From left to the right: H.E.Florence Robine and Sasha Bezuhanova.
On 17 February, the French Institute hosted a special edition of the Bulgarian Center for Women in Technology (BCWT) SHE is ME format with the participation of H.E.Florence Robine, Ambassador of France to Bulgaria. The meeting entitled “Women’s Leadership in Time of Transformation” was moderated by Sasha Bezuhanova.
The topic was chosen because of the BCWT belief that we live in a world that is currently being redefined.
Given the crisis, but also the global connectivity, the democratization of access to information, and of course, climate change – all these are stimuli to find new solutions, different from what has worked before, what has dominated the world, business, society, and politics. We are not only witnesses but also participants in this change, which is leading to shorter horizons, uncertainty, but also unprecedented innovation. This is truly the birth of a new world – said Sasha Bezuhanova, initiator and host of the SHE is ME format, and added that the meeting with H.E. Florence Robine has been long delayed, but it is particularly gratifying that it takes place at the very moment when France holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Florence Robine’s professional life is closely linked to education and science. From her public biography, it is known that she has taught physics and chemistry and that she has served as inspector-general in the French Ministry of Education, chief executive of the local education authorities in the departments of French Guiana, Rouen, and Créteil respectively. In 2014, she was appointed Director-General of Schools at the Ministry of National Education. She also served as an expert on the European Commission’s Task Force on Mathematics, Science, and Technology. Sasha Bezuhanova noted that what is not visible against the backdrop of a remarkable biography and professional career are the challenges along the way, what the individual has actually gone through.
Her Excellency replied that perhaps the first challenge was to be a woman at all in this scientific field – there were a total of two girls in her theoretical physics class at university. In all the senior positions she has subsequently held, she was the first woman appointed. In Florence Robine’s own words, she came from a middle-class background and it was not obvious that she would one day hold these positions. She was fortunate to be able to rely on the support of her teachers and the state. She was a good student and the French state institutions included her in an honors class and paid a 3-year scholarship to prepare her for teaching.
H.E. Robine also took the liberty of sharing that she was aware that many women faced this, and it was extremely difficult for her to balance her career and personal life herself. She has four children and points out that it is a job that doesn’t stop when the children grow up. Florence Robine’s children have always been supportive of her career choices, even when it has meant that she has not been able to be available as much as she would have preferred.
Sasha Bezuhanova noted that among the titles and titles with which her interlocutor was honoured, there were several that attracted attention not only for the high honour, but also for the strange sound of the feminine. – “Chevalière de l’ordre national de la Légion d’Honneur,” and with the “Commandeure de l’ordre des Palmes académiques”.
H.E. Florence Robine said that this topic had preoccupied her in various contexts, not infrequently her direct responsibilities had been relevant to the issue of the feminization of the names of professions and titles. In France, there is clear resistance from the defenders of some supposed purity of language. But according to Ms. Robine, language is a mirror of our culture and habits. In that sense, it is important to have words in the feminine, for the professions that women actually enter.
In French, we have different words for a woman and a man – director. As for ‘ambassador’, the feminine version of the word, at least until recently, referred only to the ambassador’s wife. What would I be? I am an “ambassadrice” without being someone’s wife.
Sasha Bezuhanova jokingly remarked that even in Bulgarian the word “headmistress” is still associated with female school principals and, respectively, the feminisation of the teaching profession.
Her Excellency added that this is also a question of education. During the time when she was directly responsible for the national curriculum, and therefore for equality and the fight against gender stereotypes, she had observed how easily conversations on the subject could skate on the surface. The presence of women in the natural sciences is extremely low, especially in Europe. It is important not only that girls do not only play girly games but that they are naturally introduced to scientific and digital topics because this is about the future.
Sasha Bezuhanova stressed that Bulgaria is at the top in Europe in the number of women in digital industries and girls in engineering jobs. With 31% women in the industry, it is curious how many of them start their own business and how many of them receive funding to support their venture. Unfortunately, when it comes to entrepreneurship and funding, the statistics are quite different – only 10% of businesses have female co-founders.
H.E. Florence Robine added that much more could be done and that UNESCO’s figures for the G20 countries were astonishing. There are women employed in big data and artificial intelligence, but they are about 20%, in some places even less. It is very important that we encourage action in this direction. Mrs. Robine was very emphatic that we need to see more women everywhere, that is, in different positions, including positions of managerial responsibility. This, she said, is not just a question of role models, although this is an important aspect of confidence. If she can do it, then I deserve the opportunity too, as formats like BCWT’s do. Gender equality will also be one of the focuses during the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union – to reduce the persistent pay gap for men and women, a specific directive is being prepared for this.
