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Q&A Week 36

Diversity Doers: A View on D&I in France from Soumia Malinbaum

A pioneering French leader talks about how D&I is gaining momentum in France

Soumia Malinbaum, Business Development Director at Keyrus, spoke with us about current trends in the French D&I space.

JL: Soumia, you are a member of the board and the former president and the co-founder of AFMD, the French Association for Diversity Managers. What is the objective of the association?

SM: For us, it is clear that it is not enough to increase diversity for the sake of numbers. Of course it's not enough! You need to create policies and good working conditions for different people. For example, women: they become mothers and then they come back to work. As an employer you have to enable a good balance between work and family life so that it is possible to come back.

AFMD’s main purpose is inclusion. Inclusion enables diversity to have a positive impact in companies.

JL: What is a typical way for French companies to approach diversity and inclusion?

SM: In many companies, the work around diversity and inclusion starts with putting processes in place to meet the legal requirements about gender equality and the employment of disabled persons. In France, a minimum of 40% of corporate board members need to be women. And companies have to employ disabled persons. If less than 6% of a company’s employees are disabled, the company has to pay compensation.

But employing enough disabled persons is really difficult for many reasons. First of all, people do not declare their disabilities, as they are afraid of being stigmatized. But also, the way we treat disabled persons in society in general is a real problem.

It is very difficult for disabled persons to get a university degree because French universities don’t have the needed infrastructures. Just moving around in a wheelchair is very challenging, and this limits opportunities. So for employers it can be hard to find people with the right competencies.

JL: What is the role of AFMD in the French D&I landscape?

SM: AFMD’s aim is to enable all managers to integrate diversity perspectives into their operational practices, and organizations to maximize their overall performance. To do this we organize our work into five strands: guidance, resources, anticipation, representation and rallying.

A very important role for us is to provide support and resources to persons in charge of diversity and all our member organizations. We organize seminars, breakfasts and workshops on different topics. In these events companies meet each other, work together and share best practices. Even when they are competitors, companies work together on this. They share key information from their company because they have a common goal. We have 140 company members, and from each company up to ten managers can participate in each workshop. This is a great network.  

Another of our roles is to function as the representative of the field, as well as the lobbyist. We voice the concerns of persons involved in D&I work, inspire managers to get involved in D&I and encourage all stakeholders to show commitment to diversity and inclusion. Many companies in France have a person responsible for diversity. But in the past years they haven’t had a lot of power and their budgets have been small. Fortunately this is changing now. 

JL: How could people responsible for diversity and inclusion get more power?

SM: For me, one of the problems is that they are not involved in the business. So they really need to work for the operational leader. We try to bring all the C-level with us and we say “We understand you have to manage, you have to be efficient, you have to innovate, you have to be competitive in the digital transformation”. And we tell them we can help because Diversity and Inclusion is the key of performance and growth.

In my day-job I am a business leader in the tech sector; I don’t work on diversity. But every time I have a meeting with a CIO, I always take five minutes of the meeting to speak about diversity and inclusion. It's a routine. Managers must hear these issues; it helps them open their minds. We only have 26% of women in the tech sector in France. It's not enough and it's dangerous. It’s dangerous because it means artificial intelligence is designed by young white men, and bias and prejudices are built in.  So I am very committed to this topic.

JL: How did you become a diversity and inclusion advocate?

SM: I'm French, but I am of Arabic origin. So I have personally experienced stigma and discrimination, most importantly in my professional life. My first shocking experience happened when I launched my own tech company, and I realized that because of being a woman I wasn’t at all credible. It was terribly hard to get meetings with CIOs. So I decided to be like a man. I always wore black, always trousers. And avoided anything feminine.

The second experience building my commitment took place in 2006. There were a lot of riots in Paris then. Just 10 minutes by car from the city, the suburbs burned. It was awful. I was married with children. I worked in the fancy part of the city. I was very proud of myself.

But on the TV, I saw the next generation after me. My generation integrated really successfully, so I didn't understand why the next generation after me was like that. Burning the city, speaking in Arabic…so I thought, "Wow, what is happening?" I heard about an association helping young students in the suburbs to find jobs.

I just called in and I said, "I want to do something and I want to help this generation”. And that is how I became the employer trade union’s diversity spokeswoman. This is a very personal engagement for me, but I always have a business angle to it.

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