Connecting, inspiring and empowering women to lead the way

Anne Houtman, Lecturer at Sciences Po Paris

01 Feb 2021 14:54 | Anonymous

Interviewed by Lucy Lawson and Nadège Serrero

Meet our Member, Anne Houtman, Lecturer at Sciences Po Paris. In this interview with her, she talks to us about the challenges in the EU reaching climate neutrality by 2050, the difference between leadership and management, as well as the importance of having more women in visible positions.

The last time we interviewed you, in 2012, you were Head of the European Commission Representation in Paris, after which you became Principal Advisor in the Directorate General for Energy in the European Commission. Today, you are a lecturer at Sciences Po Paris and a Member of the Royal Academy of Belgium, specialised in European Energy policy. In which sector - pubic or academic - do you believe you have been able to make the greatest difference to advancing understanding of European policy goals, and where do you expect to go next?

I will start by answering the final part of this question, as it is easier. I believe that I have been very lucky, and now also in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. I am very curious by nature: I love reading, sharing ideas, discussing, and exchanging opinions. I am very busy with these tasks and they make me feel content and fulfilled. I also have more time to dedicate myself to reflecting and communicating since I no longer have the administrative tasks to do which occupied much of my time in my roles at the European Commission. I feel very blessed, and privileged, to be in this position - it is because of this that I feel optimistic about the future.

The next part of the question is not as easy to respond to. We are talking about completely different audiences to which I am pitching my knowledge and ideas. In my role as Head of the European Commission Representation in Paris, I was the voice, eyes, and ears of Europe for the whole of France. In this role, the first major challenge was the breadth of subjects on which we had to communicate – from immigration, to fishing regulations. You cannot claim to be an expert on everything, so you must acknowledge this and remain humble and modest. The role also included communicating policy to the whole of France – which is a pretty big country! When fulfilling this goal, one of the biggest challenges was conveying the message from Brussels, formulated to be addressed to 27 - and later 28 - member states, in a way which speaks to each region and community in France. Occasionally when you communicate these messages, the message gets misunderstood. To give an example, the notion of public service changes from one member state to another. In some countries, public services do not function very well and thus have a bad reputation; in others, public services are cherished. In some countries, public services are centralised, like in France – whereas in Germany, they operate on a more localised level. Therefore, in this role, it is important to read and re-interpret the message based on your audience.

The second challenge relates to grabbing the attention of your audience. It is easy to appeal to those who are already interested in European Affairs and are convinced of the benefits of a European Union. The difficulty is reaching out to those who do not want to hear about Europe. In this role, you need to understand where people stand and accept that whilst people may hold a very different opinion to your own, you still need to work with them. You must separate this lack of agreement from a lack of understanding of the issue and deliver the information without lecturing people. The communication in this role requires striking a very fine balance.

My experience as Head of the European Commission Representation in Paris contrasts completely with that of being a member of the Royal Academy of Belgium since, in this position, I am amongst peers with a wide range of backgrounds. I am a member of this Academy as a mathematician; yet I find myself surrounded by lawyers, economists, architects, scientists, engineers, and experts from many other fields. This role comes with its own set of challenges. Everyone is a high-ranking specialist in their field, but we all come from different areas, which means we must try and communicate with people from very different backgrounds and professions.

This role also contrasts with my position at Sciences Po, where I teach a class of 25 students. These students all come from completely different backgrounds; Chinese, German, French, and more. Thus, the challenge in this role is being able to communicate in a way which resonates with all the different experiences of the students. I have students who come from backgrounds where EU institutions have always been present in their country, and others who have had no experience with the EU. Therefore, I really have to gauge how much they need to know in order to understand my class and how to communicate my syllabus in the most engaging and effective way.

Throughout the public and academic sector, one challenge remains constant: understanding who my audience is, what they want to learn, and creating my message in relation to this.

Since I was a child, my goal was to be a professor. When I was 12 years old, I would stand up on blackboards and explain concepts to the other children in my class. I made all my pocket money by tutoring younger students in Maths, Physics, even French. I have a real passion for educating; it is what I love doing. I also loved my time at the EU Commission. I feel incredibly lucky to have worked there, as it is a place where you can really change things, even when you are not at the top level. You can formulate ideas, push them, and see them take shape after a few years.

Throughout the public and academic sector, 
one challenge remains constant:
who my audience is,
what they want to learn, and creating
my message in relation to this.

The European Union (EU) has committed to becoming the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050, an objective which is at the heart of the European Green Deal, which we debated in a high-level WIL Europe event in October 2020. Is the EU’s objective a realistic one and what needs to happen to get us there?

I believe we shouldn’t be asking whether it is realistic: it is necessary to limit global warming to 1.5°C. It is of the upmost necessity to push this objective. We have already seen some effects of climate change, and scientific evidence tells us to do everything in our power to limit these changes and to be carbon neutral by mid-century at the latest to reach this objective. What we are looking at here is the question of the planet’s survival and thus our survival, so we must not ponder if it is realistic – we must just do it and act fast.

This objective is certainly attainable, but it will be incredibly difficult. It requires completely changing the way the economy is functioning, the way we as citizens behave and consume, the way enterprises conceive their products, and the way all of this can fit into a circular economy. We must reset our way of thinking and producing. It also requires the work of public authorities in implementing different policies and regulations on both an EU, national and local level.

Whilst the task is daunting, it is also exciting. Never in the history of humanity have we been in front of something so existential for humanity. I believe the European Green Deal proposes an exciting transformation. If we do it well, it will bring us a better world with more meaningful cooperation.

What we are looking at here
is the question of the planet’s survival,
so we must not ponder if it is realistic
– we must just do it
ad act fast.

