International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.
To mark this special day and month, we are shining a light on a few of the many wonderful women who work for Schréder worldwide, sharing their stories and what this day means to them.
Marie-Pierre Defoin graduated from University with a Masters Degree in Chemical Engineering and after a few years of working as Production Manager, became passionate about empowering people in their work, which lead to a career in Human Resources! In both fields, she has always been a trail blazer, opening up doors for herself and her colleagues.
Marie-Pierre joined Schréder in March 2020 as Chief HR Officer and was thrown into the deep end as the Covid-19 pandemic transformed the way we work.
What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
It is an opportunity to celebrate women and all that they do. I have worked in quite a few countries worldwide, and the one that I always remember the most fondly on International Women’s Day, is Russia. Every woman receives a flower to mark the occasion, which is a nice tribute in a country that is not always perceived as one that celebrates equality and diversity.
Of course, it extends beyond the day itself and in my role as Chief HR Officer, my goal is to promote all kinds of diversity every day by encouraging all employees to fulfil their potential.
Can you tell us about your background and your own role in Schréder?
Well, firstly let me say that being a woman has never stopped me from achieving my professional goals! I have always had managers who had confidence in me, saw my potential and encouraged me to develop my skills and grow.
I started my career in 1986 at 3M where I was the first female Process Engineer to be hired in the manufacturing division! At 26, I was the first female Production Manager at Eridania (then part of Montedison). The director of the factory at that time was a real visionary and championed diversity. I was managing an entirely male team but I had their confidence and encouraged them to grow their skills and become more independent.
At Eridania, I really enjoyed the people aspect of my roles, and was drawn more and more to a role in human resources, which had always been a passion of mine. So, when a position came up for Human Resources at the R&D Centre in Belgium, I seized my chance. I was lucky that my former manager trusted me. He knew that although I did not have any official qualifications, I was capable of successfully taking up the challenge.
And so began my 21-year career in Human Resources, in championing and empowering people to pursue their goals. I joined Schréder last year to lead up the People track of the company’s “Together, For Our Future” vision, which promotes gender parity, diversity, inclusion and empowerment.
I firmly believe “diversity trumps ability” and our “Together For Our Future” programme aims to create a culture of inclusion across the organisation. It will ensure diversity by bringing individuals with different backgrounds and nationalities together to share knowledge and expertise as well as learn from each other. It will also create an environment that ensures opportunity exists for everyone.
What do you think we can be doing to inspire and encourage more young women?
I believe mentorship is key. More women could be encouraged to take up leadership roles with mentorship programmes, whether it’s women to women or men to women. As I already mentioned, I had some great managers who really encouraged me to reach my full potential. Personally, I think that being a role model and making yourself accessible to young managers goes a long way in giving them an advantage in moving into a leadership role.
What women have had the greatest impact on your life, and why?
While I haven’t any female managers as I always worked in essentially male dominated workplaces but one lady definitely stands out - Aurelia, the General Manager for Austria at Eridania. She was a skier, hors-pair, and brought that determination, flair and discipline to her work while remaining very accessible. In a male-dominated industry, she had everyone’s respect as she excelled at her job.
She showed me that as long as you know yourself, you can achieve what you want.
What is your greatest achievement in work to date?
I believe more in achieving small goals, step by step. As we advance, we are always, at some stage, confronted with difficult decisions or actions. And as we take them on, we realise that we are capable of doing a lot more than what we thought.
One challenge, which comes to mind, was while I was working at Eridania. As I already said, I was managing a team of working-class males who, when I arrived, saw their jobs as a means to an end. The foreman, who was 55 years old at the time, was surprised to see a young 26-year-old women become their manager. I really worked with them to build up their confidence not only in me but also themselves so they could take a step up, develop their skills and fully modernise their department. They really started to take pride in their work.
I was also involved in challenging negotiations with the trade unions at that time, and it really made me realise that no mountain is too high!
On a personal level, I have 2 sons, who have always seen their mother take on challenging roles. I am proud to say that they fully support equality and have no doubts as to the capabilities of women!
What advice would you give young women starting their professional career today?
Trust yourself and be honest - know what you can achieve. As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day and persistence is key. Be an expert at learning and listening. It took me 3 and a half years to take the leap from central engineering into human resources.
Connect with Marie-Pierre on LinkedIn