INSEAD: Élisabeth Prigent Olaussen - It Takes a Modern Village

Upon first meeting Élisabeth Prigent Olaussen, one is struck by her calm and steady gaze, her cheerful nature, and her upbeat personality. After getting to know her a bit better, it is clear that she is a woman of enormous intellect and voracious curiosity, and a person who loves action – meeting challenges, solving problems, and generally leaving things better off than how she found them.

Elisabeth Olaussen, INSEAD AlumniBorn in Bordeaux, she received her BSc in History in her native France. The most natural path for her would have been an academic career – becoming a professor and writing papers for various journals. Élisabeth felt, however, that having just a degree in History would limit her options and consign her to a narrow career path, so she decided to go to law school.

Following graduation from law school, she went on to get a Master's in International Private Law from the University of Oslo, which teaches in English, then a second Master’s in International Commercial Law from the Sorbonne. (As noted, she is curious and likes to be challenged!). She then passed the French Bar exam.

After passing the Bar exam, Élisabeth got an internship in a firm that specialized in maritime law and landed in the department that dealt with the financial end of the shipping business. Driven by the depths of her curiosity and desire to master any subject she is involved with, over the next few years she worked with various firms to deepen her knowledge of international finance law, most areas of business law, and the leasing and insurance industry. 

The Gender-Pay Gap? Yes, it exists!

During this time, she encountered the type of gender bias that many women are familiar with. By this point, she was highly qualified not just in terms of her education, but also in her broad knowledge of asset and structured finance activities, international business law and operations, and the insurance business. Nonetheless, she found that her pay was lower than that of her male peers and that they often got promotions despite having less tenure and experience.

Élisabeth, true to her desire to get to the bottom of any problem she encountered, (and also being rather fearless) initiated a conversation with one of her male bosses. The ensuing discussion offered valuable insight into one of the most significant barriers to businesses reaching gender balance – the role of men in positions of power.

The first part of the discussion was disheartening at best (the proper description could range from “merely infuriating” to “positively outrageous”). After Élisabeth explained that while she was happy about a recent promotion and pay raise, she was frustrated not to raise at a faster pace (she did not mention that men with fewer qualifications had received promotions before her, and were being paid more). Her information was met with surprise and a bit of dismissiveness; he essentially told her that she should be “happy with what she was given.”

Far from being someone who leaves an opportunity on the table, Élisabeth explained several times to one of her peers, who was acting Head of HR, how the situation looked from her perspective. He was completely surprised and responded that he had no idea that she, and also other women, felt they were being treated unfairly. That he truly did not see women in the same way as men seemed to be driving his behavior.

What came out of the conversation gave a reason for optimism – and a roadmap: bring men into the conversation. This insight echoed the plan laid out by PWN Global in 2014.

Men need to be part of the conversation

PWN recognised that getting men involved in the mission to reach gender-balanced leadership is critical, as it is men who are predominately in positions of power where they can change not only policy but also influence culture. In 2014 PWN’s strategy shifted from “how can we change ourselves to redress the balance“ to “how can we change the workplace and remove systemic barriers and behaviors to redress the balance.“

Spurred on by a research platform from one of PWN’s largest partners, Mercer, titled When Women Thrive, PWN Global created two key programs:  Diversity Labs and The Engaged Men Manifesto. These programs got men involved in changing the culture in the organisations they worked for as well as in their interactions at work and in their personal lives.

The Solution

Elisabeth’s solution was straightforward and one she could implement herself. She managed the difficulty with gender bias by making sure she continued to have open conversations with her bosses and peers in senior roles, and, more importantly, by supporting and mentoring other females in the organization, and making sure they got the promotions they deserved.

During this time she continued to rise at the firm she worked for, first becoming head of her department, then taking over another department – Insurance – that she felt was a strategic fit for her end of the business. She built up these two departments by restructuring, training, and creating stronger teams. She made such a positive impact she became the first female member of the Executive Committee.

