General Caroline Laurent
Caroline Laurent has a very quiet voice for a four-star General! I have to lean forwards to hear her even though we're sitting in a large, quiet office that's been set up for her in the French Ministry of the Armed Forces' pavilion at the Eurosatory land and air-land show, held just outside Paris last week. I have half an hour scheduled with her. Our conversation lasts more than twice that long.
Although her rank is that of a General, she is an engineer and has served her entire career in the DGA (see glossary), becoming its director of strategy in December 2014. At the same time she became only the second woman in the DGA, after Monique Legrand-Larroche whose portrait also appears on this blog, to gain her fourth star.
She is, actually, a frustrated pilot. “As a youngster I was fascinated by everything that had to do with aeroplanes and space and wanted to be a fighter pilot or an astronaut,” she recounts. “As I was quite good at science at school I did a maths and physics college preparation course and then got into the École Polytechnique.” (see glossary)
In her class of 1982 there were 30 women amongst the 300 students “and that percentage has remained steady, if it hasn't dropped a bit,” she says. She was too young for the astronaut recruitment campaign launched in the 1980s and after that the slots were reserved for fighter pilots. So she paid for piloting classes herself.
After graduating she went to SUPAERO, a higher education and research institute specialised in aeronautics and space in Toulouse, south-west France. She is very candid about the difficulties faced by women in this very masculine world. “More is asked of a woman. For a man to be promoted it suffices that his career has followed a given path, but for a woman we have to prove that we are good, we have to show that we deserve the job.” She agrees that women “don't put themselves forwards” and admits that she stayed “longer in a given job [than a man would have] because I was uninterested in the power game.”
She is the mother of five children, so has not only had five maternity leaves but also took a four-year leave of absence to raise them. But far from hindering her career it seems to have helped. She recounts that when she returned and expressed some reticence at taking a new position of responsibility, the former director of the DGA, Laurent Collet-Billon, told her that that was nonsense “given that you can manage five children!” And she admits that when in a meeting she will never answer her mobile phone unless the call is from one of her children “because there is no stress greater than having a child in trouble.” But she is proud that she has “never been absent from work because of a sick child.”
“Throughout my career I've strived for balance between my professional and personal lives,” she tells me, adding that she's turned down various jobs in order to preserve that balance. Of her five children only the youngest has berated her for not being there for him all the time “but then I think he's used that as a handy excuse for any difficulties he might have had at school,” she smiles. She's avoided travelling whenever she can and did not do the year-long course at the IHEDN (Institute of Higher National Defence Studies) because it involved going to class on Saturday mornings.
Even with a modern husband who shares some housework, "I've always been involved with escorting and picking up children at school or nannies, or attending appointments with pediatricians and doctors."
Oddly to an outsider she says that it's above all in the past few years as she's risen through the ranks, that some of her male colleagues have made her feel her position was thanks to positive discrimination as opposed to merit. “There are alpha males in every organisation who find it uncomfortable being managed by a woman,” she remarks, adding however, that “amongst the military, one's grade counts for a lot.”
“Women must dare,” she stresses “because we have qualities; we are more modest, kinder, our methods of management and organisation are different. The result is that women are more trustworthy and better organised.”