“True diversity should be a sincere goal for organizations, and it starts with gender diversity”

FEATURED INTERVIEWEE Women's Networking Breakfast 
Marie-Pierre Membrives is a food scientist with years of industry experience. As a woman in the top management of a leading F&B company, she quickly realized the challenges women faced compared to men. This led her (and other women) to create Elles sont Food!, a French association connecting Foodie women while supporting initiatives to improve gender diversity in the Food and Beverage industry.

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Marie-Pierre, what experiences in your career led you to create Elles Sont Food? What are the objectives of the Association?
“Once upon a time in Paris, there were 12 women. All food professionals with very diverse backgrounds, they were all united by their passion for food. When they shared their experiences, they soon realised that, at some point in their careers, they had all faced challenges they probably wouldn’t have faced had they been men.”

“As food professionals, we were all engaged in various professional networks, but none was fully encapsulating our expectations. This led us to create our own network, Elles sont Food!

“Elles sont Food! is an inclusive community open to all female food professionals and women having a professional project in food. The network aims at helping all these talented women to be more visible, more recognized and more connected so they feel more empowered to dare.”

“This is why we organise monthly events to network and be inspired around food topics, or to meet inspirational role model leading women, as we did when we met Catherine Petitjean, the CEO of Mulot & Petitjean; Paula Marshall, the CEO of Bama Foods, or Cheffe Anto Cocagne.”

“We also spread the word about the necessity to improve gender diversity in the food sector by raising awareness in professional events.”

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Whether they work as farmers, chefs or in Food R&D, women rarely reach top-management positions within organizations. Engineering schools have many female students, but this does not translate into the high levels of business organization charts. In the past, the culinary world was dominated by female chefs (la Mere Brazier, la mere Fillioux for instance). And yet, in its 2017 ranking, the Michelin guide only rewarded 2.6% women with their stars. Where does this divide come from? And can you give us examples of how Elles Sont Food! helps women connect, develop projects and in the end helps them reach the top levels of their organizations?
“The glass ceiling preventing women from reaching the top of an organization is not a myth. And it is probably more robust in some food sectors than in other professional sectors.”

“Because women tend to speak up less, they tend to be less visible, less audible, and as a result, less recognized.”

“This led us for instance to help setting up the list of female chefs of France that has been compiled by Esterelle Payany and Verane Frediani in their book ‘Cheffes’. So that organizations like the Michelin Guide cannot argue any longer that they don’t know who these talented female chefs are.”

“We also try to raise awareness about gender diversity at food events, as we did at the CIBM (International Convention on Modern Bakery) last year. We helped the organization feminize the panel of speakers and ran a roundtable about women in the bakery industry.”

“We do our best to support women-led projects and projects aiming at helping women blooming in the food sector. Above all, we’re creating a community of passionate women who naturally identify common interests and share best practices and experiences. As a result, after two years, we are very happy to see that many nice collaborations have been initiated between Elles sont Food! members.”

Studies from University of Geneva Management Professor Michel Ferrary have shown that the more women reach top decision levels in a company, the more the company increases its performance. What approach do women bring to businesses?
“At Elles sont Food! we don’t believe there is a feminine approach to business or management.”

“As noticed in Professor Michel Ferrary’s studies, a diversity of profiles, backgrounds and points of view in a team makes this team more creative and less self-complacent, for a greater performance.”

“So male dominated teams do definitely benefit from integrating women, just as female dominated teams benefit from integrating men. That said, studies show that it is necessary for a minority to reach a critical mass in an organization to have some impact. So one women in an Executive Committee should not be enough and true diversity should be a sincere goal for organizations, and it starts with gender diversity.”

Diversity is a key asset for companies, and diversity starts with enabling women to reach the same positions as men if they so desire. What steps can companies take to correct the gender imbalance? And what practical steps can companies take to help employees (women of course but also men) balance career aspirations and family life?
“Being able to follow a career path reflecting one’s aspirations is an important topic for both men and women. And there is no pre-defined path. Multiple examples and best practices have demonstrated their efficiency to help people navigating their career path as they wish. These usually cover different topics ranging from facilitating work-life balance to valuing different management styles through addressing everyone’s development needs, especially women’s needs.”

“In many countries, women traditionally tend to be the ones dedicating more of their time to kids and housekeeping, sometimes putting their careers on a second plan. This is why raising awareness about everyone’s needs to address work-life balance and setting up initiatives to help making this a reality should help both women and men.”

“Regarding work-life balance, offering more flexibility in work organization (flexible schedule, remote working etc.) helps both men and women to feel more empowered to think about their career while dedicating quality time to their personal life and family.”

“Company commitments that are respectful of work-life balance such as banning meetings before a certain time in the morning and after a certain time in the afternoon, and above all examples coming from the top management are also critical.”

“Supporting people in their career paths also means identifying their wishes and supporting them reaching those through adapted trainings, coaching or mentoring. And reaching gender diversity in organizations implies valuing different management styles so that diversity is included into corporate assets. This is key for an organization’s performance as discussed before and for the ability of organizations to attract and retain the most talented people, be they women or men.”

“At Elles sont Food! we are happy to interact with food companies willing to address the topic of gender diversity.”

Don’t miss Marie-Pierre Membrives’ interview during the Women’s Networking Breakfast at Fi Europe on 4 December. And if you want to follow the news from Elles sont Food!, the network is also on Twitter and Facebook (in French).