A major determinant of how far a woman will rise in her career is not whether or not she can, but whether or not she thinks she can.
“We know that women have not been so promoted,” said Isabelle Scemama, head of AXA IM Alts, the alternative investments division of French insurer AXA Group. “It’s not because they do not deserve a promotion.”
Rather, the reason is “we constantly underestimate ourselves,” she explained. “And for sure, opportunities are rarely offered, to men or women. We have to seize the opportunity. Women are not so self-confident. It is an issue as an organization we have to recognize and we have to acknowledge that women will be probably less likely to raise their hands, to put their hands up and we have to help them to do so.”
Building up women’s self-confidence was one of the reasons behind the creation of AXA IM Alts’ Shape program, a mentorship program that was launched in 2020 to help young female talent develop professionally and become more effective communicators.
“As a woman, I was lacking self-confidence,” Scemama recalled. “I’m still lacking self-confidence. It’s something I’ve observed talking to my female friends. It’s always the confidence that is missing.”
However, she said she has received crucial support in three areas. First, Scemama believes she chose the right partner with her husband of almost 30 years, as both took turns cutting back their working hours to take care of their three daughters when their children were young.
Second, she credits AXA as a supportive employer, having first hired her as a part-time employee in 2001. Although friends and family objected that a part-time role would hurt both her salary and advancement prospects, “at that time, it gave the flexibility I needed,” Scemama explained. It was in this part-time capacity that she launched AXA’s third-party business and its first third-party real estate fund. Later, she was offered the opportunity to establish the insurer’s commercial real estate platform, which led to other promotions.
The third area of support comes from her network. Scemama says she has always been close to Deborah Shire, whom she had known since her earliest days at AXA and is now deputy head of AXA IM Alts, as well as Dennis Lopez, formerly chief investment officer at AXA IM – Real Assets and is now chief executive at QuadReal, the real estate arm of British Columbia Investment Management Corporation. Shire, in fact, was critical in convincing her to apply for roles that she ultimately won, including chief executive of AXA IM – Real Assets and head of AXA IM Alts.
“She said, ‘of course you can, you are the one,’” Scemama said. “When you hear that from someone you know, someone you trust, someone who will tell you when something is not working, you start to think, maybe she’s right.” She adds that she also has similarly received support and encouragement from members of her team: “They have also been instrumental in this natural evolution in helping me with my self-confidence and admitting my merits, my skills should encourage me to raise my hand and to apply for those positions.”
She added that women often explain their successes by external factors rather than crediting their own merits and skills. “This lack of self-confidence is a big issue,” Scemama said. “It’s due to that they will be more reluctant to seize opportunities, they will not believe in their own abilities and they have to learn how to sit at the table.”
However, she believes self-confidence will be less of an issue with the new generation of female real estate professionals. “I think young women, they are keener to sit at the table,” she observed. “It is a combination of the changes the organization have imposed, but it is also linked to role models. If I see if the organization helped young women to raise their hands and apply for investment jobs, I would be very happy.”