Social media builds new awareness of gender balance at Sanofi Pasteur

By Kelly Kass

With all the activity surrounding Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In initiative which aims to “shine a light on gender differences” and inspire women to achieve their goals, the time was ripe for a conversation with Celine Schillinger, Director, Stakeholder Community at Sanofi Pasteur in Lyon, France.

Schillinger founded the Women in Sanofi Pasteur (WiSP) movement in 2011 consisting of an internal social network to engage staff around the importance of gender balance to drive performance at the global company. It was Schillinger’s own career path that inspired her to take action.

“When I entered the workplace in my early 20s, I didn’t imagine there would be barriers in my career because I am a woman. I had led an interesting, active international life,” she recalls.

It was a life that included leaving France on her own and moving to Vietnam at the age of 23. Spending four years there, Schillinger found employment and learned Vietnamese.

“I thought the world belonged to me. Having worked in the field of Defense, I never encountered any specific issues at the time,” Schillinger says.

Back on the homefront

After a two-year stint working as a General Manager at Lagardere Media in China, Schillinger moved back to France in 2001 to join Sanofi Pasteur’s Human Resources International Division. It was there where Schillinger’s eyes were first opened to the plight of women in the corporate world.

“Because of the size of the company, I found my career wasn’t evolving as fast as before. The work was process-based and depended a lot on hierarchy which I hadn’t encountered before,” she remembers.

Schillinger ultimately had to adapt to the system with the understanding that a large organization “had to be well-structured.” In the meantime, she focused on her personal life and starting a family, however she “didn’t stop thinking about growth and evolution in the workplace.”

After having her second child at age 39, Schillinger began to reflect. “I quickly said to myself, ‘don’t fall into the trap of being a happily married woman with kids while forgetting about ambition at work.’”

She continues, “Being driven at work would enable me to be a good mom and have a happy family life. After being at Sanofi Pasteur for few years working in different departments, I could feel a disconnect between my personality and my work experience. I studied Political Science and Public Affairs. I wasn’t a scientific person; I preferred to build bridges in an organization. I could see a widening gap of traditional profiles at the company: employees who were at ease with figures and statistics and who didn’t like to rock the boat. Employees who were mostly male.”

Not wanting to be defeated by the system and fit into a corporate box like several of her colleagues, Schillinger refused to “disappear as another brick inside the organization” and vowed to bring more value to her everyday role overseeing the commercial launch of the company’s Dengue vaccine in Asia.

A broken pledge on a job promotion despite obvious qualification, regional changes and being kicked off a management committee were perhaps the biggest straws that broke the camel’s back.

“The job I had applied for was changed and downgraded to a manager position with the attitude that I could take it or leave it. My reaction was 'this can’t go any further; I have to do something,'” Schillinger explains.

The right opportunity

With a new CEO appointed to lead Sanofi Pasteur in by end 2010, Schillinger saw the move as an opportunity to take action, emailing him a letter complete with facts and figures about the value of achieving gender balance inside organizations:

“I told him that there were studies (e.g. McKinsey’s ‘Women Matter’ research), showing the link between financial performance and including women on governing bodies. I pointed out the low percentage of women executives our company had with the suggestion of achieving gender balance at the top level. After, I forwarded the email to 3 of my friends. When I checked my inbox that evening, I was surprised to see that my email had gone viral within the company. The overall consensus was, ‘it’s about time; things have to change.’ I showed these emails to my husband and he said, ‘I think you started something here.’”

What Schillinger started was the initial stage of what was soon to become the WiSP network.

A social approach

Two weeks after Schillinger’s email was distributed, she and 11 of the recipients had lunch outside the company to discuss their own experiences with gender balance and how they felt about the topic and what it meant to them.

“In my 10 years at the company, this was the first time such a conversation ever took place. Even working in HR for two years, our proposal to establish gender balance indicators never caught executives’ attention,” Schillinger recalls.

Present at the lunch was a female executive from Sanofi Pasteur who was about to retire. Having a senior person support the WiSP initiative would certainly benefit the network. In addition, one of Schillinger’s co-workers got involved very actively in the initiative from the very beginning. Both decided to position the network as a think tank and a baseline the company could act from to begin initiating more gender balance.

Following the lunch, Schillinger began exploring Yammer at the suggestion of a colleague. “I discovered a whole new world of internal social networks. While they were used mostly for project management, I thought they could also work for us. After 30 minutes of reviewing Yammer, I created WiSP.”

Schillinger continues, “We selected an image to illustrate the group. We wanted something strong to show empowerment; that we had the power to bring about positive change. So we chose Rosie the Riveter, a popular image used during World War II.”

To avoid conflicts and potential censorship, Schillinger scheduled group meetings and events during lunch hours so the network remained compliant with company rules.

The first meeting WiSP organized was themed around quotas. 35 people took part, sharing their views on the subject (half were against it). An online survey followed leading to a second event where Schillinger and fellow members shared the results.

Getting noticed at the top

During each event, Schillinger took photographs with her BlackBerry and posted them on Yammer. She also created PowerPoint slides displaying the photos.