We can significantly improve the situation. Equal pay for equal responsibilities. Alongside this, it is important that we work for balance on management boards and in senior positions.
On the expected results of the French presidency, Florence Robine also stressed that the priority for France is to build a more sovereign, more autonomous, and stronger Europe that can react, including in the field of security and defence. However, this will also mean solidarity between member states.
Speaking of autonomy, Mrs. Robine believes that this is an important issue, especially for young people. Energy is, of course, important, but this is about e-government, the digital economy, and manufacturing capabilities – jobs for young people here in Europe. Sometimes, in Her Excellency’s words, these topics are associated in a misleading way with the climate problem. Climate will be the top priority during the Presidency because we have no alternative or choice. The question is how to actually reconcile economic development and climate solutions. The EU is the first economic and political bloc to set the ambitious goal of climate neutrality by 2050. Florence Robine also added that achieving this goal does not mean producing and consuming less, but producing and consuming better.
We have to continue to innovate in technology, in green energy, how to use electricity in a more intelligent way in all possible fields, and as much decarbonised electricity as possible. This opens up a huge field for innovation, intelligent technologies, and opportunities for young people in European countries and especially here in Bulgaria.
Sasha Bezuhanova in turn highlighted her admiration for the European network for scientific cooperation as well as artistic cooperation. She also added that the set goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 means changes at all levels, a completely new environment that requires everyone, regardless of age or stage of career development to reorient themselves to one degree or another. More than ever, formal and informal leaders need to join forces to support this process. According to Ms. Bezuhanova, at a time of uncertainty, what we can turn to above all are values, in this case, European values, to which France is also turning.
Н. E. Florence Robine recalled that the European Union was founded on a set of humanist values and that Europe had, in fact, invented humanism, philosophy, and human rights. Hence the constant effort to apply them everywhere. Europe is also very heterogeneous – people with different histories, languages, and cultures. Also, some of our countries have been at war with each other for centuries. But let us turn these differences into wealth. This would be possible if we base wealth on our common values. That is why Europe’s voice is so important in times of difficulty. That is what makes Europe and Europeans unique.
Unity in diversity is a shared responsibility of which we should be proud.
Her Excellency also noted the great importance of culture and the European Union’s long-standing efforts to promote the literature and arts of each of its Member States and to facilitate access to culture for all people and cultures.
Another of the topics discussed was the education of the future. Sasha Bezuhanova said that she believes that traditional education is working less and less in the interest of future young people.
Florence Robine cited a study that shows that 85% of the jobs of 2030 do not exist today, and 60% of the jobs that will disappear are currently held by women. She said this is a real challenge. Despite that the future is taking a new direction, Ms. Robine does not think we should be afraid as we know the trends well. There is a need for technical skills, engaging young people in the digital sphere, and developing so-called soft skills such as teamwork, innovation, adaptation, etc. How do we adequately prepare our children, our schoolchildren, our students? How do we not only accumulate knowledge but appropriate knowledge? How do we enable young people to develop in the field, practically? These are questions we need to ask ourselves constantly.
The most important factor is the recruitment and training of teachers. Without teachers, there are no schools, no universities, no adequate next generation, nothing.
In Her Excellency’s view, it is essential that we have well-paid, well-trained teachers who have a high level of pedagogical training and can adapt to the audience and the needs of children if they are gifted or if they have special needs.
We need inclusive schools if we want an inclusive society.
Sasha Bezuhanova jokingly remarked that the task is particularly difficult as there is no textbook for the teachers of the future, but both interlocutors agreed that there are research and knowledge-sharing platforms that we need to make the most of.
Н. E. Robine said that she sees Bulgaria as a wonderful country that has surprised her with its culture as well as its natural landscapes. However, she said the country is still inhabited by the demons of the past – people still talk about the Ottoman domination, the prisons, and camps of the socialist period, the chaos of post-communism. According to Ms. Robine, Bulgaria has not yet overcome this moment. As a foreigner, a diplomat who loves this country, she believes it is time for both Bulgaria and France, in some respects, to address history in a more rational way so that we develop a shared understanding and are able to build the present and the future on this and our European values.
Her Excellency concluded by pointing out that Bulgaria is an important member of the European family, and the European Union is indeed that – a family – and we can all contribute to the prosperity of the continent, and to a better understanding of what it means to live together on this planet.
Watch the entire edition of SHE is Me with Н. E. Robine here.
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