General Monique Legrand-Larroche
Monique Legrand-Larroche is a petite woman whose kind blue eyes and very long hair, habitually worn in a ponytail, belie the iron determination which led her to becoming France's first 4-star General... and the holder of a private helicopter pilot's licence (although she no longer flies).
Armed with her science baccalaureate, she sucessfully jumped through all the hoops necessary to get into the highly competitve Ecole Polytechnique (see glossary). “It was a family tradition to go to this school,” she tells me, sitting in her large, functional office at the Ministry of the Armed Forces, then breaks into a wide smile adding “but I was the first girl!”
She was one of 30 at the school, making up 10% of the class. “What surprises me, though, is that when my sons went to engineering schools the number of girls in their classes was still only around 10% and yet there are as many girls as boys who pass the science baccalaureate.” She thinks the fault lies in large part with parents who encourage their daughters to go to business schools instead. “But France really needs engineers,” she exclaims. “Girls mustn't self-censor themselves because there's absolutely no reason why they can't be as successful an engineer as a boy.”
Helicopters have been a lifelong passion. So why didn't she join the army to train as a helicopter pilot? A remark made by an officer about women, careers and children, which she still seems surprised at, made her understand that this was perhaps not the place for her.
She did have children: four boys whose photographs are taped onto the cupboard doors in her office. But having them did not hinder her career at the DGA (see glossary), her other option for indulging her passion for helicopters.
Her first job was at the DRET, which no longer exists but was the equivalent of the innovation agency. “This allowed me to do manage research into helicopter and aircraft aerodynamics,” she explains. But as she moved upwards through the ranks the disagreeable remarks started. “Some of my male colleagues would reproach me for leaving the office early to care for my young kids.” Early being 18:30 or 19:00! “One must never allow this kind of remark to slip by unnoticed,” she observes, adding that she would answer tit-for tat that when she was in the office she was “efficient the whole time, not wasting time chit-chatting in the corridors!” She adds that today she's “very happy” to note that her younger male colleagues leave early to go and pick up their children. “The world is changing,” she smiles.
When she got her fourth star she heard snide comments to the effect that her promotion was due only to positive discrimination. But she roundly refutes these accusations. “There are no women right now in any of the director jobs I've had,” she points out, adding that “in any sector of work, women have to prove themselves more than men. It's not enough just to be good at your job, you always have to prove that you do it better than a man and nothing is forgiven us.”
Even today, she tells me, she has to deal with people walking into a meeting with a “good morning, gentlemen” to which she responds “if this meeting doesn't involve me, I'll leave!” The meetings do usually involve her. In April she became the first head of the new Directorate of Aircraft Maintenance for the armed forces (DMAé). As such she is no longer at the DGA but at the French Armed Forces Headquarters, in charge of ensuring that aircraft and helicopters are available when needed.
Monique Legrand-Larroche married a fellow student at Polytechnique, who works in the private sector. I wondered how they had managed to each develop their professional careers. “We made a decision to stay in Paris,” she explains “and I never once considered becoming a geographical 'widow'.” She concedes that this decision might have hindered both their careers, although in her case one wonders how! “I have to admit that one has to have a supportive spouse and be well organised. For example we would always arrange our business trips so that they didn't coincide.”
She would take the children to school in the mornings and her husband would pick them up in the evenings. They also had a full-time nanny “and my mother helped out a lot too.”
She pays tribute to three former directors of the DGA: Yves Gleizes “who gave me the job of helicopter programme director,” François Lureau and Laurent Collet-Billon. “I think that without them I would not have had the jobs I've had.”
Her secret for achieving a balance between her professional and personal lives? “Being 100% at work when I'm at work, being 100% with my family when I'm at home, and always taking my holidays!”