S02E26: Léa Lejeune, feminism washing expert

This is the third episode of our DE&I series. In these conversations, we want to explore issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and our hope is that these help build a world in which people from all backgrounds and with different views can thrive. Our aim with these series is to chat with inspirational guests who can encourage us all to look at the industries we work in (media, comms and tech) from different perspectives. 

Our guest for this episode is Léa Lejeune, a French business journalist engaged in topics around equality. Léa recently left a leading business title in France to launch her own media outlet called Plan Cash, where she aims to educate and raise awareness on financial management targeting a female audience. She has also just published a book on what she calls “feminism washing”, “Féminisme Washing: Quand les entreprises récupèrent la cause des femmes”. 

In this interview hosted by Tyto’s Shamina Peerboccus, Léa summarises some of the main aspects of her book, such as what “feminism washing” really is. She also gives concrete examples of this practice from large multinationals such as Dior, Amazon Web Services, McDonald’s, IBM and BNP Paribas. But Léa also talks about the progress that is being made to achieve equality and points to the case of L’Oréal in France as an example to follow. If you are interested in how to improve equality in your company, Léa also provides tips on practices and policies that can be implemented. Finally, Léa shares her motivation for leaving her job to create her own media, Plan Cash, which is currently a newsletter and will soon also be a podcast. 

You can watch the recording on our YouTube channel here: https://youtu.be/iWXvxKPRbu0


Shamina Peerboccus: [00:00:00] Hello, everyone! Thank you for listening to this new episode of the Without Borders podcast. If you’re listening to this, you probably know by now our Unicorn leader series, where we interview leaders of Unicorn companies to find out about key issues and challenges that they face as startups, and then we discuss with them the way they overcome these issues with strategic approach to marketing and communications approaches. So if that’s not the case, I recommend you have a listen. Today’s podcast is our third in our series of inspirational speakers, where we discuss with people from the worlds of tech, communications and media. And they challenge us to have another perspective on our industry. My name is Shamina Peerboccus and I’m a Senior Consultant at Tyto. I’m the host for today and I’m delighted to talking with Léa Lejeune. Léa Lejeune is a French business journalist she’s engaged in topics around equality. She wrote about feminism, the gender gap, and diversity specifically in the work in the workplace. Léa left recently a leading business title in France to launch her own media called Plan Cash, where she aims to educate and raise awareness on finance management targeting a female audience. Recently, Léa wrote a book on feminism washing and title is “Feminism Washing: When companies pick up because of women”, but let’s introduce her first. Welcome, Léa! 

Léa Lejeune: [00:01:40] Hi. Nice to meet you. 

Shamina: [00:01:42] Hi, how are you today?  

Léa: [00:01:46] I’m fine. I hope the sound will be fine too. 

Shamina: [00:01:55] Cool. Let’s give it a go. So can we, we’re gonna start now. Can you let us know in the first place, what is feminism washing? 

Léa: [00:02:00] Yes, last year I published at Seuil, which is one of the biggest publishing companies in France, a book about feminism washing. This concept is was a little bit used in behavior and corporate mentalist economics reviews in the U.S but just a few. I try to make it simple for everyone and for the firms to get that. The idea is that feminism that was considered as something problematic and that was frightening for people like 10 years ago, is now a main value that matters for the young generation Y and Z. And because it’s making some progress in the society, many firms are using these values to build their brands strategies, to sell some objects to a female audience and consumers. And it’s some kind of feminist business, but the thing is pretty much all the time there is no link between the values that they say they’re trying to match and what’s happening for real in the firms. For instance, how the projects are made or how the women and LGBT community is taken care of by the human resources of the firm. And this is a main problem because for feminist, of course, but for consumers and for talents, they want to go in this kind of firms. They are very surprised then when they start to work at these kind of places. So the idea is to change this gap between values and reality. And also there is a good thing with feminist washing. Yes a small one is that feminism and values are spreading all around the world. And one of the main example of feminist washing is the jog t-shirt, it’s written in black on the white t-shirt and it’s “We shall all be feminist” quote from the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And it, okay, so at first it was just a t-shirt on the fashion shelf but then it was everywhere on the Instagram because Natalie Portman and Rihanna and many actors and singers started to wear it. But the thing is, this t-shirt cannot be feminist because it’s made in foreign countries, in east Asia, like Bangladesh with women with very small paycheck. And it’s also sold for more than 60 Euros I don’t know how many pounds is it, but something like 50 something pounds. And it’s very, it’s too expensive to be really feminist because if it’s, if some object is feminist, we all as women can should buy it. 

