Based in Paris, FRANCE, WOMBAT is a blog by CHRISTINA MACKENZIE. Her posts PORTRAY WOMEN THE WORLD OVER WHO'VE CHOSEN TO SERVE THEIR RESPECTIVE COUNTRIES IN THE DEFENCE SECTOR.

Véronique Cham-Meilhac

Véronique Cham-Meilhac

Véronique is one of the very few senior women executives in the male-dominated world of missiles. But she has hit the proverbial glass ceiling. The head of defence systems business development of the European missile manufacturer MBDA, she notes that she's “been at the same hierarchical level for almost 20 years,” and regrets that no woman is on the executive committee. 

Perhaps because her career will not progress further, she’s not afraid to stick her neck out: “A lot of energy has been expended to stop women getting senior executive positions,” she tells me, adding “that if even only one woman was on the committee, then it would make it easier for other women to advance in this company” where she has worked for the vast majority of her professional life. But she says she hopes that this will change in the future.

She cheerfully admits that her path is a result of “random choices.” Her school teachers in southern France encouraged her to pursue her interest in sciences and maths so she applied to a number of engineering schools. She “haphazardly” chose the Ecole Polytechnique Féminine (today renamed EPF), founded by a woman in 1925 to provide girls with an education in engineering. “It was here that I discovered the world of aeronautics and space and this attraction matured over time, particularly after I'd done a long internship with helicopters,” she recounts.

She did another degree at the ENSTA, an engineering school for advanced technologies, where she pursued her interest in air and space. But her attempt to be hired by Matra Space failed when they suggested she specialise in computer science “but that didn't attract me at all because what I've always been interested in is following through with a project, from start to finish. including those that require a high level of technology expertise.” She worked briefly in the metallurgical sector but then decided to try her luck again in the air and space sector with Aérospatiale (which has now morphed into Airbus). “They were hiring in the missile sector which is one that I had absolutely never thought about at all!” she laughs.

I had an extremely misogynous interview with a man who clearly thought this was a business that couldn't possibly interest a woman but he finally offered me a three-month internship,” which was a little cheeky considering that she was already 25-years old. But she took it. “I had no idea what I was getting into,” she recalls, “but I ended up in the missile guidance and control department run by a fantastic man. He really understood what it was that I wanted to do.” And so she stayed for eight years, after which she felt it was time to move on.

Her next move was into the export division where she was responsible for direct offsets, notably in Egypt, Belgium and Portugal. “I never had any problems in this job based on my gender,” she stresses. “Once my counterparts realised that I was competent, then that was all that mattered.”

Véronique Cham-Meilhac, coincidentally wearing an MBDA colour scheme! Photo: Christina Mackenzie

Véronique Cham-Meilhac, coincidentally wearing an MBDA colour scheme! Photo: Christina Mackenzie

“If even only one woman was on the committee, then it would make it easier for other women to advance in this company”
 

She was then given the opportunity of creating the marketing and strategy department at Aérospatiale “and so I found myself in a position to be able to hire women; not only scientists but from business schools too.” I ask her if it wasn't difficult to get women to accept a job in a company whose end product is designed only to destroy. “But also to protect,” she counters. “I'm passionate about what I do. I believe in the French nation and I believe she must have the means to defend herself; it’s a matter of sovereignty” Véronique explains convincingly.

She explains that she had “a lot of autonomy in this job. That gives one confidence and I also had a lot of men who helped me.” But there were also those that tried to trip her up, notably when she was responsible for undertaking the due diligence for Aérospatiale in 1999 for its merger with another French company, Matra Hautes Technologies to form Aérospatiale Matra Missiles (AMM).

Meanwhile, Véronique married (twice) and had a son and two daughters, taking all the maternity leave due to her, but not more. “I had a full-time nanny at home. Of course it was expensive but it was a choice, so we made do without some other things.” Her adult children are proud of her achievements “but they did complain when they were little that I was never there, though of course I was!” She made a point, she says, of “switching off” when she left the office, even though this was frequently late in the day, and of rarely working at the weekends. “It was easier, in a way, in those days, because there were no mobile phones and no computers at home so the difference between professional and personal lives was clear-cut.

Her last remarks are for her father. “He was the one who made me think about what I could do. He's the one who helped me develop.

Brigadier Anne Fougerat

Brigadier Anne Fougerat

Mary L. Keifer

Mary L. Keifer