The World Economic Forum at Davos has always had a woman problem. The reality is that masters, not mistresses, still run most of the universe. Men lead most of the world’s biggest companies and hold most political leadership positions. And that determines who gets to go to the four-day power confab in the Swiss Alps every year, organizers say.
Criticism, hand-wringing, incentives and quotas over the years have done little to bolster female participation. “Pathetic” is how Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, described the place of women at Davos in 2012 when female delegates counted for 17 percent. She suggested setting a quota of 30 percent. (In 2017, women’s participation reached a record high — slightly more than 20 percent.)
In an effort to catapult women onto center stage this year, the forum has chosen an all-female lineup of leaders for the first time in its 47-year history. The seven chairwomen include the French director of the International Monetary Fund, the American chief executive of IBM, the prime minister of Norway, the Australian head of the world’s largest trade union, the Italian physicist-director of the international organization studying the structure of the universe, the Indian chairwoman of a microfinance bank that is run by and lends to rural women, and the French chief executive of Engie, one of Europe’s biggest power companies.
Isabelle Kocher, the 51-year-old head of Engie, stands out in the corporate world. An engineer and physicist by training, she is currently the only woman running a CAC 40 company, the exclusive club of the top corporations on the French stock exchange. Fortune ranked her third on its 2017 list of the most powerful women in business outside the United States.
In an hourlong interview in French in her top-floor office overlooking Paris, Ms. Kocher called it an honor to be chosen as a chairwoman at Davos, describing her fellow leaders as “ambassadors of civil society, business and politics.”
She does not see herself as a modern Joan of Arc shattering corporate glass ceilings. And she denies that she ever had to struggle because of her gender.
“I am often asked this question, and it is not easy, I find,” she said with a laugh. “Personally — so far — I have never felt that being a woman was a disadvantage or a handicap for me. It’s more that there are still very few women in industrial leadership positions. So people are not used to seeing a woman like me in such a visible position, and that attracts a level of attention, even curiosity, that my male colleagues do not enjoy.”
Asked whether she had ever been the victim of sexism in her career, she laughed it off, saying: “Not in any way that was ever said or done to my face. Or it may be that I decided not to pay attention.”
Sexism in the male-dominated energy sector is often subtle. “I realize that every time we discuss a job placement, and look at a list of both male and female candidates,” she said, “there’s a question that comes up pretty much all the time for the woman: ‘Will she know how to assert herself?’ It’s not meant to be malicious. It’s more, ‘Will she manage to take leadership of the team you want to entrust to her?’”
Since Ms. Kocher assumed the top job at Engie in May 2016, she has fought hard to restructure the company in the face of climate change. She has focused on selling off assets in conventional power, especially coal, and investing in renewable energy, including wind and solar. She has begun an ambitious investment scheme in digital and other new technologies. She has moved women up into senior management, including the top leadership positions in operational entities, renewable energy, gas storage and China operations.
She has infused the organization with the same military discipline she brings to her private life.
A divorced mother of five (ages 11 to 25), she rises every day at 5 a.m. She works until she has breakfast as 7:30 with the two children who still live with her in the western Paris suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. Then she is driven by chauffeur in a Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell car to Engie’s headquarters in La Défense, the business district just west of the city. She switches her cellphone to silent mode when she is off duty with her family, with orders to be disturbed only in an emergency.
At Engie, she eliminated the practice common in the French corporate world of hourslong meetings with detail-filled presentations that often do not result in decision-making.
“In France, we have a mania for meetings that start very early and finish very late,” she said. “It wastes time and creates rigidity in schedules. Everyone knows I hate long meetings.”
She seldom schedules a meeting past 6 p.m. and has introduced a system of flexible time to accommodate the personal lives of employees.
“Flexibility in the workday is important for me. We are very lucky to live at a time where we can say to our bosses, to our colleagues, ‘I have my children.’ It’s respected more than it was during our parents’ generation. Back then, if a woman said, ‘I have to leave because …,’ she had a problem. She was finished. Now there are many fathers who also feel free to say: ‘I have to leave. I have a life. I have a family. I have a commitment. I belong to such-and-such an association. I’m on a sports team.’”
Over time, she has come to see herself, however reluctantly, as a role model for other women.
“I have received so many letters, messages, emails, testimonies of women whom I meet in international conferences, wherever it may be, who tell me, ‘It’s great that you have balanced life and work so successfully.’ I now think I have underestimated that, the ‘role model’ aspect of my life, I must say.”
Asked what she tells these women, she replied: “Women too often say to themselves: ‘It’s too difficult. I’m not going to get there.’ I tell them: ‘Listen, do not question your abilities. Dare to do what you want to do and realize that you can do it.’”
Ms. Kocher may be about to suffer the first major setback of her professional life. When she succeeded Gérard Mestrallet as chief executive of Engie, he was allowed to keep his position as chairman of the board for two more years, until May 2018. It was widely predicted that Ms. Kocher would take on that role as well when he stepped down.
Now the French press is reporting that Ms. Kocher may not be given the chairman’s slot. According to Le Canard Enchaîné, an investigative weekly, the French state, the largest shareholder in Engie with about a 25 percent stake, already has decided that the post will go to someone else.
Engie officials say that no decision has been made. Ms. Kocher declined to comment. The announcement is not likely to come before her participation at Davos. Will it be a man? Will it be a second woman, which could give the impression that it takes two women to do the job that one man used to have? Or will Ms. Kocher prevail?
Following is a selection of questions from the interview. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
What is the message you will bring to Davos?
We are coming to the end of a cycle. Look at what is happening in the energy sector. With the intolerable levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, society has realized that it is up against a limit with the energy model as it has been until now. There is a rift between economic development and the planet.
Can governments or a single government sabotage the energy transition?
We often say that the new energy technologies are “3D”: They are decarbonized; they are decentralized; they are digitalized. Governments play an important role because they define regulations and they create conditions for the energy transition. But, ultimately, there are so many different actors who decide, so I think that no one, not even the president of a country, can stop something that is extraordinarily powerful.
How serious is air pollution in the world’s largest cities?
Honestly, I have trouble sending people to work in Beijing. But I don’t want to single out Beijing — there are also other big cities that are difficult, and Beijing has taken exemplary measures to help fix the problem. It is not about the CO2, it’s the particles that cars emit, that coal power plants emit. People don’t want to go anymore. You try to put a team together and it’s complicated. It’s because of the air quality; it’s a real daily disruption, a real medical issue for children.
What is your strategy for Engie and the impact it can have on societal fractures and inequalities?
I put Engie on a strategy to create values in the classic sense of the term, but in a way that has a positive impact on these societal fractures and inequalities.
The idea is to create conditions so that everyone will be interested in doing the same. We have to create the right conditions. We have to redefine the rules of the game, that’s it.