Shamina: [00:05:38] Yeah. Absolutely. 

Léa: [00:05:39] Can buy it. 

Shamina: [00:05:40] Yeah. It’s not very inclusive in that sense. So can you tell us more a bit of the investigations that you led while you were writing your book and all the research that you did. 

Léa: [00:05:55] Yes. The thing is, I wasn’t writing about ideology. That’s not my point. So I wrote a book in a context it’s a conception of feminism. It’s intersectional and inclusive feminists so LGBT communities, and the link with racism and stuff like handicap, disabled people sorry. So I worked in this perspective and I use all the activist discourses and confront it to what the firm say, what they sell and ask every firm that I talk about, what does it mean? Why do they want it? What was the purpose of all of that? Every time I’m trying to get the, all the point of views, every part of the project life, when it’s thaught, when it’s conceived, when it’s sold and when it’s criticized also. 

Shamina: [00:07:02] And so you mentioned that the Dior t-shirts, do you have any other blatant cases of feminism washing that you spotted?  

Léa: [00:07:14] Yes. Many of them. So let’s try with international brands and tech brands. That’s all, all your people can see and understand. At first, I wrote about Amazon Web Services, which is a part of Amazon of course, that that provide cloud services. And I use quotes from Jeff Bezos that said in our group every woman wins 99.9% of men wages. They wrote that in a press release. And he explained that because it’s fairness. So that’s a good thing, but the thing is one O.N.G that’s called Free and Fair Market Initiative said it was totally wrong. And I tried to get many testimonies of people who used to work in Amazon Web Services in France because this is my field, but again works in different countries. And there is many harassment and moral complaints. Two senior executive of Amazon in the U.S had to get laid off, to get dismissed because they practiced sexual harassment. There’s moral harassment on women in France. And in France, we have some system that’s called Index of Equality that gives marks to every firms and Amazon Web Services was one of the worst. It was less than the average, 71%. And that’s really a shame if we compare that to other firms that are of the same importance. I can do other example, for instance, McDonald’s, that everyone knows, of course. On the 8th of March of 2018, they made a huge communications about the women dre… the day for women. 

Shamina: [00:09:44] It’s International Women’s Day. 

Léa: [00:09:45] International Women’s Day of course, and they say, blah, blah, blah we are okay with women. We like women and we want to promote them in every step of the firms. But the thing is, I wear a report of O.E.C.E that said, there’s many problems of moral harassment in McDonald’s. There were 20 complaints in the U.S.A that made a group cases. There were unequal pay problems in France and I get some testimony that says the same thing. And even their official reports say that there is 87% of the employees that are women and the majority of executive and senior executives are men. So there is something wrong. Same thing in IBM, maybe you all know that IBM was one of the top firms in the case of women and men equality in 2004. The Harvard Business Review wrote a 20 pages article to say, okay, so they set up a tech task force about women and diversity, and after that in only 10 years, they made plus, no 370 person plus women senior at the top position, top executives in 10 years, plus 333 persons of LGBT people in the top management in 10 years and of course increase of revenues and stuff like that. So it seems to be a good thing, but even if at first, they’ve made so many progress, I forgot about that somewhere along the way, and right now, if we look at France, IBM, there is 10 cases of sexual discrimination. Five of them were win by women helped by the union C.J no, CGT in France. And there is, and they have, they had a bad marks in the famous index that I talk about, 89% on 100%. I know it doesn’t seem, it’s a very bad mark, but it’s very simple to get more than 75 in the index and many French firms have like 99 to 100. So this is a problem. I wrote also on the example like BNP Paribas that’s one of the biggest bank in the world I think. And what is interesting is that BNP Paribas is very committed in helping women to build small businesses and to get funds for that, and their CEO is Jean-Michel Bonnafé I think and he is very committed in the He for She Movement with Emma Watson that you know better I think, and I know better also. And the thing is even if there is a lot of communication in BNP Paribas linked with women, there is only 15% of the board that’s women and 40% of the senior executive that’s women. Or if you’re, if you’re as good with women, as you say, you must not be at 15 and 30% of senior executives. So this is a problem. Okay. I can continue for long time but you… 

Shamina: [00:13:55] I do have a question here. 

