clock in the morning until eight o’ clock in the evening (and I lived in Antwerp).
I was perfectly aware of the opportunity I was offered, but it was in conflict with my private life, so I refused it. I thought it would be the end of my career in IBM, nobody ever refused that job before … Instead, a couple of weeks later – to my great surprise - I received a call from the General Manager, who asked me what type of flexibility I needed to be able to take the job. If he hadn’t made that call, my professional life would have probably been totally different. It was a turning point in my career and I am happy I got the opportunity to discuss the conditions under which I could take the job. I am also glad that all the people who took that job after me could benefit from the same flexibility.
I thought through this episode, and I came to the conclusion that I was definitely not the only woman that had to say “no” because of family constraints and that was an eye-opening moment which triggered me to start working on gender balance.
So, in 2002 I started to actively lead the Woman Council for Belgium and Luxemburg and in 2007 I joined the European Women Leadership Council that I co-chair with my colleague from Denmark.
Alessandra, for me it’s fundamental to implement concrete actions, it is not enough for me to just contribute to the discussion, therefore I worked on a number of concrete initiatives; let me provide you with a couple of examples:
• The Blue Talent program for women – It is a talent development program for women in IBM that focuses on motivating, recognising, developing and promoting the talent of female employees with high potential. In a broader scope Blue Talent for women supports IBM’s gender goals to strengthen the pipeline, develop the talent and reduce attrition.
The key purpose of Blue Talent is to enable and fast track the development of female employees showing high potential - selected by their line managers - towards more senior positions within IBM. This program details the key milestones that these women have to accomplish to be able to advance in the following 12 to 18 months.
• The Cross-company Mentoring program with Danone Europe, Orange in Switzerland and staring with P&G in the UK. This initiative is complimentary to the IBM internal mentoring program. I am also working to expand that further with other companies.
Could you please tell us about the most significant milestones and achievements in your career?
I started in IBM in 1987 - straight from university where I had studied Economics – in a technical role as System Architect and after five years I moved into sales for small and medium businesses, and then I moved into sales management till 1999 when I joined the General manager’s team, as narrated before. I did that job for one and a half years and then I took the leadership of all the business operations for Belgium and Luxemburg.
In 2003 I participated in a global online forum (over 300 participants) focused on how to improve IBM’s internal processes and I launched the idea to integrate all the back-office functions, which were very fragmented at that time. To my surprise my recommendation rated highest, so IBM decided to implement it and I was asked to lead the implementation: this is how I joined the Chief Information Officer (CIO)’s organization, where I still work. Now, in my official role, I lead all European countries for the CIO office and I am the Global Head of the Change Management practice. Next to this role I co-chair the European Women Leadership Council, as mentioned before.
I would like to add that there is one significant personal aspect of my life that I am very proud of: my own 20-year old daughter. She found her own direction and she is passionate about her choice. I recognize me in her and this makes me proud of myself: through my behaviour she understood how important it is to be assertive, to be smart and to respect other people.
PWI - How have your efforts to support women been welcomed both by male and female colleagues?
Overall I would say that men had a positive attitude, although in the beginning men wondered what we were doing and why we were so focused on gender equality: we needed to gain men’s trust. Things have improved a lot over time, male managers - men are still the majority – start to recognise that there is a value in combining the best skills of men and women in a team and that this combination makes the team stronger. By experiencing this improvement men started to open up and to feel less threatened that women want to take their jobs. This is the reason why we are very careful of not doing any positive discrimination in favour of women, in order to avoid any inference that women are promoted because of this program.
Within the female colleagues we still have some that think these programs for women are not needed and they do not see the point of spending time and energy in them. Very often these employees are women that had already struggled to make a good career and that are not willing to help their female colleagues, or they are women that made their career easily and therefore they do not recognize the issue.
In general I would say that we have supportive people and non-supportive ones both on the male and the female side.
PWI - After all the initiatives taken and the massive communication in the media about gender equality, what in your opinion, remains as the main barriers today for women to reach top positions? How long will it take to come to a real gender balance in companies?
The main barriers that prevent women to reach the top positions, the areas which need to be worked on, in my opinion are:
• Companies - Companies should have an active gender policy, truly lived and applied, and not just a “piece of paper” hanging on the office walls or shining in their websites.
• Management - The majority of managers are men and often they do not see the peculiar differences between men and women, therefore they do not seek the talent in women. For example, if there is a job opportunity, women often do not stand up, they often tend to hesitate because they are not certain, they do not have 100% of the skills and then they do not apply for it, unless triggered by their superiors.
Men, instead, jump on the job opportunity, they take it as a challenge the fact of not having all the skills and they dare more easily to ask for a salary increase.
If managers were aware of this behavioural difference, they could adopt the correct approach to encourage talented women to take new job challenges.