But after all this, she was still earning less than her male colleagues and felt she needed a change. She studied for and then passed the Associate in Risk Management exams from the Insurance Institute of America. Then, believing she needed to fill in a perceived gap in her leadership education, she decided to pursue an MBA.

Living the dream with INSEAD

After looking around at various institutions, it quickly became clear to Élisabeth that the INSEAD Global Executive MBA was the only choice for her. Not only do they have a stellar reputation, but they are also known as “the business school for the world”—with an international staff and student body, founded on the principle of closeness to the international business community—the perfect fit for her desire to continually expand her horizons. 

What followed is an interesting insight into the unique needs of women and the type of support they need if we want to reach gender-balanced leadership. With all her education, experience, and accomplishment Élisabeth didn’t feel confident that she had the credentials to qualify for a place at INSEAD, which has an extremely high caliber of students. After working with a personal coach who helped her boost her confidence, she applied and got in.

Élisabeth began her Global Executive MBA at INSEAD in 2020, and felt like she was “living a dream.” She was surrounded by brilliant people, who shared their stories and were extremely supportive of her. Despite being in the early stages of the Covid-19 Pandemic, she and her classmates were able to meet in person and develop a deep level of trust with each other. They communicated daily, as at INSEAD people work in groups. As she evolved, she also saw her classmates evolve, they arrived stressed and left balanced and happy.

Élisabeth credits INSEAD with being a safe space where she had time for introspection; an environment that helped her to think differently, develop confidence; to clarify her values, her goals, and most importantly, discover what would make her thrive.

Her instinct to choose an international graduate program panned out. INSEAD has a great network of current and former students. While there, she made a contact who found her to be perfect for their new business venture. Since graduating, Élisabeth has started working on establishing her own consulting business, and her first client is in the Middle East. She is now learning Arabic and traveling to the Middle East to help her client set up his business.

INSEAD is also what led Élisabeth to PWN. To help INSEAD fulfill its goal of promoting gender balance by increasing the proportion of women in their graduate programs, in 2021/22, they sponsored memberships in PWN for their alumni. Elisabeth Prigent Olaussen was one of the recipients of a PWN Membership, and it paralleled her positive experiences with INSEAD.

As with INSEAD, Élisabeth found that PWN offered an open and supportive environment, as well as a robust network where she could meet like-minded women. She especially found that PWN Global’s Virtual Entrepreneurship Program offered the exact help and support she needed as she launched her consulting firm.

What about work/life balance? 

After reading about all her success and accomplishments, a natural question that arises is, “What about family? What about work-life balance?”

Élisabeth accomplished all her career and educational success while having a husband and three sons. One of the most positive life-affirming changes to come out of her time at INSEAD is her full embracing of “this is who I am.”  She found that she could define family-life balance her way, which means devoting herself to the work she loves during the week, and to her family on weekends, with no exceptions.

She could not have done this without her extremely supportive husband, who has always encouraged her in her career and backed this up by embracing family management during the week.

Élisabeth, for her part, is extremely, and justifiably proud, of the role model she has been for her sons. Far from feeling that she has to conform to anyone else’s definition of work-life balance, she has had her 16-year-old son visit her client in the Middle East so he can see firsthand what she has accomplished, and what possibilities are out there for him.

We all hear that it takes a village to raise a child. Élisabeth Prigent Olaussen is a great case study on how “it takes a village” to move the gender balance marker forward. She is someone who has personally broken barriers to become the first woman to do many things in her field. Just as importantly, she has also helped other women progress in their careers, and even help to educate male colleagues on their unintentional biases. She, in turn, has been helped by various institutions, societies, and probably most of all, by her husband.

Apply for the INSEAD Global Executive MBA here.


Date: January 2023
Author: Kathryn Nenning, Partner, Kat&Carmel and PWN Vienna VP Marketing
Editor: Rebecca Fountain, Marketing Consultant, PWN Global

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