For the first Newsletter of the year and almost 10 years after she co-founded WIL Europe, we had the pleasure of interviewing our President, Thaima Samman, Partner at SAMMAN Law & Corporate Affairs. Do you want to know what was young Thaima like? Where she got her inspiration from and what she considers as her greatest strength? Then read our interview!
You are the President of The European Network for Women in Leadership (WIL), which you co-founded almost 10 years ago. Could you tell us more about WIL Europe’s mission and what you consider as its best achievement, and how does the organization remain relevant 10 years later?
Our best achievement? We have created a unique cross-European and cross-sectoral platform, that allows women leaders to meet and exchange, learn and grow, expand their horizons, step out of their comfort zone and increase their visibility! WIL Europe currently has more than 300 members across 24 countries, coming from the private, public and academic sectors, who meet regularly in different European cities to discuss topical issues together with high-level speakers.
In addition, in 2012, we also launched our own leadership program (WIL’s Women Talent Pool - WTP program), an 18-month cycle program, to identify, promote and train a new generation of women leaders in Europe. The program includes cross-sectoral meeting and networking opportunities, workshops and training sessions (including online) given by our senior level members or professional coaches. Three cycles later, more than 120 future young women have benefited from the program and are on the path to leadership! The fourth cycle was launched in March 2018 in the presence of the European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society, Mariya Gabriel, the “godmother” of this cycle.
Last but not least, by featuring and promoting diverse role models and professional achievements, WIL Europe empowers women even beyond the network. This is something that is personally very resonant with me, as inclusiveness of all forms is a value I hold dear. Even if gender equality in the workplace is far from being a reality, real progress has been made, even if uneven, and I am proud to say that we have contributed, at our level, to bringing such change about. Let’s not forget that the idea of gender equality is relatively new. Only 70 years ago, French women had to ask their husbands for permission to open a bank account...
That said, we should never take our rights for granted and stop advocating for them. The former French Minister of Women’s Rights, Laurence Rossignol, once told me that gender-based discrimination is the most difficult type of discrimination to tackle. It is often less obvious than other types of oppression and we may even love our oppressors; they can be our partners, relatives, and friends… and it is not necessarily easy to challenge their belief (and their interest) on the organization of society which is today rather male friendly, or call into question their “authority” or their views on what a relationship with a woman should be.
In short, this is why our organization remains relevant. By building a close network of women in leadership positions, we provide our members with a friendly place for best practices sharing, opportunities and support and create new opportunities for women at large by showcasing different types of professional success. We also contribute to keeping up social and political pressure to ensure that gender equality remains on the agenda!
Last month, you served as jury member for Inspiring Fifty, a non-profit diversity initiative that named the 50 most inspiring women in French Tech. Promoting role models and making women’s expertise and achievements more visible is also one of the key aspects of WIL’s mission through, for example, our online Directory and the interviews we conduct with our members. Why is increasing one’s visibility important for advancing one’s career?
Due to their tendency to network and promote their accomplishments, men find it easier to move into top leadership roles. Like it or not, executives tend to promote people they know! Therefore, we women need to dedicate 10 to 20% of our professional time to communicating and increasing our visibility, not less, not more. At WIL, we are actively doing this by providing our members with on-line and off-line visibility opportunities, high-level networking events, and speaking opportunities.
That said, even before helping women to promote themselves, we need to make sure that they can project themselves in these roles. Today, women’s choices are not completely free as they are often shaped by gender stereotypes. As I said earlier, at WIL EUROPE, we are trying to fight these stereotypes and to enlarge women’s career choices by showcasing varied and accessible role models. By seeing different examples of life success, women will be more likely to freely choose what they want to do, and hopefully be inspired to make better choices. I fully understand that professional success is not the only type of success, however, all persons, regardless of gender, should be given the opportunity to decide for themselves.
Like it or not, executives tend to promote people they know!
We need to convince women to dedicate 10-20% of their professional time to increasing their visibility.
7 years ago, WIL launched its first edition of the Women Talent Pool programme, a leadership program that aims to train the next generation of female leaders. You seemed yourself to be a leader from very early on, co-founding for example SOS Racisme, a French NGO fighting racial discrimination, in the 1980s. What was young Thaima like and where did you get your inspiration from?
This is a difficult question! I’m not sure that I’m the right person to be asking that question but I’ll try. While I would argue that there is no fundamental difference between young Thaima and the way I am and I think now, most people would probably disagree... My values are the same, but I understand the world better so I’m less idealistic and more pragmatic than when I was 20. Back then, I wanted to change the world and change was necessarily a good thing. Now, I understand that life isn’t that simple and that change for the sake of change isn’t always good, as history has shown us time and time again. I still want to contribute to making the world a better place, but in a different (and, of course, more modest) way and feel very fulfilled whenever I contribute to achieving something that is part of a greater positive change, whether involving gender equality or other forms of discrimination.
Where did I get my inspiration from? Strangely enough, probably from the fact that gender stereotypes had little influence on me as a child. I was lucky to live in a loving family with three children (two girls and a boy), in which gender discrimination was not an issue. My parents placed great importance on education and independence. Whenever I heard sexist comments later in life, they never got under my skin. To make it short, my freedom was a result of the freedom my parents gave me at an age when gender stereotypes are internalized, combined with a natural inclination against all forms of discrimination. Being a part of WIL Europe and its efforts to help women break free from gender stereotypes brings me a lot of personal satisfaction and inspires me to keep going.
My freedom was a result of the freedom my parents
gave me at the age when gender stereotypes are internalized.
You have extensive experience in Public and Corporate Affairs, having worked in leading international firms such as Philip Morris and Microsoft, before creating your own law firm, SAMMAN Law & Corporate Affairs. What does it take to be successful in a sector that combines relationships with both political and business stakeholders? What do you consider to be your greatest strength as law and corporate affairs specialist?
Being a law and corporate affairs specialist is intellectually challenging but very rewarding, but you do need to be made of the right cloth.
You need to be a good and serious lawyer and a policy/regulatory advocacy expert so that you can zoom in and zoom out, understanding both the technicalities and the broader context you are working in. It is also crucial to remain open-minded. If you are smart and humble at the same time, you will be able to reconsider your knowledge and beliefs and move forward. The wisest people in the world know that they still have a lot to learn, and this is what makes them wise! In my field of work, success is only possible if you can cope with an ever-changing environment and the uncertainties that are inherent to this type of work.
While relationship skills are obviously important, so is being strategic. Creative problem-solving is like designing a computer algorithm. You can’t solve the problem without first having all the elements of the code. But getting them is not enough, you still need to know how to connect them in an innovative way. To draw another parallel with the digital world, while it is important to have the pertinent data, you also need a good algorithm to bring everything together. Needless to say, this is the most complicated part of the process!
To answer your question about my greatest strength, I think it’s the fact that I am as comfortable with political as I am with business stakeholders and am not easily discouraged by obstacles along the way.
To draw a parallel with the digital world, while it is important to have the pertinent data, you also need a good algorithm to bring everything together. Needless to say, this is the most complicated part of the process!
As you know, at WIL, we have the tradition of concluding the interview with a question from Proust’s questionnaire. We have picked the following question for you: What is your personal motto?
I strongly resonate with the quote “It is not necessary to hope in order to act, nor to succeed in order to persevere” (William of Orange).
I believe that you should not be afraid of exploring new horizons! If you fail, you fail! But take it as a learning opportunity! What you should be afraid of is the fear of trying and innovating or, to use Erich Fromm’s words, fear of freedom.