Making Gender Balanced Leadership a Reality
Sophie Bellon
Sophie Bellon
Board of Directors of the
Sodexo Group

Recently Sophie Bellon, Chairwoman of Sodexo’s Board of Directors and Lorna Donatone, CEO of Sodexo Schools Worldwide and President of Sodexo North America, were interviewed on the impact of women in leadership at the 2016 Women’s Foodservice Forum Leadership Conference. The article below is a preface, written by Chairwoman Bellon, for the book: Men, Women, Leadership: A User Guide by Valérie Petit & Sarah Saint-Michel.

Nearly every week, I happen to find myself in situations where I am the only woman in a crowd of men; in the cabin of an airplane, in a restaurant for a business lunch, or simply in a meeting. Each time I point it out and I am always the only one surprised by it: how is this still possible in Western countries today? Is it a sign that the efforts over the past several years to promote greater gender diversity in many large companies have failed?

My position as Chairwoman of the Sodexo Board of Directors undoubtedly means that the types of situations I find myself exposed to are not representative of what the majority of women experience. It is important to acknowledge this and it is also essential to consider how privileged I was in the way that I was able to juggle both a high-level management career and a fulfilling family life. Despite this, my career as a manager, as well as that of many other female executives, has in many ways been a constant struggle.

It’s useful to remember because if that is what my experience was like in rather favourable conditions, you can easily imagine what it’s like for the vast majority of women?

It is often said, and rightly so, that corporate diversity is a source of richness and creativity, of group performance, and even that it is the future of management. This is true, of course, but it is not because women are likely to contribute particular qualities that men lack. Nor does the absence of gender diversity stem from the fact that men are hostile to the role of women. We have to be wary of preconceptions. For example, we often hear that women censor themselves in their professional ambitions, that they are often surprised by and even refuse the promotions that are offered to them because they think that they aren’t capable or that the new positions are incompatible with their family lives. It is a fact, one that I have experienced more than once in my past as a manager, but it is in fact a misdiagnosis: self-censorship is not a specifically feminine character trait. It is the product of a phenomenon of conditioning by which women become used to doing what is expected of them (or not doing what is not expected of them, as the case may be).

It is convenient to believe that there are qualities and flaws that are strictly feminine and others that are exclusively masculine, but this inhibits progress. It legitimizes policies intended to find an acceptable balance of men and women at all management levels that, once achieved, will make it possible to move on to other things. This makes diversity a goal to be attained, almost as if it were another corporate demand people sought to hush up. But I believe that diversity is a continuous process, one we need to constantly encourage and stimulate. Quotas are necessary because they give us goals to focus our efforts on, but they are not the only answer to the issues of gender diversity and female leadership. Boasting about good statistics means nothing if the reality in the company is not that of a culture that includes and engages by providing openness, reciprocity and transparency.

Diversity and inclusion are beneficial because they create the conditions in companies for authentic dialogue and exchange. This can in turn lead to a questioning of established practices and the emergence of different behaviours, novel forms of interaction and collaboration and new and innovative approaches. Promoting gender diversity and female advancement at all management levels is an essential lever for developing and growing a shared project to which each collaborator contributes willingly, proudly and gratifyingly.


Hattie Hill of the Women’s Foodservice Forum interviews Sophie Bellon and Lorna Donatone at the 2016 Leadership Development Conference.
Hattie Hill of the Women’s Foodservice Forum interviews Sophie Bellon and Lorna Donatone at the 2016 Leadership Development Conference.


A company, like any other kind of firm, cannot develop sustainably while relegating half of the human beings that compose it to the sidelines. Gender diversity is essential. It is above all a moral imperative—respect for the human being—and as such is a cause worth fighting for. In the current context, where work in companies is undergoing profound changes (that are only just beginning), gender diversity is also the basis of any managerial ambition aimed at promoting a modern corporate culture.

I think that today an awareness of this is growing. We are making progress. The case of Sodexo is often cited as an example of the advancement of female leaders and is recognized both in France (first place in the French feminization index for the second consecutive year) and abroad (first-place Catalyst Award in 2012, ranked first by DiversityInc in 2010 and 2013). We have shown that it is possible, through determination, to change the status of women in the company, particularly in management positions.

In many large companies in Western countries, the question of whether gender diversity is worthwhile is asked less and less. That fight at least has been partially won. Things are moving, but they are moving slowly because changes to corporate culture are among the most difficult to bring about. In the case of gender diversity, it is all the more true. But it was ignored and even denied for so long that we first had to devote a good deal of time to simply acknowledging it.

However, much remains to be done on the “how.” How do we make gender diversity a reality? How do we make the topic so commonplace that we no longer need to talk about it? This is the next step, and this is why the work of Valérie Petit and Sarah Saint-Michel is so inspiring. It’s a user guide offering practical suggestions for accelerating the advancement of women in companies.

Beyond the deliberate policies that must be continued and even strengthened, several areas seem essential to me for the future.

The exemplary character of executives remains fundamental. The commitment of our executives is more essential now than ever: each of us, at every step of our careers, have needed inspiring figures who shared their experience and showed us the way, stimulated our ambition and gave us hope. It seems to me that the role of these female leaders must also evolve to encourage more young people, those who have not yet reached the highest positions, to take risks: to risk standing out, to imagine themselves as successful, to express themselves with authority and confidence and to demand respect. The time to speak up in a company is not only once you’ve reached a certain level of responsibility. Gender diversity can no longer only be a fight for trailblazers. It’s everyone’s business, primarily because men are also affected. Their involvement is indispensable, as managers as well as husbands and fathers. Nothing will be accomplished without them.

Finally, I am convinced that young people have a major role to play. Let’s open our eyes! Young male and young female millennials don’t identify with the management practices and career paths that have prevailed in companies thus far, not because these practices are essentially masculine, but because they don’t correspond to their aspirations in any way. The questioning that will allow us to continue progressing and growing in the future will come from the youngest people. So in order to start building corporate projects right now that are enticing and unifying, let’s listen to them. Let’s pay attention to what they suggest and trust them.


Sophie Bellon is Chairwoman, Board of Directors of the Sodexo Group.

2 comments on “Making Gender Balanced Leadership a Reality

  • Avatar
    Joanna Kereakes says:

    This article is inspiring and exciting. I continue to believe the barriers will be broken and gender balance will become the norm not the exception. As we grow to be the industry leader of Quality of Life, it is important we consider what this means for women and the sacrifices that we are asked to consider and take. The more we increase awareness of the value a diverse team brings to the workplace the better we position ourselves and our teams. Thank you Sophie for your encouragement.

  • Avatar
    Toni Bourgoin says:

    Growth and recognition, inspired by strong mentors, comes but only in such small steps. Years past (as I can say that!), we had to do whatever we could to make ourselves stand out among the best only to continuously be silenced through the rhetoric and noise of those who prefer to keep us silent by their strong ties.
    I, too, have taken the bus shuttles, sat in First Class (so few times), and have eaten alone only to find myself surrounded by men who seem to be afraid to ask to sit near me at the bar or table.
    It is my preference to share a smile and greet everyone regardless of their sex, religious beliefs, whether they are gay or straight, black, white or in between, old or young, or marital status.
    I am a professional and only wish for a return politeness, especially when I travel!
    For those that must jump ahead of me in the Priority boarding just because you have taken this flight for 20 years is just plain rude!
    Many are confused and just don’t know how to act with or around adult professional women…regardless of age!
    Social skills and lessons in diversity are for everyone.
    Thanks for the supportive words of encouragement…to all of those women that share the space!


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