Léa: [00:13:58] If you have one that you want me to explain, tell me. 

Shamina: [00:14:01] Actually I have a question because based on what you described, on one hand we saw that the last couple of years, the feminist ideas in society have already come a long way. Feminism is kind of like a mainstream topic now, but we know that it’s still at its early stages in business and marketing like you just described. And you see any sign of changes? Do you see any progress? 

Léa: [00:14:32] You want a good example…  

Shamina: [00:14:34] I think some are, like you mentioned…  

Léa: [00:14:36] Yes 

Shamina: [00:14:37] the index in France that kind of like rates companies to see how well they’re doing. And you say some of the companies that are really on top top with really great marks, like 99 or 100. What else… 

Léa: [00:14:49] Yes, but that’s also…  

Shamina: [00:14:52] No. Go ahead. 

Léa: [00:14:55] Okay, but that’s also because the index were built after a huge lobbying from firms. But they are changing gates right now because the new law passed and every firms will have, since, I don’t know, the end of the year, every firms will have to publish the equality, the gap between women and men wages and salaries. So that will be a good thing because they discovered that wasn’t enough. And they were very obsessed by the Iceland example because in Iceland, every firm has to be transparent of as about inequalities between men and women and explain and publish figures and explain everything that’s made to help women in their firms. So this is one progress. Another one is that in France, nowadays it is a subject for every big firm, like more than 2000… no no, the law changed. For every firms for more than 100 employees, you’re first to do something for women. It could be some kind of discussion with your unions. It could be some decisions from the CEO, but you have to do something and to show exactly that you’re trying to put some measure to do something. So there is some progress and very some good example. I can quote one, if you want to, it’s L’Oréal. 

Shamina: [00:16:49] Yeah. 

Léa: [00:16:50] Can I?  

Shamina: [00:16:51] Yeah. Definitely. 

Léa: [00:16:53] Okay. So one example that I studied is L’Oréal, I studied L’Oréal France and also L’Oréal in the world. The thing is, they started to work about inequalities in 2007. They started to work with researchers, independent researchers, economist, like one that was called Dominique Meurs. And she works for the INED and PSE, two famous institutions that work on statistics in France. And my study to measure their differences between men and women by jobs, by diplomas, by seniorities, by categories, by job of equal value. If you work in marketing and in tech, normally the marketing is less paid than tech, they try to make some categories, different categories, more equal. And they pushed women to be senior executive. They changed the classification. They also set up some kind of method of reporting cases of moral and sexual harassment. For instance, for sexual harassment in 2018, they had 17 complaints. They made 17 inquiries. They discovered that eight of them were true. This is French figures and not world figures. And after that, six men were dismissed. So complaints, investigation, and then people dismissed because the only way is to prove that you’re doing something to change the toxic atmosphere when there is one. They also put set up a one day training about diversity and discrimination for every person that goes in the firms. And they push women to try international experiences, because that was one experience that had a big role in evolution in the career of women. They also put some KPI with the KPI about women and diversity for people in the human resources, every person from the board, French board, world board and stuff like that. And also they changed office hours, they changed the meetings because there is no meeting before 9:00 a.m and no meeting after 6:00 p.m. And also they made some childcare facilities inside the firm. Three or four in Paris and close to Paris. So I use some kind of example like that in my book to show that if a firm start a strategy, if the CEO is very committed to it, if every part of the firm is trying to do something, you can change the way women are treated in the firm. For instance, right now, there is now 0.3% of difference of salaries, wages. I don’t know which words… in France, in L’Oréal France. And there is a small gap of 3% only for the senior, no for the… yes senior executive, but not the top executive, but senior executive under the top of L’Oréal France of course. And after that, it’s fine. And it’s a good example to follow even if there is no firm that’s perfect in term of feminism right now because the world society hasn’t changed. 

Shamina: [00:21:18] Yeah. And that kind of like answer a little bit of my next question, but obviously L’Oréal is a huge company. So they are able to put all these policies in place and understand also that there’s lots of pressure, I guess, when you’re like such a big brand. But for other organisation, what can like maybe a smaller one can do to reduce this gap between intention and actions? Because we see so many reports that actually say that diversity is great in a company. You know, it’s just, it’s very beneficial. We don’t need to really convince people about it, but somehow it’s not really happening yet.  