In 2019, hundreds of thousands of young people across the world took to the streets to protest the inaction of governments on the climate crisis. What is your analysis of the impact of these protests on global thinking and action on climate change, and do you think these protests will set a long-term trend for young people’s engagement in policy and politics?

I am not a sociologist nor a policy analyst, but what I can give you is my own understanding. The first thing that strikes me is that there is a notable dissonance between what people believe in, and know to be right, and how they act in their daily life. We all know that we should use our cars less – but do we do this? Not always.

When we consider these young people, who may be moving into policy-making positions, the changes they can make depend on their personality. People are very diverse in nature: there are some young people who are very idealistic and may become frustrated if changes do not happen almost instantaneously. This may result in them becoming very angry at politics in general, since they can see a better world and future in sight, but they see no change. On the other hand, there are young people who analyse what should and could be done, and this constitutes a very different attitude. When you realise how hard it is to change reality, you are either frustrated at the complexity and obstacles or excited by the prospect of the challenge. This spectrum of responses can make working in policy a difficult experience depending on your personal traits.

An example that I would use to demonstrate this is the phasing out of coal. We all know that we should get rid of coal as soon as possible. However, if we look for example at regions such as Silesia in the south of Poland, we realise that coal is integral to the profession of thousands of miners. Coal is also used in Silesia to heat homes, to produce electricity and in many other economic activities. How do you change this system to function without coal? These activities come with jobs and assets, so the social and economic impactsare huge. This shows that, when you start to unpack the reality of these changes, you realise that you must confront an idealistic vision with a harsh reality. Not everyone is prepared to face the discontentment that will come from allowing this transition. You must ask yourself: do I have the strength, the empathy, and the imagination to create alternatives, and does this prospect excite me?

You participated in last year’s WIL Women in Talent Pool leadership programme as a Career Development leader, working with a small group of our talents to hone their leadership skills. How would you define ‘leadership’?

I believe that leadership is very different to management. You can have leadership in any position in the hierarchy. What you need to be a leader is a vision of where you want people to go to with you. You need a clear direction to get people to work with you, and then you need the quality of inspiring people. Inspiring people requires empathy, as they need to feel an emotion which gives them a desire to work with you. This is a key difference between management and leadership – you can manage by authority, but you cannot lead by authority as it destroys the empathetic aspect of leadership. However, being a good leader does not always mean being a good person. Hitler and Mussolini were great leaders, but terrible people. They did, however, have a clear vision and the ability to inspire others.

Becoming a good leader requires working on yourself and understanding your motivations deeply, as it is with these motivations that you will be able to inspire people. You also need to like people; not every leader generates a real love, but they can generate a certain empathy and find themselves surrounded by people who will follow them.

Becoming a good leader requires
working on yourself and
your motivations deeply,
as it is with these motivations that
you will be able to inspire people.

How in your view can mentoring and other programmes help to empower emerging leaders, particularly women, and what else can be done to achieve gender parity in leadership positions in Europe?

I believe that coaching is sometimes understood as being a way to climb the steps faster in your career to achieve a higher position. I would disagree with this perception: we do not coach women to create an army of women ready to take the top posts. There is only one CEO, one Prime Minister; there are not that many high-ranking positions and not everyone is made to fill these positions. As I said earlier, learning to be a good leader is so much more than your rank. You can manage by authority and organisation, but this is not the same as leadership. Management is a skill which you learn, whereas leadership is a journey of self-development and understanding.

In coaching, I help women understand who they are, what they want in life, their limits, their inner power, their inner confidence, and how to build upon all these elements. The work on leadership comes from within yourself. When I myself was being coached on leadership, the best sessions I had were when the coach identified something about me of which I wasn’t aware and hadn’t understood about myself before. This is why I love coaching small groups, because you can really work with the person and create a mirror to help them discover themselves.

Some people are natural leaders; becoming a leader is easier for them given their inherent qualities and the environment of their upbringing. An upbringing where you have been supported to grow independently helps this development I believe. Everyone has a different starting point in their journey to leadership. I believe that everyone can become a leader, but it is easier for some than others.

To respond to the question “what else can be done to achieve gender parity in leadership positions in Europe”, I would say that we definitely need more women in visible positions. I think that change begins with women talking – be it in debates, events and so forth. Many organisers claim that they cannot find women, so I believe that we must create tools such as databases to avoid this. Furthermore, we cannot promote the cause of women if we do not change the perceptions of men. How men perceive women in both the professional and private sphere is integral to change. If some men believe a woman should stay home to clean and raise children, we cannot change this perception by talking to women only. We are not working against men; they have everything to gain by creating empowered women. And life in the office is not the dream for all men. Creating women who want to work would allow more men to stay at home should they wish. I want men to feel more comfortable in having this desire, and to realise their right to stay home should they want this.

We cannot promote the cause of women
if we do not change the perceptions of men.

I also believe that all women are in very different situations. In certain cultures, women have much more complicated situations. I feel privileged that I already have a freer mindset where I feel able to progress in life, and I know that this is not the case for all women. The challenge is often reaching these women. We know the women who surround us, and these are the privileged ones. Thus, the question is, how do we reach and understand the stories of women who are more tightly bound to the family system? The answer is collaboration with local associative systems who know these neighbourhoods, and we cannot do all this work from an office in Brussels. We need to develop a more open network and adopt an open perspective. Furthermore, we must also face up to the reality that this is an enormous task; the goal is visible but far in the future. This means we must also celebrate each little win we get along the way.

We like to finish our interviews with a question from the Proust questionnaire. Your chosen question is: Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“I don’t know”. I always say this when I react to questions. I begin by saying “I don’t know”, and then I start to piece together my thoughts to come up with a response. I don’t claim to be a specialist in everything or to have a big or final answer. That is why I think I overuse this phrase. I would say I should replace this with “I don’t know... But I want to know!”.

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