Cultural, gender diversity go hand in hand for Laurent Sabourin at International SOS

Group Managing Director, International SOS

One of a series of profiles on business executives leading gender equality efforts in the workplace

At International SOS Services SAS, building gender diversity has come naturally, on the heels of the company’s cultural diversity.

The health and security services firm is headquartered in London and Singapore, both multicultural cities, and operates globally, employing more than 95 nationalities among its 12,000-plus team of medical, security and logistics experts.

“Here it’s natural to operate and work in a cultural diversity context. We have always considered this as a strength,” Managing Director Laurent Sabourin told the United Nations Global Compact.

“We thought we could achieve, as an organization, the same benefit from supporting gender diversity that we have been enjoying and continue to enjoy out of cultural diversity.”

Working to protect the health and security of workforces and organizations with such services as risk assessments, logistics, medical care and emergency assistance, International SOS has focused its sustainability efforts on good health, notably the call of SDG No. 3 to “ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.”

But its cultural diversity simply made gender diversity a good fit, so the company has added measures to assess progress and has a commitment from top leadership, he said.

“You need to guide. You need to insist…. It’s a discipline, actually, to make it happen.”

A diversity mandate has been handed down to managers who hire and promote, with a goal of having 30% female employees in all layers of the company.

“If you can establish gender diversity in the middle management layers, then by definition your promotional talent pool will reflect that diversity,” he said.

“So we are building it up,” he said. “We are not yet where we want it to be.”

Among the most successful and pragmatic strategies at International SOS has been mentoring and training promising female talent around the world to put them on a leadership track, he said.

“My personal satisfaction comes from the empowerment and development of talented people,” he said. “It is especially rewarding when we find previously undiscovered talent and are able to help them realize their goals.”

In some regions, Sabourin said, the biggest challenge is female employees’ sense of self-confidence, especially in countries where women working outside the home may not be commonly accepted or supported by their families or communities.

“So you work within the culture,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is to attempt to immediately change the culture. It too is on a journey.

“This journey is not easy, but we take the view that if we say it’s too hard to do, then no progress will be made. So even if we make five inches of progress, that’s worth it.

The company’s progress is tangible. It has signed onto the UN’s Women’s Empowerment Principles, and some International SOS team members are participating in the Global Compact’s Target Gender Equality program, Sabourin said.

Since its Global Female Executive Mentoring Program was established in 2018, 30% of participants have been promoted into leadership roles or have expanded their responsibilities, he said. Also, under its Executive Leadership Development Program, established in 2015, 66% of its participants are female.

“It’s a little bit like good wine,” the transplanted Frenchman said. “It’s improving with time.”

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