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INTERVIEW: MIRAL HAMANI-SAMAAN
DIRECTOR OF M&A, CORPORATE TRANSACTIONS AND INTERNATIONAL GOVERNANCE, HEWLETT PACKARD ENTERPRISE

Geneva-based Miral Hamani-Samaan is director of M&A, corporate transactions and international governance at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. She discusses the paradox inherent in positive discrimination and quota-setting for workplace equality, and the importance of role models.

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Role Models

My mother is a lawyer and all through my youth, during the summertime, I would work as an intern with her or her colleagues, going to court, seeing criminal and civil cases. I was always interested in the legal profession, and it really started with seeing my mother take the oath − because she became a lawyer rather late, resuming her studies while I was a young child.

I started my legal studies in Lille, but I applied for a four-year Anglo-French programme led by the Sorbonne and King’s College London, so I actually graduated in London and Paris. I applied for a Masters in Paris in conjunction with HEC Paris and that led me to company law. While working in a law firm, I got a call from my current boss, and that’s how I ended up in-house with Hewlett Packard Company (now Hewlett Packard Enterprise) in Geneva.

My mother was definitely my first role model, but when it comes to my adult life, I was lucky to have not only great female but also great male role models. They would even push me over boundaries that I would not think I could cross. If you look at the statistics, the legal profession has more men in leadership positions, and it would also need to be their responsibility to ensure that women are given the same chances and are recognised for their merits, irrespective of their gender.

When I became a mother myself, I went to my father and I asked him, ‘What do I need to know to become a good parent?’ My father looked at me and he said, ‘You don’t have to know anything; you have to be the model. You have to act in the way that you want your child to behave. If you want them to work, be a hard worker and be passionate.’ This is how I define my own role models: people whom, by simply being themselves (exceptional human beings and professionals), I have admired (and still admire!) throughout my career.

I think female role models are very important. I don’t see myself as part of a ‘minority’ − I’m a lawyer and I will do my best to be as good as possible in my job − but if you don’t promote diversity and inclusion, there’s not going to be any change. Promotion is important: having women speaking up from the inside, saying ‘I made it’. This may plant seeds in the minds of other women to realise ‘I’m able to do that’. Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, would be my brilliant example of a role model here.

It’s important to think, ‘I’m not part of any minority group, I’m just me doing my best and I totally have the right to succeed.’ Many women who succeed at the highest possible level don’t want people to see them as ‘a woman’. But it’s important that, although they don’t ‘claim’ it, we see them and recognise that they are women. Just do the best you can and go the extra mile that people would not expect; this actually makes the difference.

Equality and merit

On what terms do you really want to impose equality? That’s a debate that is definitely worth starting. Do I want to be promoted because I’m a woman or because I’m good at what I do? But if we don’t have this positive discrimination, we’ll keep the prejudices and not challenge them and things won’t change.

You see a lot of rules now when it comes to boards of directors; often there is a request to fulfil a quota of women. I think those are necessary, but is it blind equality that we want to achieve or just fairness − putting a person where he or she belongs because he or she deserves it? The prejudices have to be eliminated to achieve a truly level playing field for both men and women to advance on the strength of their individual achievements. If legislators actually have to pass laws to ensure quotas and so on, why not set rules in companies to actually define these things, or at least position them as important ‘nice-to-haves’?

I do think that groups of diverse people within corporations are fundamental. Statistically, there are fewer women and other minority lawyers in the profession. If you don’t have those groups highlighting the inequalities, we wouldn’t necessarily be aware of that. You need to put the awareness in the minds of everyone, and then it is up to each individual to change his or her mindset.

Addressing Bias

One of the key challenges in increasing diversity in the legal profession in mainland Europe is addressing longstanding prejudices or unconscious bias; for example, the assumption that because you are a woman you are going to have children and are not going to be dedicated to your work anymore. It’s about having people change their mindsets, and that’s really directed to all – both men and women.

There are more female in-house lawyers or women in senior positions in companies than within law firms. In-house lawyers can be a good model for law firms in regards to diversity. Is it because companies allow for a better work-life balance? Probably. But I work a lot and the legal profession, whether in-house or in a law firm, is very demanding.

Law firms should think a little bit more about work-life balance. If you Iook at young students − whether male or female – you’ll see that there is an increased concern around work-life balance nowadays. And it’s the same for parental leave. Many men tend now to take paternity leave for as long as possible, and that’s an interesting development. Things will start to change and diversity and inclusion will hopefully become natural in both companies and law firms.

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