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#Newsletter n°8 : Diversity at ParisTech: a value to be celebrated

Interview with Laurent Champaney, Managing director of Arts & Métiers Institute of Technology & President of the Paristech diversity commission

 

A year ago you were appointed President of the ParisTech Diversity Commission. What are you doing to address the issue of diversity?

All of the ParisTech schools are committed to training highly competent, multi-skilled engineers. That’s what brings them together. Students are taught in a research environment that is both French and international and will go on to hold top management positions once they graduate. But managing an organisation means managing people, and that in turn means dealing with diversity and all the opportunities and challenges that come with it.

The ParisTech schools prepare young people for their future careers. It is vital that students receive training in diversity management so that once they graduate, they are able to promote and manage diversity in their organisation.

Within the Diversity Commission, the underlying question that guides our actions is this: how should we approach and manage diversity in the ParisTech schools? We are aware that there is still a great deal to be done. But we’re moving in the right direction.

 

What are the main challenges related to diversity?

Diversity comes in many shapes and forms: social diversity, cultural diversity (language and ethnic origin), disability diversity and gender and sexuality diversity.

We’ve done a lot to make all these kinds of diversity a reality, in particular with regard to recruitment. To increase cultural diversity, we’ve stepped up our international recruitment efforts and are already seeing the results – on average, international students now account for 30% of the student body across the network.

By presenting our courses to secondary and high school pupils and aiming to cultivate their interest in STEM subjects, and by offering financial support to those who most need it, we hope to attract students from a wider range of social backgrounds. We’re also working to inspire more girls to pursue careers in engineering. Our first goal is therefore to increase diversity, because it enriches our community. The second is to ensure that diversity is respected and appreciated.

 

What actions have you implemented at ParisTech and in the schools?

Since I took on this role, we’ve continued working on projects that foster a culture of diversity across the schools. In 2019, the Diversity Commission organised a workshop on gender equality to look at what steps could be taken to address the issue of sexual harassment. Based on the discussions, we put together a booklet of actions aimed at preventing sexual harassment. It’s essential that we create a supportive environment where victims feel safe and know they will be taken seriously.

Another workshop was held just before lockdown, this time focusing on diversity. Students and staff (both administrative and academic) came together to talk about diversity-related issues they had experienced. The student participants included men, women, international students, French students, LGBT students and students with disabilities – a reflection of the diversity of our community. Moreover, some had also taken the time to interview their classmates. Each of the schools used the ideas and information to develop their diversity action plan.

Another key way in which ParisTech is addressing the issue of diversity is the “Cordées de la réussite” initiative. The partnerships help young people from a variety of social and cultural backgrounds find out more about the courses we offer and the funding opportunities and entry routes that exist. A new partnership has recently been set up between the Lycée Pierre-Gilles de Gennes and Chimie ParisTech, AgroParisTech and Arts & Métiers.

Finally, we’re also in the process of creating a Chair for Diversity.

 

How do you plan to make the schools more accessible to students from all backgrounds?

It’s complicated, because the schools recruit most of their students via the CPGE route[1], where there is a notable lack of diversity. To address this, we’ve set up alternative entry routes and we recruit students internationally, but it’s not enough. We need to do more. We need to think about how we can inform pupils about their options earlier on. How can we convince them that they have the skills they need to apply to the Grandes Ecoles, irrespective of their gender or social background?

It’s also important that we look at ways to get more girls into engineering. There’s a lot of groundwork to be done. It means going into secondary schools and high schools to talk to pupils – and that’s no small undertaking. One example of an association that’s doing a great job in this respect is “Elles bougent” (Women on the Move).

The “Cordées de la réussite” partnerships with secondary schools are also a core part of our efforts. I firmly believe in the importance of role models. Giving younger pupils the chance to meet students from the ParisTech schools helps them realise that our students are “normal” young people from all kinds of backgrounds. The ParisTech schools are often stereotyped. People assume there’s no diversity, but that’s not the case at all.

Apprenticeships also help foster diversity in the schools, but before students get here, they don’t realise that we run apprenticeship programmes. We need to communicate better. And we also need to encourage students from our apprenticeship programmes to share their experiences with the next generation.

 

There’s been a lot in the press lately about harassment in higher education institutions. How are you tackling this issue?

It’s a complicated topic, and it’s true that harassment seems to be more prevalent in Grandes Ecoles than in universities. The difference probably stems from the fact that students at Grandes Ecoles are in a smaller bubble. There’s more of a “class spirit”, and much of student life takes place on campus. Sadly, harassment is more likely to occur in that kind of environment.

We need to inform and train students so that they’re more aware of these issues. And I think that applies to former students too. They need to understand that certain activities and behaviours they engaged in during their studies were not acceptable. Other than raising awareness, of course there is a need for sanctions too. We can’t ignore things just because they’re “tolerated” or seen as “the norm”.

 

You mentioned that you’re planning to create a Chair for Diversity. Can you tell us more about that?

The idea is to focus on the following question: How can we best equip students to manage diversity in their future roles as managers? Corporate environments are not all that different to academic environments. Companies know that promoting and preserving diversity is essential, because it’s a strength, but they face challenges in this respect. They do their best to inform and train their employees, but expectations and perceptions change very quickly, and training methods that worked previously become outdated and unsuitable.

The chair’s corporate partners will be able to test their training materials on our students – the managers of tomorrow – in a context that is similar to their own. We believe the activities will be inspiring and beneficial for students too, as they will have the chance to truly engage with the topic and share their own views.

A representative from each company will attend the sessions to analyse how the students use and respond to the training tools. If the resources and role plays prove to be unsuitable, changes will be suggested and new versions will be tested in the same context the following year.

There’s potential for companies from all kinds of sectors to get involved, because the ParisTech schools cover multiple areas of expertise. This in turn means we will be able to tackle a variety of topics and refine our ideas. The chair will help us boost diversity in the ParisTech schools and encourage companies to open up about this topic.



[1] Intensive courses that prepare students to take the competitive entrance exams for admission to the Grandes Ecoles

 

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