With diplomas from Sciences Politiques and HEC, Claire Leost (H.99) is now the executive director of a major media group. But to reach this position, she had to avoid many traps.
I grew up in a family of public-sector employees and I was fascinated by public affairs. I was a good student and thought of school as a home-away-from-home. I seemed destined for Sciences Politiques and ENA, and that’s the path I began to follow: I entered Sciences Po in Paris just after my baccalaureate. But when you’re 17 years old, you don’t know yourself very well, and as soon as I had done my first internships, I realized that this wasn’t really my thing. After graduating from Sciences Po, I turned to HEC. I imagined myself with an international career. I didn’t know much about that, but I thought of being a consultant. I was convinced that HEC would open doors for me worldwide. I took the entrance exam and started directly in year two. I remember that my parents came to the welcome ceremony for the new class. They seemed a little lost on the campus, in a world that was completely unfamiliar to them, but I could see in their eyes that they were very proud of me.
A few years later, my father died of an aggressive cancer and I think of that ceremony in Jouy-en-Josas as one of his last completely joyful moments. When I began my HEC classes, I had mixed feelings. I sensed a distance between me and the other students, and between me and the life of our class. The others were longing to work in a bank or a start-up, while I was only interested in literature and politics. And since they had already spent a year together, they were very close and it was hard to become part of that. On the other hand, HEC definitely gave me an edge in my career. It’s an incredible brand, which opens doors in France and abroad. Today, looking back, I realize that those years stimulated my desire to write, to observe and describe the world around me. I am very grateful to the school for what it helped me to become.
Imbalance at the top
When I left HEC, a bit bewildered, I began to seek out the most prestigious jobs. I had to borrow a lot to pay for my education and I began my professional life burdened with debt. This influenced my choices: I wanted to go to work right away and in a good job so that I could get back on my feet financially. I joined McKinsey, a famous consulting firm. I spent a little over two years there and thought of this time as a transition between school and real life. My work gave me insights into many different worlds: banking, telecom, media… I really enjoyed this last one because it brought together the two dimensions of my training: it dealt with the news, and important political issues, but was still a real business activity, with complex operations. After my time at McKinsey, I began to work in journalism, and that’s where I still am today, because I’m fascinated by it. It’s a sector that’s undergoing a profound transformation. Thanks to the digital revolution, media have had to reinvent themselves, and my job changes every day! I’m never bored. At Lagardère and then CMI France [Daniel Kretinsky’s group that comprises Elle, Marianne, parts of Le Monde, etc.], I began to hold management positions. That’s when I realized that the higher I climbed up the ladder, the fewer women were working beside me. I had always thought that the struggle for gender equality was a thing of the past. In my family, my brother and I were treated totally equally, and when I was a student, I wasn’t aware of any imbalance. In my job, things were very different.
Books and battlegrounds
And then, one night, I had dinner with some alumni from my HEC class and I had a real awakening. Of the 30 people there, the men were successful and seemed fulfilled, with important jobs. The women, on the other hand, seemed tired, and frustrated because they had had to put their careers on hold to take care of their families. Most of them had jobs that were less prestigious than those of the men, or had adapted their careers to those of their husbands, or had stopped working altogether. It was a shock. I tried to understand what had happened between the moment we had left HEC, ambitious and happy, and now, 15 years later, when we had learned that things aren’t as simple as we had thought. As I talked with these women and conducted a little survey, the same topics came up over and over. Husbands, financial issues, issues with bosses, housework, pregnancies, taking care of children, etc. Each of their stories could have been the chapter of a book, and I begin to think about writing an essay… The result was “The Broken Dream of Working Girls”, published in 2013 by Fayard. The book is a kind of survival manual for businesswomen. It describes the pitfalls to avoid if one doesn’t want to be put on the sidelines or treated without respect, along with ways to succeed at a job and have a rewarding family life at the same time, etc. I tell women: “Don’t be naïve, be careful, don’t fall into the traps that will be set for you.”
Women need to apply to their careers all the intelligence they once applied to their studies. They need to learn how to follow their instincts and not create barriers for themselves. Doors don’t open by themselves, especially for women: you need a strategy to carve out a niche for yourself. It struck me that women, often good students, are used to a meritocracy, but when they join the business world, things don’t work the same way at all. It’s an illusion to think that you will be rewarded for doing your job well. A company is a battleground where you have to make yourself heard. After the book came out, I led a lot of conferences on campus and in different training programs. Then, a few years later, I wrote a novel, “The World at our Feet” (published by J.C. Lattès), that evokes the passage to adulthood and the disillusionment that can often accompany it. Writing has become a passion that I try to combine with my career as an executive director. This is another bit of advice that I have for young women and young people in general: You can do many things in life. Write books, manage a company, raise children. You don’t have to give anything up, or make a choice. It’s not always easy, but it’s possible.