• Women - Women sometimes create their own barriers: I keep saying to women – and I did a lot in mentoring sessions too – that women need to decide what they want to do in their career and what they do not want to do, and be assertive. It should be a conscious decision about themselves and their true aspirations, while I know that women very often make professional decisions based on external factors like their children’s needs, their husbands, their family of origin, etc. This attitude is shown both by women with a family as well as by single women, because many of them care for the others’ needs and take what is left for them. Actually it does not mean that all women should aim to reach the board, they might desire to stop working or to do a part-time job, but it should be a conscious decision.
Only when women clarify their mind and decide what exactly they want to achieve, they can then work on solving potential issues and barriers.
I think that we are improving in bringing down these obstacles on the road to C-positions for women, but it might take a decade before we get there.
PWI – What is your position regarding quotas?
Well, Alessandra, that’s an interesting subject … Now many boards could be seen as “men’s clubs”, while I believe that incorporating female profiles and qualities would make the board a stronger team.
I changed my mind about quotas. At the beginning I was absolutely against quotas to increase female representation in corporate management bodies, because their implementation might bring the risk of forcing “positive discrimination”. Actually it depends a lot on the implementation pace of quotas, I believe that the deadlines and the percentage for quotas (as per the EU Parliament resolution) of 30% of female representation by 2015 and 40% by 2020 are pretty feasible and it will not be needed to make any positive discrimination to reach these targets.
PWI - I have often heard that work-life balance is an issue for working mothers, until when? Is it used as an issue by employers, as an excuse for not promoting women?
Work-life balance is an issue for both women and men in every organization. In IBM we have more and more men who started to take the paternity leave, for example. Women might suffer more from it because of the classical responsibility for the family/children, but – based on my experience of raising my daughter as a single mother - personally I think it is a matter of getting organized, accepting that things are not all perfect (for ex. the work of our cleaning lady …) and stopping trying to be perfect in everything we do.
PWI - Based on your experience, which are the skills and attitudes that most women need to improve?
As women we have to become more assertive, more conscious of our faults, of how we use our voice and how we appear in meetings (how we “sit and behave”). Women should consciously decide what they want and speak up for it, gather facts and get credibility for them.
Women should not become men, but should “coach men” about the importance of complementarity between male and female qualities, to coach them on emotional intelligence not just claim that men do not understand.
PWI - How do you involve men in your process to encourage women's professional development?
Sponsorship from executive men is critical to foster women’s professional progress. It is easier when executive men have daughters, who start approaching the business world, they become more sensitive because it becomes more personal, so they start to listen.
In IBM we able to involve some men in our Women Council to make them part of our initiatives.
| Short Biography
After having studied Economics Christel started working for IBM as Systems Engineer in the technical area.
She has worked for IBM for 25 years in different technical positions, as well as commercial & management positions. In 1999 she was asked to become the Assistant of the General Manager of IBM Belgium/Luxembourg, a unique jumpstart position.
In 2000 she was promoted to lead the Sales Operations department in Belgium/Luxembourg.
For the last 7 years she has worked in our internal CIO organization, where she is responsible for the European countries and she manages the CIO projects locally. She is also globally responsible for building change management capabilities in the CIO organization.
Gender diversity always has been her passion. Alongside her daily job, she has led the IBM Belgium/Luxembourg Women Leadership Council for the last 3 years, and for 7 years she has been the Co-chair of the IBM’s Women Council in Europe. She also pays a lot of attention to mentoring other women and manages a cross company mentoring program between IBM and other companies.
She has a daughter of 20 years old who she raised as single mother.
Director Global Change Management and Europe Integration- CIO Organization
Diversity,Co-Chair Europe Women Leadership Council
Phone: +32 2 339 2281
IBM Belgium sprl/bvba
Bourgetlaan 42, 1130 Brussel
Disclaimer - Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of IBM, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.
(*) AXA Wo_Men@Work Award
The AXA Wo_Men@Work Award is an annual award that honours an executive C-level manager (CEO, COO, CFO, CIO or member of the Executive Board), of a company or organisation established in Belgium. He or she pro-actively promotes gender balance and is personally committed to guaranteeing an equal representation of men and women in the company’s management and top management.
Our objective is to put the spotlight on the pioneers of professional equality: managers of small, medium and large-sized companies that are personally committed to ensuring a fair gender balance within their management.
By electing such an ambassador every year, the objective of the AXA Wo_Men@Work Award is to bring the debate to the national level and create best practices within companies to stimulate the promotion of women in the workplace on management and top management level.
A number of awards already exist for a personality, a project or a company. However, the AXA Wo_Men@Work Award is unique in that it celebrates and supports a woman or a man at the top of an organisation who, through her or his commitment and actions, actively promotes gender equality in their teams and among their managers.
In Belgium, women represent only 7% of members on the Boards of Directors of companies listed on the stock exchange and only 6% of those on Management Boards. We are at the bottom of the European ranking. Contrary to the Anglo-Saxon and Nordic countries, we do not have an action plan relating to gender representation in management positions. We can only conclude that the debate in Belgium is recent and the initiatives are timid and limited in scope.