“The impact of these images was tremendous. When you show 50 women and men meeting to discuss gender balance, our movement becomes a reality,” she points out.

It became so much of a reality that they were able to set up with a meeting with HR to discuss their cause.

“HR were a little embarrassed. They felt challenged; that it should have been their job to launch this kind of initiative. Still, they said, ‘let’s do this anyway,’” Schillinger remembers.

Soon, Schillinger was meeting with higher up executives in HR as the network grew. And before she knew it, the company began to measure.

“We made an analysis of gender balance in each of the executive committees. We were able to track the number of women in these committees. Turns out women averaged less than 20% in a workforce made up of 50% women,” she says.

Six months after the launch of WiSP and Schillinger’s initial email that sparked it all, she finally met with the CEO. She gave him a copy of the book, ‘Why Women Mean Business’ by Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland complete with highlighted sections of the book’s key points. This helped get his attention and as a result, Schillinger says, ‘He said, ‘yes, let’s launch a plan.’”


Schillinger’s proposal: to update the yearly employee review/career development process by separating men and women’s resumes.

“The idea was simple, it would cost nothing and it would enable executives to look at women’s skills and abilities with fresh eyes. They’d look at the full profile before granting a position to the usual suspects,” she explains.

Upper management agreed, appointing a temporary working group for one year, consisting of 12 people working in different parts of the organization. The group proposed 62 measures based on results from the WiSP survey Schillinger had previously distributed. The 10 with the highest impact were proposed to a Managing Committee of 25 executives. A workshop was then held to help achieve a road map to achieving gender balance. Specific indicators have been designed with HR and monitored since then. Gender balance leaders have been appointed across the whole organization in order to cascade and adapt global measures within each department. A number of women have been appointed to high level, visible positions. The senior leadership team has been reshuffled and includes now 36% women instead of 20% previously. Although further progress is expected, it is obvious that the corporate culture has been changed.

2,500 and counting

WiSP is now close to 2,500 members in 55 countries. Membership ranges from Sanofi Pasteur to Sanofi Group and affiliates’ employees in France to the United States to Pakistan to Latin America. People’s titles are broadly represented - from administrative assistants all the way up to Vice Presidents. And Schillinger stresses, many members happen to be male.

“We have an active men’s subgroup. Men also care about equality and are fed up with a system that expects certain behaviors from men such as presenteeism (staying long hours in the office) or traveling so much of the time. They’re aware of the unconscious bias about how people perceive men and women,” she says.

“We want our members to be empowered; to speak up and not fall into cliches,” she adds.

Schillinger credits social media as a great way to give women a voice since it promotes unity and lacks the sometimes “intimidating” feel of face-to-face male-dominated meetings.

One of the keys to the success of WiSP she points out is the informal feel of the Yammer conversations as well as transparency.

“We have never posted guidelines or rules of engagement. Members self-regulate. There has never been a post I had to remove. When people post articles or comments, you see their names and pictures. They aren’t anonymous,” she says.

Role models

In Schillinger’s quest for more gender balance at Sanofi Pasteur, Sheryl Sandberg has been quite inspirational. “The very first video posted to WiSP was a Sheryl Sandberg video. I think organizations need to take her views into consideration and make it possible for women to lean in.”

Hillary Clinton is another role model for Schillinger. Inside a corporation, however, Schillinger feels “it’s difficult to have role models” although she credits Sanofi's Chief Legal Officer and Chief Compliance Officer as “doing a lot” to help promote advancement in the company. “When they travel, they organize a networking breakfast so employees can ask them how they reached that level in their careers. Accessibility like that is important; we need to have people close to us that we can speak to,” she points out.

That in mind, Schillinger and friends try to organize face-to-face events for WiSP members, while the lack of financial resources forces them to be creative. “We don’t have a budget - perhaps it’s the feminine trait of not wanting to ask too much – so I used my own money to publicize an event on Women’s Day we held last year. I printed invites with and sent them to the higher-ups in the company,” she explains. On other occasions, WiSP linked up with other companies’ gender balance networks in order to organize joint events and pool resources. This has led to the formation of an association that is now sharing best practices on a permanent basis.

Awards and recognition

Two years in, it appears Schillinger’s efforts to create greater gender balance awareness are paying off. WiSP recently received the Apec (French executive employment association) Gender Parity prize, honoring employees who strive to improve equality in the workplace.

But perhaps most rewarding to Schillinger is knowing how WiSP has helped to inspire female employees at Sanofi Pasteur.

“When I presented at EuroComm in April, I told the story about an administrative assistant who decided to ‘lean in’ and joined the WiSP network. She had always been a bit timid at the company and now she’s posting in Yammer for 2,500 people to see,” she points out.

As for words of advice for other women in business looking for more recognition inside their organizations, Schillinger says, “I think trusting oneself is the first skill a woman needs to have but that can be hard to do when society constantly gives you feedback that you are not enough of something or you’re too much of something else. Connecting with other people on a network like WiSP is a tremendous trigger for empowerment. You realize you are not alone.”

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