Léa: [00:21:58] There is so many ways. When I talked about office hours, it was something that it can be used in every small firms. For instance, working at home for a pregnant woman, like two days or three days or four days per week, that could be a good thing. In France, we have a lot of problem to let people work at home, but it’s not like that in every tech companies I know. So KPI can be useful to measure. If you have to recruit just one person in your team every year, and it’s always a man you have to do something. For instance, you can be sure that in every panel of candidates, there is at least one woman in the panel. There is stuff like that that you can try. You can try to, oh yeah. There is some kind of parental challenges that a young group of feminist activists are trying to push in tech companies in France right now. They launched that at the beginning of January this year. So just a little time before. And at first they asked all the women in the small businesses, what can we do to improve your everyday life at work? And sometime people from the sometime employees can get very good ideas that are not expensive because there are so many level to act.  

Shamina: [00:23:39] Yeah. So it’s very much, opening up conversations, I guess. Yeah. Okay. That’s great. And just to finish, can you tell us more about your new outlet Plan Cash? I know that is a French media that you’re launching, but I think the idea behind it is so great I would love for you to like tell us a little bit about it. 

Léa: [00:24:04] Thank you so much. So, that was my idea, but I never saw media like that in the U.S and the U.K. So I wasn’t the first and I’m so sorry about that. So Plan Cash is a, right now it’s a newsletter, but will be soon a podcast, and it’s also on the Instagram. It’s a small media that talks to that talks about money to women and young people, because, so I discovered two things. No, one thing. I used to work in the classic business media for eleven years, and the thing is, none of my friends, women feminist and young friends were reading this kind of business magazines because it’s designed for men, and not for all men, it’s designed for men more than 50 years that wear suits and goes to and works in the firms of CAC 40, the biggest firms in France on the quotation markets. So if you’re a woman and you’re trying to open this kind of magazine, it’s black, there’s only picture of this kind of man and buildings, and it’s a little bit boring. And sometimes you don’t know what are, what does all these words means? What is investment? What is E.S.G? How does it work? So there’s this thing. And the other thing is there is some kind of taboo when you’re a woman and you’re trying to talk about cash. I don’t know if it’s the case everywhere, but it is really in France. So you’re supposed to be a banal woman, you’re supposed to be less in love with your husband if you’re at heterosexual and trying to talk about money, if you’re in your couple. So what I wanted to do is to start the conversation, even if you’re right-wing or left-wing, even if you’re rich or you’re poor, even if you’re trying to invest in, I don’t know, in private equities, if you were trying to invest in ethical funds, trading crypto currencies, there is a huge difference. For instance, there is 16% of women that invest in cryptocurrencies in Europe, and it’s at 10 or 20 points more if you’re looking at men. And okay, right now, the Bitcoin is very in a very bad situation. But last year it made such an increase. And I don’t want that the gap in wages and salaries between men and women will be the same between the investment of men and women. I want them to get all these tools that they need. And also because I’m sorry, but sometimes I read feminine press and feminine magazine, I want to talk about the psychology of money. I dream about interviewing researchers to tell me why are we so much obsessed by “Succession” and “Gossip Girl”‘s TV shows on the internet and Netflix. So that’s what I’m trying to build right now. And there is a three, more than 300 subscribers since one month. 

Shamina: [00:27:46] I think you mean 3000. I think you do have more than 3000, if I’m correct. 

Léa: [00:27:52] Yes. 

Shamina: [00:27:53] Yeah.  

Léa: [00:27:55] More than 3000. 

Shamina: [00:27:57] That’s great. And you just launched. So I wish you all the best of luck with this.  

Léa: [00:28:02] Yes. 

Shamina: [00:28:03] Thank you so much. It was such an absorbing conversation and thoughtful working really. That’s it for our today’s episode of Without Borders podcast. If you’d like to hear more about Léa you can follow her on social media. And if you can read French, I recommend you read her book as well. We’d love to hear your comments. If you have any suggestions on who our next speaker should be, you can reach out to us via our social media. We are reachable on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and YouTube. And if you liked what you heard, please give us a positive review and rating. It’s very helpful and greatly appreciated. Lastly, if you want to know about our new episodes, you can keep track and subscribe to our Without Borders podcast on any podcast app. That’s it for now. Thank you for listening. Bye. 

Léa: [00:28:57] Thank you. Bye. 

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