In Conversation with…Karen Linehan, Executive Vice President, Legal Affairs and General Counsel
How important was family in shaping your early ideas?
My family was critical in defining my expectations. My father had a strong mother who was a suffragette and worked her whole life; he always said he would have been nothing without her. And my mother was one of nine children, including five girls. The fact that her mother was an invalid meant that one day a week each girl did not go to school. My mother never wanted that repeated for her daughters, she wanted to make sure that every opportunity was open for them. Education was critical because my father was a teacher and they wanted us all to do well. They didn’t distinguish between what was expected of boys and girls. We all could play sports and we all could cook.
Teaching was your first career, what happened?
When I was really little I wanted to be a firefighter but then I fell in love with history and decided I wanted to be a history teacher. Let’s face it, US history is pretty short. I’m not sure I could have been a history teacher in France. But then at one point my father said to me: “We’ve got so many teachers in the family I think you should consider law. You ask a lot of questions, I think it would be a good career for you.” I was probably 11 or 12 at the time, and it stuck in my mind when I chose what high school to go with I wanted to go to one that had a good reputation so I could go to a University that had a top notch law school just in case.
I was an American Studies Major, a program where you study a little bit of everything. I always tell people I’m great at a party but it doesn’t mean I have intimate knowledge of any one area, but you study economics, history and literature through the lens of American history. It was a great programme at Georgetown.
Was Paris part of the plan?
There was always a desire to live abroad and I was never able to do it during college. Working for Sanofi it became a reality. I moved to Paris 22 years ago. It was complex. When I was looking for apartments I was shocked that I wouldn’t get a kitchen already made and that I would have to make my kitchen and given my limited French I knew that was an impossibility, plus I’m not handy. So I picked an apartment that had a ready-made kitchen. The other thing that surprised me was that people cut in line. Now I can understand pregnant women, older people, but everybody cuts in line so that I had some trouble getting used to.
And as an Irish Catholic, we’re not so demonstrative within the family, so I was a little surprised that people kiss at work. They call you vous, yet they’re kissing you!
Part of your role involves promoting the gender balance program, how did that happen?
I was going to Germany, where they asked me to tell my story at Sanofi, and I started to think about who are my role models here. I realised I didn’t have one woman and I found that shocking. So I thought, let’s start for the next generation and be a role model for them; that was my biggest motivation. I was one of the founding members of the Gender Balance Board, now I’m the only founding member left. We’ve gone on a journey and where we are today is in much better shape than when we started almost 10 years ago.
Do you see a big difference in gender balance between the US and Europe?
In terms of gender balance, let’s face it, it started in France. We have a law that requires us to have a board of at least 40% female. That wouldn’t pass in the US today. I also think there are probably more facilities here, there’s a good crèche system, and it’s expected for women to work. In the US you still have to make a choice sometimes, if you don’t have good socio-economic standing it’s very difficult to not work. But then you don’t have the infrastructure to help you.
How does gender balance play out in your own life?
My parents had a pretty balanced family and my management team is 49/51, which is the closest to being 50/50 in the company, and I’m proud of that. We encourage the younger generation to pursue engineering as much as we would ask them to be chefs. It’s again something we want: people to pursue what makes them happy and fulfilled.
And when you’re not being a lawyer or promoting gender equality?
I’ve no desire to bungee jump or anything like that. Honestly, I like to travel and there are many countries that I have still to visit. And I dream one day of having a beautiful garden because I live in an apartment in Paris and while my balcony looks beautiful it’s not the same thing as having a garden and it’s difficult to keep when you travel a great deal. My favourite flowers are orchids and when I’m in the US, hydrangeas, because they grow beautifully on Cape Cod; an orchid would never grow there.
I’m an avid sports fan and, while Paris is my favourite city, my heart remains in Boston so I support the Boston teams, but believe it or not I’ve been a big fan of the French football team, starting in 1998. I’m a great cook, and one of the things I’ve taken advantage of in Paris is taking cooking lessons.
What advice would you give the next generation?
I always remember the American scholar Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words: leave the world a better place because you lived. Other simple message, be true to yourself, seize the day. Death lasts for a long time, you only live once, so don’t be afraid of trying things.